A Master of his Kraft: A Tribute to Florian Schneider

Last month, Kraftwerk founder Florian Schneider sadly succumbed to cancer at the age of 73. Schneider was widely revered for his contributions to electronic music and his unorthodox approach to sound. This is a tribute to his talent and life.

In 1947, Florian Schneider was born into a post-war West Germany, then occupied by the French. He grew up to first find musical expression as a flutist and violinist in the colourfully named band Pissoff. Whilst his instruments of choice were excruciatingly traditional, Schneider still managed to liven them up with some space-age energy. By converting pitch to voltage and using effects like echo and overdrive, he could emanate a raw and digital sound. 

In 1970, Schneider formed Kraftwerk with Ralf Hütter. The pair dabbled in Germany’s experimental krautrock scene, but before long came to fully embrace this philosophy of electronica. The band, whose name translates to “Power Station”, achieved worldwide acclaim through their enigmatic and occasionally strange use of drum machines, synthesisers, and vocoders. Sometimes described as “robot-pop”, Kraftwerk were one of the first to popularise ideas of repetitive drum patterns, radically altered vocals, and using deep fuzzy signals as bass. Even their song structure and lyrics thoroughly embraced every aspect of the modern world (especially the mundane parts). The 1974 release ‘Autobahn’ is literally a 22-minute experience meant to imitate the high-speed yet monotonous voyage that is motorway travel.

Schneider’s synthesiser-based influence went on to transcend decades, and arguably laid the groundwork for many elements of modern pop, techno, and hip-hop. When I listen to Kraftwerk’s now almost rudimentary electronica, I find myself picking out elements of song structure that have undoubtedly survived the evolution of music over the last 50 years.

Kraftwerk’s 1978 tune ‘The Robots’ is built around a choppy electronic bassline that wouldn’t seem out of place in an acid house or trance track released yesterday. Within that same song, Schneider and co. make use of a vocal vocoder, which heavily foreshadows the robotic identity of modern acts like Daft Punk. From Bowie and his “Berlin Trilogy” to pioneering DJ Afrika Bambaataa and his experimentations with house and electro, even the famously “early” explorers of electronic beats drew inspiration from the fuzzy frequencies of Kraftwerk. 

Considering the time period, Schneider’s outlook on audio was almost revolutionary. Rock and roll had already conquered his era, and whilst it was new and exciting, the likes of Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones still relied on the twang of guitars to give their songs a sense of soul. Their tools had barely changed since the 1950s. Schneider, however, felt limited by acoustic and traditional instruments, but still wanted to engage with the youth and his kin. Ultimately, Schneider’s use of futuristic synth projected a progressive vision of optimism in a time when Germany was characterised by a troubled past, a lack of identity, and one very high wall.

Image courtesy of Caroline Coon/Camera Press/Redux.