Seventy-five years ago, this month, World War II ended in Europe. The surrender of Japan was not long behind. The greatest era of death and destruction the world has ever known was all but over. Roughly 75 million people were dead from genocide, combat, and collateral damage. Along with vast swaths of the world, Europe lay in waste, and would for the foreseeable future.
This was the world Florian Schneider-Esleben was born into, two years later. An entire generation of Germans, who’d had nothing to do with the horrors unleashed by their government, would grow up amongst the physical and psychological detritus that was the byproduct of a disgusting, fascist regime. What did their parents do during the war? Examining the odds, the answer likely wasn’t positive. Why didn’t anyone talk about the whereabouts of the school’s headmaster during the ‘30s and ‘40s? Is it true that the mayor had deep ties to the SS? Beyond inheriting this guilt, the new generation had to navigate what was essentially a culture void. Anything with even the slightest whiff of Germaness would feel nationalistic by association. While it’s hard to argue that Strauss and Wagner weren’t two of the greatest composers in history, they also unwittingly wrote the soundtrack to The Holocaust. The Marshall Plan was an undeniably generous gesture and effort to heal a gaping wound, but it also soaked Germany in American and British music, via Armed Forces Radio. For decades Germany would generate almost no new culture of its own.
Revolution was in the air in the ‘60s throughout the Western World. French, British, and even U.S. students began to question American dominance in different ways, but it was a unique conundrum amongst the teens of Deutschland: how can one be ‘German’ while fully detaching from the past? A long-in-the-works ‘Krautrock Primer’ will be hitting the pages of FMS soon, and will touch upon this on a deeper level. This piece is specifically about one of the key architects of this movement.
Building something from the ground up was in Florian Schneider’s blood. His dad was literally an architect. A comfortable upbringing provided music lessons, a good education, and an awareness of an artist that was such an iconoclast he was considered safe from any nationalistic associations: the avant-garde composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Along with other musicians of the nascent Kosmiche Musik movement, later dubbed ‘Krautrock’ by a lazy British press, Schneider and Ralf Hütter explored their own brand of prog rock. The two of them would work together for decades, almost exclusively, first as Organisation, then as Kraftwerk. The latter was a continuation of the space-folk-hippie explorations they started in the former, but there were hints of what was coming down the pike. In this music one could hear the sounds of Europe being rebuilt – echoes of the repetition associated with machinery, or trains. Their name literally translates to ‘power plant’.
Hütter left for a year, to concentrate on his studies, while Schneider would continue to work with future Neu! members Michael Rother, and Klaus Dinger, who would also go on to change the way we listen. This eight-month incubation period would alter pop music forever.
Hütter’s return, and the departure of Rother and Dinger acted as a hard reset. The new Kraftwerk cast aside all acoustic instruments, save the rare appearance of Schneider’s flute, in favor of synthesizers and electronic percussion, at a time when most musicians had no idea how any of those things worked. After a ‘test run’ reunion album, simply titled Ralf und Florian, Kraftwerk changed the world with the release of Autobahn, the first work that featured their trademark retrofuture style, while simultaneously seizing a key accomplishment of the Nazis, redefining it as a symbol of freedom, and a connection to the international world. Perhaps the biggest act of defiance, though, was they were short hairs wearing suits in a long hair decade.
At this point I’ll get a little personal. I will go to the wall, any day of the week, arguing the point that Kraftwerk are the second most influential band in pop music history. Before Autobahn, bands had guitar, bass, and drums. I mean they just did. And while there was, indeed, one band that was unquestionably more influential, they were formed in a tradition that went back decades, and owed a huge debt to the blues, doo wop, rockabilly and, later, traditional compositions. They had a solid launching point. Kraftwerk were the first group to take a pile of newly invented electronic instruments and not think ‘how can we substitute this for a violin or trumpet?’ or make flying saucer noises. They created pop music for the technology, made entirely by the technology, going so far as to consider themselves, along with the instruments, as Die Mensch Maschine, or ‘the man machine’.
Growing up outside of Chicago, I listened to the radio, just like any other kid. Sure, occasionally there would be an odd banger by Led Zeppelin, or Stevie Wonder, which I was too young to appreciate but, just like any other year, the bulk of the hits were forgettable pap. DJs still had a little influence on playlists, though. A renegade music nerd at WLS decided the world needed to hear Kraftwerk, dubbing them ‘The German Beach Boys’, owing to Autobahn’s “Fahren Fahren Fahren” chorus, which didn’t sound unlike “Fun Fun Fun.”
Hey, you have to give people a reference point if you want to move them out of their comfort zone. It was the radio edit, not the full 23-minute masterpiece. It was so simple even a child could sing along with it, and that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t know about Germany’s sordid past. I didn’t know that this music was quietly revolutionary, but my barely developed brain did know nothing else sounded like it, and it made me happy.
About a week later, at a department store, my mother said she would allow my sister and me to each pick out a 45. There I stood, my left hand holding one such forgettable hit, ‘The Night Chicago Died’ by Paper Lace, with its catchy “nah nah nah” outro, and my right fondling the “fun fun fun” song by the weirdly seductive Germans. Fate intervened, and my sister yoinked the Paper Lace single from my hand, thus securing me with highest order muso bragging rights that the first single I ever bought, in 1975, at six years old, was by… Kraftwerk.
I still own it. We won’t discuss any subsequent embarrassing acquisitions. Needless to say, it made an indelible mark. Anytime I saw a synthesizer on TV I perked up. I built a Moog out of Legos. I recall seeing Suzanne Ciani on 3…2…1… Contact like it was yesterday, and while most bands I’ve been in were guitar based, not only have I led a parallel life as a synth nerd, Kraftwerk has influenced how I play guitar. I’m not at all alone in that, by the way.
When you examine every branch of electronic pop, it all goes back to Kraftwerk. Singularly, they are what all blues musicians, added up, are to every rock band. They built something eternal out of thin air. Additionally, their influence on hip hop is massive. Not only are they one of the most sampled bands, they are the earliest. Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force‘s ‘Planet Rock’ incorporate hooks from both ‘Trans-Europe Express’ and ‘Numbers’. Under Bambaataa’s influence, Cybotron, aka, Juan Atkins and Richard Davis, created arguably the first techno song, ‘Clear’. It’s notable that Detroit was within WLS’s broadcast range. Chicago and Detroit techno are the marriage of classic funk and Kraftwerk. As Underground Resistance’s Mad Mike has said on more than one occasion, his three inspirations are funk, Kraftwerk, and Gary Numan, the latter also being a Kraftwerk protégée.
With each release, Schneider and Hütter broke new ground. Every single record produced during their classic line up, which also included Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos, sounded more modern than the previous. In fact, it sounded like a time that hadn’t arrived yet. Kids breakdanced to tracks by Grandmaster Flash, and the rapidfire “clickclickclickclick” of ‘80s Kraftwerk, side by side. McCartney II is what happens when a home studio, the influence of Kraftwerk, and a giant bag of weed intersect at a former Beatle’s farm. Our entire idea of what electronic music culture is like is so cemented into our psyche that when comedians make fun of it they take on a Kraftwerkian persona. The British-born Gary Webb changed his name to Gary Numan simply because it sounded more German, and to play robot music it’s probably better to have a proper German surname.
Kraftwerk are still a very active live outfit. On Trans Europe Express they sang about a utopian, united, peaceful Europe, where cultures comfortably mix far beyond the French, German, and Dutch influences of their native Düsseldorf, but at this point they are an impossibly international band. Not only are they adored around the globe, the lyrics of many of their most beloved songs are so efficiently simple almost anyone can sing along. They pack arenas and yet, simultaneously, there are legions of people who are only vaguely aware of them, if even that.
Schneider left the band in 2008. No new music has been released since, which means he was the only constant member during their career as a recording outfit. Bowie immortalized him in ‘V2 Schneider’ on the “Heroes” album, which owes a huge debt to Krautrock. Dr. Dre is a huge fan. Coldplay nicked a riff and built a hit around it. New Wave, and the New Romantic period, would not exist if you remove Schneider. Many of the world’s most influential bands’ singular most important influence is, you guessed it. No Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield scene, Mute Records. No Joy Division, PiL, Daft Punk, Aphex Twin. The legend is that Brian Eno emerged from the heavens as a fully formed idea, but without Kraftwerk and some other Motorik bands, it’s unlikely that he’d be, you know, Brian Eno. Don’t take my word for it, they all say it themselves. Well, maybe not Brian Eno. Why destroy the myth?
If you go out dancing, the floor is scattered with Kraftwerk’s DNA. I could go on for pages. This entire eulogy could be tagged with multiple “I could go ons,” but suffice it to say anyone who has listened to pop radio in the last four decades, especially if a synthesizer, drum machine, or vocoder is involved, has been deeply affected by Schneider’s work, whether they know it or not, and most don’t.
Schneider and Hütter have always been notoriously private. In rare interviews it was hard to know if they were in character or if they were, in actuality, more humanoid than human. Appearances on television focused more on the technology than the band members. It could be argued that there was little light between the two. Even the most human element of their legacy, an obsession with cycling, immortalized in ‘Tour De France’, still focuses on the symbiotic interaction between human and machine. Most of the time the world didn’t really know what Hütter and Schneider were up to unless their music was being released. Four years ago, Florian peeked his head out, in an extremely rare appearance, to promote a one-off solo number called ‘Stop Plastic Pollution’, which benefitted Parley, an ocean awareness organization. He premiered it at their conference, wearing a dapper suit and hat made of recycled plastic. It all seemed on-message for a musician who was talking about things like nuclear waste, surveillance states, and the potential to misuse technology decades before it would happen. Then he disappeared from view again. So, it came as no surprise that his cancer diagnosis had been unknown to the public. By the time it hit the press, last week, there had already been a funeral, and he was buried.
Any music and culture journal worth its salt is going to pay homage to Florian Schneider in the coming weeks. I’ll leave it to them to make the playlists, and talk about which album is the best, or most important. I’m here to assert that we have lost one of the most influential musicians to have ever lived; a man who wrote a small, but important chapter in the history of civilization.