Sonntag, 1. März 2009

Trans Europe Express - The Deconstruction of a Train Ride

When Arthur Baker and Afrika Bambaataa „sampled“ Kraftwerk's Trans Europe Express in 1982, they changed the sound of hip hop forever. The success of Planet Rock almost single-handedly put an end to what I'd like to call hip hop's infant stage: the early era of happy, feel-good party raps based on disco breaks. What was about to follow was a more mature sound: a wave of synth-laden tunes with heavy electronic drums, based on dark minor chords and sometimes exploring an unheard of lyrical realism of street topics (like Planet Rock's equally important counterpart The Message).

Much of this new signature style was due to the influence of Trans Europe Express which juxtaposed its cool and mechanical soundscape with an ominously haunting, almost romantic harmonic structure. This was no coincidence – Kraftwerk always sought to combine futuristic elements with a consciousness of tradition and a nostalgia for the past:

The album cover ironically features the four members in a classical pose and even the lettering alludes to a vintage Art Deco style of design. (And that's nothing compared to the hilarious inner sleeve)

The dominant concept of Trans Europe Express – the whole album - is the train metaphor. Most of the songs are built around the notion of a train ride. The title track also has one of Kraftwerk's more interesting beats - a very funky, layered and playful pattern with lots of fast 16th notes. Legend has it that one night while working on Trans Europe Express in the studio, Kraftwerk went over to the Düsseldorf train station to actually listen to the trains. It's not impossible that a beat can be inspired by the sound of a machine – after all, if a sound is repeated in a mechanical fashion, it will necessarily become rhythm. So let's see if there's any truth to the story. As you probably know, most train cars look like this:

I'm mostly interested in the wheels cause they are responsible for the train sound:

There are 2 wheels at each end of a train car. When multiple train cars are coupled this will result in a pattern of 2+2 followed by an empty space:

Any time the train crosses a rail joint, this pattern will produce a characteristic rhythm:

There are different possible ways to translate this into a percussion pattern. Let's treat the first train wheel of the 2+2 pattern as an upbeat, so the second wheel will become the first beat of the bar - sounding like this:

If we straighten this out just a tiny bit by adding a hit where the snare drum would usually be played, the resulting pattern will sound like this:

And voila, there's the famous percussion pattern of Trans Europe Express - a relentless motion against the backdrop of the kickdrum's sluggish thump.

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