I hadn’t even finished playing my run of Stranglers albums this week when yesterday morning I got the first message from Gavin, who’s more connected than I am by far. He was suggesting that Kraftwerk founder Florian Schneider had died and while an early sniff around the usual places was inconclusive, the second time I thought to look, later in the day, the news had spread widely and definitively. Florian Schneider-Esleben had died, possibly prior to May 6th, at just over 73 years of age. One of the prime architects of electronic pop music was now gone. It has been revealed that he had suffered through cancer and died at the end of April before his death was announced.
I cannot sufficiently stress the importance of hearing the strangeness of the 3:25 edit of “Autobahn” infiltrate the US Top 40 radio format in 1974. Hearing it the first time was a galvanizing experience. Of a piece with the other two Seminal Singles, as I call them. Records so game-changing that they altered my trajectory of enjoying music in ways that were a sea change, looking back. As usual, the records that meant the most to me were not really big hits, just unlikely middling ones. And the conservative Central Florida pop airwaves saw fit to not play a record like “Autobahn” as much as I’d care to hear it, so my practice of listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40® weekly countdown show went a long way to actually insuring that I’d hear a song like “Autobahn,” or “Love Is the Drug” at least once a week in my hours [and hours] of radio listening. In 1976, a friend from elementary school whose dad got stationed in Germany had moved away but visited once a few years later. I asked him how popular Kraftwerk were in Germany but he’d never heard of them. He was far more into Jethro Tull!
I got my first stereo in 1978 and I wasted no time in buying a copy of “Autobahn” among my first dozen or so LP purchases. I was amazed to find that the electronic ditty that I was familiar from on the AM radio a few years earlier was an entire album side. I apple seeded Kraftwerk among my Germanophile high school friends who soaked up the music like a sponge. My friend Dan who had moved from NYC to Central Florida in 1977 told tales of hearing the song “Trans-Europe Express” on the radio there but although I saw the 45 in my local K-mart I swear it never got any airplay, though maybe it was down to the station I listened to. I was a Top 40 kid so WLOF-AM was my station. Maybe WOKB-AM, the “urban” station was probably playing them, as I would hear later in high school when “Computerworld” was a breakout electro jam on that station.
In high school I recall chasinvictoria had managed to grab a copy of the “Ralf + Florian” album that I wondered where in sequence it came into the Kraftwerk story. I recall thinking in those simpler times that it came after “Autobahn” which was surely their first album. In those days, “Kraftwerk” and “Kraftwerk 2” were complete unknowns. In fact, to this day they never have gotten a US release at all. Only sophisticated, import buying Prog rockers knew about this stuff! Not a greenhorn kid in junior high school with no siblings to guide him and only a few-half-clues stuffed in his back pocket. I first heard “Trans Europe Express when I gave it to my friend Rosalie for a gift of some kind. Wow! That was an amazing sound. To this day “Europe Endless” is my go-to Kraftwerk song. Such utter beauty in the service of relentless machine certitude. How I wished that they had delved further into this sort of sound. [Fortunately, OMD have proven resilient on this particular thread]
I remember seeing the visually severe cover of “Man Machine” in the K-mart record department racks. Which was the closest thing to a record store I had growing up since I could ride my bike there from the neighborhood. But I didn’t hear that record until a few years after it came out. Probably around the time that the last classic imperial period Kraftwerk album was released shortly before graduation from High School in 1981. A friend of mine gave me a copy of “Computerworld” as a graduation present and around that time was when I heard the sounds on the big mono portable cassette radios some students [of color] would bring into the art classes. There was nothing I liked better than actually programming my Radio Shack Color Computer in BASIC while listening to this album! The cover image to the album looked as if it could have been programmed on the same computer. It was a high-resolution display in monochrome settings.
After 1981, the band seemed to mothball for several tense years. It was only then that I ever came across the “Radio-Activity” album of 1975 which was the follow-up to “Autobahn” that I somehow missed entirely for five to six years! My friend Tom was the one who shocked me when he bought this strange album that would prove ultimately so influential to one of my favorite new bands, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.
Little did I know that the emergence of sampling by 1980 seemed to act as a unexpected disruption to the famous Kraftwerk methodology of having their synthesizers and music processing hardware custom built by the late 70s. They had not foreseen the emergence of software to render hardware unnecessary and it seemed to shake their confidence. Between The Art Of Noise’s “Into Battle” EP and the head injury sustained by avid cyclist Ralf Hütter during the recording of their only release between 1981 and 1986, the “Tour De France” single of the same year seemed to show Kraftwerk at an impasse. I remember seeing advance industry word about an album named “Techno Pop” in the chute so at first I did not buy the single; thinking it would be on the follow up album. I got a copy in 1984-5 when it was apparent that the release was cancelled.
“Tour De France” was shocking at the time for the sampled slap bass that was probably a stock sample. It was almost inconceivable that the band who used to have their synth gear custom made would use such sounds, as their curation of sound until then had been peerless and singular. The single felt a little off but at least had an expansive melody that to my ears, harked back to some of the pastoral beauty that was inherent in “Europe Endless.” But after this single, it was back to the deep freeze for the band for another three years. Little did we know at the time that this would be the new norm [and how!] for the group.
In 1986 the silence was broken again by their first album to follow 1981’s “Computerworld.” This was the first new Kraftwerk album I would buy on compact disc, and as usual, a favorite band would be releasing what was to me a disappointing album on the new, digital format that was so otherwise entrancing. Causing me cognitive dissonance. “Electric Cafe” was a sidelong suite of minimal proto-techno that sounded too scanty for my ears. It took me years to enjoy it for what it was. Then, the rest of the album was an eclectic blend of more baroque sounds [including sampled strings] that was closer to something I preferred by the group though clearly showed the band in a holding pattern; having been unable to advance their vision in the intervening years. From this point on the innovators were now also-rans. And that was a tough realization to swallow since their influence to me by that time was immense. A dozen of my favorite bands were all trying to varying degree of success to be the “British Kraftwerk.” They were my Beatles.
It was some time in the early 90s when I managed to finally find a copy of “Ralf + Florian” on LP and even 8-track cassette! Around that same time, my friend Ron was thinning out his collection for his first trip to Japan and I relieved him of his Japanese first pressings [from 1979] of “Kraftwerk” and “Kraftwerk 2.” Also his glow-in-the-dark “Neon Lights” 12″ single. When I played them I was surprised to hear that the theme song to PBS’s science program, “Newton’s Apple” was actually Kraftwerk’s “Ruckzuck” from their free-form Krautrock era! The first four Kraftwerk albums featured Schneider playing the flute as much as any synthesizers as that was his field of study.
When the next new Kraftwerk music appeared an incredible five years later, it was in the guise of a remake album where they picked music from their imperial period [and “Electric Cafe” ] to record “The Mix.” By that time, percussionists Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür had left the band that they had contributed to during the band’s most vital phase. This was down to Ralf + Florida with engineer Fritz Hilpert. It was an album which we certainly bought immediately, but I’d be lying if I didn’t state that I felt that all of the new versions were inferior; with the exception of “Radioactivity” and “Computerlove.” Not only had they been unable to advance their vision, but there seemed to be an inability to even compose. Still, I did enjoy buying the singles from this release in CD format by 1991. We even had tickets for a tour that was supposed to have them playing in Miami that was ultimately cancelled, in a disappointing blow.
Two years later Karl Bartos struck out with Rheingold’s Lothar Manteuffel as Elektric Music. It even had Andy McCluskey writing and singing a track, and longtime designer Emil Schult also designed the “Esperanto” album that got heavy play from me that year. It was possibly the last time I could have said that I had a favorite album of a certain year as 1993 happened. Kraftwerk seemed moribund, but computer technology made their previously rare concert tours more likely as the band may have not recorded anything new but they were now touring on a more regular basis than ever. Thanks to the ability of modern technology to make gambits like the notion of taking their Kling Klang studio with them on tour in 1981 as there was no other way to achieve that sound live.
I finally saw Kraftwerk in 1998 at a show in Chicago along with my friend [and commenter] JT and his friend James in a fascinating, emotionally moving experience that saw me weeping for the first 15 minutes at the culmination of a life of fandom. I remember that afterward, we discussed just how much of the show was live and how much was Memorex® to couch it in that term. We seemed to think that it was closer to a mixing event than a performing event but it’s well-established now that the band construct unique versions of numbers from established sonic building blocks of sound they manipulate in realtime.The next year I was surprised to see that the “Tour De France” single had gotten a reissue on CD single format complete with QuickTime® video of the video on an Enhanced CD. Then, a scant year later, the new Kraftwerk single manifested as the band had provided a jingle [or sonic branding as we now call it] for the Expo 2000 World’s Fair in Hanover, Germany. This had been worked from a few seconds into a fully fledged composition in several mixes, and the resulting single was pretty mediocre. Still, I managed to buy the Enhanced CD with the alternate cover and the really dreadful remix single with people other than Kraftwerk watering down the music. Actually, The band’s own Kling Klang mix 2002 was pretty good [and it sped up the sluggish track by a factor of at least two], but that was one mix out of ten.
By 2004 I was in a local record store in my then-new city of Asheville. I was astonished to see a used CD in a local store that had come out the previous year called “Tour De France Soundtracks,”that I had gone completely unaware of! How queer that felt to find out about the new Kraftwerk album by buying it when I saw it in the used bin! Apparently, the band had now revisited that single to re-record it in an inferior version. And built up an album around it. It was all too labored for my ears, but “Vitamin” and especially “Aero Dynamik” had that Kraftwerk spark that all of the cycling themed foofraw surrounding the album had failed to excite me with.
2005 brought another new Kraftwerk release that indicated a lack of movement. “Minimum-Maximum” was a double CD that showcased how the only development that the band was capable of was in a backward glance as their new live arrangements of their many tours of the modern era were now duly recorded and released. It was years later when I finally bought a used copy as it hardly seemed absolutely necessary. That ship had sailed. I also got the DVD of it that like so many music-oriented home videos, has sat, unwatched in my home as my wife prefers films for her video entertainment. One day we’ll see it.
I would go on to see Kraftwerk three more times at Moogfest 2014, but only that first time in Chicago had Schneider onstage. By 2008 he had retired from the band he had spent 40 years with. Though technically, Kraftwerk only dated to 1970, Schneider first recorded with Hütter in 1968 in the band Organisation, who issued the “Tone Float” album only in England in 1968 with copies going for many hundreds of dollars I could not spend on a copy. I suspect that I’ll never own this one. Discogs lists 24 different editions, but only this one is not a pirate copy. By the last decade, the band, sans Schneider, became a world famous brand with their by now legendary 3-D concerts playing to art museums around the world as well as concert halls and festivals.
Only Ralf Hütter remains in the band now and they have issued a boxed set where they have played their entire modern Katalog [music from 1974 onward only] that has yet to find a home in my Record Cell, but one day I suspect it will happen. There have been rumors of the first three, atypical Kraftwerk albums getting a re-issue but I think that’s just smoke + mirrors. Mr. Hütter clearly has little interest in pursuing this tact; given that he’s seemingly unmoved by a robust market in pirate CDs of this material for the last 25 or so years. When Ralf dies, I fully expect the shows to continue with the legendary Kraftwerk robots using AI learned from Ralf’s arrangement decisions to endlessly continue the band in perpetuity as a sound and music spectacle that will be on a more agreeable level than this new and ghoulish penchant for “holographic” tours that chills my very blood. And the election of the band to the heretofore resistant Rock + Roll Hall Of Fame will probably also happen in the next few years. Kraftwerk have been on the ballot for the last several years, and I expect the loss of Schneider to tip the scales for the band the next ballot. Or two.
The last 25 years have seen this cult act who managed to influence generations of my favorite British musicians as well as American musicians at the forefront of dance music technology for the last 40 years really manage to cultivate an aura and reputation that has grown dramatically in size in a way that I could not have predicted as an eleven year old captivated by the strange beauty of “Autobahn” on the transistor radio that was my constant companion. For the part of that journey that mattered most, Florian Schneider was there every step of the way adding his penchant for voice synthesis and studied musicality to the final product. He was the first member of Kraftwerk to cut his hair short and was the style leader in the band in terms of image. Together with his bandmates Kraftwerk, he managed to effect a truly revolutionary seismic shift in how music was perceived, produced and consumed. If you own any neon lighting, now is the time to turn it on in remembrance.
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