Without Florian Schneider, who died of cancer in April at 73, electronic and dance music would look incalculably different. In fact, there’s every chance popular music as we know it might not exist at all.
Schneider, born along the southern border of Germany and Switzerland in 1947, joined up with Ralf Hütter in 1970 to found Kraftwerk, a group so influential that they are widely considered the Beatles of electronic music. Kraftwerk’s earliest recordings showed promise at taking machine music away from the experimental fringes and toward the center of the pop universe, something that had not been done before on any mass scale.
A run of releases in the mid-1970s and early 1980s from Kraftwerk’s expanded four-piece lineup — including Autobahn, Trans-Europe Express, The Man-Machine and Computer World — made good on that potential, and then some. Any list of the greatest albums or acts of all time that does not have a sizable Kraftwerk showing should be treated as highly suspect.
One of Kraftwerk’s many pioneering qualities was de-emphasizing the individual in favor of the collective, and being highly secretive while doing so. Still, what we know of Schneider tells us that his innovation in constructing boutique instruments and his exacting approach to sound fidelity gave Kraftwerk the edge over those who tried to emulate their formula. His wry humor lit up any of the group’s (rare) interviews, but this buoyancy eventually ran out; Schneider left Kraftwerk on the eve of an arena tour with Radiohead in 2009.
In their pomp, Kraftwerk were so ahead of the curve that their first and sole U.K. No. 1 hit, “The Model,” only reached the top of the charts four years after its parent album (The Man-Machine) came out. By that point in 1982, new-wave groups such as the Human League, Depeche Mode, Yellow Magic Orchestra and New Order ruled the world; the coordinated modernist attire and blank robotic expressions that Kraftwerk pioneered had become part of mass fashion; and the use of cutting-edge synthesizers and drum machines was the rule rather than the exception. Pop music bent toward Kraftwerk. It never happened the other way around.
Less than a year after the jaunty Autobahn brought Kraftwerk to the world, the austere Radio-Activity followed. “Ohm Sweet Ohm” closes the album with a track that deliberately winks to science and domesticity at once. The song has cousins in Kraftwerk fan favorites like The Man-Machine’s “Neon Lights” and Trans-Europe Express’ “Franz Schubert,” but in 1975, this kind of symphonic electronica was revolutionary. When David Bowie dedicated a song on his blockbuster 1977 album “Heroes” to the man who influenced his pivot from glam stomp to electronic melancholy, “V-2 Schneider” said it all.
Apparently not content with being the founding fathers of electronic music, Kraftwerk became a building block of hip-hop too. Unlikely as it seems that four pale Germans would play such a major role in NYC street culture, when Afrika Bambaataa and producer Arthur Baker flipped the melodic line and railroad-style chugging percussion from 1977’s “Trans-Europe Express” for 1982’s “Planet Rock,” a whole new world opened up immediately. The original is so ice-cold, no wonder b-boys of the near future wanted it for their own.
Personas count for a lot in pop. If you can shape an image and stick to it long enough that it creates an impression in the audience’s mind, you’ve won half the battle. Kraftwerk ingeniously shaped the group’s defining visual aesthetic and took themselves out of the conversation in one stroke by asking, What if we were robots all along? Every Kraftwerk live show since The Man-Machine’s catchy opener has played up this concept to some extent, switching the real group with mechanical avatars. At some point in time, Daft Punk began taking notes.
By the early ’80s, the cost of synthesizers was falling and electronic music was catching up in the technical stakes. In typical Kraftwerk style, they took a left turn to stay ahead, by feeding humanity back into their music. Computer World forecast a world in which technology seeps into the everyday, with the German group singing in a number of global languages about intelligent calculators and romantic dates conducted through digital screens — sound familiar? With interlocking synth lines dripping with longing, “Computer Love” is the most overtly emotional song in the Kraftwerk oeuvre, and quite possibly their all-time best.