#256: Kraftwerk, "Trans-Europe Express" (1977)


Netflix has this new documentary series, this "history of hip-hop" something or other, so I start watching it. I call up my friend Bo and ask him if he’s seen it. Bo tells me:

“It’s not actually that new. I think it was supposed to complement the release of the Baz Luhrmann hip-hop show, The Get Down, which is like. Have you seen that thing? It is a mess. But Jaden Smith is kind of amazing in it. So to go along with it, Netflix either licensed or commissioned a ‘History of Hip-Hop’ docuseries and it’s pretty okay.”

My friend Bo co-hosts this podcast called Tele-Friends and is like my Rap Dude. People call the show all the time and want to do shit like talk horribly about Nothing But Trouble which leads to Bo giving you a complete history of Tupac’s debut and how Shock G is maybe the greatest forgotten producer of the 80s and 90s. Like if you need somebody to write about #437, Tha Carter III, or how there’s no fucking way Bjork’s Post is a demonstrably better album than Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), call that dude. Or better yet, call his show.

So I called him, on his private line, to ask him: “Have you seen this new Netflix docuseries thing about the History of Hip-Hop?”

“It’s like,” Bo talks like an idiot, but it’s part of his process, he has to make sense of how you hear it out loud so it makes sense to the world at large. “I haven’t seen it, but I’ve already seen it a hundred times. Like how many times I gotta hear about DJ Kool Herc throwing parties in the park with his Jamaican style sound system, or how Grand Wizard Theodore invented scratching or how Busy Bee wrote a lot of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ or get a crash course on extending the ‘beat break’ in a James Brown song using two turntables and a crossfader? I fuckin’ get it already. Wake me up when they make a documentary series about The Heatmakerz’ contribution to the Dipset sound.”

But here’s the thing, he’s not wrong. The more you hear the same thing, over and over, the more distorted, aggrandized, and removed from reality it becomes. Certain facts get omitted, others amplified. The through lines that remain become cemented into history. The others get lost.

So one of the the things we think we know for sure is how excited Grandmaster Flash was when Trans Europe Express came out because he could just put a record on and let it play and have a chance to go to the bathroom. God knows what he was actually up to when he put on Trans Europe Express. You’re fuckin’ 19 years old in the summer of ‘77? You’re the hottest DJ in New York City? I mean.

Trans Europe Express gets hot, it filters its way into the hip-hop scene. We hear it again and again, repeating over and over. Becoming something more and new through its relentless sameness. In five years it becomes the basis for Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.” It’s the first “perfect beat” the (now embattled) Zulu Nation founder uncovers in his never-ending search. This appropriation, this changing of the cultural landscape at large through a simple melody: that’s Kraftwerk. In 2017, Trans Europe Express is 40 years old.

Have you read Timequake? It’s one of Vonnegut’s last things. In it, everybody is forced to relive the last ten years, exactly as they had the first time, every success, every failure. If you died during the last 10 years, you die again. Incidentally, Timequake is another one of Bo’s weird obsessions. It’s almost as though—


You know how when you get a song, or really anything, stuck in your head? That’s like a timequake.

So much of human existence seems like this repetitive monotony. And we’re just going to repeat our same mistakes with the same songs stuck in our heads, and each new moment is going to be a new, fresh hell built from the memories of whatever hell we just escaped to arrive in it. That same old song that’s jammed in your head is like a google search of half-remembered lyrics that spits back the results “sorry asshole, you’re definitely in purgatory.”

But what if it didn’t happen like that? What if there were some way to examine the mechanics of this endless repetition? But separate from the experience of it. To feel the ticking of the clock but divorced, somehow, from its personal connotation? Like it’s no longer counting down the seconds you have left alive in this world, but it’s just sort of endlessly pulsing, marking the ever-forward progress of a larger humanity. Each individual tick a frozen moment in a series of moments that lead ceaselessly toward a chrome horizon.

There’s a pulse throughout Trans Europe Express. It feels like grinding out an old video game. Like mastering the skills necessary to solve a puzzle, but the puzzle you’re solving is a way to forget about time, so when you’ve solved the puzzle, you no longer need the skills you spent so much time learning. Because your reward is a new challenge that requires you to forget again, to live in that moment again, a drive to repeat and process. And then one day your new challenge is death. Or like if an Artificial Intelligence designed its own mantra in an effort to approach its own enlightenment. That’s what I hear when I listen to Trans Europe Express.

There’s a lot that could be said about their use of electronic instruments, Kraftwerk’s break from their psychedelic past. A bunch of gearhead talk about Roland and what it means to be weirdo Germans but that shit has been done to death, it’s soon to be another Netflix docuseries produced by DeadMau5, about having sex with your laptop. There’s something purer about the sound of this album. Discussing it as a moment (albeit a fucking monumental one) in the history of electronic music or even the much more shameful moniker “electronica” doesn’t do it justice. There’s a conceptual elegance to it that isn’t addressed by an analysis of the equipment with which it was produced, nor by its place in the larger continuum of electronic music. Nevermind who made their keyboards, let’s just talk about how those keyboards made them think.It doesn’t matter that Moog made their equipment. It matters that Kraftwerk heard new ways to manipulate sounds and that that new functionality informed their creative  process.

Even the words serve as a sound to arpeggiate, to repeat over and over. Like the singer had been programmed alongside the keyboards themselves. There’s a beauty to it. A poetry. Because like all of Trans Europe Express, the vocals are both distinctly human and devoid of emotion at the same time. It’s a thesis put into practice: that vocals are these emotionally manipulative, overwrought fireworks shows meant to dazzle and distract a listener, to imply passion, to make fans feel some kind of necessarily-fake emotion-by-proxy. And that by stripping away the tics and the artifice, you’ll be left only with the most direct connection possible between humans as facilitated by machines in the age of mechanical reproduction. Which I think is the same sentiment Daft Punk is approaching with Human After All or Psychic TV is with Orchids. And while those things are familiar, this is and isn’t about that.


Trans Europe Express starts with “Europe Endless” and ends with “Endless Endless.” The idea of it starting and ending with the same melody or phrase, the way it folds in on itself? You can’t unhear how influential this record would become on the then-nascent hip-hop genre. And Kraftwerk couldn't have known. But they programmed viral, futuristic ideas based on classical structures through MIDI interfaces. Those ideas would, in short order, inform an entire culture completely separate from Kraftwerk’s own.

That is the true, sci-fi, groundbreaking look at the future Kraftwerk provides here. We start with a pulse, a melody based on classical training, a synthesizer based on a piano, and an emotion or premonition found in the abandonment of anxiety and fear of time. To examine the whole picture without pause. So that even now, 40 years on, Trans Europe Express is the past, present, and future of recorded music.

—Will Sellari