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‘Trans-Europe Express’: How Kraftwerk Took Pop To New Frontiers
In Depth

‘Trans-Europe Express’: How Kraftwerk Took Pop To New Frontiers

Venturing on a railway-inspired odyssey, Kraftwerk’s 1977 masterpiece, ‘Trans-Europe Express’, opened up new sonic horizons for electro-pop.

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With the seeds of punk rock sprouting on the streets of London and New York City, there was a radical hunger for something new in the late 70s. Like many of their generation, Kraftwerk were poised to join that revolution, aided by their wholly original embrace of synth-based tone poetry and stark electronic beats. Their sixth album, Trans-Europe Express, was released in March 1977 and continued the band’s mission to send pop music down a completely different track.

Listen to ‘Trans-Europe Express’ here.

With their own take on the punk movement’s “Year Zero” mentality, the German group set out to completely replace traditional instrumentation with machine-based music, and revisited the transport-related themes of their fourth album, Autobahn. This time, however, instead of focusing on cars, Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür steamed ahead with a concept inspired by Europe’s iconic railway service. Trundling further into the uncharted reaches of electro-pop, Kraftwerk would yet again take listeners us on an unforgettable musical journey.

“Bowie used to tell everyone that we were his favourite group”

Recorded at the band’s very own Kling Klang studios, in Düsseldorf, West Germany, Trans-Europe Express built on Kraftwerk’s stellar reputation as sonic visionaries. So inspiring was 1974’s Autobahn that David Bowie had relocated to Berlin’s Hansa Tonstudio in order to finish work on Low and record the entirety of “Heroes” with producers Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, citing the band as an important influence. “Bowie used to tell everyone that we were his favourite group,” Ralf Hütter told Mojo in 2005.

In fact, while they were making Trans-Europe Express, Bowie even paid Kraftwerk a visit, driving to Düsseldorf in his Mercedes while listening to a cassette of Autobahn. Though praising the group for how brilliantly they had painted a vivid sonic picture of the German expressway, Bowie had little idea how Kraftwerk’s new album would expand upon these themes, looking well beyond the Rhineland to create a utopian vision of Europe as a whole.

Having toured the US in the spring and summer of 1975, Kraftwerk had developed a more internationalist outlook. While still committed to evoking a distinctly German identity, the band were keen to marry their musical vision with a pan-European ethos. Since their new album’s eponymous railway service connected 130 cities across the continent, Trans-Europe Express was the perfect creative canvas on which Kraftwerk could apply their sprawling synthscapes and widen their conceptual scopes.

“Movement interests us, instead of a static or motionless situation”

Album opener Europe Endless, lays twinkling synth notes on top of a motorik beat, evoking a wistful gaze from a train window as it winds its way through the European countryside. A rolling celebration of the boundless possibilities of travel, Europe Endless was a paean to open borders, with Hütter’s vocals to the fore. Celebrating the continent’s scenic wonder and its rich history – “Parks, hotels and palaces”, “Real life and postcard views” – it’s a nine-minute ride that pairs Kraftwerk’s electronic innovations with dreamy and observational lyricism. “Movement interests us, instead of a static or motionless situation,” Hütter said. “All the dynamism of industrial life, of modern life.”

The outlook darkens slightly on The Hall Of Mirrors, which takes inspiration from the Palace Of Versailles, in France, as it explores a poetic musing on fame (“The artist is living in the mirror/With the echoes of himself”). As Hütter suggests that “even the greatest stars” may not be as they seem, the song conveys Kraftwerk’s jaundiced view on their new-found celebrity status, acknowledging how the only honest reflection of the artist is the art itself.

Further exploring the nature of fame by peering into fashion-haus windows, Showroom Dummies sees Kraftwerk anticipate the rise of synth-pop with a delightful plinky-plonky rhythm. “Düsseldorf is always full of showroom models and dummies because of the big fashion industry and the big fashion fair,” Wolfgang Flür remembered. “We always had a strong affinity to elegance and fashion.”

One of the best Kraftwerk songs, Showroom Dummies would prove to be a seminal influence on new wave acts such as Duran Duran. “It was a really important track for them,” guitarist John Taylor later reflected. “It was like a very cool, very chic, dancefloor filler.” Nevertheless, the song again has a darker subtext, with Hütter admitting that its electronic rhythm evokes “going to a discotheque, starting to dance, then realising again, that when you’re dancing you’re being a mannequin”.

“We play the machines, but the machines also play us”

Kraftwerk’s journey through the cosmopolitan sprawl of the continent continues with Trans-Europe Express’ title track, whose juddering rhythm simulates the clickety-clack of wheel axles. The song’s ear-piercing synthesiser riff proved hugely influential on early hip-hop artists such as Afrika Bambaataa, who sampled the track on his groundbreaking 1982 electro-rap hit Planet Rock. Name-checking David Bowie and Iggy Pop as they go “From station to station, back to Dusseldorf City”, it’s an eye-opening commute from the Champs-Élysées to the late-night coffee houses of Vienna.

Demonstrating the group’s daring and experimental approach, the grinding Metal On Metal anticipates the studio tinkerings of industrial post-punk, with Kraftwerk creating a beat from striking a wheelbarrow with a hammer. “We consider ourselves not so much entertainers as scientists,” Ralf Hütter later said. “The idea of the scientist or mad scientist finding something that is true within its definition.” In the 2017 documentary The Defiant Ones, Dr Dre singled out Metal On Metal as another pivotal influence on the development of hip-hop.

The synthy reprisals of Abzug and the ambient tribute to Western classical composer Franz Schubert takes in Kraftwerk’s European heritage, opening up the orchestral potential of synthesised melodies. “We play the machines, but the machines also play us,” Hütter reflected two decades later. “The machines should not do only slave work, we try to treat them as colleagues so they exchange energies with us.” The vocoderised outro of Endless Endless brings Trans Europe-Express to its final destination, fully ushering the listener into a brave new world of electro-pop innovation.

“The best and most melodic album that we ever recorded”

Today, Trans-Europe Express is considered to be a seminal influence on synth-pop acts such as Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Heaven 17, with its more experimental moments inspiring not just industrial visionaries Einstürzende Neubauten but also early hip-hop, techno and dance music pioneers. “We feel that the synthesiser is an acoustic mirror,” Hütter explained of Kraftwerk’s musical ambitions. “It is really better suited to expose the human psychology than the piano or guitar.” By proving that the punk movement’s iconoclastic rejection of rock tropes could extend to a radical, synthesised redrawing of pop’s musical map, Kraftwerk had elevated themselves among the most influential bands of all time.

“In my opinion,” Wolfgang Flür later concluded, “Trans-Europe Express is the best and most melodic album that we ever recorded.” Venturing ever deeper into their fondness for the beauty of European architecture and a world of open borders, Kraftwerk’s musical achievements set the blueprint for the synth-pop explosion and opened people’s eyes to the sonic potential of dance music as an art form in its own right. A perfect distillation of Kraftwerk’s modus operandi, Trans-Europe Express remains a revolutionary release that forever changed the geography of pop music.

Find out more about Kraftwerk’s pioneering electro legacy.

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