How Florian Schneider And Kraftwerk Created Pop's Future
It has become a cliché to compare Kraftwerk to the Beatles — but if anything, the group's impact has been wider and more enduring. During its two decades of prime creativity, Kraftwerk intersected with and influenced a staggering array of genres and phases: progressive rock, glam, krautrock, disco, post-punk, synthpop, industrial, hip-hop, techno, trance. Artists in their debt are likewise bizarrely diverse, ranging from Human League to Spacemen 3, New Order to Stereolab, Prince to Daft Punk, Afrika Bambaataa to Big Black.
Florian Schneider, who has now died at the age of 73, was a co-founder of Kraftwerk. For over 30 years he produced the group's albums with fellow founder Ralf Hütter, contributed to the writing of songs and lyrics, played a number of instruments, conceived concepts and devised techniques. But in a funny way, one of Schneider's most significant contributions was his person. Schneider's aquiline features and smart attire manifested Kraftwerk's utter Europeanness. His aura of formality was the seed out of which grew the group's collective image of uniformity and discipline. Establishing distance between themselves and America, Kraftwerk opened up a future for pop that left rock and roll far behind.
Kraftwerk operated within pop, yet remained somehow apart and above. When, in 1975, Lester Bangs jocularly enquired what kind of groupies Kraftwerk got, Schneider sternly snapped: "None. There is no such thing." He and Hütter's idea of rock star excess was buying lots of bicycles and taking up long distance cycling (sometimes racing between cities on tours). Their addiction to this virtuous vice inspired the sinewy 1983 single "Tour De France."
Drive and discipline is probably something Schneider absorbed from his upbringing. His father, Paul Schneider-Esleben, was a respected architect whose functional buildings and airport redesigns took their bearings from the "New Objectivity" school of the 1920s. The parallel with Kraftwerk's balance of severity and grandeur is striking. It's almost as if Schneider imbibed minimalism from the ambient attitudes that surrounded him as a child.
It took Kraftwerk a while to arrive at the stark, stripped-down sound and uniform group image of the classic late-'70s albums, Trans-Europe Express and The Man-Machine. They started, in the final years of the 1960s, as post-psychedelic progressives — long hair and all. In 1968, Hütter and Schneider met at the Academy of Arts in Remscheid, near Düsseldorf, where they studied piano and flute, respectively. Sharing an interest in improvisation and avant-garde electronics, as well as a fondness for The Velvet Underground, the Doors and the multimedia provocations of Fluxus, they joined with three other musicians and recorded the album Tone Float under the name Organisation. While the name foreshadowed the technocratic image to come, the music itself was freeform, in typically late-'60s style. Hütter and Schneider developed a strong relationship with Tone Float producer Conny Plank, which continued when they broke away to form Kraftwerk. (They also worked for a while with guitarist Michael Rother and drummer Klaus Dinger, who would go on to become Neu!)
At a time when nearly all European bands had English names and sang English lyrics, the choice of Kraftwerk as a name was a statement. For many years, Hütter and Schneider used German song titles; they would also play with stereotypes of a German genius for order and efficiency, starting with the name "Kraftwerk" itself, which means power plant. Schneider talked in interviews about how the clipped precision of Kraftwerk's music had a relationship with the national character and "the feeling of our language... Our method of speaking is interrupted, hard-edged... a lot of consonants and noises."
In the early days, though, Kraftwerk's music neither referenced nor evoked the robotic. Its rhapsodic lyricism owed more to Schubert and Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony" than to the Bauhaus or Fritz Lang. Schneider's flute was prominent in the instrumental palette. (He also contributed keyboards, violin, slide guitar, percussion, effects, xylophone.) Listening to the group's first three albums — Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2, Ralf und Florian — and knowing how its sound would evolve, it's possible to hear the flute as a kind of proto-synthesiser. The Elysian serenity of the billowing and entwining patterns on "Tongebirge" and "Heimatklänge" look ahead to Eno's ambient and '90s artists like Seefeel and Aphex Twin. "Ruckzuck," conversely, combines overblown rasping texture and percussive-propulsive riffs to sound almost like a sequencer.
A small contingent of contrarian aficionados regard those three albums as the best stuff Kraftwerk ever did. Certainly the fascinating and beguiling mixture of musique concrète soundscapes, Steve Reich-like systems music and idyllic ambience is ripe for rediscovery. Bootleg versions circulated on CD in the '90s but an official reissue never happened. Schneider himself dismissed their interest value as "archaeology."
Kraftwerk might feel, justifiably, that its story really begins with Autobahn. That is the point at which they went from a krautrock curio to a world-historical force, when the single edit of the 24-minute title track became an international hit in 1975. Even then, though, twinkling guitar and wafting flute feature alongside synth pulses and drum machine. "Autobahn" offers a pastoral vision of the motorway, entranced as much by the verdant landscape rolling by as the tarmac and traffic. The metronomic putter of the rhythm is steady and serene, a controlled cruise that couldn't be further from Steppenwolf's highway anthem "Born To Be Wild." Where most rock imagines the motorized vehicle as an extension of phallic power, Kraftwerk were interested in the Zen aspects of driving, a symbiotic merger of man and machine. In 1975, Schneider told Melody Maker the trance state created by "Autobahn" was nothing to do with a druggy speed-rush but "very clear-minded. It is like when you are driving a car, you can drive automatically without being consciously aware of what you are doing."
A hit single in Britain, the U.S. and eight other countries, "Autobahn" also won Kraftwerk a famous fan. David Bowie became a vocal supporter, turning on his own audience by playing the album before concerts on his Station to Station tour and gushing to magazines like Playboy about how "my favorite group is a German band called Kraftwerk – it plays noise music to 'increase productivity.' " Bowie would credit Autobahn with redirecting his cultural focus away from America and R&B towards Europe and electronic music, ultimately causing him to move to Berlin, where he would make the most adventurous music of his life and produce two career-changing albums for Iggy Pop, The Idiot and Lust for Life.
Bowie admired the way that Kraftwerk avoided "stereotypical American chord sequences." He also loved the un-rock image – something that started with Schneider and then spread to the entire group. In its early days, Kraftwerk had resembled other krautrock groups in their scruffy appearance and emphasis on musicianship over showmanship. That began to change with the cover of Ralf und Florian. Hütter still sports shoulder-length hair, an open-neck check shirt and chemistry-teacher glasses, but Schneider is dapper in an understated and out-of-time style: neatly groomed short hair, tie and suit. This presaged the look that would become Kraftwerk's trademark image: four men with slicked-back short hair and identical, spotless shirt-and-tie uniforms.
Schneider also profoundly influenced Kraftwerk's direction by befriending an artist named Emil Schult, who became the group's image-consultant. The styling and packaging of Kraftwerk on stage and on record vaulted forward in coherence and impact, transforming them into fellow travelers of British glam artists like Bowie and Roxy Music, inhabiting a parallel universe of retro-futurist chic. In the artwork for 1977's Trans-Europe Express, photography and a portrait painting by Schult make Kraftwerk look like a troupe of singing stars from between-the-wars, while the black-and-white video for the title track features the group in hats and leather gloves, gentlemen traveling in style in the private compartment of a 1930s train. The Man-Machine, from 1978,casts further back in time , its red-and-black color scheme and slant-wise typography paying homage to the graphic innovations of Soviet modernists like El Lissitzky and Malevich.The design of these peak-Kraftwerk albums matched the themes of the songs, which evoked Fritz Lang ("Metropolis"), the naïve excitement of electricity ("Neon Lights") and a bygone "elegance and decadence" ("Europe Endless").
But even as the imagery and allusions harked back to the lost futurism of early 20th Century movements like Suprematism and Bauhaus, the music itself pushed forward into the future. Kraftwerk were inventing the '80s, building the foundations of synth-pop and sequencer-propelled club music. Acoustic instruments, including Schneider's flute, were fully jettisoned, the sound pared down to the sparse purity that we associate with "classic" Kraftwerk. Crucially, it was music stripped of individualized inflection and personality, no hint of a solo or even a flourish. "We go beyond all this individual feel," Schneider told Sounds."We are more like vehicles, a part of our mensch machine, our man-machine. Sometimes we play the music, sometimes the music plays us, sometimes... it plays."
By 1981's Computer World, the subject matter (the microchip revolution) caught up with the state-of-art sound. Kraftwerk captured both the unease of the computer's potential for surveillance and disconnection (the eerie shivers of "Home Computer") and the tender human longings mediated through still-new systems of telecommunication (the heart-flutter tremblings of "Computer Love"). Despite the odd dated reference ("Pocket Calculator," which came about when Schneider brought a musical calculator to the studio), the album's concerns still resonate in a present in which we're even more symbiotically merged and dependent on technology.
By the early '80s, Kraftwerk had created such a force field of influence that the pop world suddenly swarmed with groups modeled on the Germans' sound and image. The Human League originally found its path after the twin 1977 revelation of hearing "Trans-Europe Express" and the Munich electronic disco of Donna Summer's Giorgio Moroder-produced "I Feel Love," and by 1981 had finally become huge international pop stars in their own right. Gary Numan stole the android image and, with "Cars," came up with a more neurotic take on "Autobahn." Formed out of the orphaned remainder of Joy Division, New Order loyally followed through on late singer Ian Curtis' love for Kraftwerk, forging electronic dance-pop veined with doubt and gloom. Although increasingly overshadowed by its own offspring, Kraftwerk managed to score a mega-hit with the jaunty "The Model," but – being a four-year old Man-Machine tune – it didn't direct attention to the group's current masterpiece, Computer World.
Meanwhile, this most Teutonic of outfits was having an implausible level of impact on black American music. Hatched out of the Bronx, Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" has been described as "the Rosetta Stone of electro" by disco historian Peter Shapiro. If so, one of the inscribed languages is German, since the track is in large part a collage of Kraftwerk, layering the stirring chords of "Trans-Europe Express" over the synth-bass groove of "Numbers." Over in Detroit, Juan Atkins of Cybotron and Model 500 pioneered techno with tracks like "Cosmic Cars" and "Night Drive (Thru-Babylon)." Atkins' ally, Derrick May, described Detroit techno's wintry electro-funk as "George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator with only a sequencer to keep them company," while their young associate Carl Craig pinned down the paradox of the German's appeal with his famous tautology: "Kraftwerk were so stiff, they were funky." Most surprising of all was Kraftwerk's influence in the South, where Miami Bass, New Orleans bounce and other local styles took the clean, cold electronic sound in an incongruously lascivious direction. How strange to think of Florian Schneider - fan of Bach and Schubert, a man who looked a bit like Prince Philip – being a catalyst for generations of booty shakes.
Faced with all this competition they'd spawned, Kraftwerk struggled to locate the new edge that would keep them ahead of the pack. Where "Tour De France" was a last blast, 1986 Electric Café was already surpassed by young contenders like Mantronix. Then came the rave revolution. When Kraftwerk issued the 1991 "remixed greatest hits" package The Mix, the contents brilliantly remodeled the old tunes for the contemporary dance floor. But the surrounding tour set the pattern for the rest of the its career, in which Kraftwerk would release no new music (apart from an album-length elaboration upon "Tour De France" in 2003) but sporadically tour with increasingly visually spectacular presentations of past material.
I saw Kraftwerk play in 2014 during one of these mobile "museum of the future" jaunts. By this point, Florian Schneider had long left the group (he stopped performing live in 2006 and quit formally a few years later – the culmination of a long process of fading creative involvement). The show, at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, was stunning — it required the wearing of 3D spectacles — and the sense of love in the audience was palpable. But neither this concert, nor the two previous times I've seen the group, in 1998 and 1991, are my most vivid memory of hearing Kraftwerk.
That is when I was travelling in a car on the actual Autobahn, somewhere between the Black Forest and Cologne, about a dozen years ago. Like many men, crying doesn't come easy: personal tragedy or torment is less likely to produce a torrent than particular pieces of music, certain films. As the pastures rolled by the passenger window, the lush scenery punctuated by gently gyrating electrical windmills, the motorik CD of Neu!, La Dusseldorf and Kraftwerk I'd prepared for this moment reached one of the latter's peak tunes. It might have been "Trans-Europe Express," or "Neon Lights," or "Autobahn" itself — I had to turn my face away and look fixedly out of the window to hide my tears. I'm not sure why the music, so free of anguish and turmoil, has this paradoxical effect. Partly it's a response to the grandeur of its ambition, the achieved scope of the Kraftwerk project. But it's also to do with what Lester Bangs called the "intricate balm" supplied by the music itself: calming, cleansing, gliding along placidly yet propulsively, it's a twinkling and kindly picture of heaven.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.