A Decade Under The Influence Pt. 2 – The Reluctant Revolution…

kraftwerk-sepia[Or…How to Alter the musical landscape without really trying…]

Kraftwerk – Trans-Europe Express [1977]

Unlike most of the artists on the “most influential” list, Kraftwerk actually were trying to invent something, though their ambitions were probably more theoretical than global.  Formed in 1970 by Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter, Kraftwerk originally began as an attempt to forge a new European modern music that wouldn’t rely on American Blues as it’s stylistic core.  Their early albums were a mix of free form jamming and Euro-classical influences with electronic methods such as tape manipulation, electronic drum machines, vocoders and studio production to give their music a sound and style that even set them apart from their fellow “krautrock” practitioners such as Faust and Can, who still relied on more traditional rock/funk concepts.  

By 1974, Schneider and Hutter had all but perfected their sound, switching from conventional instruments to the [then] new crop of electronic keyboards such as the Minimoog and AKS synthesizers.  Autobahn was almost orchestral conceptually, but the glistening 22-minute title track was distilled into a 31/2 minute long single that became an unlikely hit on both sides of the Atlantic, reaching #25 in the US and #1 in the UK.

Hutter and Schneider added Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Fur to their live lineup, creating the “classic” version of the band.  Phonogram financed a world tour and Kraftwerk became a world class cult act, straddling the line between prog experimentation and pop affectation.  Sharpening their focus on 1975’s Radio-Activity, Kraftwerk were ready to create their masterpiece.

As recording started in 1976, the album’s working title was Europe Endless, before fate intervened.  A friend of the band suggested they write a song about the Trans Europ Express train to show off their new electronic style.  With this idea was in their minds, Schneider and Hutter chanced to meet and hang out with David Bowie and Iggy Pop, who had come to Berlin to record and escape from their drug problems.  The meeting was mutually beneficial, resulting in Hutter and Schneider gaining lyrical insight to their new song [including a hat tip to Bowie and Iggy, who would both go on to make landmark albums as well.

Trans Europe Express could not have been released at a better time.  The worldwide disco boom had given birth to the 12” single, a format that originally meant to keep dancers on the floor, also gave more talented artists extra room to stretch songs out, remix and re-imagine them.  Clocking in at nearly seven minutes, it’s a miracle of minimalism, with it’s clockwork rhythms anchoring the swelling and ebbing washes of synthetic strings and understated vocals which relate the meditative nature of train travel in a way that can only be described as thrilling.  Ever so often, the music punctuates itself with clanging gears, rushes of steam and the roar of engines in tunnels.  And over again that haunting, tiny melody, totally non rock and still irresistible, sneaking into your head and refusing to leave.  Trans Europe Express is the soundtrack for the greatest experimental film never made.

Oddly, for it’s brilliance, “TEE” didn’t chart nearly as well as “Autobahn” before it, peaking at #67 in the US.  But the song completely infected multiple undergrounds on both sides of the ocean, inspiring everyone who heard it, sending them off in different, unpredictable directions. Nascent hip-hoppers and soon-come rappers would latch on to the song’s enervating minimalism, with Afrika Bambaata beefing up the rhythms and adding local favorites for the legendary “Planet Rock” while Brian Eno would borrow the sound pull the beats altogether, leaving the swirling, arcing synths to create ambient, which some Californians would chill even further to create New Age.  Meanwhile in Detroit, young, hip DJs would take the repetitious beats and the metallic clanging, forgetting the vocals altogether, to invent a new cult dance music called techno.  Meanwhile in the Ohio, Kraftwerk’s new “machine man” stage look would be swiped by some four eyed dadaists, mixed with Tex Avery Cartoons and Roger Corman Sci Fi values and emerge as DEVO – giving birth to an Ohio scene unrivaled in it’s high-art/anarchic vision [Pere Ubu, Art Bears, Henry Cow].

And that’s just in America.  Over in the UK, Kraftwerk’s all-synthesizer approach dropped just in time for the post punk movement to embrace the new tech and the musical freedom it promised.  Four scene kids from Basildon would apply punk aesthetic to Kraftwerk’s synthetic approach and start churning out hits, eventually becoming one of the biggest bands in the world, while a middle class poseur from Hammersmith would concoct a Hanna-Barbera take on the “Man Machine” concept, creating a four-note one-hit wonder that topped the charts [until people caught on].  The “Metal on Metal” sound would be embraced by the surviving members of Joy Division, who’d rename themselves and become bigger than the sum of their original parts, while a disreputable gang of pot-smoking crate diggers in bristol would stumble onto the AKR synth, spot-weld it to their DJ rig and invent Trip Hop, which instantly made everything around it sound antiquated by comparison.

And While Bowie and Iggy were in Berlin making landmark records, Giorgio Moroder was taking the all synth approach, pouring his American gospel-singing protege all over it and giving us this:

So, yeah, Hutter and Schneider were trying to invent something.  It’s doubtful they were trying to invent an entire generation, but that’s how it worked out.  And the song is still a beauty, which is just a bonus.

:  Quarterly Report…


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