Sounding Board

With Kraftwerk, Florian Schneider Wrote The Future

Chuck Berry, James Brown, Kool Herc, Kraftwerk: It’s not often you can so easily pinpoint the heralded originator of such a major component of popular music. And yet the funny thing about Florian Schneider, who passed away shortly after his 73rd birthday last month, is that he made sure that this component went from sounding like a refutation of rock and soul tradition to becoming a way of completing it. Despite his perceived outsiderdom to the traditional America-centric, Britain-augmented narrative of rock ‘n’ roll — Schneider’s German roots and computer-world instrumentation struck traditional rock adherents as hopelessly foreign in the 1970s — he gave popular music yet another voice, as expansive and easy to build upon as any other early form of pop yet still distinguished and singular in its original state. And the music he helped make was well ahead of and perfectly suited to a future that was both intuitively digital and small-globe international.

If all Florian Schneider had been was the flautist for an early ’70s Krautrock band with a revolving-door lineup, he’d still be worth eulogizing as a remarkable musical mind, just on a more cult-status level. Twenty-one years after he was born in French-occupied southern postwar Germany, in the student-revolution year of 1968, he met fellow Remscheid Academy of Arts student Ralf Hütter. And after a couple years kicking around in assorted musical projects, including the one-and-done improv-rock ensemble Organisation, Schneider and Hütter took what they’d shown hints of in that band’s sole 1970 LP Tone Float and consolidated it into something deliberately weirder. Calling Schneider a “flautist” actually understates things a bit: From the earliest performances of this early-phase version of Kraftwerk, you can tell that it’s an instrument he rarely played untreated and undistorted, closer to the Echoplex sumbersions of Eddie Harris than the tootling of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson.

It’s a bit counterintuitive to connect the roots of a band so supposedly mechanical to their ability to be such a deeply improvisational ensemble. They weren’t exactly freeform, but they had a hell of a good time playing with the possibilities of noise, and where that noise could ricochet off the rhythmic and melodic fascinations that would always drive them. And while they weren’t 100% simpatico with the shaggy-haired, post-psychedelic boogie-rock behemoths of the early ’70s, they put out some fantastic fake-it-till-you-make-it efforts that would eventually inspire their peers to mutate into a new idea of Heavy. In a brief stretch where Hütter temporarily took his leave of Kraftwerk, Schneider brought musicians Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger into the fold. You can hear it being worked out on their oft-bootlegged, now-legendary June ’71 session for Radio Bremen: It starts off with a track called “Heavy Metal Kids” — an appellation seemingly coined by the bootlegger — that sounds like Black Sabbath as interpreted by an unusually large and angry bear. Kraftwerk wouldn’t sound much like that ever again, but it sure gave Rother and Dinger some ideas for their band NEU! a little later.

When Kraftwerk put out Ralf & Florian in 1973, “electronic music” was still somewhere between total novelty, experimental sound-lab, and pop-song garnish. Art-rock groups had nudged the door open a crack: Pink Floyd dropped frantic synthesizer instrumental “On The Run” into the midst of The Dark Side Of The Moon’s A-side, using the early sequencer capabilities of the same EMS Synthi AKS that Brian Eno wowed his Roxy Music bandmates with. In R&B, Stevie Wonder’s artistic bona fides as a singer, songwriter, and producer helped Innervisions legitimize the then-esoteric sound of the ARP synthesizer, while the Ohio Players let Junie Morrison run wild with it on “Funky Worm” and hit #1 on Billboard’s Best Selling Soul Singles. And Kraftwerk’s peers in experimental German music, particularly the John Peel-championed Tangerine Dream and their ambient space-music breakthrough-cusp Atem, were more than comfortable with using every piece of synthesized equipment they could access.

But Kraftwerk had their own designs. Schneider and Hütter worked to draw out something that found the bizarre in the familiar and vice versa, half transcending the old pop forms, half playing with them. The idea of Kraftwerk being what happens when you erase the pop/academia divisions between the Beach Boys and Karlheinz Stockhausen speaks to how they could be experimental and influential at the same time: No matter how convoluted and futuristic and alien the equipment is, a beat’s a beat and a melody’s a melody. And when combined with the idea that mechanical and electronic frameworks can be as freeing as they are constraining — as well as the cultural background of a destroyed old German order that needed to be rebuilt as a new sort of progressive, futuristic, cross-cultural anti-Reich — it was inevitable that they’d find a new way of expression outside of the shadows of the previous generation’s war.

Autobahn itself was a breakthrough with enough layers of contradiction and confusion to keep it endlessly fascinating. Purportedly mechanical yet free-flowing and intricate, its title track was a 23-minute voyage that got cut down to 3 1/2 minutes for a pop radio the song seemed completely at odds with. Not that VW Beetles were intended to be dune buggies or drag racers either, but that’s the thing about German engineering: Sometimes it works so well you can customize it in ways it was never especially intended to go without worrying about the whole thing falling apart. “Autobahn” was a Top 40 hit everywhere, including in countries that heard “Fahr’n fahr’n farh’n” (“Drivin’ drivin’ drivin'”) as “fun fun fun.”

By 1975 and the run-up to their first fully-electronic LP Radio-Activity, Kraftwerk’s status as a “band” — or even as humans with actual real emotions — was given baffled interrogation by a press that wasn’t sure how to treat electronic musicians like rock stars. Lester Bangs gave it a wise-ass shot for Creem, but his skepticism and snark were perfectly countered by Schneider, who stated that their supposedly “emotionless” music worked on different levels of emotion — “It’s not body emotion, it’s mental emotion.” Meanwhile, a Rolling Stone profile that played up their ineffably mechanical remove also revealed a certain joy beneath Schneider’s clinical-technician facade. His excitement at describing the oil refinery that surrounded their Kling Klang recording studio in Düsseldorf — “There’s smoke and fire around it and when you emerge from the studio you hear this hissing sound all around you” — reveals a fascination with the dramatic effect of the mechanical-industrial process, the tactile effort of factory work equated with the creative process of making art. It was Warhol’s art-as-mass-production philosophy twisted inside out.

From there through the early ’80s, Kraftwerk were not only releasing the greatest records of their careers, they were inadvertently priming the music world for the future. Radio-Activity proved that they could be indelibly melodic, even pretty, while making songs that had laid bare the repetitive and mechanical nature of their riffs, rhythms, and hooks — and then dosed those moments with extended meditations on quietude. 1977’s Trans-Europe Express was their minimalist melodic groove album writ large, the rhythms of railway travel and recursive reflections tweaked to make sure they felt more in tune with the human body’s motions during dancing — and, in the travelogue of its internationalist title, they saw themselves as greater world citizens in the process. (The shout-outs to Iggy Pop and David Bowie on the title cut were repaid later that year with “Heroes” instrumental “V-2 Schneider.”) The following year’s masterpiece The Man-Machine was proto-cyberpunk at its most good-natured, a Fritz Lang pastiche that envisioned a mechanized society where everything worked so efficiently that it freed up all the time in the world to bask in the details. And 1981’s Computer World was a coup of deadpan humor and beat-driven warmth that could turn on a dime from automated-state unease to the fascinated data-point study of a mathematician.

By the release of their last great single, 1983’s derailleur-flicking living-machine-as-sport classic “Tour de France,” their music seemed infused with the kind of giddy brightness that came with the realization that they’d been on the right track all along with this whole “synthpop” thing. Giorgio Moroder, DEVO, Suicide, Human League, Afrika Bambaataa, New Order, the Belleville Three, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis — they might have went through similar career developments without Kraftwerk, but the fact that they all fit so effectively next to them in the electronic music pantheon is at the very least a hallmark of how integral they are to so much of its first wave — and beyond. Even “Dirty Mind” could be called Prince’s Kraftwerk move as much as it was his new wave anthem (“In your daddy’s car/ It’s you I really want to fahren“). The only real what-if involves Kraftwerk’s career after that, with the half-decade recording process of 1986’s Electric Café and its shaky transition from analog synths to fully digital sounds rendering the innovators into water-treaders. They’d had more than their share of heirs to pick up the slack in the meantime, and with only scattered singles and one album of new material (2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks) to follow, it’s safe to assume they felt like their legacy was in good hands.

Like the band as a collective, Schneider himself was never particularly outgoing, an enigmatic figure who operated under the understandable assumption that the music he and his partners made was self-explanatory. He wasn’t a robot, but a man who found a very direct connection from the electronic to the physical to the emotional. And he helped to mainstream the idea of using science and technology not to build consumer goods or control institutions, but to create sounds that hadn’t existed before and make them sound not just fantastical and space-age, but ordinary and welcoming. He came into a new digital-industrial world and experienced it through the creation of music that addressed it like old folk work songs, the perspective of an ever-present future that, to everyone who hears it today, feels like it was always here.