Remembering Florian Schneider, mastermind of Kraftwerk

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Florian Schneider, co-founder of Kraftwerk, has died at 73 of cancer, according to NPR . I loved this band ever since I first heard the 1981 album Computer World . Most people didn’t even have computers then… the machines were only on the horizon. I loved the sound and the groove and unlike the more classical electronic music of Morton Subotnick, Wendy Carlos or Terry Riley, Kraftwerk was both fun and futuristic.

Schneider was the son of a modernist architect, Paul Schneider-Esleben, who designed following the principles of the German New Objectivity movement of the 1920’s, a parallel movement of the Bauhaus school of Walter Gropius. The DNA travelled from father to son in Kraftwerk. Initially a classically-trained flute player studying at the Robert Schumann Conservatory, Schneider left classical music to form Kraftwerk, described as a “multi-media project” rather than a band. Kraftwerk means “power station” in German. The sound of Kraftwerk was industrial, robotic, and multimedia, using electronics and visuals. Their stage presence was also new: dressed in form-fitting jumpsuits, using small pedestal-mounted platforms for their computer keyboards. Just four calm guys standing still, creating a big, magical sound, no thrashing or trashing guitars.

Schneider and Kraftwerk co-founder Ralf Hütter’s musical conception was influenced by the European political uprisings in May 1968 and the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. Schneider and Hütter staged various musical and audiovisual “happenings” in their Dusseldorf studio releasing an album titled Tone Float before forming Kraftwerk.

Their first big hit was 1974’s Autobahn , designed to sound like what you would hear while driving on the German highways (hopefully in a Porsche 992 Carrera or Audi R8). It was not only that the tune broke into the U.S. Top 40;  the most important thing about it was the influence the song had on the sound of many bands that followed: Bowie, Afrika Bambaataa, New Order, Madonna, Coldplay, and Jay-Z among others. Kraftwerk gave up conventional instruments, inventing their own drum machines and using computers to create new keyboard sounds, and all that followed in the pop music toolbox: electronica, techno, midi, autotuned. Their stage presence was also new.

Kraftwerk  concert in Zürich, 1976.

The amazing thing about Kraftwerk is how contemporary the group sounds forty years after their early records. They sold out a four-night, eight show gig at the 2300-seat Walt Disney Concert hall in 2014, testimony to the staying power of the band. Later, they sold out a 2016 KCRW World Festival show at the Hollywood Bowl, all in 3d….on a Sunday night! I kept my 3-d glasses from that memorable night. Kraftwerk has only released one studio record, 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks, since 1986, but their fans hadn’t forgotten them, as the sold-out shows proved. 

My favorite song, and the Kraftwerk song I played the most, was “Pocket Calculator” from 1981.  I also liked to play “Tour de France“ in July when the big French cycling race was going  on.

Kraftwerk was/is an amazingly prescient band that influenced much of the music we hear today,  and we have both Hütter and the late Florian Schneider to thank for this.  

Here’s an early performance video: