Kraftwerk – The Ups And Downs Of Rhythm

My lockdown workout routine involves swinging ankle weights. Since this is rather boring, I have put together a playlist of songs to help move things along. I say playlist, but for the last few days that has just meant Kraftwerk albums.

The rhythm of a Kraftwerk track gives ankle weight swinging a different feel, as though you are actually going somewhere. It certainly helps me keep working out longer than I otherwise would. Rhythm has a long history as an aid to work, on ships, in fields, or in the military. It even helps mental work, since words with a beat to them are easier to remember. But, here’s the thing: after about twenty minutes of ankle weight swinging, fatigue starts to set in. That’s when it becomes apparent that rhythm wants me to keep going and doesn’t care if I’m tired. In the unlikely event that a former life saw me as an oarsman on a Greek galley, the unsmiling, muscular chap beating out the stroke would not stop if I had sore arms. Rhythm has a ruthlessness about it.

Anyway, dismissing the image of me rowing a Greek galley, let’s get back to Kraftwerk who in 1974, released their breakthrough album, Autobahn. The opening track begins with a car door slamming, an engine revving, a playful toot on a horn, and someone driving away. Then as the beat of the song gathers pace, we get a very ominous, distorted, machine-like voice saying “autobahn”. It’s like we’re suddenly in a scene from The Omen. Perhaps this horror film voice is a reference to the origin of the autobahn network, built in the 1930s on Hitler’s orders, to efficiently move people, and soldiers, around Germany. The musicians of Kraftwerk grew up in Düsseldorf in the shadow of World War Two. They would understand that rhythm can be totalitarian. Rhythm is there in marching feet and the noise of factories. In many ways there’s nothing of the individual in rhythm. It’s suggestive of an army marching as one, of machinery, or of natural, vast, repeating patterns where planets orbit stars. The autobahn, and the rhythms of driving on it, are an expression of this inhuman scale.

But in between interruptions from that creepy Omen voice, the rest of Autobahn’s title track has a happy, summery, almost Beach Boys feel. As soon as you hear the childlike refrain “Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der autobahn” (“We are driving driving driving on the autobahn”) you realise that this is a group of lads who are taking a fun road trip. There’s lots of rhythm about their journey – that little autobahn ditty they sing, the steady patter of the car’s engine and its tyres on tarmac, music playing on a car radio, the rising and falling Doppler effect of other cars approaching and vanishing into the distance. Rhythm for these boys is not a dark military march but a bright, liberating, fun, dance. The rhythms of the road and their car set them free to go on a trip to new places where they meet new friends. If rhythm is about groups rather than individuals, then this is a group who are having fun together.

If rhythm has potential for good and evil, then as far as Kraftwerk are concerned, good wins out. As the title track comes to an end, there’s a lovely section where our young travellers sing “fahr’n auf der autobahn” in a tired but happy way, as if they are all coming home after enjoying themselves. We end the day with rhythm as a good thing, even if it was touch and go there for a while.

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