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German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk enjoyed an unexpected level of success when the band’s fourth album, 1974’s Autobahn, scored a surprising Top 30 chart hit with its title track. The popularity of “Autobahn,” cut down from the album length of 22+ minutes to a mere 3:27 for radio airplay, pushed the album itself to number five on the Billboard chart. It would be the band’s lone U.S. hit, and although they would continue to make music well into the 1980s, they’d never again achieve this level of commercial success stateside.
The band’s modest achievement didn’t go to their collective heads, as shown by the 1975 release of Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity album. A return to the more electronically-oriented noise-making of their earlier work, the album’s conceptual aesthetic – exploring the subject of radio waves and outer space – was bolstered by scraps of bleeping sound, silent passages, raucous noise, and overall electronic weirdness. The album’s lone concession to commercial reality came in the form of Kraftwerk’s first English language song in the title track. While garnering critical accolades, the album’s lone single (the title track) stiffed badly, and Radio-Activity only rose as high as #140 on the charts.
Capitol Records really had no idea what to do with Kraftwerk or Radio-Activity, but the simple B&W ad created for the album was oddly effective. Utilizing the simple black box from the album cover, they tacked on a photo of the band in a frame on top. For Krautrock fans, this was more than enough as the announcement of a new Kraftwerk LP was cause for rejoice in certain circles. The band would find a modicum of success with subsequent albums like Trans-Europe Express (1977) and Computer World (1981), especially when their electronic tunes were adapted to 1980s dance culture. Kraftwerk’s influence would be wide-ranging, their musical innovations touching such disparate genres as hip-hop, EDM, keyboards-dominated new wave, and avant-garde composition.
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