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Kraftwerk Diary Day Three: 1977's Influential 'Trans-Europe Express'

Rolling Stone chronicles the German band's eight-night stand at the Museum of Modern Art

Kraftwerk performs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Mike Coppola/Getty Images
April 13, 2012 11:50 AM ET

Night three of "Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8"  was devoted (or at least it was supposed to be; more later) to the influential group's album that might have made the most far-reaching impact of all, 1977's Trans-Europe Express. The band opened with the titular suite, where Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker would pilfer the melody they combined with the rhythm pattern of Kraftwerk's "Numbers" to create the pioneering 1982 single "Planet Rock" – the river of rhythm from which electro, and its foster child hip-hop, would soon flow. (Ironic that the Kraftwerk song so essential for helping transport music into the future is about that most cutting-edge technology . . . luxury train travel.)

Bambaataa was among the 450 in attendance at the MoMA, along with members of the Zulu Nation, to see the band he termed "old friends." In a 2009 interview, he recalled his initial encounter with Kraftwerk's music. "I thought, this is some serious stuff for the future," he told me. "The sound, the percussion, the machines clashing with each other – I felt the funk the first time I heard it." Another trailblazer smitten with Trans-Europe Express-era Kraftwerk was David Bowie, who would bring Iggy Pop along for a fanboy meetup with Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider, an incident that gets name-checked by Hütter in "Trans-Europe Express" (Bowie returned the favor by titling "V-2 Schneider" on "Heroes" after Florian).

Among the album's themes were European cosmopolitanism and sophistication, conveyed both lyrically ("Europe Endless"' boasts of  "elegance and decadence") and visually (the original cover photos of the quartet gussied up like Weimar dandies, a far cry from the bionic body gloves of their current stage wear). Borrowing from the German tradition of sprechgesang, or spoken singing, Hütter's flat, affectless voice – often treated with a vocoder to further dehumanize it – is an odd match for the band's lilting music-box melodies, creating a feeling of detatchment which only amplifies the alienation and disconnection at the heart of "The Hall of Mirrors" and "Showroom Dummies," two of the chilliest evocations of show biz life ever recorded. (If only it had been written 50 years earlier, "Mirrors" would have been perfect material for Marlene Dietrich's cabaret singer to croon in The Blue Angel.) Unfortunately, the overly literal 3D animation projected behind the band during "Dummies" was duncelike enough to distract from the pleasures of the band's rendition.

Alright, since I'm already kvetching, please indulge me for a moment: during the extended "Trans-Europe Express" suite, the band pretty much dispensed with the percussive sparks of "Metal On Metal," then skipped playing "Franz Schubert" altogether, one of their most exquisite instrumentals. Wasn't performing these albums in their entirety the very selling point of Kraftweek and the reason for so much of the pre-series hype? Isn't playing the deep-album cuts that don't get included on greatest hits collections EXACTLY what a weeklong album-by-album retrospective festival is supposed to be for? Does. Not. Compute. Here's hoping that tomorrow's featured record, The Man-Machine, gets a more thorough treatment, or I'll be one sad robot.

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