Friday Factory Tune: Trans-Europe Express

With trade ministers pre-negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership in San Francisco and the European Union trying to settle the economies of the 27 member nations, we’ve got Trans and Europe, so the soundtrack of the week just has to be Kraftwerk performing “Trans Europe Express.”

Sound Opinions,” the public radio rock ‘n roll talk show from Chicago, recently did a segment on the vocoder, used to great effect by Kraftwerk.

Jim and Greg are joined by Dave Tompkins, author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop. The vocoder is an electronic instrument that produces a distorted, robotic sound. You probably recognize it making an appearance in songs like “Trans Europe Express,” or even “I’m Not Moving,” but you probably don’t know about its secret military history. It was developed as a tool to encode speech during wartime and was used by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt—a far cry from Afrika Bambaattaa. As Tompkins explains, there’s something the human ear finds undeniably fascinating and pleasurable about machine-like voices. And, ultimately, the technology all stems from a desire to make cheaper phone calls.

Kraftwerk, which means power plant in German, is marking its 40th anniversary this year.

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