Locomotif: A short survey of trains, music & experiments

by Gautam Pemmaraju

I have always loved locomotives passionately. For me they are living creatures and I love them as others love women or horses.

—Arthur Honegger

Kraftwerk-trans-europe-expressThe influential electronic music artists Kraftwerk, saw their 1977 concept album Trans-Europe Express as a symbol of a unified Europe, a “sonic poem” enabling a moving away from the troubled legacy of the war, and particularly, of Nazi Germany. The dark spectre of the Third Reich and their militaristic high speed road construction was often linked to the band’s fourth studio album Autobahn, although the band saw it, in part, as a “European rejoinder to American ‘keep on trucking’” songs. The French journalist and friend to the band, Paul Alessandrini, had apparently suggested the idea of the train as a thematic base (See the wikipedia entry): “With the kind of music you do, which is kind of like an electronic blues, railway stations and trains are very important in your universe, you should do a song about the Trans-Europe Express”. Described as embodying “a new sense of European identity”, the album was destined to become a seminal work of the band, not just in fusing a qausi-utopian political idea with their sonic aura, at once popular, idiosyncratic and profoundly influential, but also in ‘reclaiming the train’, which chugs across “borders that had been fought over”. In response to Kraftwerk’s espousal of European integration, band member Karl Batos says here,

We were much more interested in it at that time than being Germans because we had been confronted by this German identity so much in the States, with everyone greeting us with the 'heil Hitler' salutes. They were just making fun and jokes and not being very serious but we'd had enough of this idea.

The chugging beat, “ripe with unlikely hooks, and hypnotic, minimalist arrangements” is in ways an ideological amplification of the idea of Autobahn, referencing the transport networks of Germany, and seeking in its “propulsive proto electro groove…a high speed velocity transit away from the horrors of Nazism and World War II”. There was, however, as Pascal Bussy writes in Kraftwerk: Man, Machine, Music (1993), a formidable nationalism underlying their somewhat nebulous politics. Kraftwerk believed, as Hütter is quoted saying to the American journalist Lester Bangs in 1975, that they were unlike other contemporary German bands which tended to be Anglo-American; they wanted instead to be known as German since the “the German mentality, which is more advanced, will always be part of our behaviour”.

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