Florian Schneider, the musician who helped introduce electronic sounds and instrumentation into the pop mainstream as the co-founder of Kraftwerk, has died. He was 73.
According to a statement from the band, “Kraftwerk co-founder and electro pioneer Ralf Hütter has sent us the very sad news that his friend and companion over many decades Florian Schneider has passed away from a short cancer disease just a few days after his 73rd birthday.”
Schneider and Hütter met as students in late-1960s Düsseldorf. After playing in a variety of experimental and improvisational groups, the duo started Kraftwerk—named for the German term for “power plant”—in 1970. While the group started out playing acoustic instruments manipulated with electronic effects, Schneider’s purchase of a synthesizer eventually pointed the way forward. His violin and flute can still be heard on 1974’s Autobahn, but that album and its 22-minute title track laid the groundwork that would distinguish Kraftwerk from the other, so-called “krautrock” acts associated with producer Konrad “Conny” Plank: The vocoded voices, the electronically looping melodies and beats implying a trip down the song’s namesake roadway, the refrain—“Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn”—a cheeky tweak of rock convention.
Technology, the modern world, the continent, deceptive appearances—the musical and lyrical themes that were eventually recognized as Kraftwerk hallmarks came into focus on subsequent, entirely electronic releases Radio-Activity and Trans-Europe Express. As the group refined its sound, its look and live performances followed suit, with uniform wardrobes and mechanical choreography to match the minimal, sequenced contents of albums like The Man-Machine and Computer World. In their increasingly ambitious concerts, the group would even replace itself with artificial stand-ins for the Man-Machine single “The Robots.”
“We are robots,” Schneider once said. “We have become robots through our experience of working and living. We are just musical workers.”
1986’s Electric Café marked the final Kraftwerk studio release until 2003’s Tour De France, but the band’s influence would linger. Entire genres of electronic and dance music wouldn’t exist without the work Schneider and Hütter did alongside Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos. They more or less invented synthpop, developing the “Are we not men?” context for Devo and Gary Numan. Their visions of a mechanized future that is neither utopia nor dystopia was embraced by the Detroiters who created techno; early hip-hop hit “Planet Rock” re-worked the instrumental breaks of “Trans-Europe Express.” The latter song gives a shoutout to Iggy Pop and David Bowie, a favor Bowie—his “Berlin Trilogy” so heavily indebted to Kraftwerk and their Teutonic compatriots in Neu! and Tangerine Dream—repaid by naming a “Heroes” track after Schneider.
Schneider announced his departure from Kraftwerk in 2008. With Hütter as its sole remaining original member, the group has continued to tour: A round of 50th anniversary concerts—now canceled due to COVID-19—were planned for 2020, the same year when Kraftwerk is due to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.