Next year is the fortieth anniversary of Kraftwerk’s seminal album Trans-Europe Express. After years of experimentation, Trans-Europe Express emits a confidence within the group, that the Dusseldorf band have not only gotten comfortable with a sound inspired from motors, machines and transportation but also possess an ethos that wishes to explore this tremendous break from the past. Just think a moment of the environment in which Kraftwerk emerged from. A Germany shamed by the recent memory of its barbarism where so much folk traditions, the traditions of the nation were implicated in the creation of a nationalist sentiment. Yet also a nation that had at its disposal a cutting edge industrial society, one with a transportation system the envy of every other nation, and this an economic base difficult for most countries to rival. Yet also a product of its recent Fascist past. Kraftwerk grew up in a society that was both repulsed by its past, yet where evidence of it existed everywhere in the highly advanced industrial nation that was left behind. There was no legitimate cultural language to express this new land that didn’t resort to a fascist discourse. A folk tradition was now deemed corrupted by the past and music emanating from America and England would never do as Germany was at this moment also no longer sovereign, divided up and under the watchful gaze of the imperial eye. Not only was Germany at a crossroads at this point but so was Europe. The answer to the horror of Europe at was with itself was integration. Out of the ashes of WWII emerged a vision of economic and political unity.
Speaking to Jon Savage in 1991, Kraftwerk member Ralf Hutter stated, “When we started it was like, shock, silence. Where do we stand? Nothing. Classical music was of the 19th century, but in the 20th century, nothing. We had no father figures, no continuous tradition of entertainment. Through the 50s and 60s everything was Americanised, directed towards consumer behaviour. So, we were part of this ’68 movement, where suddenly there were possibilities, and we performed at happenings and art situations. Then we started just with sound, to establish some form of industrial German sound.”
Trans-Europe Express catches Europe at this pivotal crossroads in a language broken from the tradition of the past with its own modes and form that emphasis the relationship of contemporary man’s reliance with machine rather than the previous pastoralism of folk music. The machine has little time for the variances of the land, of the fragmentary nature of traditions that come from the various topographies, relationships, histories that attach man to place. The machine has no memory, yet it is adaptable. It does not need to speak the language of locals to adapt, it works on its own accord. For Kraftwerk, the sound of the machine reflects the idealism of a Europe without borders. The varieties of language spoken in Europe are deaf to the machine, the history that tells one nation it was conqueror and another that it was conquered no longer matters. Past no longer matters to the machine. It subjugates all to its rhythm.
Kraftwerk’s connects this idea of the machine to the idea of Europe coming to a new maturity in its conception of itself as an integrated whole. In the opening track Trans-Europe Express, the lyrics are simple, highlighting an ideal of Europe, one without borders. Europe as an endlessness based not on geographical borders but on a common culture. The organ sounds that open the song give the feeling of grandeur as the splendour and hope of a new Europe are beginning to see the light of day. Yet there is an implicit recognition of Europe’s past in its decadence and its future economic prosperity. Decadence is associated with the idea of excess, of being so far above nature that one can languish in the splendour of economic prosperity.
Behind the EU was this ideal, that those that joined the union would result in better economic conditions for all. After all the original name for the EU was the European Coal and Steel Community, followed by the European Economic Community highlighting the core idealism of the European Project from its inception was an economic integration that would lead to in some shape or form a political union. The idea was that the specialisation of integrated European economies would be prosperous for all and this prosperity would ensure that any future war in Europe would be avoided. Thus, behind the European ideal there is an emphasis that by expanding the industrial capabilities of Europe and fostering such interdependence and specialisation, a new Europe would emerge, one not dogged down by old nationalist differences but instead joined in brotherhood by economic prosperity and the homogeneity of the consumerist culture that emerges within this.
Speaking to The Quietus, Kraftwerk member Karl Bartos stated of Trans-Europe Express, “In a way it was a repetition of Autobahn. But on the other hand by using the train motif we were following the path of someone like Pierre Schaeffer who made the first piece of musique concrète by only using the sounds of trains. That was in our mind also. At that time being around with Autobahn and Radioactivity we’d had enough of creating from our German heritage and rather we were considering ourselves as European musicians… And at that time the idea of the European community by using the synonym of Trans Europe Express.”
As usual with Kraftwerk’s music there is an obsession with the technologies that make such an idea possible. Again in this case the notion of the train and the music responds with the signature ‘motorik’ rhythm, a progressive 4/4 beat that huffs and puffs with an intent that seldom hints at exhaustion. It is progression for the sake of progression. It is both the ideal of economic progression but also at the heart of transportation, of the links that make Europe possible, the railway, the autobahn, these nexuses that ensure Europe is not a certain, unfixed by a geographical constraint but rather an ideal, an identity based on a connection rather than anything fixed. They are also the connections that make the modern specialised economy possible. Europe has always been an ideal of connections over difference. It is the railway line, the currency, the prosperous hope of a future based on this link. It is a shared history of slaughter, of religion, of shared root languages before their eventual fragmentation. Europe is connection then disconnection. By 1976, when Kraftwerk were recording this album the idea of Europe as integration was being further pushed without any consideration of the fragmentation that may eventually occur.
When asked the question by interviewer Jon Savage, “Would it be right to say that one of the things you’ve been trying to do is create a kind of universal, or rather trans-national, musical language?” Ralf Hutter responded by saying, “That would be perfect. It would be too [big-]headed to say that we did it, but if it comes, it would be wonderful. We have played, and been understood, in Detroit and in Japan, and that’s the most fascinating thing that could happen. Electronic music is a kind of world music. The global village is coming, but it may be a couple of generations yet.”
This idea of the global village, of course ties into the digital age but it has always been a very European ideal, of unity among difference. Yet apparent in Trans-Europe Express is not just a celebration or crafting of the sounds and feel that a new European ideal would feel and sound like, there is a kind of foreboding present of what this new European identity will encompass. Just look at the image above, the cover of the album. The conformity in dress is apparent, the almost inhuman like quality to each of them as if they are either robots or mannequins. Each one of them are lacking in an individuality that distinguishes one from the other. This sameness is explored in the song ‘Showroom Dummies’ but perhaps ‘Hall of Mirrors’ really gets into the trepidation apparent in one’s sense of self, one’s identity becoming so homogeneous that the world indeed becomes something akin to a hall of mirrors. If all identity is a creation (something I looked at in an earlier blog post on Bowie), then ‘Hall of Mirrors’ is a realisation of this filled with trepidation that both fears that one’s identity cannot hold or worse that the artist will find too much comfort in this identity and come to ignore its artifice. It is an implicit warning of the creation of a subject whether that be a ‘European’ identity or a ‘German’ one. Yet just because they are fictitious doesn’t mean that such conformity does not lend political legitimacy.
As Walter Benjamin argues in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the mechanical reproduction of an artwork ensures its repetition verbatim which induces a simultaneity in perception. In more layman’s terms, because the work of art can be reproduced verbatim irrespective of time and place, a more homogeneous response occurs. For Benjamin this results in the creation of the masses, as an artwork no longer confined by a specific space and time can now exist outside of time and space, it can be everywhere and anywhere in the blink of an eye. Mass production in other words creates mass conformity. And in mass conformity is a creation of a narrow way of looking at the world which feeds into legitimising the political powers that reign on high. I feel that Kraftwerk are perfectly aware of Benjamin’s argument in every aspect of their overly self conscious aesthetic.
Trans-Europe Express even when listened to nearly forty years after its release epitomises the spirit or lack of inherent in the European project. For me this is the reason it is the seminal album of Europe for the past forty years in that it has captured the increasing conformity that is necessary for the integration of Europe to occur yet it also captures the anxiety of this, of the slow disintegration of an identity based in tradition in favour of a more mass produced consumer lifestyle.
I just want to finish off by looking at the European Project once more and the crisis that has come to exist within it. The number one means of integration for the EU was a common currency in the Euro yet rather than integrate the diverse nations of Europe it has began a fragmentation where not the similarities of the nations are being celebrated but a blaming of the failure of the project due to the differences in identity (just think of the PIIGS label). With this has come a refugee crisis and a country on the periphery of the identity espoused by the European ideal i.e. the centre’s hardworking, efficient identity (which ironically is a descendant of German’s fascist past) with the identity of Greece as ‘idle’ and a host of other slurs. The European project has moved now away from idyll of integration, of homogenity one pointed to and indeed even grudgingly celebrated in Trans-Europe Express to a Europe of fragmentation. As Yeats stated ‘the centre cannot hold’. It never can. Is the high ideal of Europe in need again of a new exploration?
Has the idea of integration been taken a step to far and is now what is needed is an exploration of the fragmentation, of difference? For much of the popular music now both under and above ground has its roots in the sonic experimentations of Kraftwerk in electronic music to hip hop to pop and ambient. But especially in relation to electronic music that has become so popular over the past decade, it’s interesting to think that so much of its points of departure have been explored and set in motion by one group that have created the sound with a specific idea in mind i.e. to express the sound of today and of Europe. It’s interesting to wonder that with the idealism of Europe changing so rapidly, will the more popular sounds move away from Kraftwerk’s pioneering electronics of repetition, a repetition that evokes notions of conformity to a new sound that has notions of fragmentation at its core. Needless to say it is already occurring.