Having created a discography of influential albums, it can be difficult to pick just one to classify as a true ‘classic’. While ’Autobahn’ put the Kraftwerk name on the map, it was surpassed by later albums in quality and reach. ‘The Man-Machine’ saw the band achieve their most balanced album as they coupled art and conceptualism with Pop in a way that has resulted in decades of exposure via radio, TV and film. Elsewhere, ‘Computer World’ had an untold influence on the early pioneers of House and Techno, whose own music underpins today’s chart sound.
‘Trans-Europe Express’ however, stands alone in the way that it melds concept and form, making it what can be seen as the first truly non-experimental electronic album. It’s influence is well noted, most specifically on Hip Hop where a sample of the title track on Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force’s ‘Planet Rock’ revolutionised the burgeoning genre. Elsewhere, it has influenced Rock, Pop, Ambient and Techno. Often ignored in retrospectives, however, is how it is rooted in the context of the time of its own release.
While the bands’ own native Germany was divided between East and West, and the band were drawing critiqued in the British and American press as overly sterile and “Teutonic”, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider attempted to celebrate a broader, more expansive Europe. Starting with opening track ‘Europe Endless’, the intro of which is worth the price of entry alone, Kraftwerk’s familiar theme of movement is on show. Here, however, it is different from earlier releases. Featuring a more nostalgic tone and expanded lyrical ambiguity, the track begins a thread of questions as it contrasts reality with postcard imagery. Is Europe the parks and palaces of tourism? Is Europe endless when countries are divided?
Later, on the title track, the tourists have become flesh and blood as a real life meeting in Düsseldorf with David Bowie and Iggy Pop becomes a reference point in a grand tour of Europe. Not without wit, mention of Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’ draws riffs on the locomotive theme. Elsewhere ‘Showroom Dummies’ would inspire Disco, Electro and later Techno with its beats while its lyrics recount the tension between Kraftwerk’s controlled art aesthetic and the Rockist expectation of how Pop musicians should perform.
The result is an album that is grounded in the lived reality of the group but presented in such an ambiguous, stylised manner that it resonates with a wider audience while also questioning that very connection. It’s a supreme balancing act for a record that includes so few words. As the rolling suite of tracks that culminate the second side of the album draws out a cyclical and hypnotic melody that in retrospect feels timeless (though not endless), it pays to consider how this record has been divested of its context.
As producers and musicians across continents and decades found inspiration in the melodies and rhythms of ‘Trans-Europe Express’ the words were left behind. Shaped and sampled to create the skeleton of future musical innovations, broader and broader audiences were familiarised with an even more stylised version of these songs. If ‘Trans-Europe Express’ was simply a collection of great beats that would be something worth celebrating, but as an album it deserves more.
Before Arthur Baker and Afrika Bambaataa sampled its title track in 1982, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ had already begun to shift expectations of the band. No longer either a novelty or an art project, Kraftwerk had created an album that individual listeners could get lost in but also sing and dance along to. They had also challenged their critics by grounding their music in reality while aspiring to a higher concept. As the world turned towards Punk and Hip Hop for its innovations, the musicians would turn to Kraftwerk for their inspiration.
Many ‘classic’ albums become known more for their influence and the work of those who followed than for their own substance. That should not be the case with ‘Trans-Europe Express’. As a non-experimental electronic album, it changed the musical landscape. It also addressed the world of its creation. It’s a journey worth taking. Give it a spin.