Counterbalance No. 92: Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans Europe Express’

Trans Europe Express
Kling Klang

Mendelsohn: Sometimes we get to a record and I have to wonder if anyone ever really listens to this album or if it’s just on the list as a joke or as an attempt to build cachet. I get that feeling with Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express. I’m not trying to say this record isn’t worthy of any accolade it has ever received, nor the immense amount of influence it has had across seemingly every genre since its release in 1977. I just have a hard time listening to it and thinking there are real people who might go to their record collection and pull this off the shelf because they just need to listen to Kraftwerk’s seminal album. I could see Mike Myers doing it as some sort of psych-up before he went on stage to do the whole “Sprockets” thing, but no real people who are normal. Do you think normal people listen to this record, Klinger?

Klinger: Well, you’ll have to define “normal” for me there, Mendelsohn. I realize I’m not necessarily “normal”, but I quite simply cannot get enough of this album. I’ve been listening to it even more than I typically listen to a Counterbalance disc. I’ve subjected my wife to it. I’ve listened to it at work. I’ve installed a microchip in my head that lets me play it in an endless loop as I walk around throughout my day. (Did you know Kraftwerk implantations are covered by most HMOs?) Trans Europe Express is a terrific album that brings a smile to my face right from the initial bars of “Europe Endless”. I mean, I’m a little surprised that this album has edged out Autobahn, which I always thought was a little more iconic, but as long as there’s some Kraftwerk there in the Great List top 100, I’m a most happy fellow.

My only complaint is that they’ve done away with the original cover that Ralf and Florian and the boys dressed up like the Dusseldorf University Economics Department. The remastered editions went with some stylish looking nonsense that robs the album of the 1970s retro-futuristic feel that I love about Kraftwerk in general and Trans Europe Express in particular.

So yeah, “normal”. Not for me to say.

Mendelsohn: Thanks for proving my point. How did the rest of the people in your life react to being subjected to a nonstop loop of Kraftwerk?

I am a little surprised by your unabashed loved for the Werk. In the past you’ve been a noted proponent of rock music being primarily the domain of real guitars, bass, and drums. And we just got done talking about DJ Shadow, whom you faulted for a failure to edit as the tracks dragged over five minutes. Seems like we could apply the same critique to Trans Europe Express. So what’s the difference, my friend? Why does the Werk twiddle your knobs so?

Klinger: OK, first, stop calling them the Werk. That’s not a thing. As for the rest, what can I tell you? I contain multitudes, Mendelsohn.

I have nothing against longer songs per se—I am a big jazz fan, after all. I do ask, though, that those longer songs either move things along throughout, or create a vibe that becomes hypnotic as it progresses. On Trans Europe Express, Kraftwerk manages to do one or the other throughout the whole album. Regardless of whether it’s made with synthesizers or not—which again, I’m not opposed to just on principle—this still comes across as a group of musicians working together in a room, in this case the Kling Klang Studio. Kraftwerk consistently manages to play right in the pocket, which is something that the hip-hop world caught right away. It’s not for nothing, after all, that Afrika Bambaata sampled from this album for his 1982 song “Planet Rock”.

But I could just as easily turn the tables on you, Mendelsohn. You’re always “BPM” this and “sampler” that. And without a doubt we’ve covered albums that are a lot less propulsive than this. What is it about Trans Europe Express that doesn’t move you?

Mendelsohn: We are not done talking about your multitudes just yet, Klinger, and will be returning to them shortly. In the meantime, my issue with Kraftwerk centers squarely around the lack of bass, and I’m not talking bass as in Donald “Duck” Dunn (RIP), I’m talking bass with a capital B, the kind that rattles the windows and makes it hard to breathe. Did they not have that kind of bass back then?

Here’s the real kicker, I respect Kraftwerk immensely, they are the main influence behind Orbital, one of my favorite electronic groups (their self-titled “Brown Album” is number 796—only 14 more years or so). Listening to Trans Europe Express is like listening to a primer for Orbital’s career. But whenever I listen to Kraftwerk, it’s like I’m listening to electronic music in black and white whereas anything by Orbital is in dazzling technicolor. I fully appreciate the whole future/retro combination that drives this album but I can’t help feeling like there is something missing.

Kraftwerk strikes me as a little sterile—Trans Europe Express is so measured, so precise. It lacks soul, Klinger! I keep waiting for the smusic to break loose and it never does, it never goes anywhere. The albums that we’ve already talked about that rest somewhere near the electronic genre all had soul — an emotional vein I could tap. Portishead, Massive Attack, DJ Shadow — there is a real resonance of humanity in those records, those records have some swing. I don’t get that with this record. Where is the soul of this record, Klinger?

Klinger: Well now, therein lies the whole point of this Germanic style of music that we for some reason call Krautrock. Groups like Kraftwerk point to the notion that they don’t necessarily share the same points of reference that other cultures might have pulled from. Here in the US we have our grand blues tradition from which all popular music flows, and from which UK-based groups drew their inspiration. Kraftwerk, along with other the groups that sprung up in the late 1960s and early ’70s, were looking to use their own culture to inform their sound, and while it has soul (all God’s children have got soul, Mendelsohn), it’s not necessarily the same sort that lit the fire under Otis Redding. After all, they even carry on the railroad tradition of the mystery train and the gospel train—they just transport it over to Europe. And why? It’s the rhythm. You can’t argue with the rhythm of the train, even if it is stopping up traffic and making you late.

But yes, it is sterile sounding, with all the clean lines and aerodynamic response that come from fine German engineering. Its sound has nearly as much to do with the classical tradition as it does modern pop music. I mean, one of the songs is called “Franz Schubert”, which could have been your first indication that the songwriting might be coming from a different, more lieder-like, place.

Sure, you can hear a sense of detachment in a song like “The Hall of Mirrors”, but it’s the same kind of detachment that you hear in David Byrne’s lyrics for Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (you can’t tell me that song wasn’t a big influence on a song like “Seen and Not Seen”). While it might be a good bit more wry than we’re used to, that kind of haunting commentary has a resonance all its own.

Mendelsohn: That is probably where this album trips me up. On most things we listen to, it’s easy to pick out the influences at work and see the confluence of past and present. I have a harder time doing that with Kraftwerk, they may touch on universal themes but their influences are very insular, sprouting from the Germanic classical and folk music that Ralf and Florian mine so happily for inspiration and it sounds just foreign enough to put me on tilt. Despite a rather strong streak of Teutonic blood following through my veins (I will eat all your lebkuchens—and then be sick), I’ve never had much exposure to Germanic music.

Also, I figured any country that would hoist David Hasselhoff upon their shoulders and not then carry him directly to the Rhine River and toss him in, to find out if he really knows how to swim, may not be the most trusted place to look for good music.

Klinger: Well, I’m sorry you feel that way (about Kraftwerk and German pop music, not about Hasselhoff—he’s a big boy and I suspect he can take care of himself). Some of the credit for my love of this album should go to my wife. She was a German education major and as such she’s pretty well-steeped in German culture. I’ve watched a good amount of early Wim Wenders, and she’s regaled me with tales of beer gardens, so I was well-primed for the Kraftwerk experience once I settled in for it. (I should note, however, that she for some reason finds Kraftwerk repetitive and a little annoying. That strikes me as odd, but I reckon she contains multitudes too.)

But regardless, I really like hearing something that’s as distinctive as Trans Europe Express. And knowing that you’re hearing something that reaches into the past, yet still manages to influence music well into the future is nothing short of bracing. You’re suddenly able to turn the tumblers that connect Karlheinz Stockhausen to Afrika Bambaata to Orbital. Nowhere else but music, buddy.