Calxie #5: Wish you were here – Albums that sound like places
One could argue that The Beach Boys started as something resembling a boy-band. Before Brian Wilson began making transcendental pop masterpieces like ‘Pet Sounds’, they were piloted by their record company and were churning out surf-pop that almost invented the cliché of generic good-clean-fun teen-pop. Granted, they pretty much did it better than anyone else, but few will be playing ‘Surfin’ Safari’ more than once twenty years after they bought it. Amongst the swarms of teeny-bop imitators that the less substantial Beach Boys records inspired, however, was a band from… Düsseldorf. When you listened to a Beach Boys single, it sounded like California, so Kraftwerk set about making music that sounded like Germany. After some shaky starts in the electronic avant-garde scene, the band made self-explanatory concept albums such as ‘Autobahn’, ‘Radioactivity’ and, probably their most widely loved – and easily their most enduring LP – ‘Trans-Europe Express’, which plays like a love-letter to the European train system and the cyborg drone commuters that ride them.
If you don’t fully comprehend how groundbreaking this album is, try and imagine commercial pop music without synthesizers: hard isn’t it. True, most commercial pop music is appalling, assembly-line fodder, but don’t hate Kraftwerk for that. When Einstein developed his theories, his intention was not to assist in the development of the atom bomb, but that’s what his work was used for anyway. ‘Trans-Europe Express’ is E=MC2. Basshunter is Hiroshima on August 6th 1945. The true blueprint of synthesized pop music (a completely alien idea at the time) was laid down on this LP and it’s still rather remarkable. While the instrumentation is familiar, the ideas still sound strange.
The pieces largely evolve gracefully, adding and developing ideas as they go. The simple narratives that often accompany them focus on travel (the joyous ‘Europe Endless’ and the cinematic 3-part suite ‘Trans-Europe Express’), their own emotionless bank clerk image (‘Showroom Dummies’) and surreal daydreams on self image (‘The Hall Of Mirrors’). While they didn’t let go of their arty avant-garde roots, they’re really very accessible. While the lyrics are very basic, the music brings their rudimentary mediations into full focus, climbing from narrow beams to blinding neon lights, from inertia to vigorous kinetics.
The key ingredient in all of this, however, is the band’s contagious love, enthusiasm and ambition for what they’re doing which seems to seep through every quavering note. It’s this that means that, unlike the machines they used to make it, ‘Trans-Europe Express’ will never truly age. While the Germans had become ashamed of their culture due to the two little historical hiccups they had in the first half of the century, these four men embraced their country, ignored its faults and created this snapshot of the industrial, mechanised cities, the human robots that walk them and the tracks that link them.
Key track: Europe Endless