7 April 1947 – 30 April 2020
The co-founder of the electronic group Kraftwerk, whose influence reaches across the entire musical landscape, has died at the age of 73
As one of the chief architects of the electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, Florian Schneider, who has died of cancer aged 73, helped revolutionise popular music. Where guitars, bass and drums had long been considered its essential building blocks, Kraftwerk paved the way for synth-pop, techno, hip-hop and electronica, in the process proving that microchips and machines could have not only soul, but a sense of humour too. The list of artists whose work is indebted to Kraftwerk, even if they did not always know it, is endless, but includes David Bowie, Depeche Mode, Simple Minds, New Order, The Orb, Madonna, Neil Young, Jay-Z, Afrika Bambaataa, Coldplay and Daft Punk. In 1997 the New York Times described Kraftwerk as “the Beatles of electronic dance music”.
With Schneider and Ralf Hutter proving the main creative impetus, Kraftwerk (German for “power station”) reached their pivotal moment with the release of their fourth album, Autobahn (1974), whose 23-minute title track – a euphoric electronic ode to the joys of driving on Germany’s high-speed motorways, delivered with a light and whimsical touch – became emblematic of the group’s sound and approach. The album reached No 4 in Britain, while the single version of Autobahn reached the the UK Top 20 and the German Top 10. This revolution in synthetic music earned Kraftwerk a spot on BBC television’s science programme Tomorrow’s World in 1975. They subsequently scored two UK chart-topping singles, Computer Love and The Model (both 1981), but Kraftwerk’s influence was much further-reaching than mere chart positions would suggest.
The albums Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977) and The Man Machine (1978) saw the group steadily streamlining their sound as they embraced technological innovations and refined their vision. Trans-Europe Express drew inspiration from Bowie’s Station to Station, while Bowie’s track V2 Schneider, from Heroes, was a nod back to Kraftwerk. The Man Machine, a precisely etched depiction of a society defined by cybernetics, robotics and fashion, was like a curtain-raiser for the imminent arrival of synth pop (it reached No 9 on the UK album chart). Its sleeve image, by Günther Fröhling, inspired by the Russian “Suprematism” art movement and depicting the group dressed like mannequins in red shirts and black ties, crystallised the notion of Kraftwerk as a conceptual project, not a mere pop group.
“Kraftwerk is not a band,” said Schneider in 1975. “It’s a concept – ‘Die Mensch-Maschine’, the human machine. We are not the band. I am me; Ralf is Ralf. Kraftwerk is a vehicle for our ideas.”
On Computer World (1981) they took a shrewd look at the dawning computer age, utilising gadgets such as the Texas Instruments Language Translator to create some of the vocal parts and concocting a tongue-in-cheek ode to the electronic calculator in Pocket Calculator – “by pressing down a special key it plays a little melody”.
While Kraftwerk revelled in presenting a manufactured facade to the world, Schneider was particularly careful to cultivate an enigmatic persona. This was epitomised by a 1998 interview with a Brazilian TV reporter in which he studiously supplied one-word answers to her list of questions.
It was said that Schneider and Hutter had taken their cue from the British conceptual art duo Gilbert & George, having visited their exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf in 1970 and been enamoured with both their work and their carefully controlled image. They developed Kraftwerk into a precision-tooled mechanism for presenting their designs for a fresh musical language, looking into a new future and turning their backs on the wreckage of the post-second world war Germany in which they grew up, and in which such pop culture as there was comprised feeble imitations of Anglo-American originals.
Florian was born in Ohningen in the French occupation zone of the then West Germany. His parents were Paul and Eva Maria Schneider-Esleben, his father a modernist architect who designed Cologne Bonn airport as well as Germany’s first multi-storey car park.
Schneider and Hutter founded Kraftwerk in 1970, having met while studying at the Academy of Arts in Remscheid. Subsequently they both attended the Robert Schumann Hochschule in Dusseldorf, during a time of ferment in music and art. In 1967-68 Schneider was in a group called Pissoff, before joining Hutter in the quintet Organisation, which released the album Tone Float (1969). The group split, and Schneider and Hutter formed Kraftwerk with a fluctuating crew of musicians (including Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, who went on to form Neu!). Schneider’s main instrument was originally the flute, but he became increasingly interested in synthesizers and dabbled with using electronic effects to modify the sound of the flute and the violin.
“I found that the flute was too limiting,” Schneider confessed. “Soon I bought a microphone, then loudspeakers, then an echo, then a synthesiser. Much later I threw the flute away – it was a sort of process.”
Kraftwerk’s first albums, Kraftwerk (1970) and Kraftwerk 2 (1972), were instrumentals, using conventional instruments with some tape effects and overdubs. Ralf und Florian (1973) saw the duo deploying drum machines, synthesizers and vocoder. Schneider and Hutter, who had opened their own Kling Klang studio in Dusseldorf, collaborated with engineer Conny Plank, and it was in Plank’s studio in Cologne that the bulk of the recording for the game-changing Autobahn was done, the group at that time completed by Wolfgang Flür and Klaus Roder. Subsequently Schneider and Hutter tackled all their production work at Kling Klang.
After Computer World, Kraftwerk didn’t release another album until the less-than-stellar Electric Cafe (1986) . Then 17 years elapsed before the appearance of Tour de France Soundtracks, their final studio album. Schneider, who had never enjoyed playing live – the group had been known to leave the stage while the machinery played on without them – last performed with Kraftwerk in 2006, and supposedly left the band in November 2008. In 2015, he paired up with Dan Lacksman of Telex to release the track Stop Plastic Pollution, in aid of the environmental organisation Parley for the Oceans.