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Type: Album Release date: 12/10/2009
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The original inspiration for Trans-Europe Express arrived during lunch. Knowing that Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider loved transport hubs, friend and Kraftwerk associate Paul Alessandrini took them to Le Train Bleu in Paris’s Gare de Lyon, from where the diners could gaze out at trains leaving for southern France, Italy, Switzerland and the Middle East. “With the kind of music you do”, Alessandrini told Hütter and Schneider as they ate, “which is kind of like an electronic blues, railway stations and trains are very important in your universe – you should do a song about the Trans-Europe Express.” Germinating from the seed of a paean to pan-European travel, the resulting album came to be dominated by one of Kraftwerk’s great themes: communication.

Roads, train lines, telephone and computer exchanges: the collapsing of distance by way of radio waves, satellite-beamed images and ever-faster modes of transportation; Janus-faced technology's enabling and alienating effects: Kraftwerk harnessed cutting-edge technology to create celebrations of and warnings against cutting-edge technology itself. During a French radio interview in 1991 Hütter spoke of how “movement fascinates us, instead of a static or motionless situation. All the dynamism of industrial life, of modern life. We really speak about our experiences, of life as it appears to us. Even the artistic world does not exist outside of daily life, it is not another planet; it is here on the Earth that things are happening.”

And what was happening on Earth in 1977? Well, in terms of the music industry it was getting gobbed over by punk: a back-to-basics return to the primal essence of rock’n’roll that was the antithesis of Kraftwerk’s mission to propel their sound forward via the most up-to-date equipment available. Valuable as it was in inculcating the DIY ethic that would go on to generate more interesting music in the post-punk era, from a purely sonic perspective punk itself was, as Simon Reynolds argues in Rip It Up and Start Again, a Luddite return to riffs Chuck Berry had originated 20 years earlier.

Kraftwerk, by contrast, celebrated the year punk rock broke with an album that would at length give birth to New York electro, New Wave and New Romantic synthpop, Detroit techno and, by extension, the musical world we live in today. If you’re into any kind of contemporary popular music other than jazz and folk standards or indie retreads of The Kinks or The Yardbirds, then you’re listening in some way, shape or form to a musical language originally articulated by Trans-Europe Express.

Kraftwerk’s originality proved irresistible to David Bowie, whose move from LA to Berlin in 1976 was at least partly inspired by his love for their art. His relocation resulted in the most extraordinary year of Bowie’s career: in 1977 he released the peerless Low and ‘Heroes’, and for good measure produced and co-wrote Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust for Life. Prior to this Kraftwerk had declined to support him on his Station to Station tour (in lieu of having them there he just played their records before taking the stage), but they name-check him on ‘Trance-Europe Express’: “From station to station/back to Dusseldorf City/Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie”. Bowie returned the wave on ‘Heroes’, naming one of his songs, ‘V2 Schneider’, after Florian.

‘Trans-Europe Express', which runs unbroken into the variations on a theme of ‘Metal on Metal’ and ‘Abzug’, spreads itself across most of the second half of the album. Along with The Man-Machine, the title track from Kraftwerk’s next album, it has the ring of an imaginary corporate anthem. From a musical perspective the track, beginning with a scudding, train-mimicking beat, was Kraftwerk’s funkiest moment to date. That the very rigidity of the beat imparts a kind of groove to the rhythm is neatly captured by Detroit techno innovator Carl Craig’s appraisal: “They were so stiff, they were funky.”

Riding above the rattling beat of ‘Trans-Europe Express’ is a rising sequence of synthesiser notes and occasional Doppler shift surges of sound panning across the stereo image. At some point along its length the track achieves, as several of Kraftwerk's best pieces do, a trance-like weightlessness. Some people think that pop is meant to be ephemeral, but here it feels more like a frictionless glide into eternity.

Beginning with a euphoric sequence of arpeggiated chords - one of the most bracing album openings of all time - ‘Europe Endless’ is a utopian hymn to a Europe without borders that has its source in another of Kraftwerk’s apparent daydreams: a 20th century without the scar of Nazi Germany scored into Europe’s heart. The song, and the album as a whole, is a musical evocation of the clean lines and carefully calibrated marriage of form and function practiced by the Bauhaus school of pre-war German modernism. ‘Europe Endless’ – and its partial reprise at the end of the album, ‘Endless Endless’ – is a perpetual motion machine in song: as it fades away it gives the impression that it’s not ending at all but continuing its transmission in some other place out of range of your speakers, as boundless as its title suggests.

‘Showroom Dummies’, the title of which was inspired by a journalist’s review of the band’s static live performances, and ‘Hall of Mirrors’, Kraftwerk’s eeriest moment on record, branch off from the album’s main theme and play on concepts of fame, alienation and automation that the band would soon return to. While the relentlessly percolating synth tones of ‘Hall of Mirrors’ convey a sense of paranoia and fear, ‘Showroom Dummies’ offers a slyly humorous take on celebrity ("We are standing here/Exposing ourselves"). Even its measured Teutonic lead-in of "Eins, zwei, drei, vier" is a joke, meant as a deconstructionist homage to the Ramones, whom the band admired.

In 1982 Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s 'Planet Rock', built from the melody of 'Trans-Europe Express' and the rhythm of Kraftwerk's 1981 track 'Numbers', became a worldwide club hit. Ground zero for electro, techno and, in turn, pretty much every subsequent dance music variant you could care to name, it proves that ‘Trans-Europe Express’ was, at the very least, five years ahead of its time.

Listen to it, though, and it becomes apparent what an insufficient judgement that is. With a ceaselessly mutable quicksilver shimmer, Trans-Europe Express is all at once antique, timeless, retro and contemporary. Its status as modern electronic music's birth certificate is well-earned, but its hallowed reputation should never be allowed to disguise its true value and power as a work of art. Nor should it obscure a longevity that, 32 years on, we might as well start calling by its real name: immortality.

Were it not for superunknown, this

would probably be my favourite album of all time. Listening to this whilst on the Eurostar heading to France for the first time was pretty much the best thing I've ever done.

Hmmm

My comment didn't post. But it basically said 'Good one, Chris'.

Awesome review Chris

I really should physically invest in this album...

Good review, but

what I want to know are the differences between the remastered and the original records - are they palpable, are they an improvement? Knowing Kraftwerk, they probably are, but should that not be discussed in a review of a remastered record?

you're right, e.a.p..

I did address the remastering in a general sense in the introduction to Kraftwerkweek which accompanies the Autobahn review, but that should really be reiterated in each individual review. My position on the remasters is that yes, they do in the main sound a little bit crisper, but not enough to justify buying the albums again if you've already got them. These albums *always* sounded great, and despite the band converting all their analogue tapes to digital in the mid-80s and now releasing these remastered versions, they were never really going to be made to sound all that much better.

TBH

I've most of these records already, but I did pick up The Mix today so I can see what difference the remastering has made. First impressions seem to suggest removal of tape hiss, compression (particularly noticeable on the kickdrums) and EQ. Will check it our properly later with proper equipment.

Wowie Bowie

DiS you are totally dictating my listening on Spotify at work this week! Yesterday Autobahn and Radioactivity; Today the same two albums followed by the new Flaming Lips album, and now the next installment of your Kraftwerk week!

This review is fascinating, partly because of the historical context of this album being released in the year punk broke, and also the paragraph about Kraftwerk and David Bowie is a really insteresting insight. I had previously wondered whether the title of Bowie's "V2 Schneider" was anything to do with Kraftwek, and now I know it is indeed so.

Minor correction: pop is mean(t) to be ephemeral

Compression?

Greenstone, your observation of compression worries me - they haven't gone and squashed it all have they, so its at a monotonous level, as is the current trend for mastering?

at the risk of ruining my 'big reveal'

in the next installment, more attention is paid to the remastering itself in the Man-Machine review. I must admit I can only detect extremely minimal changes in sound quality on The Mix and Tour de France - these were digitally produced to exacting standards at the time of their initial release. The compression sounds more likely, although for the most part @DJAlbertFreeman's fears are unfounded - there's minimal squashing going on (maybe a little bit on Computer World, but that's not until tomorrow!)

It doesn't sound bad.

It's not compressed to fuck like 'Ten Redux' was earlier this year, and I've not detected limiting. But I've only had a cursory listen on headphones. There's no mastering credit, so I can't imagine much was even done tbh. Will have a geeky look at a waveform later. Some info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Catalogue

Cheers, Chris.

Looking forward to it. Your reviews have been pretty comprehensive so far.

thanks

all very interesting replies. I'm moving on to TMM now!

These reviews have all been top notch

and this album is one of about three dozen I'd give a 10.0 to.

Hall Of Mirrors --> Joy Division

Crikey! I've just come back to listen to TEE again on Spotify and suddenly I've been hit by the influence Kraftwerk had on Joy Division! It must have been an epiphany for them hearing this in 77, and it is an epiphany for me realising this link now.

Their greatest album

which might make it some way towards being the greatest album ever. Peerless from start to finish. Pure genius. The live TEE from the recent tours is quite incredible - particularly the bit as it shifts into Metal On Metal, which gives me the shivers every time.

good spot,

and it's an interesting one because as much as Joy Division enthused about that side of Kraftwerk's ouevre, New Order were heavily influenced by the more explicitly dance-oriented facets of The Man-Machine and Computer World when they came to record Power, Corruption and Lies in '82/'83.

Kraftwerkweek is fucking awesome.

Kraftwerk:Interesting Music:The Beatles:Landfill Indie.

You were doing so well

until the last third of that post

My favourite album of one of my favourite bands, I've got to get the LP version of this

largely because I love the new artwork. Enjoyable review too.

Kraftwerk --> New Order

Yes, when I bought TMM a couple of years ago (up until now the only Kraftwerk album I own) I thought I could hear a definite influence on the early New Order stuff, so hearing Hall Of Mirrors today was interesting, because although I'd heard Kraftwerk cited as an influence on Joy Division I couldn't quite hear the connection...until today!

I'm a bit late on the comments bandwagon here

But an excellent reassessment of an excellent album - one of only two Kraftwerk albums I own actually, along with The Man Machine. I'll definitely be investigating more of them on the strength of the writing this week, nice one Chris.

I don't get them, I really don't

I only have this album, because I felt I must own some Kraftwerk seeing as they're the 'amazing electronic Beatles' and all that. But. I just can't get into them. Some of it's good but the overall impression I have with them is that they're too prissy, too clean, it doesn't move me or make me feel much love for them. I gave this album another go after reading this gushing 10/10 review, a score which made me think many bad things. I got bored by it, a tad annoyed then hit stop and stuck on Giorgio Moroders "From Here To Eternity" instead. What a relief that was.
I'd like to like the 'werk more, maybe buy one more album by them but I fear I'd have the same reaction. Which is weird because I like the artists supposedly influenced by them like New Order, LCD Soundsystem, Carl Craig and so on....

Different strokes and all that.

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