Another musical giant has fallen. Despite being the co-founder of the most influential electronic group of all time, Florian Schneider was hardly a household name. If I showed you his picture, you’d probably say “dude, why are you showing me a picture of your accountant?” This might seem like a shame but this elusiveness was by design. Kraftwerk was more of a multimedia experience than they ever were a band. Schneider wasn’t attention-starved, or an ego-maniac who’d tantrum if he didn’t receive brown M and M’s. He put his personality on the back-burner for the good of the project and his privacy, so much so that it’s hard to even know who he was. Schneider was so reclusive; he was wondered to be dead many times before. I suppose you can’t proclaim to be a robot and be a beloved A-list celebrity at the same time. And yet, despite knowing very little about the man, I found myself unbelievably saddened by his death. So much so that I scrapped my original rant, marathoned their back-catalogue and sat down to write this tribute. Schneider and Ralf Hutter weren’t just innovative; they had the power to resonate as well.
The first time I heard Kraftwerk I thought…meh. I found it all so quaint and a little dinky. I was an idiot. I was just getting out of high school and was still under the impression that if a song wasn’t played loud and fast then it wasn’t worth my time. It wasn’t until I became obsessed with LCD Soundsystem and Bowie’s “V2-Schneider” that I gave them another spin and instantly realized my naivety. Kraftwerk is one of those bands that you’ve heard even if you’ve never actually heard of them. What blew my mind was how much of other artists I recognized in them. Oh shit, Coldplay ripped these guys off! Hey is that “Planet Rock?” Man, even LCD took the verses from “The Robots” for “Get Innocuous!” It’s insane how much these guys have shaped modern music. Electronic, techno, house, industrial, hip-hop, rock, pop and even Mike Myers’ Sprockets owe an incredible debt to Schneider and Hutter.
Every obituary you’ll read about Schneider will go talkabout how much Kraftwerk changed the game for other artists as if that is their only contribution. Sadly, as a result, their music sometimes gets pigeon-holed as mechanical and lacking in emotion. They were indeed trying to sound like varying forms of technology (cars, computers, trains and robots) to illustrate man’s rapid and overwhelming reliance on it and in this way, they were WAY ahead of their time. Go listen to “Computer Love” and be ready to be flabbergasted by how prescient it is in its depiction of trying to romantically connect through the help of the blue screen. What doesn’t get mentioned is that there is a beating heart underneath the tin man’s chest. Schneider and Hutter made sure to express the wonder and joy that technology holds just as much as the coldness and lack of connection it can sometimes bring.
Look no further than the 22 minutes “Autobahn.” It sums everything that Kraftwerk were about. Now some Kraftwerk material has managed to date over time because it’s very easy for anyone to do what they were doing with modern devices, but why tracks like this one survive is how it taps into the humanity of the listener. Yes, it’s fucking cool that they simulated an actual drive on a German expressway, but what gets me is how it keeps your attention and takes you on an emotional rollercoaster. Most songs of this length tend to be bloated and self-indulgent but nothing on “Autobahn” feels out of place. It plods along, lulling you into a sense of peace. It always reminds me of drifting off to sleep during long road trips as a kid. Then there are sections when Schneider’s ROBOVOX kicks in and you hear the most menacing, evil voice whispering “Autobahn” over and over as if to make you aware that you are just another statistic careening in a death trap. This song isn’t just about a car or a highway. It’s very much about the people within the car and their perception.
I’ve always hated the idea that Kraftwerk’s importance is solely a technological one. Kraftwerk back catalogue is full of beauty, humour, and terror hiding behind a metallic demeanour. They were above all else songwriters. You can always dance to them but you always get a little more from it if you so choose. Songs like “Europe Endless,” “Neon Lights” and “Radioactivity” are further proof of how awe-inspiring this group could be. They could change your life just as any “real” band could. A lot of this is due to Schneider’s groundbreaking synth work. Hutter famously called him a “sound fetishist” and his perfectionism certainly shaped their sound in a way that might have come off as cold but it is also the reason why albums like Trans-Europe Express, The Man Machine and Computer World are also so gorgeous and fresh as if they could be released today.
Schneider acted like a sly trickster during the small number of interviews he had in life, so only his friends and family knew him. In this way, I can’t celebrate him as a person, which is fine. Not every musician needs to be transparent. I will say thank you though, Florian Schneider, for the timeless art that will probably continue to be relevant and subtly pull on heartstrings well into the future. Next time I’m driving I will be humming “’Fahren fahren fahren” in your honour.
Written by Shawn Thicke
*Edited by Dominic Abate