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Europe Endless: Remembering Florian Schneider
Jude Rogers , May 7th, 2020 07:07

Jude Rogers celebrates the life and times of a wry and humble musical pioneer dedicated to the reconfiguration of German identity

In 1977, as Trans-Europe Express clanged and glimmered, firing its way into the world, Florian Schneider graced the pages of New York’s Interview Magazine. Alongside Ralf Hütter, his musical collaborator of nearly a decade at that point, he answered Glenn O’Brien’s questions with sharpness, and occasional relish. Schneider told O’Brien he liked The Ramones, the Velvet Underground and The Doors: “They have some tradition behind them… they can go further now." What was his favourite sandwich? “We prefer cake.” Will he go bald? “Maybe.” Do you think that can be prevented? “I don’t care.”

There was often a wryness to Schneider in his words and in his image. It was there in his surprising grin at the end of Kraftwerk’s debut appearance on British television, on a 1975 edition of Tomorrow’s World. It was there in his hand-wiggling dance in the video to 'Showroom Dummies'. It was there in the way he rocked lipstick the best on the cover of The Man-Machine. 

His humour also went beyond the existence of his band. Look online, and you’ll find a 2001 interview with Florian by German musician Uwe Schmidt, who had just made an album of Kraftwerk covers as Señor Coconut, in which he hides behind a false moustache. (“In 1947 in Mexico City, I devised the concept of humanoid sequencers,” Schneider hams.) There’s also his 2007 cameo as a wig-wearing double bassist in German film, Klassentreffen, alongside Klaus Schulze, playing a cover of 'Those Were The Days', or the way he promoted his and Dan Lacksman of Telex’s 2016 single, 'Stop Plastic Pollution', by wearing a jacket made out of recycled woven bags.

Back in the Glenn O’Brien encounter, he also explained where the concept of Kraftwerk came from in simple, magical terms: “We started with amplified instruments and then we found that the traditional instruments were too limited for our imaginations.” He also believed in technological progress, “but also we have to adjust our brains to this world”. Over the next few years, and in the decades that followed, many musicians, ravers, thinkers and fans adjusted their brains too, to follow him.

Florian Schneider-Esleben died last month, after a short time with cancer, at the age of 73. His sister and Wolfgang Flür posted pictures of him on social media last week, without comment. After a day of spiralling Twitter rumours, his family and one of his oldest friends confirmed his death yesterday. 

For this fan, who still remembers Kraftwerk’s 1997 Tribal Gathering performance like a moment of pure, serene religious conversion, what seemed to ripple in Schneider’s presentation was always humanity, the element of Kraftwerk that is often forgotten. A crackle of electricity has always joined together humans and the machine. To make what David Bowie translated as folk music for the factories (“industrielle volksmusik”, they called it) also feels more compassionate and tender an act as the years roll on by.

Between 1970 and 2006 – his last official commitment with the band, at a gig in Zaragoza in Spain – Schneider helped give Kraftwerk their consistent, thrilling pulse. He lit the concert up in the most brilliant neon.

It wasn’t a particularly surprising journey for someone of Schneider’s family background, in hindsight, to devote his life to artistry, engineering and reconfiguring his German identity. Schneider’s great-grandfather, Peter, was a 19th century altar carver and sculptor who sent all seven of his sons to art school. One generation down, Schneider’s grandfather, Franz, built some beautifully stark early 20th century churches, and helped train Schneider's father, Paul, who became one of post-war Germany’s most celebrated architects.

 Paul had to break his apprenticeship for military service in the second world war (he wasn't a Nazi party member). During pilot training in occupied France, he met several architects who rebuilt war-torn villages and towns, which interested him; after the war, he repaired buildings his father had started, and re-ignited the modernism that had been destroyed in its prime by the National Socialists in Germany. Two of his sisters also died in the war, during bombing raids. He was a man who wanted to rebuild German identity after the war ended, just as his son would, in new ways.

Schneider was born in the French occupation zone in Germany in 1947 (the family moved to Düsseldorf three years later). His father went on to design the passenger terminal for West Germany's biggest airport, Cologne Bonn, which would become a model for other international hubs (one wonders why Kraftwerk never went beyond cars and trains in their songs about international travel). He also worked with the artist Joseph Beuys, who by the late 1960s, was a huge artistic presence in the Düsseldorf Kunstacademie, an artist who talked about the potential of a gesamtkunstwerk, a total multi-disciplinary work of art with the potential to transform society.

Florian later took this idea and ran with it with the same zeal, and also took the roots of pre-war German culture, reigniting them to create a new future.

The connections with his father didn't stop there. Florian even played one of his first gigs with Joseph Beuys at the town’s Creamcheese Club, as part of the avant-garde ensemble, Pissoff (he was only 21). Schneider was studying flute at the Robert Schumann Hochschule at the time, pushing its tones to their limits with experimental techniques and delays. Soon after he formed Organisation with piano student Ralf Hütter, and such was the warm reception of experimentalism at the time, that by 1969 they’d release a record on RCA in the UK, Tone Float (it sold little; they were dropped shortly after). Propulsive rhythms underpinned its folkish psychedelia, giving clear clues about what they would become. 

Schneider’s flute is all over Kraftwerk’s first three albums, despite his moves towards the future, including on Ralf And Florian’s glorious 'Tongebirge' (Mountain Of Sound). It’s also on the second side of 1974’s Autobahn, on 'Morganspaziergang' (Morning Walk), a conceptual opposite to the album’s whizzing title track. In this, birdsong and electronics start to fizz and sing together.

But in terms of the image and conceptual identity which would come to define Kraftwerk, Schneider was the first member of the band to mark himself out. On the original cover of Ralf And Florian, the pair are set against a passport curtain, just as they would be again, four years later, as part of a neat, pristine four-piece on the back of Trans Europe-Express. But in 1973, Ralf looks like a lank-haired late 60s throwback. Florian is, as he will be in the future, in a jacket, shirt and tie, wearing the same diamanté semi-quaver brooch on his lapel. He looks like an 80s synth-pop god arriving to the party ahead of time. (A live clip online from that period also shows the newly-recruited Wolfgang Flür, with long hair and moustache, like he’s wandered in from a Creedence Clearwater Revival convention.)

Schneider got much more obsessed with sonic possibilities as Kraftwerk developed as a band. He had the money from his father to buy groundbreaking electronic machines, like the Vako Orchestron and Synthia Vocoder used on 1975’s Radio-Activity. At this point, both were only a few years old.

He also talked about his innovative approach to the quality of sound. “We don’t make a distinction between an acoustic instrument as a source of sound and any sound in the air outside or on a manufactured tape,” he told Rolling Stone in 1975. ‘It’s all electric energy, anyway.” In an otherwise toe-curling encounter with Geoff Barton for Sounds the same year, he’s described listening to a vacuum cleaner being pushed back and forth over focusing on the whirring sound of the apparatus. Barton was one of many journalists who dismiss the band’s interest in electronics as clinical, manipulative German behaviour, but these days, their prose reads as lumpenly as the music these writers preferred. Kraftwerk’s records from the rest of that decade are all about texture which set out new template for the future, for which the man behind the vocoder deserves many plaudits.

By 1977, Kraftwerk’s influence also started to extend quickly beyond their original hit ('Autobahn' was described by many on its release as a bit of a novelty). Bowie’s 'V-2 Schneider' on “Heroes” remains the most notable tribute of those times, although the mention of Nazi bombs in its title seems ill-advised at best. Iggy Pop said in a 2009 BBC documentary that he played 'Geiger Counter' to help get him to sleep; he also once went asparagus shopping with Schneider, and they had a lovely time. Kraftwerk of course mentioned both artists on the title track of Trans-Europe Express, a rare foray on their part into the celebrity world.

Nevertheless, Schneider always remained humble when describing who Kraftwerk were doing. “We’re just private people,” he said in 1975. “In the evening we set up, turn on the knobs and play.” Such a statement must have sounded alien then, given the popularity of florid rock, and the virtuosity many people expected from artists to signify their talent. A few years later, after the three-chord DIY simplicity of punk and the dawn of hip hop culture, the idea of simply setting up some gear, turning the knobs and just playing sounded like something else: a manifesto for opportunities that were now available to all. 

As their fame grew, Kraftwerk refined their image and ideas in albums that happened to have glossy, accessible titles. The concept of The Man-Machine spoke powerfully to young people excited about the emergence of personal computers and robotics in 1978. Computer World followed in 1981, effectively rubber-stamping synth-pop, and helping to invent techno, house, trance and everything else that came after it. Kraftwerk’s legacy was sealed. This was their present, and our future, and we all wanted to live in it.

After that moment, Schneider’s role in Kraftwerk became more indistinct (as it should be, one would argue, within a conceptual man-machine of a band). Other Kraftwerk albums were released: 1986’s lacklustre Electric Café, later rebranded under its original working title, Technopop; 1991’s underrated album of punchy re-edits, The Mix, and 2003’s Tour De France Soundtracks, finally bringing together tracks inspired by Hütter and Schneider’s mutual appreciation of cycling (in the early 80s, they were dropped off before gigs two hours early on the tour bus, so they could do the rest of the journey themselves).

Kraftwerk’s live shows also became more frequent after 1997’s Tribal Gathering, although Schneider was never a fan of the touring life. In retrospect, when he went on eBay in 2005 to list the customised vocoder he used on Autobahn, it felt like a symbolic act (Mute’s Daniel Miller won with his bid of $12,500). Schneider was announced as having left the band in 2008. 

But Hütter had admitted that he and his friend hadn’t really worked together for “many, many years”; Schneider had been “working on other projects: speech synthesis, and things like that.” They weren’t in touch by then either, Hütter told Guardian journalist, John Harris. Harris then asked Hütter if he missed his friend. "Oh, what can you say?” the musician replied. “You have to ask him."

The fact that Florian’s death was confirmed to Billboard magazine yesterday by Ralf Hütter felt very moving. After all, Hütter has now been touring the world without his co-founder for over a decade, playing residencies at New York’s MOMA and Tate Modern, as well as revisiting smaller British venues in which they began as a band. The choice of words for this statement were uncharacteristically emotive, as if they had come from the roots of the band itself: “Hütter has sent us the very sad news that his friend and companion over many decades Florian Schneider has passed away…”

The statement reminded us that all lives have endings, but friendships rarely do. They may become detached, but they linger, they pulse, they never die. A quote of Schneider’s from the 1975 Rolling Stone also speaks volumes about how you’d imagine he might want to be remembered: not in the humanity or humility of who he was, but in the sounds he left to ripple way in the world.

“There is no beginning and no end in music,” Schneider said, wisely and truly, as ever. “Some people want it to end. But it goes on.”