With their 1974 international smash hit “Autobahn,” Kraftwerk had coolly demonstrated that an experimental electronic group from Dusseldorf, Germany, could kick out perfect pop on par with anything by the Beach Boys. In fact, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, the band’s creative nucleus, were huge fans of Brian Wilson and loads of other American music. But with Trans-Europe Express, they set out to reinvent a different legend: that of Europa itself. In the process, they changed pop music forever.
In 1976, as the group was beginning work on the album, a friend casually remarked that its music was like “electronic blues,” and suggested it do a song about the Trans-Europe Express. Kraftwerk structured the album around the concept of a train moving across a continent that was rapidly becoming borderless and digital. The album glimmers into motion with “Europe Endless,” a flowing, glowing hymn to the “real life and postcard views” of the Old World. The beats are crisp, the synths lush and percussive, and the track shines like a pre-emptive elegy for history as we know it.The eerie “Showroom Dummies” is both richly melodic and formally fresh; the tune is driven by a cybernetic hand-clap sound that’s heavier than most Zeppelin riffs. When the infamous, haunting melody of the title track segues into “Metal on Metal,” you hear the clacking sound of a train, which morphs into a Morse-code synth riff before the song returns to the original angst-ridden motif. Conceptually, Kraftwerk were as prophetic as Orwell; musically, they helped jump-start hip-hop with an electro shock and set the stage for techno, especially after Afrika Bambaataa borrowed the melody of “Trans-Europe Express” for his 1982 smash, “Planet Rock.” One of their inheritors, techno king Carl Craig, probably said it best: “They were so stiff they were funky.”