Florian Schneider — cofounder of German electronic-music pioneers Kraftwerk, one of the most influential groups of the past 50 years — has died after a brief battle with cancer, a rep confirmed to Variety. He was 73.
“Florian Schneider has passed away from a short cancer disease just a few days after his 73rd birthday,” a statement from the group reads. “In the year 1968 Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider started their artistic and musical collaboration. In 1970 they founded their electronic Kling Klang studio in Düsseldorf [Germany] and started the multi-media project Kraftwerk. All the Kraftwerk catalogue albums were conceived and produced there. In 2014 Hütter and Schneider were honoured with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement award.”
While Kraftwerk were recognized during their 1970s-80s creative peak as an influential and pioneering outfit — particularly by David Bowie, who played the group’s “Radioactivity” album before his 1976 concerts and even wrote a tribute to the musician called “V-2 Schneider” — their influence grew more and more apparent as synthesizers and other electronic instruments became prominent in popular music, particularly with the MTV-powered early-’80s synth-pop wave of groups such as Depeche Mode and the Human League. Yet Kraftwerk’s influence on all forms of electronic-based music, especially dance, pop even hip-hop, is vast and indisputable.
Throughout the 1970s, Kraftwerk increasingly embraced the mechanical sounds of much of their music and cultivated a tongue-in-cheek image of themselves as identical robots that has been often imitated, particularly by Daft Punk, perhaps their most obvious recent musical progeny.
Schneider, a native of Düsseldorf, cofounded Kraftwerk with Hutter in 1970, and the two remained its primary creative directors for nearly 40 years. While the group’s early recordings were inspired by psychedelic and avant-garde music and were vaguely in line with the early music of “Krautrock” groups like Can and Neu, Kraftwerk wholeheartedly embraced synthesizers and quickly and determinedly carved its own path. Their early work was more experimental in nature, but with 1974’s galvanizing “Autobahn” album — an edit of its long title track, which comprised the entire first side of the vinyl album, received surprisingly significant radio play in the U.S. — the group’s electronic textures increasingly embraced elegant, deceptively simple, classically inspired melodies. While regarded even then as a rebellious, experimental, untraditional, almost anti-rock act, guitar and flute are both prominent in the group’s early recordings, and the bandmembers sported beards and long hair.
However, any rock elements vanished with “Radioactivity,” released in 1975, a haunting and innovative yet melodically beautiful evocation of nuclear threat that set a template for the music that was to come over the next several years. Each of the three albums that followed found the group — which also featured Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos, along with graphic artist/lyricist Emil Schult during its peak years — honing and developing its sound, simplifying the melodies and arrangements and increasingly incorporating pulsating, often danceable rhythms.
Kraftwerk in 1975 — Schneider, top
“Trans-Europe Express,” released in March of 1977, was the first product of the group’s more streamlined approach and sonically and lyrically reflected the train journey of its title similar to the way “Autobahn” evoked a drive on Germany’s expansive highways. It was soon followed in May of 1978 by “The Man Machine,” which saw the group embracing their robot image to a camp and comic extent (Kraftwerk’s sense of humor rarely has been fully appreciated). The group’s matching red and black outfits and the graphics on the album’s cover are a clear homage to Russian artist El Lissitzky; its increasingly dance-influenced sound reached a new peak with “The Model” which reached the lower levels of Billboard’s U.S. dance chart around the time of its release but saw increased airplay on radio and in nightclubs in the coming years as the group’s influence grew.
After a long delay, “Computer World” — the album that many feel is the group’s most influential and far-reaching — was released in August of 1981. Its delay was largely due to the group’s increasing embrace of computer technology and the challenges imposed by performing the album’s songs in a live setting. The tour that ensued featured a segment with robot mannequins of the group as well as hand-held instruments — essentially remotes — that have remained a hallmark of Kraftwerk tours ever since. Schneider famously played his remote behind his head at one point in the show, a spoof on Jimi Hendrix’s legendary rock-star move with his guitar.
While the group’s influence had become more obvious with the growth of new wave, its sophisticated rhythms and pulsating textures were quickly embraced by producers in the burgeoning hip-hop movement. This writer, a record-store employee at the time of the album’s release, recalls local DJs who normally played disco asking about a song called “Numbers” — a track from “Computer World” with a crushing beat — and the following year, the hook from “Trans-Europe Express” was featured in the pioneering hip-hop single “Planet Rock” by South Bronx DJ-producer Afrika Bambaata and Soul Sonic Force. Also that year, the group released “Tour de France,” a theme song for the French bicycle race that found them creating rhythms out of the whirring and shifting of bike gears and the panting of a competitive bicyclist.
Kraftwerk performing in London in 1981 — Schneider, far right
The song stemmed from sessions for an album that was originally called “Technicolor,” then “Technopop,” and, when it finally emerged in 1986, “Electric Café.” The group splintered during the album’s sessions — Hutter was seriously injured in a bicycle accident; Flur, the group’s percussionist, found his role increasingly replaced by electronic rhythms and eventually departed — and it is effectively a continuation of “Computer World,” although it does feature several strong songs.
And with that album, Kraftwerk largely ceased recording new material, although remixes and the occasional single — and, later, live albums — popped up over the ensuing decades. It toured regularly over those years, capitalizing on the growing influence and popularity of its earlier recordings, although primarily in Europe.
In 1997, Kraftwerk made a pivotal performance at the Tribal Gathering dance-music festival in England, and the following year toured North America and Japan for the first time since 1981 — to a rapturous response from electronic and dance-music crowds for whom the group was as important and influential as the Beatles were to a generation before. Apart from occasional single releases, the group became essentially a live act.
Kraftwerk performing in Finland in 2004 — Schneider, far right
In 2008, some four decades after he began collaborating with Hutter, Schneider left Kraftwerk, although he continued to work in the group’s Kling Klang Studio. While he largely focused on sound design, in 2015, he and Dan Lacksman, along with longtime collaborator Uwe Schmidt, released a song called “Stop Plastic Pollution” in support of the ocean environmental-conservation organization Parley for Oceans.
Kraftwerk — with Hutter as the sole founding member — continues to tour regularly and this year postponed a tour due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2012, the group played a series of eight shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — accompanied by visuals that saw the audiences wearing 3D glasses — with each night focusing on one of its albums. While it was perhaps unfair to consider the group itself as a museum piece, considering its lack of new material in recent decades, it was at times hard to escape that impression.