In Memoriam: Florian Schneider (1947-2020)
Florian Schneider is one of those musicians who is not a household name for most people, but who deserves to be. The great German electronic musical pioneer, who passed away yesterday after a brief battle with cancer, was a true titan. Schneider‘s pioneering work, often alongside Ralf Hütter in the band the duo founded together, Kraftwerk, created many of the conventions by which modern synthesizer-based music still conforms.
Kraftwerk were important not just in exploring the sounds of electronic music, but even in building some of the technology that would power said synthesizers in the group’s storied Kling Klang Studio in Düsseldorf. Kraftwerk forever changed what was possible in popular music. Forging a techno-futurist musical path, the group never neglected human emotions. This was true cyborg music: created with electronics but still warm and inviting, never forgetting the human heart. That human heart, and wry sense of humor that informed much of the band’s best work, more often than not, belonged to Florian Schneider.
Schneider was born in the then still-French occupied West German zone of Baden-Württemberg in 1947. His father was an architect and the family relocated to Düsseldorf when Schneider was three. Despite his association with the synthesizer, Schneider‘s first instrument was the flute. It was as a flute player that he met Ralf Hütter in 1968 where the pair attended the Academy of Arts in Remscheid together. The duo would go on to perform together with Schneider on the flute and Hütter on bass in the krautrock ensemble Organization before founding Kraftwerk together.
While the duo was interested in electronic sounds and keyboards, which they began to feature in their new group, the initial complexion of the band still took on a more psychedelic rock and free improvisation edge, though much of it grounded in the repetitive motorik beat. The duo’s initial offerings saw both embracing keyboards as well as flute, violin and organ – though these were often treated and run through effects pedals to create new sounds. The group initially also included notoriously combustible drummer Klaus Dinger and guitarist Michael Rother, the pair of whom would depart the band after one record to go co-found Neu!.
The group were also assisted by visionary producer and unofficial band member Konrad “Conny” Plank, who was on the cutting edge of early synthesizer technology and studio wizardry and helped introduce the band to many of the machines that would help to define their sound. The band was already starting to use drum machines and sequencers for their 1973 release, Ralf and Florian but Plank was instrumental in pushing the band towards fully embracing electronics beginning in 1974.
The resulting album, Autobahn, created using the then new Minimoog and the EMS Synthi AKS, was like nothing else available at the time. Bright and cheerful, but powered by dark synth waves and the precise minimalist kick that early drum machines could produce, the epic length title track embraced the joys of seamlessly driving along Germany’s great freeways. A soundtrack for a new hyper-modern post-war Germany, built using hyper-modern musical technology. The album proved to be both a domestic and international breakthrough and brought the band a great deal of notoriety.
The band celebrated their newfound success by upgrading their personal studio and investing in still further new equipment, thus reducing their reliance on producers and freeing them to record and experiment as they pleased. Their follow-up LP Radio-Activity released in 1976 saw the band adapting further advances in technology and creating increasingly intricate and complex sequencer programming feats.
The group also expanded their line-up in 1975 to include the talents of Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos both of whom played electronic drums. This expanded rhythmic pallet proved to be important for Kraftwerk to further expand their sound. This four-piece version of the band both allowed the group to perform their complex electronic compositions in a live setting and became the classic line-up of the group.
With the expanded line-up secured, the group entered into what many view as its golden era, recording their trilogy of forward-looking electronic pop masterpieces, beginning with Trans-Europe Express in 1977, continuing with The Man-Machine in 1978 and concluding with Computer World in 1981. These three albums fully embraced pop-songwriting and increasingly featured vocoder-altered vocals merged with electronics. This allowed the band to find a much larger audience, both in Europe and in America (helped along by the band re-recording vocals tracks in English for the UK and US versions of their albums).
The band’s lyrics, while often minimalist, would also bely a sharp and deeply sardonic sense of humor, much of which is attribute to Schneider. While deeply enigmatic and seldom agreeing to be interviewed, on the rare occasions that he would grant permission, Schneider would be guarded though warm and humorous. He seems to be someone for whom the outward pose that his band adapted almost perfectly matched his nature. For a band that broke as much new musical and technological ground as Kraftwerk did, they always managed to retain an underlying mischievous sense of playfulness, a sense embodied within Schneider himself.
Kraftwerk would also marry its quirky techno-futurist aesthetic to both its album jackets and its live performances. The band would wear identical uniforms, move in a hyper-dramatic robotic manner on stage and featured extensive multi-media productions and light shows that flickered behind them as they played. While frequently humorous, the band would deliver everything deadpan and with the gravity of the grave, further underlining their electronic otherness. The group also strongly emphasized an underlying sense of pan-Europeanism, with tracks like “Trans-Europe Express” in particular signifying increased unity across Europe and a new Germany increasingly seeing itself as an interconnected part of a wider pan-European community.
Change was in store for the band, however. Flür would leave the group in 1985 resulting in a slightly different sound for the band’s 1986 album, Electric Cafe. Change would further be compounded by the departure of Bartos in 1990. Kraftwerk would release a remix album, The Mix in 1991, but then went largely silent for over a decade, appearing only at a few one-off live sets in the late ’90s. While the core duo of Schneider and Hütter wanted to continue as a synth-pop group, they seemed to have a hard time finding a satisfactory replacement for Bartos in particular, causing them to cycle through a number of short-lived recruits.
During this time in the wilderness, Kraftwerk would quite unexpectedly re-emerge with a new line-up in 2003 for their Tour De France Soundtracks LP. With the group now avid cyclists, Schneider and Hütter decided that the best way forward was to create a soundtrack for the most storied of bicycle races. The band had discreetly updated their sound, merging more organic percussive techniques while still retaining the core Kraftwerk sound. The album (and its accompanying single) were both critical successes and the band embarked on a massive international tour.
Since then, the band have largely focused on touring and remastering their back-catalogue. Schneider increasingly grew frustrated with the demands of touring and withdrew from the group in 2008, leaving Hütter as the only original member of the band still performing.
While increasingly reclusive over the last decade Schneider‘s influence and importance have only grown. Kraftwerk have been a marked influence on every electronic group that came after them, from Yellow Magic Orchestra to New Order to Giorgio Moroder to the sample heavy work of Afrika Bambaataa, the emergence house music and the more purely electronic sounds of Aphex Twin and beyond. When David Bowie began to tip his toe into electronic music in the late ’70s during his so-called “Berlin period”, he ended up composing a tribute track explicitly name-checking Schneider.
Florian Schneider was a true musical visionary and his passing should be marked. He influenced, in one way or another, almost every modern pop song that came after him and it is impossible to imagine the musical landscape shorn of his influence. RIP.