The cover art of Autobahn has become one of Kraftwerk’s most recognizable motifs, but the famous white-on-blue convergence lines where merely an afterthought as the first edition rolled into production. Those iconic parallel stripes didn’t even appear on the original 1974 artwork by Emil Schult, although they were added to the sleeve in sticker form (which is why, if you search for the vinyl on Discogs, you will find some versions with, and some without).
Schult entered Kraftwerk’s orbit when the seminal German technolords were still a duo finding their way, designing the sleeve for the still largely experimental and flute-heavy Ralf & Florian. His role within the organization was as a kind of conceptual auxiliary man, playing violin, writing lyrics (“Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn…”) and, as a visual artist, helping to create an aesthetic for the band that would take time to foment. He was a star pupil of the legendary German Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys, and his art theorizing helped consolidate the direction Kraftwerk founders Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider were moving in anyway. Hütter described him as a “medium”; Wolfgang Flür later said he was the band’s “guru.”
The original cover for the German and French releases seems very un-Kraftwerkian, viewed retrospectively. It depicts the now-four members in a photo on the dashboard of a car, with a POV of the motorway featuring a Volkswagen up ahead and a Mercedes travelling in the opposite direction in the adjacent lane; there’s verdure on the mountaintop and the sun is breaking through the trees. David Stubbs describes the painting as “eerily bright, deceptively banal and depthless [and] faintly Hockneyesque”, in his book Future Days: Krautrock and the Building of Modern Germany.
Hütter had noticed the white stripes on his 20 kilometre drive home on the autobahn from Kraftwerk’s Düsseldorf-based Kling Klang studio. He and the band then sought to integrate the car sounds, the horns, the radio on a loop in a continuum—“part of the endless music of Kraftwerk”, he told Uncut in 2009. Autobahn represented the moment the group married a strong, simple concept with ambitious gesamtkunstwerk. It was also a tacit reclamation of the German identity in the aftermath of World War Two and what were commonly viewed as the sins of the Fatherland. “By appropriating the autobahn as a symbol of modern Germany and therefore as something to be praised, Kraftwerk were voicing a current of feeling that was prevalent in the younger generation pertaining not only to a willingness to forget the past but also a willingness to actively embrace the future,” wrote Tim Barr in Kraftwerk: From Dusseldorf to the Future With Love.
They were so successful that the essence of Kraftwerk began to translate beyond the confines of the band’s inner circle and engendered inspiration elsewhere. The UK version of the album sleeve was revamped by record label Vertigo, and there’s still some mystery about who was responsible. The uncredited in-house designer reinterpreted Schult’s sticker, stripping away the extraneous detail and distilling it down to two simple converging lines with the addition of the bridge. The lettering was more stylized, utilizing Futura, a font designed by Paul Renner in 1927—a little teutonic joke, perhaps, and a nod to Renner’s association with the Bauhaus (Kraftwerk saw themselves as a continuation of a lineage that went back to German expressionism and the Bauhaus, so rudely interrupted by Hitler). This link with the fathers of Modernism has led many to wonder if the sleeve art might be the work of Barney Bubbles—the graphic designer steeped in record imagery history and who made impish references to so many art movements in so much of his sleeve work. He was prone to in-jokes, and he was employed regularly by Vertigo at the time.
“By appropriating the autobahn as a symbol of modern Germany and therefore as something to be praised, Kraftwerk were voicing a current of feeling that was prevalent in the younger generation pertaining not only to a willingness to forget the past but also a willingness to actively embrace the future”
Whether it was Bubbles or not, and we’ll probably never know, the designer and photographer Johann Zambryski was definitely involved in 2009 in collaboration with Hütter when eight classic Kraftwerk albums were reworked and reconsolidated with eye-catching public service information sign pastiches for a set of remasters. The old Nazi radio cover of Radioactivity becomes a less equivocal radiation warning sign; the eerie idealized mannequins of Trans-Europe Express are replaced with a simple speeding train motif. These are the only albums available on streaming services right now, with the early incursions and the artistic deviances edited out of existence, making Kraftwerk’s completeness appear as if it was ever thus. Best of all visually amongst the reissues is Autobahn, refined, centralised, bolder and more beautiful. Vorsprung durch technik as they say in Germany.