Following the passing of Florian Schneider, music has lost one of its great visionaries. Author Johnny Proctor looks back at the Kraftwerk co-founder’s influence.
Yesterday, we learned of the loss of Florian Schneider – someone so important, not just to electronic music but to music in general.
Someone that without any shadow of a doubt I can sit here and (not even close to being bold) say that had it not been for him, the genres of music that we know and love would be not be how we view, and all the more importantly, hear, today.
During 2016, when all of the musical icons kept dropping like flies, I felt as if I didn’t have the same connect, or sense of loss, as a lot of others on social media had when pouring out their grief at the departure of such important figures. Artists who had provided the soundtrack to their lives and the ones that had been around for decades.
I didn’t need anyone to tell me just how important Bowie and Prince were. They just weren’t my preference in music and as a consequence I didn’t experience that feeling of loss in the way that they did, and still do.
On days like these, however. I get it. While they might say, ‘me and David Bowie’, or ‘me and Prince’; to me, it’s ‘me and Frankie Knuckles’, or ‘me and Florian Schneider’.
It really would not be outlandish in the least to suggest that, barring a few select genres, Schneider impacted on effectively all corners of the musical world.
A man that, despite his undoubted importance in his craft, was so enigmatic and shrouded in mystery throughout his career, with very little known about him. Even when news was breaking of his death, those who knew what he was like were hesitant to to go public with their eulogies – perhaps with good cause, considering Schneider previously ‘died’ in 2015 before freaking the fuck out of a few by turning up at a charity event in Paris wearing a matching hat and jacket which were made out of a recycled laundry bag… still very much alive.
As the details began to filter through, though, it was confirmed that he had, on this occasion, died – and had already been buried in a private ceremony. It was almost on brand for the man.
Schneider, son of Paul Schneider-Esleben, one of Germany’s most celebrated post war architects and someone with the redesign of Bonn airport credited to his CV, met Ralf Hütter when he was studying flute at Düsseldorf.
This led to them founding the legendary Kling Klang studio in the same city, and before long the pair of them had become obsessed by the world of synthesisers and the possibilities that lay open through them.
Together they co-formed the German godfathers of electronic music, Kraftwerk – the one band who are attributed to changing practically everything about how music has sounded for decades.
“Kraftwerk is not a band. It’s a concept. We call it ‘Die Menschmaschine’, which means ‘the human machine’. We are not the band. I am me. Ralf is Ralf. And Kraftwerk is a vehicle for our ideas,” Schneider told Rolling Stone magazine in 1975.
Hütter once said that Schneider was the “sound fetishist” of the group – the ‘machine’ in the ‘menschmachine’.
Kraftwerk were so clear about what they wanted to do musically that when they found that technology could not get them to where they wanted to be they went and BUILT some that could.
This was an outfit who, incredibly, when making their UK debut appearance, did not appear on Top of the Pops (as was undoubtedly considered the pre requisite road to success in the UK) but fucking Tomorrow’s World?!
In a perverse way, however, the thought of the four almost identical Germans appearing on TOTP to a crowd of confused teenagers trying to work out how they were meant to dance to this ‘music’ is one that I’d have been fully on board with seeing.
In reality though. Kraftwerk to Top of the Pops at that moment in time would have been the equivalent of Marty McFly going full Chuck Berry to a 1955 audience in Back to the Future. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet… but your kids are gonna love it.”
When you’re so ahead of your time, as Schneider and Kraftwerk undoubtedly were, one guarantee is that not everyone is going to ‘get it’. While today we have have a virtual conveyor belt of British musicians all admitting the influence that they’ve taken from the Germans over the years, back in the middle of the seventies, the band weren’t quite so understood.
“Spineless, emotionless … keep the robots out of music,” as Melody Maker put it, reviewing one of Kraftwerk’ first series of UK gigs in 1975.
As is often the case with innovators, you’ve got to wait for the others to catch up with you, and as such Kraftwerk had a couple of rough years before levelling up again with the seminal Trans-Europe Express.
And even then, in a show of just how ahead of its time the album was, it took another half a decade before Planet Rock came along with the heavy sampling taken from Kraftwerk.
Shortly after that. Detroit techno legend Juan Atkins followed suit by sampling Hall of Mirrors for the iconic Cybotron track Clear. From that watershed moment onwards, their stamp across many forms of music began to show itself consistently in various forms.
The five albums, specifically, that they released between 1974 and 1981 were what is now credited as a period that altered the music (and how it is created) that we have today – either through inspiring or influencing artists personally or simply by encouraging those in the music industry to embrace technology.
Kraftwerk made their mark in a way that only a group like The Beatles could claim to equalling. There is barely a musical artist around today who does not have a debt of gratitude towards the German pioneers.
Peter Hook himself fully admits that Joy Division – Ian Curtis having initially introduced Autobahn to him – and New Order ‘ripped off’ Kraftwerk when it came to creating their own sound and vision of what a band should be.
They, of course, were not alone, though, when it came to taking inspiration from a band whose use of drum machines and synthesisers would go on to influence an infinite amount of musicians that followed them.
No Kraftwerk, no 80’s synth pop. No Kraftwerk, no electro. No Kraftwerk, no techno.
Bill Hicks famously stood up in front of his audience and told them that if they were ‘anti drugs’ then they should go home and “burn all of their CDs”, because the artists that made that amazing music that they enjoyed so much created it when they were “rrrrrrrrreal fucking high”.
Whilst we barely even know what a CD is these days, the same line of thinking of Hicks applies to Kraftwerk and our own musical collections.
They really were that important.
Despite Schneider’s departure from Kraftwerk in 2008, Hütter has continued with the group, although even up until his longtime compatriot’s death, it was always difficult not to think of Kraftwerk and Schneider as one and the same.
These were musical inventors, who, if they wanted to use a speaking aid for deaf-mute children as a sound effect for a track, they did it. Who sent out mechanical mannequins on stage, in front of packed arenas, instead of going out there themselves.
Or what about the cover of Trans Europe Express, which remains one of the most iconic album covers of all time? That’s the Kraftwerk that will forever pop into my head whenever the subject of them is brought up.
As to the part that Schneider played, though, his contribution to many varied and diverse artists during the years right up to today is simply immeasurable. From Afrika Bambaataa to Gary Newman, OMD to Depeche Mode, Joy Division to Derrick May… and right up to Daft Punk, Dr Dre, Coldplay and Kanye West today.
In the world we live in today, where we have talentless ‘celebrities’ doing practically anything they can to be noticed – be it trying to organise a national singalong for the Queen’s birthday or sticking their knob into a Pringles tube – Florian Schneider was the complete polar opposite. Over the years, he rarely gave interviews, and shunned the limelight, without ever being forgotten about by his many fans and the close friends he kept.
He let his talent, and the very evident legacy he had given to music, speak for itself.
Put simply, he inspired a generation, which then went on to inspire and impact the one again after that, the snowball very much pushed down the hill from there.
People like Florian Schneider come along once in music. He was a pioneer, a visionary, a genius and one of the great innovators. Whether we fully appreciate it or not, he shaped the vast majority of the music that we’ve bought since we were kids.
He should be remembered accordingly.