Kraftwerk – Trans-Europa Express
Released March, 1977 on Kling Klang Records
A few years ago the L.A. Times called Trans-Europa Express the “most important pop album of the last 40 years” and they are absolutely right. Certainly a large amount of the interest in New Wave and synth pop could be laid directly at the door of the German synthesizer group; it could be generously said that it played a large role in the formation of the European pop identity, although it would be fairer to place it in the same milieu of Krautrock from which it emerged. The difference between Can and Kraftwerk was that the latter replaced the intricate drumming with the sure, steady hand of a machine, out-German-ing the rest of German prog.
In fact, the band straddled the divide between German traditions and the European identity that had emerged from the blasted rubble of the Second World War. The root of their melodic sensibilities came from the Weimar Republic, the brief German flirtation with democratic rule that Hitler put an end to in 1933. The folk music that had been popular then was combined with the Teutonic sensibilities of the Bauhaus school to create something that spoke of massive concepts, and the infrastructure that had been rebuilt in their country: railways, transit stations and, of course, the Autobahn. That infrastructure also left Germany, and sped into the wider scope of Europe as a whole. The second side of Trans-Europa Express lives up to it’s name, rushing down the railway tracks of the nascent union of Europe. “Trans-Europe Express” and “Metal On Metal” speak of the rush of speed in transit; “Franz Schubert” peaks and begins the eventual slowdown, which ends up being a reprisal of “Europe Endless”.
The first half of the album takes a different path. Inspired in part by their time with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who were in Berlin charting the course of what would be The Idiot and Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, the songs “The Hall Of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies” are both obsessed with identity, and paranoia. The former details the flaws revealed in the mirror, and how even the stars are chained to “the looking glass.” The latter is the most “machine-like” of the album’s tracks, and makes paranoid reference to the way the group danced in concert (nicking the idea from a British paper’s review of one of their shows). The opening track, “Europe Endless”, is more in tune with the second side, but it’s also a perfect example of how to open an album: layer upon layer upon layer, until singing along with the vocoded vocals seems perfectly natural.
While there are some other (mainly German) artists that one can point to, Trans-Europa Express is absolutely the floodgate of modern dance music. The current festival-playing status of EDM can trace it’s origins here, as can the indie groups who are currently mining the bands that were directly inspired by Kraftwerk in the first place. Go ahead and say it: Synth-pop is 40 years old now, and while a lot has changed, Kraftwerk still sounds as vital and compelling as they did in 1977.