The Elusive Florian Schneider

by Marshall Bowden

When I began to write about Florian Schneider, the co-founder of Kraftwerk who passed away last week, I began by setting the scene via David Bowie’s use of Kraftwerk’s music as part of the introduction to his appearance onstage during his Station to Station tour. 

I suddenly thought to myself–hey, this isn’t really about Florian Schneider. It defines the music of Kraftwerk in terms of the relationship they had, from afar, with David Bowie in the development of the sound of modern rock and popular music. 

But the fact is that Schneider himself is a bit of a mystery man. In many ways, he could be the Thin White Duke himself–not Bowie, but the character. The son of a highly successful architect in post-war Germany, Schneider was able to afford to indulge his interest in modern music and in electronic music and the machines that made it.

Florian played the flute, violin, and guitar. He used electronic effects, microphone placement, and various amplification/manipulation methods on the acoustic instruments, but eventually, he moved towards creating music with electronic instruments only. There is still some lovely flute work on the Autobahn album, both on the title track and on the beautiful and folksy “Morgenspaziergang.” Indeed this pastoral track created with overdubs of flute and acoustic piano is not unlike the music being created by a variety of German bands, all classified together as “Krautrock” by the British music press despite not having all that much in common besides nationality.

But this was Florian’s farewell to the pastoral and the organic. “Autobahn” had demonstrated the blueprint that he wanted to apply to Kraftwerk. The band’s next album, Radioactivity, was perhaps one of its most influential. One can hear the inspiration that bands like Orchestral Maneuvers In the Dark and Depeche Mode found on tracks like “Antenna” and “Transistor.” Radioactivity doesn’t sound like anything else out there in 1974; it’s a clear example of Florian Schneider and the quartet pursuing their vision of a sound that doesn’t rely on the tropes and formulas of American and British pop music. 

In 1976 when David Bowie embarked on his Isolar Tour in support of the album Station to Station fans were greeted with images from the surrealist film Chien de Andalou. A little Alice Cooper, a little Throbbing Gristle. These images appeared at the start of the concert before Bowie would take the stage. The soundtrack had also been predetermined for the audience. Blaring over the loudspeaker system was the music of Kraftwerk. 

It’s safe to say that virtually none of the fans in attendance knew what this music was, but it created its effect, leaving an unsettled edge over the audience.

It has been noted by several Bowie biographers that the Kraftwerk music Bowie was most interested in were the first two albums, Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2. The band is using electronics to create an entirely new soundscape, but they haven’t quite hit on the mechanized, robotic march that would characterize Trans-Europe Express, and indeed all their work going forward. Schneider’s flute and piano playing is used to full effect, with and without studio filters. It’s music that is more like that Bowie and Eno created on Low and Heroes.

Listen to Kraftwerk and Kraftwerk 2 albums

Interestingly, after Autobahn Florian Schneider and Ralph Hutter began to distance themselves from the first two albums. They no longer performed any of the songs live and they never reissued them or put them out on CD for a long time. The reason for this was not stated, but it seems pretty clear that once they hit on Autobahn they felt that this early music no longer represented the Kraftwerk sound.

Bowie apparently found plenty to like on Autobahn as well, though of course the title track, comprising the entire first side of the record, presents the sleek, mechanized vision that he didn’t really relate to. 

The second side of Autobahn is much different, more contemplative and melodic, and likely of more interest to Bowie. On “Kometenmelodie 2” you can hear their intuitive feel for pop music and a sense of humor, while “Mitternacht” has much more in common with the instrumental tracks Bowie and Eno constructed for Side Two of Low

But maybe most telling is that Station to Station–the album and the song–begins with the sound of a train, a steam train, slowly beginning to move and picking up speed. It is widely accepted that Bowie was nodding to the opening of Autobahn, which begins with the sound of an engine turning over and a car starting. In this regard, it is sometimes suggested that by going back to the non-technological steam train Bowie brings back images of World War II and of trains carrying troops and prisoners across the country. 

Regardless of whether one accepts this interpretation or not, it is worth noting that on Kraftwerk’s next album, Trans-Europe Express, they take on the modern electric train as a sleek, sexy form of travel roaming the expanse of “Europe Endless.” That album began to use explicitly robotic themes as well as themes of human mass production on songs such as “The Hall of Mirrors” and “Showroom Dummies.

When Iggy Pop and David Bowie convened to work on Pop’s album The Idiot, Iggy identified clearly with the assembly line aspect of the modern world, and he related the machine-influenced sounds of Kraftwerk to the mechanized industrial sound of the General Motors assembly line in his home town of Detroit. Iggy wrote the lyrics for “Mass Production,” the final song on The Idiot, and delivers it over the hypnotic industrial-drone and guitar noise that Bowie and the other musicians create. 

When “Trans-Europe Express” became the sampled basis for the breakthrough track “Planet Rock,” the group settled for what producer Arthur Baker termed ‘a lot of money’ even though Baker and Afrikaa Bambaata had not actually sampled the recording of the group’s song, instead recreating the synth sounds and drum machine of the original. In any event, Kraftwerk’s influence on hip hop, house music, and EDM was assured.

By the time of Trans Europe Express, Bowie and Iggy Pop were living and recording in West Berlin, and they met in Dusseldorf, hanging out and touring Kraftwerk’s Kling Klang recording studio. Bowie recalled their meetings in a 1978 interview:

“I like them as people very much, Florian in particular. Very dry. When I go to Düsseldorf they take me to cake shops, and we have huge pastries…When I came over to Europe – cause it was the first tour I ever did of Europe (1976), the last time – I got myself a Mercedes to drive myself around in, cause I still wasn’t flying at that time, and Florian saw it… He said, “What a wonderful car”, and I said, “Yes, it used to belong to some Iranian prince, and he was assassinated and the car went on the market, and I got it for the tour.” And Florian said, “Ja, car always lasts longer.” With him it all has that edge. His whole cold emotion/warm emotion, I responded to that. Folk music of the factories.”

Trans-Europe Express commemorates their meetings with the lyric “From station to station, back to Düsseldorf City, Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.” The following year Heroes, the only one of Bowie’s Berlin albums to be completely recorded there, featured the song “V2 Schneider” a reference to Schneider’s nickname referencing his focus and efficiency. 

Florian Schneider continued to work with Kraftwerk through the group’s studio albums, which included Man Machine, Computer World, Techno Pop, Tour de France, and a remix album before slipping quietly out the back door around 2008 according to co-founder Ralph Hutter, the only other original member of the group. They ceased to release new material but have toured frequently since then. 

“Florian Schneider received co-writing and co-production credits on virtually every track they produced during the imperial phase that stretched from Autobahn to Computer World, but it wasn’t entirely clear what he did in the band,” writes The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis in his memorial piece. Yet it seems equally clear that Kraftwerk would never have existed without him. He started the band in the first place and he came up with their sound and look, their aesthetic that relied on public perception of their modernity, their sleekness, their German-ness. 

Besides that, he also created an insular group of sound experimenters who were sealed in their own musical universe without the need to be affected by record labels and marketplace considerations. They re-invested their profits into studio space or equipment, much the way any well-run company would do. In the words of Ralph Hutter, “We are not artists nor musicians. First of all we are workers.” 

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