After Autobahn in 1974/5, Kraftwerk remained in experimental territory for Radio-Aktivität (Radio-Activity, 1975), but in 1977 they released perhaps the most mainstream of their albums to date, Trans Europa Express (that’s Trans Europe Express in English just in case you were unsure about the translation).
This was not an age in which you would have been likely to take the album with you while travelling, and so it’s important to remember just how evocative this LP would have been, conjuring up images of sitting in second class compartments surrounded by strangers, watching the West European imagery slide past the window.
Trans Europa Express opens with the gentle electronic arpeggio of Europa Endlos (Europe Endless), and it’s a full 90 seconds before most of the track arrives. When it does, it’s every bit as evocative as it needs to be. You’ll be nodding and tapping your feet in no time, as it whisks you past parks, palaces and hotels (or rather parks, hotels and palaces in the English version).
It takes a full ten minutes for Europa Endlos to arrive at its destination, and our itinerary allows a bit of time between trains for a wander around the city with the haunting Spiegelsaal (The Hall of Mirrors). It’s deeply melancholic, as it describes how everyone sees themselves in the mirror. Or something – it’s never been entirely clear to me what they were talking about in this track, and it even feels like something of a deviation from the concept of this album, but it does fit well musically.
The count-in of eins, zwei, drei, vier (on all editions) introduces the spectacular Schaufensterpuppen (Showroom Dummies on the English version, and there was also a French version called Les Mannequins). The deep choir pads are particularly haunting again, as the lyrics describe a Doctor Who-like scenario in which the window dummies smash through the glass and try to take over the world. Or something.
But Side B is where Trans Europa Express really comes into its own, with the title track mixing into the instrumental Metall auf Metall (Metal on Metal), and then the initially German-only track Abzug (literally something like “Discount” or “Distraction,” but “Ab Zug” almost means something like “Getting Off the Train,” which is no doubt a classic example of Deutsches Humor, and I suspect the lack of a comparable pun in English might be the reason why Metal on Metal combined both tracks on the original English version).
In total, the title track adds up to just under fourteen minutes, comfortably and justifiably a third of the entire album. Quite how it came about that they would invent breakdancing with this track is a mystery to be explored elsewhere, but undeniably this is one of the most influential pieces of music ever recorded. And the point where they bump into Iggy Pop and David Bowie at Düsseldorf City Station may not be something all of us can identify with, but it is another key point in the history of music.
Closing tracks Franz Schubert and Endlos Endlos add little, but wind the album down very calmly. You’ve reached your destination by this point, and are negotiating the last mile, trying to get back to your home and dreaming of your next travel adventure.
It is no exaggeration to describe Trans Europa Express as one of the most important albums of the 1970s, but it’s also one of the most enjoyable, which is something of a rarity. If there isn’t a copy already in your house, this should be amended immediately.
The essential version of TEE is the German 2009 reissue, available as an import here.