Florian Schneider passes away at 73: Tracing Kraftwerk's enduring influence on music's greatest shapeshifters

On Wednesday, Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider died of cancer at the age of 73. In memory of this music icon, we look back at his work and pay tribute to the incredible legacy he left behind.

Prahlad Srihari May 09, 2020 09:58:44 IST
Florian Schneider passes away at 73: Tracing Kraftwerk's enduring influence on music's greatest shapeshifters

On Wednesday, Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider died of cancer at the age of 73. In memory of this music icon, we look back at his work and pay tribute to the incredible legacy he left behind.

You hear them in those pulsing synth grooves of Blondie's "Heart of Glass", in the textures of most Björk albums, from Post to Vulnicura. The echoes of their pioneering experiments can even be heard in Depeche Mode, New Order, Daft Punk, Massive Attack, and virtually every modern electronic music act. Kraftwerk helped build the circuitry for what is electronic music today, in all its forms (from industrial to house to synth-pop).

Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter formed Kraftwerk in Cold War-era Düsseldorf in 1970. Between the two, they played the guitar, violin, organ, percussion, sax, synths and a lot more with each record. In Hütter's words, Florian was a "sound fetishist" to his "word fetishist". Following three mostly forgettable albums (Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2, Ralf und Florian), the two decided to divert the band away from the "krautrock" soundscape (popularised by Can, Faust and Neu! at the time) to a more postmodern direction driven largely by electronics, what they called "robot-pop".

Florian Schneider passes away at 73 Tracing Kraftwerks enduring influence on musics greatest shapeshifters

In this July 2005 file photo, Kraftwerk perform during the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, with Florian Schneider at right. AP Photo

By hooking up a lot of his instruments electronically, and even developing his own electronic flute, a vocoder device (called Robovox) and various other homemade synthesisers, Schneider ensured Kraftwerk's forthcoming albums had an unprecedented musical plurality. A lot of these instruments became staples that defined the sound of Kraftwerk we've come to recognise today.

Their music became a metaphor for human adaptation to the technological age, an expression of new ideas born from the minglings of man and machine.

Like a musical transcription of a JG Ballard novel, it seemed to cross the boundaries between artforms — as if the language of literature and music dissolved into one in an intersection of form and content. The words became notes, the themes its motifs, but the concerns were similar. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 1974 album, Autobahn. In the midst of a new period of industrialisation in West Germany, the record illustrated the increasing sense of not only depersonalisation but also dehumanisation in a modern world.

The titular near-23-minute A-side track was a breakthrough hit, marking a radical new beginning for the band. Close your eyes and you can feel the pure physical sensations of a car being driven on the highway; it's as if the band is transcribing the vibrations and mechanics of a car, rather than a musical instrument. Listen closer, you also hear the birth of a musical revolution, a sample of what most of our music sounds like today.

(Some trivia: The Coen brothers made a winking allusion to the band and the album in The Big Lebowski. The Dude, Walter, and Donny run into a trio of German "nihilists", one of whom is part of a fictitious band called Autobahn. The cover art of their sole record also resembles that of Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine. In a more straightforward credit, Rainer Werner Fassbinder used "Radioactivity" — from Autobahn's 1975 follow-up Radio-Activity — in his 14-part epic Berlin Alexanderplatz.)

Florian Schneider passes away at 73 Tracing Kraftwerks enduring influence on musics greatest shapeshifters

Florian Schneider. Reuters Photo

Changing their mode of transport but not the journey, Schneider and Hütter were at the peak of their hypnotic powers in Trans-Europe Express (1977). Minimalist in design, retro-futurist in flavour, "Europe Endless" and "Trans-Europe Express" boast some of the most irresistibly catchy synth riffs ever to be woven together. With tracks like "The Robots", "Spacelab", and "The Model", The Man-Machine (1978) even surpassed the master stroke of the previous albums, as the boundaries between the organic and inorganic become foggier. LCD Soundsystem fans should recognise the riffs in "The Robots", repurposed by James Murphy in "Get Innocuous!".

Computer World (1981), arguably their last great album, foreshadows a world where music is written, recorded, produced, performed and consumed on screens.

The titular track's lyrics about "Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard" being privy to our data is as prescient as it gets. Kraftwerk built on these technological anxieties in tracks like "Pocket Calculator" and "Computer Love" (the opening keyboard riff of which is the principal motif of Coldplay's "Talk"). It’s true: Conceptual albums with broad musical palettes and abstract lyrics (about surveillance, mass consumerism and other Thom Yorke-esque concerns) existed long before there was Radiohead. Of course, there was also a playful aspect to Kraftwerk considering the self-irony of them mostly using electronic instruments to create music.

Kraftwerk thus had an enduring influence on music's greatest shapeshifters, those who refused to be confined to labels but boldly experimented with radical styles. This was reflected not only in their musical styles, but also in the immersive videos and visuals they created in their performances. It is no wonder David Bowie invited them to open his world tour in 1976; Radiohead did the same in 2009. Bowie even settled in Berlin to record a trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger) in response to Kraftwerk and the larger "krautrock" scene in Germany, paying tribute to Schneider with an off kilter saxophone-synth track in Heroes ("V-2 Schneider"). Like The Cure founder Lol Tolhurst tweeted about Schneider on Wednesday, "Every modern musician owes something to this man’s vision.”

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