Biba Kopf explains how the autobahn, not the freeway, has created an enduring road mythology for post-war motorik rock. This article was originally published in The Wire 184, June 1999.
[A note from Kopf: Readers should note that
this article completely misquotes the lyrics of “Hero”, the song
opening side two of Neu! 1975. Biba Kopf only discovered his
mistake two years after it was published, when he interviewed
Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger for a piece about Neu!'s three
albums finally coming out on CD. Both Rother and Dinger were
bemused by Kopf’s 'spirit of 68' mishearing of Dinger’s words (see
The Wire 208). In the head of Kopf, the song opened
"Back to nowhere!" It should have read "Back to Norway!" Rather
than "Fuck the harmony", the way Kopf heard it, Dinger said, “I can
tell you what I wanted to fuck, 'fuck the company'. And 'Fuck the
programme' and 'Fuck the press'. These are the three fucks on
“Hero”, but certainly not the harmony." On reflection, Kopf still
prefers his misheard take on the song...]
The story of rock is the glory of speed, and the speedometer is its one reliable measure. The Ramones said it all when they remarked: "Our sets used to be 37 minutes long. Now they're 31 minutes long. We're getting faster all the time." Such a simple criterion of quality leaves all other aesthetic considerations gaping open mouthed at the starting line. Speed logic wins every time.
Rock is white line fever or it is nothing. Any music that doesn't strain furiously to reach the city limits before daybreak, burning up traffic cops and crashing the old traffic regulations, has no place in the history of rock rewritten as the history of speed.
If it begins on another continent with Chuck Berry's backseat equations of rock 'n' roll and fast sex, it will not linger there. For speed has no time for nostalgia. And as compelling as American road mythology might be, it was clapped out way before its enduring greasemonkey laureate Bruce Springsteen started retracing old routes in search of lost frontiers. Those frontiers were lost when John Ford composed cinematic elegies for them; when biker Peter Fonda, in Roger Corman's The Wild Angels, realised: "There's no place to run."
Founded in the outlaw myth of the disappearing West, American road mythology is ultimately grounded in another century. Yet the US template is so absorbing that only one other country has produced a highway culture to challenge its supremacy. That place is certainly not Britain – far too small an island for an indigenous road music to generate sufficient speed. Besides, the word 'motorway' carries zero poetic charge and British auto design is hardly the stuff of dreams.
Germany is the only European nation to successfully take on American road mythology. The autobahn has superseded Route 66 in the roadmap of rock history; German motorik still burns up Springsteen's barroom boogie. A decade ago, it was Volkswagen and Mercedes insignia the rappers came to desire – not Cadillac fins.
If Germany's speed-addicted musicians, film makers and trailblazers – its Dromomaniacs – have not come up with anything as fast as The Ramones, they can always take them over the distance. The quick burst is all very well, but the conquest of speed itself is accomplished through pacing. Road mythology is as much about endurance – how can you keep on trucking at Ramones speed? The Americans burn out within the time span of two Beach Boys songs. It's the German Dromomaniacs who crash the song limits. The autobahn – not the freeway – goes on forever.
The autobahn goes on forever? Not an easy thing for Germans to say without raising the memory of Hitler uniting the Reich with a network of arterial routes designed to shrink time and space and speed up military mobilisation. By 1939, he had built 3000km of road and dreamt of extending the run from Berlin to Paris, to Moscow and the Urals, from Trondheim in the north to the Crimea in the south. Wollt Ihr die totale Mobilmachung? Do you want total mobilisation? If it means an end to economic depression, then perhaps. 1.5 million workers, a good many of them forced, helped to construct the autobahn network. Rapid road expansion contributed to the success story of the German motor industry, even if the majority who invested in the Nazi ideal of 'to each family a Volkswagen' didn't get to own one before the war began.
Yet despite Hitler's grand designs, his role in Germany's future road mythology, its 'Unterwegs' (literally 'underway') mythology is negligible. Of course, his spectre haunts Edgar Reitz's epic film serial Heimat. How could it be otherwise, when the central love affair of the saga's binding mother figure, Maria, involved a Todt regiment engineer engaged in the construction of the autobahn that wrestles her sleepy Hunsrucker village out of the 19th century and flings it into the 20th? Elsewhere, Der Alte/The Old Man in Wim Wenders's Unterwegs movie Wrong Movement is drugged by perpetual motion into revealing his guilty concentration camp secrets to road companion Wilhelm Meister.
That Hitler and his architects of speed, those road builders, the constructors of paths to his monumental glory, failed to permanently land lock Unterwegs culture within his autobahn network is down to the singular contribution of Kraftwerk. Like the other important German Dromomaniacs (Neu!, La Düsseldorf, Harmonia), Kraftwerk members were born circa Year Zero (1945). They grew up in the culturally sterile years of the economic miracle, a monotonous landscape overshadowed by the immediate past and the American presence. With "Autobahn" (1974) – which at 22 and a half minutes does seem to go on forever – they freed at a single stroke a new generation's imagination from both. Abroad, the song cleared the word 'autobahn' of its Nazi connotations, while planting it in that select German vocabulary understood internationally.
"Autobahn is a word the Americans know as well as sauerkraut or kindergarten," Kraftwerk told German Sounds writer Ingeborg Schober in 1978, describing the piece as "the European rejoinder to American 'keep on trucking' songs". After "Autobahn", the roads are once again fit for transports of business and pleasure.
There has never been another Unterwegs hit quite like "Autobahn". Simple, witty, supremely corny in conception and flawless in execution, its transparent transcription of the driving experience matches school primer lyrics to onomatopoeic noises simulating the sound of wheels on asphalt, the whoosh of passing traffic, lights full on.
As empty as the open road stretching out before it, its most remarkable characteristic is its blankness, its neutrality. It is as functional as the autobahns it describes; as accurate a summary of the joys of driving there is. The territory traversed becomes a blur, a land of velocity crisscrossed with the communications network connecting its distant points. Distilling a universal experience from the group's own roadwork, "Autobahn" lays down the blank "grey strip/white stripes" into which others can inscribe their own restless dreams. "The film [to Kraftwerk's soundtrack] happens in the heads of the people," Ralf Hutter told Ingeborg Schober. "There's not one autobahn service stop in Germany that we don't know, and there we often had the dream of hearing our music on the radio one day. At that time we were never played on the radio. That was our dream, anyway, and suddenly, with "Autobahn", it became reality. When we were touring America we suddenly heard ourselves."
The song goes: "Now we turn the radio on/Out of the speaker comes the song/We're driving, driving, driving on the autobahn…" But it is America, source of all road myths, which makes the song come true. The image of Kraftwerk, cruising the land of The Beach Boys and catching themselves on rock radio, supplants T-Bird dreams: Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n until daddy takes our VW away…
The test of a new milestone in culture is the distance put between itself and the last one. Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" might well leave all other corners standing. But as road users go they come across as Old World courteous. More brash and less polite, Neu and La Dusseldorf, Kraftwerk's copatriots and shortlived co-drivers, forced American myths off European roads during the early to mid-70s.
A third group, Harmonia, consisting of Neu! guitarist Michael Rother and Cluster's Moebius and Roedelius, worked the same territory, releasing two LPs during Neu!'s layoff between 1973–1975. Unsurprisingly, given Cluster's other, more tranquil activities, Harmonia were a pitstop on the autobahn route, representing a curious reconciliation of a need for stillness and contemplation with motorik's incurable itch.
Together, this quartet of groups, plus Rother solo, shared the common factor of a Kraftwerk connection. Their output of Unterwegs records constitutes the complete overhaul of road music. Though small, its influence has been vast. David Bowie, for instance, cites Neu! as the inspiration behind Low and Heroes, the records he made during his last fruitful period, in Berlin, 1977. And its very driven qualities would resurface in the German Techno and electronica of the 90s, in music that at once shares and updates the Dromomaniacs' driven repetitive qualities, and their obsessions with speed and communication.
Of them all, Neu! endure best. Two years before "Autobahn", Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger had devised a form of Unterwegs music remarkable for the urgancy of its desire to keep moving. Neu! music is not so much a matter of musical composition – it's a competition of velocities. Powered by a rhythmic tic clawing the asphalt – the basis of all motorik disko to follow – yearning, yawning guitar noises race against each other, some accelerating ahead, others receding into the distance. And every now and again, a menacingly low bass rumble hurtles past in the outside lane.
Neu!'s is a driving music constructed by Dromomaniacs driven to greater and greater excesses of speed in a frantic effort to escape the strictures of civic training. It has no discernible goal except to get lost in speed. It's a white line fever, an amphetamine madness pushing itself and its listeners towards oblivion. Pushing harder and harder, this music-as-vehicle inevitably disintegrates before it finishes, catapulting you into the ecstasy of the ultimate escape. At the other end, you either feel cheated to have survived or exalted to be alive. In the latter case you can share those moments of lucidity which Neu! log elsewhere – at the side of the road perhaps, or at some Baltic shore where Germany runs out of road – as dawn breaks, the speed finally wearing off, giving speed-blurred horizons the chance to take shape against the gradually whitening sky.
Neu!'s concentration of absolutes – from zero to infinity in x seconds – is the warp factor through which they travel freely in time. Unlike Springsteen's nostalgia for highways jammed with broken heroes leading to lost frontiers of innocence, Neu!'s noise is dented with the reality of events. Shunning sentiment, it is triggered by the failures of 1968. Sick of being caught in street battles grown static, of the surging, groaning massses of demonstrators straining against the immovable weight of the State, Neu! are driven forward and outward. Their music is less a confrontation with authority than a running skirmish with traffic cops, a race to the city limits against increasingly sophisticated police surveillance techniques in a bid for the relative freedom of the autobahn. Even so, Neu!'s noise doesn't sell the illusion that liberty equals no speed limits.
The point about speed limits marks the crossroads where American and German road dreams meet. Springsteen wrote his retro anthem "Born To Run" as if the highway could still provide an escape route from everyday drudgery, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Paradoxically, the escape route opens up only when he recognises that here is no espace route. Neu!'s "Hero" (from Neu! 75) achieves the impossible release from such an illusion via its tremendous opening scream, "BACK TO NOWHERE", as the "just another hero" of the title charges off on an odyssey through a city night scarred with 68 graffiti: "The only crime is money"; "Fuck the harmony".
Where does this great Neu! noise come from? Is there any significance in the fact that Unterwegs music originated in Düsseldorf? What is it about that city which seeded the constellation of groups clustered round Kraftwerk with dreams of leaving? Düsseldorf itself, a compact module of fast mode and moneyed modernity, is a desperate muse. It is more fruitful to speculate that the vehicles transporting the Dromomaniacs out of the city helped shape their various motoriks. Perhaps their progress can be traced through the upgrading of their cars, their upward mobility charting their gradual slide into respectability.
It's easy to imagine Neu! driving a battered green Citroën, their rhythms deriving from the hammering engine and the rush of wheels hugging the road. An American rock cassette, MC5 maybe, is barely audible above the blur of speed and the wind whistling through the rust. Subjected to the centrifugal tug on the wheels, the melody follows the camber of the road, broadening out into the exhilarating sweep of the long autobahn curve. Like the Citroën, Neu!'s production values are a little pinched. But the battering it takes from the elements makes driver and passengers feel very much alive.
Harmonia cover similar ground, but in a secondhand Mercedes, possibly a 1966 black or white model, whose age displaces its original status as a bulwark of bourgeois respectability with a sense of style. The better protection it affords against the wind and the rain produces a sturdier music. Its improved suspension is apparent in more buoyant rhythms, rounded melodies played on organ and electronic keyboards buffing the scything edge of Neu! guitars. Sealed off from the outside, you can hear your own thoughts and thus can let them run through the landscape flashing by. It is more reflective than speed-reflexive, its way marked by moments of melancholy and drowsiness.
Such comfort is not to be sneezed at; but it does seem to reduce the physical responses to the world of those who can afford it. Michael Rother solo is the sound of the Dromomaniac contemplating his first Audi or BMW. Properly insulated, electronic windows push-buttoned up, the swish of silk on leather upholstery – in this motion, in perfect silence, Rother's music takes shape. The melodies recall those elevated autobahns crossing valleys and clinging to the sides of mountains in Bavaria or the Black Forest. The rhythm is regulated by the pattern of sunlight flickering through the trees onto the windscreen. Rother's cartwheeling motorik is slower and sweeter than Neu!'s driven version. The driving urge is diminished; movement is no longer a pattern of life, the music not so much a transport elsewhere, as a lifestyle accessory. But every so often you get the impression that Rother looks out of his Audi, or BMW perhaps, and wistfully recalls the old Neu! Citroën.
Rother might envy his Neu! co-driver Klaus Dinger's later vehicle, La Düsseldorf. Whatever Dinger does, it bears all the bumps and scars of the intransigent rocker. The first and best La Düsseldorf album (1976's La Düsseldorf) seems locked in a perpetual night network of striplit urban rings and inner city autobahns. Great, gaudy and garish, La Düsseldorf are the Flying Dutchmen of motorik – condemned for all eternity to patrol that no man's land between the city and the airport in a vain race against time to catch a flight. The roar of rising jets periodically envelops their invigorating rushes of sound. Yet even as it signals their failure, it cannot negate their irresistible equation of speed and vitality.
Just because La Düsseldorf haunt the airport approaches like a JG Ballard disease, seeing the future trajectory of speed rising out of their reach and fighting to arrest their seeming obsolescence in a closing crash at the end of the runway, doesn't mean the Dromomaniacs are ready to admit it's over: anyone who has passed through an airport knows that flight means stricter bodychecks, less freedom of movement.
So long as they steer clear of State borders, then, the Dromomaniacs can nurture a sense of freedom. The autobahn goes on forever, or at least as far as Kielar Aachen or the post-89 German/Polish border at Frankfurt An Der Oder... Proximity to the border seals this sense of freedom. Such a tension, derived from the closeness of control and uninhibited movement, stiffens Wim Wenders's great Wanderjahre (wandering years) movies of the 70s: Wrong Movement, Alice In The Cities and Kings Of The Road. When French speed baron Paul Virilio says, "In the end cinema imposes a kinetic uniform on the eyes", his intersection of cinema and speed might well be Wenders's point of departure.
"If only the poetic and the political could be one," worries the Wilhelm Meister character in Wrong Movement (adapted from Peter Handke's cinenovelisation of Goethe's original Unterwegs novel, Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre). The Dromomaniacs come close to tying the two strands, pre-empting Der Alte's reply to Meister: "That would be the end of longing and the end of the world".
But the autobahn goes on forever and the end is not yet in sight. The Dromomaniacs still speed up and down its lengths, seeking to resolve the tensions between the personal, the political and the poetic in perpetual movement, wrong or otherwise. As the pioneering Dromomaniacs ground to a halt, younger drivers took up their lines of physical enquiry like they were pathways to the soul. In the 80s, "How Do You Like My New Dog?", by the now defunct Berlin group Malaria, traced longings for the Mediterranean sun. Frieder Butzmann's "Wolfsburg" pointed to the drudgery of those lives spent in VW city Wolfsburg servicing the Dromomaniacs' desire for speed, montaging Beatles puns ("Baby you can drive my VW"), Swan Lake and production line counts. Another decade on and a new generation of German speedfreaks, from Basic Channel through Chain Reaction, from Tresor's 3 Phase to the Austrian artist Potuznik, whose Mego disc Amore Motore ( …Autobahn) earns him honorary citizenship in motorik's realm of speed, have transcribed the flows of energy circulating the autobahn networks as blips and beats coursing the electronic highways of Techno. And on their motorik anthem "NNNAAAMMM", from the 1996 album Ende Neu, Einstürzende Neubauten not only reopen the fevered white lines of enquiry laid down by the heroes of 70s German Dromomania, but the trance rhythms they generate, through the track's thousand engines a-hammerin', power motorik's drive into the next millennium.
If the autobahn goes on forever, its endlessness no doubt accounts for the fact that the Dromomaniacs' roads rarely seem to cross. Perhaps they are all heading for that distant autobahn crossing point where they will finally meet. Each caught up in their own thoughts, they will not meet peacefully, but in an almighty pile-up that will mark the crucifixion of German Dromomania Saints, martyrs or victims of speed? Whatever the answer, they will be venerated for their services to autobahn and Unterwegs mythology. And even if they finally locate that elusive moment of true feeling, their greatest achievement will have already preceded them. Operating in an era subjected to ever more sophisticated surveillance techniques and traffic regulations calculated to bring everyone to a standstill, the German Dromomaniacs taught the world to think on the move.