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Date: 07/05/20

Ein Held Weniger

Photo of Florian Schneider

Florian Schneider-Esleben
Musician and composer
b. 7 April 1947, d. 21 April 2020

Ach! Im Namen von...! This is a time of Scheißlichkeit indeed.

Anyone following this blog (possibly with a bucket and shovel) over the seventeen years of its existence - and I've just renewed the domain for another year, by the way - will know of my near-fanaticism for The Boys From Düsseldorf. If you're comparatively new here, then try here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (you get the picture? "Ja, wir sehen!"). So it was that yesterday afternoon's news of the passing of Florian Schneider came like a twenty-tonne truck down the autobahn.

Schneider (he dropped the second part of his surname in the mid-1970s) was the son of a noted architect (who designed Germany's first multi-storey car park, amongst other things) and first met future collaborator Ralf Hütter at the Academy of Arts in Remscheid, later forming the experimental band Organisation (after Schneider had briefly been a member of an avant-garde outfit called Pissoff).

After one poor-selling LP, the pair left and formed Kraftwerk, which is where Schneider's significant contribution to modern music really begins. The first two albums were similarly experimental, with Schneider being prominent on the flute (as he had been in his previous bands). Here he is, breathlessly leading on Ruckzuck, the opening track of that first LP in 1970:

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Hütter left Kraftwerk briefly to finish his studies, leaving Schneider to be the only constant member of the band up to 2008. When the two met up again, they produced Kraftwerk 2 (1972) which, like its predecessor, contained no synths of any description, the treatment of the various instruments being done by tape effects and similar trickery. Like its successor, 1973's Ralf And Florian, Kraftwerk constituted a duo on this LP, but the latter work marked a clear shift to electronics. As Schneider (like Hütter) came from quite a wealthy background, the purchase of synthesisers was not too great a burden for them (although they cost the same as a VW Beetle at that time).

1974 was, of course, the great breakthrough, with the release of Autobahn in the November of that year. Although the shift to electronics was more pronounced, there were still 'traditional' instruments to be heard, notably on two of the tracks on side two. It was, however, on the title track that Kraftwerk - now effectively a three-piece with the addition of percussionist Wolfgang Flür - most successfully combined the two sounds. Here follows perhaps the most sublime musical moment of my life, the second section of Autobahn which - as I've remarked previously - puts the lie to any notion of synth-led music being 'cold' and 'emotionless', and in which Florian's flute plays a prominent part:

Graphic of an ear

1975's Radio-Activity marked the point where non-electronic instruments vanished completely from the band's sound, laying the foundation for all that came afterwards.

It is at this point where it becomes difficult to establish which of the co-leaders of Kraftwerk - now a four-piece with the addition of second percussionist Karl Bartos - actually did what. But this befits an outfit which had begun to develop a definite aesthetic; the rise of the robots.

It is likely that Schneider was the instigator of this move towards a merged automaton-like entity; he it was who said that there were times when the machines started playing them. By 1977's Trans-Europe Express, this image had become firmly established; serious-looking men with short-cropped hair (those who had it; Schneider was losing his a little faster than his chief collaborator), suits and ties. This was taken to its extreme on the following year's The Man-Machine - perhaps the band's most successful overall concept - in which the four members were dressed absolutely identically in red shirts, black ties and grey trousers (leading to a certain amount of wilful misinterpretation of the symbolism by those - especially in the English music press - who kept seeing Nazi imagery where it wasn't).

But it was at this point that Schneider's rôle becomes somewhat opaque. Only half of the tracks on The Man-Machine credited him as a co-writer, with Bartos having a more prominent input to compositions, although Florian's composer credits did increase to five out of the seven tracks on 1981's Computer World and to all six tracks on 1986's Electric Café. 1991's The Mix saw Schneider and Hütter as the sole members of the band, reworking eleven of their classic tracks for a new era of club music.

2003's Tour De France Soundtracks (Kraftwerk's most recent studio effort) saw Schneider's credits back down to just six of the eleven new tracks on the album, and then Schneider left the band altogether in 2008.

There has been speculation as to why he decided to go (and speculation is usually the only way of trying to determine what goes on with this band): Hütter stated that Schneider had not contributed a great deal to the band in the years leading up to his departure; he also said that Florian had wanted to pursue new projects, such as the development of voice synthesis; and it was well enough known that Schneider disliked touring, which was all Kraftwerk was doing by that time (and all they are still doing, having turned themselves - in a very accomplished manner, natch - into their own tribute band).

During the last decade of his life, Florian Schneider produced very little new material: a 27-minute-long track from 2014, A Trip To The Academy At Remscheid; and 2016's Stop Plastic Pollution, a track co-written with Telex's Dan Lacksman - another electro-pop pioneer - inspired by Schneider's experience of swimming off the coast of Ghana and seeing the local fishermen hauling in more pollution that food in their nets:

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His private life was - like Hütter's - a closely-guarded affair. It was known that he had a daughter, but beyond that...?

Even by Kraftwerkian standards, Florian Schneider was a reticent man, even to the point of literally running away from potential interviewers, or giving deadpan, monosyllabic answers to any hack who did manage to corner him.

But - perhaps by contradiction - he was the humour of the band, despite his rather forbidding - if not scary - physiognomy (I once suggested only partly in jest that he was the painting in Ralf Hütter's attic). He had a straight-faced drollery about him which often played to the fans' expectations; there are tales of him being completely motionless for the whole of a concert, save for one moment when he would bring cheers from the faithful by an almost negligently expansive movement of one arm.

He lived his life as he chose, even if that did mean that the comparatively few photographs of him in recent years did show him dressed more like a prosperous farmer from the Schwarzwald rather than what he was, one of the great innovators in the history of modern music.

Danke, Herr Schneider, für die Musik und die Inspiration.