Revisiting my CD collection: Trans-Europe Express, Kraftwerk

As noted before, my CD collection is back in my hands after four years. While working on my short film/music video, I thought it’d be fun to revisit some albums I haven’t heard since I was a teenager and see how they hold up.

2006

I was going through my Bowie phase, infuriating everyone around me with endless treatises on just how important he was. However, after about four solid months of listening to nothing but his 70s work from start to finish, my interest was flagging a little. I needed a new super-cool pioneer to fill the gap.

I’d read a couple of biographies and a number of magazine articles, mostly in search of analysis concerning the Berlin years. That was the part of the man’s career that intrigued me the most, the album ‘Low’ in particular. The image of him, side-on, surrounded by orange foliage, a beautiful man with fine, strong but delicate features, wearing a parka. A parka. That was the appeal of Bowie – even when wearing pedestrian clothes, he was stunning. As a quick aside, if you remember my waistcoat/grey trousers phase, and then look at the picture of him on the inside cover, you’ll see why I was so taken with the look. It was a merely a coincidence that it fit perfectly with Washington Irving’s folky sensibilities.

Everything I read mentioned one band in particular as an influence on the Berlin Trilogy: Kraftwerk, a German electronic act that Bowie was apparently very into at the time. There was no question, I had to find out what they were about, and I picked up a copy of Trans-Europe Express at Planet of Sound on Ayr high street.

The album opens with ‘Europe Endless’, which immediately sent me into fits of hysterics. It reminded me of the sort of educational programmes we were subjected to in primary school that I would later discover were wonderfully parodied in Look Around You. Almost ten minutes of unabashedly joyous, charmingly simple electronic pop. It was strange, certainly, but I loved it, and I had a particularly hard time explaining to friends what was so compulsive about some po-faced German chanting “Life is timeless, Europe endless!” over a Casio.

Unfortunately, I found myself less-than-enamoured with the rest of the album on any level. Trans-Europe Express was pretty good (not only because it namedrops Bowie), and Franz Schubert is a beautiful mirror to the opening track, but I was, and still am, unable to take the bloody thing seriously. Dropping “We ah showroom dahmmies!” into conversation was a running joke between me and my girlfriend for too long. What’s worse, the members themselves seemed to take it deathly seriously. Reviews would natter on about their sly sense of humour, but the lyrics are absolute fucking garbage, calling to mind the worst kind of German electro/arthouse stereotypes. I imagine something must’ve been lost in translation, but it’s still pretty hard to ignore. Furthermore, it’s necessarily dated – pioneering electronic music, a genre based almost entirely around the progress of technology and sound creation rather than composition, means it sounds almost naive by modern standards. This, of course, would mean nothing if the human expression still resonated, but Kraftwerk has never been about human expression.

Trans-Europe Express, then, is an album I appreciate most for its hugely significant historical context, to hear the beginnings of electronic music and trace its substantial influence through the past three decades. Indeed, when listening to it again, I’m struck by how much it seems to have influenced my own music. Pretty good for an album I didn’t particularly and still don’t particularly care for. So while I probably won’t listen to it again, I’ll always have respect for them, and would happily give any of their other albums a go.

Assuming they’re more Europe Endless/Franz Schubert and less Showroom Dummies, that is.

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