For over 40 years, Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider, who died today (May 6) following a short battle with cancer, worked quietly and dutifully at the frontline of sonic advancement. He rarely sought acclaim or recognition and often hid behind mechanical avatars, considering himself a “worker” rather than any form of star.
Yet his labours changed the world. Kraftwerk were pivotal central figures in Germany’s late ‘60s and ‘70s krautrock scene (despite often disowning the tag), but Schneider’s wider influence rivals the legends of rock’n’roll, Merseybeat and punk rock. Electronica, dance music, electro hip-hop and most contemporary pop all find their wellsprings in the kosmiche electronic experiments conducted by Schneider and his Kraftwerk partner Ralf Hütter at their stations in their secretive Kling Klang studio in Düsseldorf in the 1970s.
Via early champions and disciples such as David Bowie (whose Thin White Duke era and Berlin trilogy grew from a love of Kraftwerk’s early albums), New Order, the Numanoid ‘80s pop-bots and Afrika Bambaataa, Kraftwerk became the Beatles of dance music, an influence so intrinsic to modern culture that, beyond the most rustic acoustic singer-songwriter, it’s difficult to imagine an artist in 2020 who doesn’t owe Schneider a debt.
Born on April 7 1947 to well-known German architect Paul Schneider-Esleben, Schneider was a natural explorer. While still at school in 1967, he immersed himself in Düsseldorf’s avant-garde scene, making improvisational, jazz-inflected noise music with groups such as PISSOFF, often playing electronically treated flute or violin. He soon met his musical soulmate in Hütter while both were students at the Robert Schumann Hochschule. The pair collaborated in a late-‘60s band named Organisation and then with a revolving cast of musicians, which eventually became known as Kraftwerk around 1970.
Key krautrock figures such as Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother of Neu! floated through early Kraftwerk line-ups, but when it came time to record experimental rock albums ‘Kraftwerk’ (1970), ‘Kraftwerk 2’ (1972) and ‘Ralf Und Florian’ (1972), they worked almost exclusively as a duo in the studio, alongside legendary German sound engineer Conny Plank. Constructing their own HQ, Kling Klang, beside Düsseldorf’s central station, the pair became inseparable.
“Florian and Ralf worked in the studio in Düsseldorf for twelve or fourteen hours every day,” early Kraftwerk member Eberhard Kranemann recently told Uncut. “They did not want to see anyone else, it was like they were married.”
So much of modern music emerged from Kling Klang. Considering themselves “workers” and keeping strict hours, Hütter and Schneider conceived and constructed many of the instruments and sound systems that they worked with, as well as buying in then-cutting-edge synthesisers, drum machines and vocoders. They created a kind of sonic laboratory behind Kling Klang’s innocuous street shutters.
The arrival of the Minimoog and EMS Synthi AKS gave the band a more disciplined structure, and the resultant fourth album, 1974’s ‘Autobahn’, exposed them to a wider global audience. An edit of the legendary title track – a sonic recreation of a journey on Germany’s first motorway right down to the sound of wheel on rumble strip – was a worldwide hit and the album hit the US and UK Top Fives.
Completing their classic line-up with electronic percussionists Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos and ditching all remaining traces of organic instrumentation, Kraftwerk’s seminal run of themed albums – 1975’s ‘Radio-Activity’ (which focused on radio communication), 1977’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (travel and reality), 1978’s ‘The Man-Machine’ (the human-technology hybrid) and 1981’s ‘Computer World (the rise of computers) – were amongst the most influential in music history. Yet they gave the band only one major hit between them: UK Number One ‘The Model’, a wry satire on the world of fashion.
With ‘The Man-Machine’, the band had taken to limiting interviews and hiding behind authoritarian showroom dummy effigies of themselves. This was a statement on their wish to unite with their machines in the ultimate, automated humanoid collaboration: “We love our machines,” Schneider said in 1978, “we have an erotic relationship with them.”
Yet their music was swiftly becoming inescapable. Thanks to the patronage of the likes of Bowie and Iggy Pop – name-checked on the ‘Trans-Europe Express’ single even though their mooted collaboration never transpired – the band’s motorik sounds infiltrated new wave and post-punk, infecting everyone from Joy Division and Wire to Duran Duran, Gary Numan, The Human League and Ultravox, and formed the bedrock of ‘80s synth-pop. Meanwhile, in Detroit, Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 reworking of Kraftwerk’s ‘Numbers’ into hip-hop hit ‘Planet Rock’ inspired a DJ and dance explosion of what would become known as electro.
In the wake of this relatively furiously paced decade, Kraftwerk would release albums very sporadically. After 1986’s ‘Electric Café’ was considered a disappointment, a 1991 album of modernist remixes of classic tracks, ‘The Mix’, revived interest in band activities, but then virtually nothing emerged from Kling Klang until 2003 when their last album to date, ‘Tour de France Soundtracks’, was released to coincide with that year’s Tour de France (Schneider and Hütter had become obsessive cyclists).
But work at Kling Klang had never petered out – even when Flür and Bartos left the band, over their lack of public activity, in 1987 and 1990 respectively. Schneider and Hütter kept rigidly to their working hours, even on tour, taking a portable version of the studio on the road with them.
“[Schneider] is a sound perfectionist,” Hütter told MOJO in 2005, “so, if the sound isn’t up to a certain standard, he doesn’t want to do it. With electronic music there’s no necessity ever to leave the studio. You could keep making records and sending them out… But now, with the Kling Klang studio on tour with us, we work in the afternoon, we do soundchecks, we compose, we put down new ideas and computer graphics. There’s always so much to do – and we do make progress.”
As mysteriously as he’d formed the band, Schneider left Kraftwerk in 2008. according to Hütter he was “working on other projects”, yet he released just one more song in his lifetime, 2015’s environmental electronic ode ‘Stop Plastic Pollution’. So much of this hidden life, of the man behind the machine, remains unwrit, but you’ve only to flick on the nearest radio to hear the omnipresent sounds of Schneider.