Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express (Kling-Klang – 1977)

Aged 17 I was listening to Underworld and Led Zeppelin.  I was in a band who wanted to cover ‘One’ by U2.  I heard U2 for the first time purposefully through some pirate best of which concentrated on their later career.  Numb and Lemon stood out.  I bought Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop.  I bought the Popmart video.  During Discotheque Bono added ‘this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around, this ain’t no Mud Club, or CBGB’s, I ain’t got time for that now’.  My eldest brother’s Sand in the Vaseline two CD best of Talking Heads.  Life During Wartime, I Zimbra, Cross-eyed and Painless stood out.  U2 and Talking Heads credits, Underworld interviews, all saying Eno.  I buy More Blank Than Frank, last track 1/1, I buy Ambient 1: Music for Airports, Apollo: Atmosphere’s and Soundtracks.  I buy David Bowie’s Low and ‘Heroes’.  V-2 Schneider.  If I like this so much then I may like the thing they are paying reverence to.  Kraftwerk.  I would soon own every CD they had (and hadn’t) released.  I would be 28 before I saw them live, literally in 3D with my other brother, at Manchester Velodrome.  By that point I had bought their entire back catalogue for a second time, though re-mastered and with German vocals.

I recently read Jon Ronson’s ‘The Men Who Stare at Goats’, in it I learned of what became known as the Bucha Effect. “Why are helicopters falling out of the sky?” asked the mid-1970s military. Investigating scientists found that the strobing light from the rotors was at a frequency near that of human brainwaves which has an effect; in this case it was the pilot’s passing out.  It is with this type of repetitive interruption of the silence that ‘Europe Endless’ starts.  It unfurls as an arpeggio in G, falling into itself like the Mandelbrot set.  The bass and drum tracks are precise, each emphasising exactly what it should and more.  A perfectly efficient machine is working.  In it you can feel the intelligence and patience that went into its making.  Even before the vocal has entered you are more than aware of the aesthetic for the album; sparse layering and rhythmic interplay, both exquisitely judged.  Though not yet at the title track are already aboard TEE we are already in motion.  ‘Parks, hotels and palaces (Europe Endless)’, Europe is all becoming one during this journey as boundaries blur and nations disappear in parallax.  Vocals are reserved and optimistic.  Clean vocal, vocoder vocal, clean vocal, vocoder vocal. Lulling and enthralling to the extent that when the song ends its nine minutes plus you immediately miss that little arpeggio, you are soon uncomfortable in its absence.

‘Hall of Mirrors’ and ‘Showroom Dummies’ move on to themes of the vacuous nature of modern European society and the music takes a music darker turn.  Over minor drones Hutter tells us that “Even the greatest star, find themselves in the looking glass” in ‘Hall of Mirrors’, a comment on vanity and celebrity also empty and throwaway, a ‘placebo profundity’ as I once heard it put.  They move as close to a shout as Kraftwerk would ever get in announcing “We are showroom dummies”, the latter of these two quotes is the most interesting, and being as it is both a comment on Western society’s ultimately pointless obsession with defining ourselves through fashion and a rebuttal to critics of Kraftwerk’s understated live performances.  By responding to the accusation that ‘they just stood there’ in song they winked at those who knew they were doing so much more but seemed to say to everyone else, “YOU’RE showroom dummies”.

By the time of the title track you are firmly centred in Kraftwerk’s European vision.  It’s main melody sounding like a continental anthem, one filled with the drive and capital of Western Europe and mournfully aware of the sacrifice for the greater good over to the Communist East.  Travelling by rail may have been an obvious and easy step post-Autobahn given its success and the possibilities available representing the sounds of sleepers and points etc. but it is executed with aplomb.  Kraftwerk’s knack for subtlety ensures our carriage is safe, what could have easily turned into tawdry pastiche is instead treated with awe and respect.  They replicate both the train and what it embodies.  Frontiers are wider, travel and communication between them is quicker, possibilities are greater, possibilities are endless, Europe is endless as it spreads across the world.

This spread of technology bringing with it a more homogenised Western culture would see Kraftwerk propelled along with it.  Their effect on all electronic music is unquestionable.  Their influence on hip-hop well documented.  It is one of my greatest my greatest musical disappointments that Kraftwerk are often considered by others as being pioneers in the sense that they are unlistenable, intelligent in a way that they satisfied only the brain,  that their vocals are to be laughed at, that they are considered boring.  The fact is much Kraftwerk’s enduring success lies in their ability to write joyous small songs of such detail and scale.

A Hiles

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