Tim Sommer bids Auf Wiedersehen to Herr Schneider, a man responsible for a half-century of innovation in pop musik
I write these words on May 8, 2020, the 75th anniversary of the surrender of the Third Reich and the end of the war in Europe. On the shattered continent, May 8, 1945 was Day One of Year Zero. Florian Schneider, who we celebrate today, was a product of Year Zero, and we have so much to learn from him, because soon it will be Year Zero here, too.
Florian Schneider, the co-founder and co-leader of one of the two most important pop bands of all time, has passed at age 73. It is a challenge to contextualize what a giant Schneider was, especially since he spoke almost exclusively through his careful, monumental work and a deliberately curated, mostly invisible public presence. I am going to try to explain why Schneider, who did not make cutesy appearances on Jimmy Fallon, who did not attend awards shows and link arms with a grinning Tom Hanks, who did not strut across stages doing age defying acrobatics in front of swampy legions of bare-armed fans, was one of the absolutely most important musicians of our era. In fact, he was his era – the Perfect Sound of Rebellion and Joy, i.e. the Perfect Sound of Year Zero – and he was our era – it is arguable that no artist had more of an impact on the shape of 21st Century Pop (the Beatles, of course, leaving their cake frosting stained fingers all over the last third of the 20th Century).
It is not just that Kraftwerk invented the future; it is that they invented the future out of whole cloth. It is not just that Kraftwerk invented the future out of whole cloth; it is that a startling amount of the music you hear today, environmentally and with intention, from the most obscure indie rock to the most mainstream pop to literally every suffering inch in-between, bears the impression of their invention.
The complex, beautiful evolution of rock ‘n’ roll is not a simple story. Every genre pioneer, every “father,” has a dozen or more antecedents: Scratch Chuck Berry, and you find Louis Jordan; scrape off the Clash’s spiky façade, and you’ll see the greaser haircuts of Dr. Feelgood; peel away the Velvet Underground’s banana, and the drones of La Monte Young and Tony Conrad emerge; poke at Elvis’s bruised lips, and Wynonie Harris, Hardrock Gunter, even Dean Martin is revealed; and on and on. In rock and pop there is virtually no spontaneous combustion. Everything is a gorgeous story of causation, addition, and subtraction.
There is one gigantic exception.
Kraftwerk didn’t just pioneer a genre; they literally materialized it out of thin air. Until the moment “Autobahn” hit the airwaves in the autumn of 1974, nothing like it had ever existed.
Of course, many cult artists and composers working outside of the mainstream have revealed exceptional originality and invention: Suicide, Terry Riley, Sunn O))), these are all artists who didn’t just raise the bar, they built entirely new ones; like Kraftwerk, they defied the laws of dependent origination. But none of these artists, impactful as they might have been, re-set the broad landscape of international pop as visibly and constantly as Kraftwerk.
In 1974, Düsseldorf’s Kraftwerk transposed the entire idea and form of a simple pop band into synthetic terms, and placed cheerfully familiar pop modes within this entirely synthetic and rhythmic framework. Today, the idea of (partially or wholly) synthetic pop is so common that it seems odd to consider that one single artist indisputably did it first; but that is the case. Think of it this way: When you see a “standard” band with an electric guitar, electric bass, standard trap kit drummer and a vocalist, you may think, Oh, those guys remind me of Sonic Youth, or Arcade Fire, or the Strokes, or Springsteen, or the Eagles, or the Rascals, etcetera; but you don’t ever, ever think, oh, these guys remind me of that band who were the first band ever to use an electric guitar, electric bass, standard trap kit drummer, and a vocalist. You can’t think of that band – the certifiably first electric pop rock combo — because that band does not exist.
But all synthetic pop, each and every occurrence of a synthetic drum or synthetic bass pulse in a song, can be traced back to one freaking group. It’s like finding out that Adam and Eve really existed.
Secondly, let’s talk about Florian Schneider’s specific role (which, even amidst the flurry of smart and justifiably hyperbolic obits, hasn’t been fully appreciated): Until he left the band in 2008, Florian Schneider was the only member of Kraftwerk who had appeared at every Kraftwerk gig, on every TV and radio appearance, and on every record (the band’s other towering figure, Ralf Hütter, left the band for about a year in 1971). And it was during Hütter’s gap year that Schneider oversaw the conception – if not the actual birth, it is fair to say that came later – of the band’s radical, perfect, simple, shocking new sound. While Hütter was absent, Kraftwerk featured Schneider (on flute, keys, and sound treatments), Michael Rother (on guitar), and Klaus Dinger (on drums). Before we explain why that was such a seismic triad, let’s rewind just an inch: Kraftwerk’s 1970 debut album (and the music of Schneider and Hütter’s earlier band, Organisation), featured a sound that was an often wonderful blend of free jazz, music concréte, misappropriated yet fascinating ethnic forgeries, and a somewhat spacey, almost terrifically childish take on NYC avant minimalism (imagine a bunch of punk kids pretending to be Sun Ra, the Velvets, Moondog, Tony Conrad, and Ravi Shankar all at once, and you have some idea of where Schneider and Hütter were at prior to 1971). The 1969 – ’70 Organisation/Kraftwerk sound was interesting and sometimes wonderful, but they are, essentially, a band with no clear path to the identity of the atom-splitting pop of the post-1973 Kraftwerk.
But in 1971, the Schneider/Dinger/Rother Kraftwerk stumbled on to something, something enormous. They may not have realized it quite yet; they may have just been trying to channel the Stooges or Blue Cheer through the Velvets’ ultra-minimalism (specifically, the stripped-down buzz an’ clump of “Heroin,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” or “Sister Ray”). In any event, Schneider, Dinger, and Rother took the sometimes beautiful/sometimes careening random noise burst technique that Kraftwerk/Organisation had been working with up to that point, and set it to a thumping unrelenting, Teutonic pulse. This heartbeat churn was defined by Dinger’s Moe Tucker-marching-to-war caveman drums, and Rother’s tick-tock guitar, alternately telling the time with hypnotic arpeggios and time travelling with humming harmonic feedback. Though never fully documented on record (there are, however, numerous stunning TV and radio performance clips), the mesmeric pulse (with fairly clear origins in La Monte Young and the slow-drones of the Velvets) that developed under Schneider’s watch was the ultrasound of the future of music. About eighteen months later, the ultrasound squiggles grew into the shape of a nearly fully formed Future Baby: When Schneider and Hütter translated the mesmerhytm of the Dinger/Rother Kraftwerk to synthesizers, they had the Eureka moment, the shot heard around the world. On 1973’s Ralf und Florian and ‘74’s Autobahn, for all intents and purposes they simply transposed the hypnotic apache beat and harmonic guitars of the ’71 Kraftwerk to synthetic instruments, and added a whole lot of sugar in place of the speed.
(It is important to note that although I use the word “synthetic,” Kraftwerk – certainly in ’74 and ’75, and as late as ’78 – were very much playing their instruments, operating and twisting and plucking and poking their machines in real time; wondrous clips from ’74 reveal a band not played by machines, but playing their machines; in this sense, the continuity with the “rock ‘n’ roll era” Kraftwerk of Schneider, Dinger, and Rother remained.)
Dinger and Rother took this same blueprint, retained (for the most part) the simple guitar/drum architecture, and created one of the world’s most hypnotic and pure rock bands, Neu!. Neu! are, of course, Kraftwerk’s twin, but Neu! aspired to reshape the art of rock, whereas Kraftwerk aspired to rebuild the world of pop. From the first moment Kraftwerk re-emerged as a synth-based band (with Ralf und Florian), and from the first photos (during that same era) that revealed Florian Schneider in the short, well-combed hair and the neat, colorless business suit of a slightly bourgeois accountant or stockbroker, it was clear that Kraftwerk – and specifically Florian Schneider — had something else on their mind: Nothing less than the building of a new business of pop.
Thirdly, let’s talk about Pop in The Year Zero.
Now, I don’t need to tell you this, but look outside. It is Year Zero. We do not know what the landscape for live and recorded music and music commerce will look like when this thing is passed, but it is safe to assume it will be scorched earth. The music economy on every level will be desolation, rubble, piles of bricks and blasted dreams. But scorched earth presents opportunity. It always has.
In Year Zero, you may rebuild pop anyway you want. There is not a pot of gold at the end of this disaster, but there is a pot of emptiness, to be filled by you. Emptiness is brilliant. Emptiness laughs at the establishment and says, “You have failed.” The very greatest opportunities emerge from scorched landscapes. All the great and revolutionary movements in art and music arise from a reaction to desolation.
Sometimes that desolation is a true blasted landscape, a scarcity of resources or social structure. Other times, it is a scarcity of moral resources or originality. Right now, we are facing both. On the first hand, most of the extant music industry structure – from saloons to major labels to the giant concert promoter – will not survive the current climate; on the other hand, what will survive – the deeply facile and flawed “talent show” environment – is literally based on extinguishing the originality that music (or any art form) needs to survive and regenerate. Scorched earth provides opportunity; the prime time talent show environment provides the degeneracy that invites regeneration and invention.
Year Zero is where we can rebuild a better future.
Kraftwerk proved that. Kraftwerk, more than ever, should be our model. Efficient, adorable, so imitable that they are utterly unique (a quality they share with their other spiritual twins, the Ramones), they took the ashes, sticks and bones of a shattered culture, threw them in the air, and when they landed took the form of beautiful, awe-inspiring polished monoliths of pop.
Imagine if every city in your country was a disordered pile of bricks and metal and flesh, the chimneys and church steeples replaced by fingers of brick and pipe. Imagine being a child in such a country! Your toy stores, your food markets, your schoolrooms, each and every one of them streaked with the blood of the maimed and the dead. This was Germany after the Second World War. This is where the men who made Kraftwerk came into the world.
Even if you were born a year or two after the last bomb had fallen and the last fire extinguished, the people who raised you, bathed you, spanked you and praised you had known terror as surely as they knew your face. And as soon as you had memory, as soon as you had words to attach to objects or history, you knew that not only were your parents survivors, but they had also been the targets of death; perhaps they had even been the merchants of death. Every moment of your young life, every moment your eyes were open, you saw the guilty, you saw the bruised, the beaten, the burnt.
What kind of pop would come out of this landscape? What, my friends, would the Beach Boys have sounded like if they were born in smashed Berlin, and not Hawthorne, California? What would the Ramones have sounded like if they attended nursery school in smoking Dusseldorf, and not Forest Hills, Queens? What would the Beatles have sounded like if they had been raised by the losers and not the winners, if they carried the guilt of Buchenwald Concentration Camp, and not the silliness of Butlins Holiday Camp?
Kraftwerk were the children of destruction, seeking not evolution, but resurrection. In America and the U.K. in the 1960s, young people may have felt socially obligated to rebel against their elders; but in West Germany, you were morally compelled to rebel. In the United States, although young people created political action groups that were in pronounced opposition to the status quo (the Weatherman, the Black Panthers, the Students for a Democratic Society, etcetera), by and large the music of that generation was adamantly conformist; even when it sneered a little bit or turned up the volume, it was structurally and harmonically the same stuff Bing Crosby or Pat Boone had made (with a few lyrical tweaks, Rudy Valee could have sung “Light My Fire”). But in West Germany, the sound of electric rock music equaled the aggression and adventure of youth’s political energy, fueled by a generation’s desire to annihilate the past. Kraftwerk, somehow, found the exact sweet spot between annihilation and attraction.
We need Kraftwerk more than ever, and Kraftwerk are more perfect than ever (I have argued that their 2018 live re-vision of their entire post 1974 body of work, 3D The Catalogue, is one of the greatest and most essential albums of this century). Even though Florian Schneider left the band in 2008, the group remains a monument to his startling achievement, the unprecedented invention of Schneider and Hütter, a reminder that something profoundly revolutionary, so inventive as to be unprecedented, can also be supremely pop. The future of pop in Year Zero does not involve imitation, it involves Adorable Revolution, it involves reminding everyone that the greatest reason to make music is because you cannot find the music you want to hear, the greatest reason to make art is because the only thing you want to put up on your wall is the strange, original, and beautiful ideas you have in your head.
Sometimes, an idea will be so obvious to you that you will wonder why no one else has done it. So do it. This is what drove Florian Schneider, Picasso and the Ramones, and it can drive you, too. What is the original idea right in front of your nose? Honor Florian Schneider’s life by finding the original idea, by salvaging art from these savage times.
I have written about Kraftwerk, one of my very favorite bands, on many occasions; therefore, out of a desire to leave Herr Schneider with the best tribute I am capable of, for this piece I borrowed concepts from stories I have written in the near and distant past for The Observer, the LA Weekly, and The Big Takeover. I thank all of these publications and especially thank Andy Hermann, Ken Kurson, Jack Rabid and Cole Garner Hill.
AUDIO: Kraftwerk Megamix