Florian Schneider, co-founder and keyboardist of the influential German electronic music group Kraftwerk, has died at the age of 73.
“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,” the band said in a statement.
“In the year 1968, Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider started their artistic and musical collaboration,” the statement continued. “In 1970, they founded their electronic Kling Klang studio in Düsseldorf and started the multi-media project Kraftwerk. All the Kraftwerk catalogue albums were conceived and produced there.”
Formed by Schneider and Hütter in the late Sixties, Kraftwerk’s pioneering use of keyboards and synthesizers would later inspire artists in all genres of the musical spectrum, from rock and electronic music to hip-hop and pop.
While undergoing numerous lineup changes over the Seventies and Eighties, the partnership of Schneider and Hütter remained the group’s creative backbone. The duo recorded three albums alongside famed Krautrock producer Conny Plank — 1970’s Kraftwerk, 1971’s Kraftwerk 2 and 1973’s Ralf und Florian — but the band itself considered their 1974 album Autobahn to be the true start of their famed catalogue, which earned the group a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
In 1970, an early iteration of the group — then comprised of Schneider, Hutter, and drummer Klaus Dinger — made their television debut on the German music TV show Rockpalast. While hewing more to their psychedelic, avant-garde roots than the electronic explorations that would define their sound, the group performed to a sea of bemused attendees, who looked on skeptically at the droning beats and warped flute and Hammond organ sounds.
But it was on Autobahn that Schneider and Hütter solidified the Kraftwerk sound: Hypnotically looping and repetitive beats and synths and vocoded vocals to create boundless soundscapes that, like in the case of the influential title track, could span the entire side of a record. “Kraftwerk is not a band,” Schneider told Rolling Stone in 1975. “It’s a concept. We call it ‘Die Menschmaschine,’ which means ‘the human machine.’ We are not the band. I am me. Ralf is Ralf. And Kraftwerk is a vehicle for our ideas.”
With their Kling Klang studio in Dusseldorf their official outpost, Kraftwerk — Now joined by Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur on electronic percussion — released 1975’s Radio-Activity and 1977’s Trans-Europe Express; the latter album – inspired by David Bowie’s 1976 LP Station to Station and lyrically reminiscent about a Kling Kling visit by Bowie and Iggy Pop – would foster a mutual admiration between the two artists, with Bowie’s Heroes track “V-2 Schneider” an ode to the Kraftwerk keyboardist.
Schneider was a flautist prior to his forays into synthesizers. “Florian came from the flute; we were at the same school and he was in the classical orchestra, but at that time he was already manipulating sound with gadgets like equalizer, delay and fuzzbox,” one-time Kraftwerk member and founding Neu! guitarist Michael Rother told Uncut in 2016. “The results sounded electronic, but it was not anything near computers or synthesizers.”
While Hütter was the voice and mouthpiece of Kraftwerk, the notoriously press-shy Schneider — the son of the architect Paul Schneider-Esleben, who designed Germany’s Bonn Airport — is credited with navigating the band toward its boundary-pushing limits. “Florian is a sound fetishist. I am not so much, I’m maybe more a word fetishist,” Hütter told Mojo in 2005. “These roles are not an obligation; they have just developed over the years as our preferences.”
As the progenitors of electronic-pop, Kraftwerk lived up to their reputation with a pair of albums — 1978’s The Man-Machine and 1981’s Computer World — that leaned into their almost-robotic machinations; in 2005, Coldplay, with Kraftwerk’s blessing, retooled the latter album’s “Computer Love” for the band’s hit “Talk.” Schneider and Hütter’s joint love of cycling would next result in the 1983 single “Tour de France”; the duo would revisit the theme for their final studio album together, 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks. Five years later, Schneider left Kraftwerk, leaving Hütter as the band’s only remaining member.
Ahead of their time musically, the band was not embraced and often misunderstood by American audiences upon touring the U.S. in the mid-Seventies. However, Kraftwerk’s impact traversed the musical spectrum: Afrika Bambaataa’s groundbreaking 1982 single “Planet Rock” interpolated the group’s “Numbers” and “Trans-Europe Express,” with the latter track also employed by Dr. Dre on the Jay-Z collaboration “Under Pressure.” The group would frequently be sampled by hip-hop acts over the ensuing decades, leading to a landmark trademark lawsuit.
Techno innovators like Juan Atkins also spoke often how Kraftwerk influenced the dance music emerging out of Detroit at the time. “Affordable synthesizers didn’t really come out until the launch of the Minimoog and the Korg MS-10,” Atkins told Detroit Music Magazine in 2015. “This enabled kids like myself to be able to buy one and experiment. I think along with that it became popular and kind of expanded from there.”
“Kraftwerk were a huge influence on the early hip-hop scene, and they basically invented electro, which has had a huge influence on contemporary R&B and pop,” Moby told the New York Times in 2009. “Kraftwerk are to contemporary electronic music what the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are to contemporary rock music.” In 2019, Kraftwerk was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although the group was not selected as part of the Class of 2020.
“There is no beginning and no end in music,” Schneider told Rolling Stone of Kraftwerk’s music in 1975. “Some people want it to end. But it goes on.”