The music world finds itself in mourning again. The death of Florian Schneider, one half of the brains behind Kraftwerk has been met with sadness across all fields of popular music. They’re also saluting a man who helped crack the code of electronic music, and provided the foundations of the next five decades of popular music. In essence, Schneider was Germany’s Alan Turing. The man, the enigma, the dreamer of a computer world that took music into the digital age. Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys claimed: “They started it all”. Some even dub them “the electronic Beatles” – a fair comparison.
In the newly formed Federal German Republic, a new sound is scaping a new future. Germany is on a new road, a road that diverts from the old one, a past still prevalent in the mind. This new road is paved with synthesisers, drum machines, and sequencers, located in the industrial heart of Düsseldorf. Two brilliant individuals: Ralf Hütter and the late Florian Schneider, are at the heart of a new musical revolution from an unlikely place. Kraftwerk was born. Electronic instruments had been in use before Kraftwerk; the avant-garde German composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen had experimented with electronics before. Many of his students would go on to form the Krautrock movement, including members of Can and Tangerine Dream. Kraftwerk were different from the other founders of Krautrock, they weren’t rock at all, they were a collective of innovators that saw the never ending possibilities of electronic music. Schneider and Hütter (along with later members Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür) used electronics to break from the conventions of classical music, the established “3 B’s” of German music: Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven.
The first taste of Kraftwerk’s unique approach to music was witnessed in their 1974 debut album ‘Autobahn’, inspired by the marvel of the German motorway, translating into music the way people live. The title track, lasting over 22 minutes, takes listeners on a journey, creating a Gestamkunstwerk, expressing modern life through a whole new way. Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der autobahn and you can’t help but feel a part of it. The bands love of machines and modes of transport would be at the heart of their following albums, ‘Radio-activität’, ‘Trans-Europe Express’, ‘The Man Machine’, and ‘Computer World’ forming the base for their robot-pop tag. Their onstage presence was also given the robotic treatment; the band created robot versions of themselves on-stage to create the aura of the machine. After Bartos, Flür, and Scheider left, the Kraftwerk 3-D project was launched. This would be exhibited across the world to move the Kraftwerk legacy well into the 21st century.
It is a high achievement to be more or less responsible for the next five decades of popular music. Kraftwerk simply were. From the 80s to the present day, they have appeared as an influence on multiple genres and more or less, every artist since – a list too long to go through. Every artist or band that picks up a synth, a drum-machine or any electronic instrument, did so because of Kraftwerk. Through vision, talent, and artistry, Kraftwerk created music for a new world. A world shaped by machines, algorithms, and the endless possibility of their abilities. Kaftwerk were the special enigma that cracked the secret code of modern music.