As a co-founder and key member of German electronic music group Kraftwerk, Florian Schneider changed the sound and the course of modern music.
Florian Schneider, keyboardist and Kraftwerk co-founder died last week on the 6th May. He leaves behind perhaps the most influential body of work in popular music since The Beatles. The music of Kraftwerk, particularly the five albums they made between 1974 and 1981 was genuinely revolutionary. It redefined how music could be made and what it could be. Kraftwerk’s music influenced the shape and direction of pop music. They laid the foundation for the 80s synth-pop explosion of Gary Numan, Soft Cell, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode and the modernisation of pop music. Kraftwerk also fuelled the birth of electro and hip hop and were a key inspiration in the emergence of house and techno.
Artists had used synthesisers before Kraftwerk. Wendy Carlos had made instrumental records on Moog synthesisers in the late 60s. ARPs, Moogs and Yamahas filled Stevie Wonder’s 70s output. But most of Carlos’ albums showcased how electronic instruments could mimic acoustic, while Stevie Wonder often used ‘traditional’ instruments alongside his synths. Purely synthetic popular music simply didn’t exist prior to Kraftwerk. They were the first to present a coherent musical whole purely created from electronics. Kraftwerk celebrated electronically generated audio and machine textures for their inherent qualities rather than their ability to either mimic traditional instruments or fit into a traditional arrangement.
In doing so they pioneered a new, revolutionary musical vocabulary of metronomic rigidity and repetition. They widened the sonic palette of popular music to include the crashes, swirls, bleeps and squelches of synthesised sound. Music today simply wouldn’t sound like it does without Kraftwerk. We look back at some of Kraftwerk’s most influential releases.
‘Autobahn’ was the album where Kraftwerk proper first emerged following their earlier improvisational albums. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kraftwerk were the music of the future: there’s a section about 12 minutes into the 22-minute and 42-second epic title track Autobahn which sounds as if it could have been released yesterday. Likewise, the metallic swirls and modulated waveforms of ‘Mitternacht’ from the album could easily be one of those moody beatless album intro tracks that every techno artist tries to do at least once in their career.
Trans Europe Express
‘Trans Europe Express’ is another Kraftwerk composition that provided a clear vision of what was to come. The beats on this record were revolutionary. They laid down the groove that would then be taken up by electro, hip hop, house and techno. Five years after its initial release, ‘Trans Europe Express’ was repurposed by Afrika Bambaataa and Authur Baker into the Soul Sonic Force’s genre-defining ‘Planet Rock’.
From their fifth studio album ‘Radio-Activity’, ‘Uranium’was a slightly unsettling assemblage of synth pads and spoken word. It’s since achieved fame as the source of the choir pad sample used in New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’.
Tour De France
Originally released in 1983, ‘Tour De France’ has had a long life. It’s been re-edited and remixed numerous times, including a version by Francois Kevorkian in 1984. Featuring a particularly affecting synthetic harp motif, some electronic snares which just smack and atonal percussive blips, ‘Tour De France’ was, and remains, perfect for dancefloors and indeed break dancer’s lino too.
1979, the year Kraftwerk recorded ‘The Model’, was the year of the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rappers Delight’ and Chic’s ‘Good Times’. The UK charts featured acts like Cliff Richard, The Bee Gees, Blondie, The Police, Michael Jackson and The Jam. By the time ‘The Model’ reached the UK number one in early 1982, the charts were full of bands with no guitars like Soft Cell, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Blancmange, Yazoo and Flock of Seagulls. Kraftwerk’s clean, synthetic sound was a prototype for modern pop music.
Kraftwerk’s eighth studio album ‘Computer World’ was home to the proto-techstep ‘Numbers’. It consists largely of an off-kilter delayed synth arpeggio and the numbers one to four recited in various languages. ‘Numbers’ is set to a clanging metallic beat and is an exercise in stark, mechanic minimalism.
The original version of ‘Radioactivity’ from 1975 featured angelic chords, morse code blips and a modulating bassline Vince Clark would be proud of. In 1991 the band released their ‘Remix’ album which represented how their music had developed and mutated from playing live. Kraftwerk’s 1991 version of ‘Radioactivity’ had developed into a 4/4-rooted New Order-esque dance floor killer.
Aside from the technological innovations and the glimpses of the future of music that they offered, Kraftwerk could also write a decent song too. ‘Neon Lights’ has a classy pop melody over cheery chords and includes a nod to the French classical composer Debussy with a little interpolation of his ‘Reverie’.
From its bleepy intro, automaton-beat and precise, measured melody, to its vocodered vocals, ‘The Robots’ is a quintessential Kraftwerk track. It’s futuristic, both in its execution and its subject matter and it has the gleam of brand-new technology. This is the music that should have been playing in the Cantina scene in Star Wars.
Containing a reference to their own arpeggio from their influential 1977 track ‘Hall of Mirrors, ‘Home Computer’ from 1981 is a dark, lean, stripped machine groove. It’s is another Kraftwerk production that was ahead of its time, to the extent that the Moogesque bass and sparse analogue percussion combo still sound fabulously current. ‘Home Computer’s synth stabs, electronic textures and machine ticks all pre-echo techno and electro. Model 500 (Juan Atkins) referred to the same arpeggio in his 1983 electro classic ‘Clear’.
Florian Schneider, 7th Apri 1947 to 21st April 2020.