Earlier this week, it was announced that founding member Florian Schneider of the legendary krautrock group Kraftwerk passed away after a long battle with cancer. Since his passing, fans and media alike have been taking time to examine the work of one of the progenitors of modern electronic music and their influence on music in general, and it’s not a small influence.
In their piece about Schneider’s passing, LA Weekly said Kraftwerk were more important to modern music than The Beatles, not just because of how ahead of their time they were but because of how they literally invented the bedrock of sound that’s in every genre from the 1970s onward; from punk to hard rock to pop to, of course, electronica. This is a technical legacy that can be tracked and qualified both through Kraftwerk’s own body of work and the work of countless thousands of artists since Ralf und Florian.
But what of Kraftwerk’s emotional legacy? With the group being electronic, scientifically crafted music on synthesizers, it stands to reason that Schneider, fellow founder Ralf Hütter and their numerous bandmates throughout their career would sit in the experimental section of electronica with Tangerine Dream, Musique Concrete and other contemporaries. Their reach was far beyond these other pioneers, however, and there are a number of reasons for this.
Kraftwerk’s biggest technical difference from other experimental musicians at the time was their ability to fold in elements of rock and punk in a time signature that was translatable and danceable. It connected with music fans and artists in other genres in a way that perhaps was more primordial than the more obscure sounds of other sound engineers. But this wasn’t the most important emotional connection Kraftwerk had with their audience.
In their extensive discography, from 1974’s Autobahn to 1978’s The Man-Machine, Computer World, Trans-Europe Express and to their more recent 2003 Tour De France Soundtracks, Kraftwerk were mostly known for being the weird robotic soundtrack to the 70s, 80s and 90s and the music was purposefully devoid of feeling. Hence the term “krautrock”; following the stereotype of Germans being cold and unemotional, especially post World War II. Anyone who’s been to a Kraftwerk show or has seen one on video or has really listened to the music knows that the absolute opposite is true.
In the 80s and early 90s, Germans and Europeans were absolutely rabid for Kraftwerk live shows and as the group toured Europe fans actually followed them like the Grateful Dead. These were not club shows either; most of the time the shows were seated and if there was dancing it was not the hedonistic rave style the group’s work would utilmately spawn. Why were fans so excited to go to Kraftwerk shows, then, if it was just computer music? What was so important about seeing them live?
As your author was a very young child in North America during most of Kraftwerk’s touring days, I didn’t get to experience a show until Ralf Hütter put the group together again for a world tour in 2016. As one of those fans who loves Kraftwerk and their influence but thought they were just about being exacting, robot-like and computer-influenced, I was stunned at the emotionality of the performance. Even with 3D glasses on, the melodies and the connection the members of the group had with them swelled over the audience in wave after wave of heart-rending feeling.
It wasn’t just the visuals; it was the energy provided by the band, standing mostly still behind their respective modulators. All these bleeps and bloops and seemingly ironic, unfeeling computer melodies turned into a sympohony of feeling. It became clear to myself and everyone in that theater in 2016 that the vocoder-style vocals, the repetitive and seemingly unemotional lyrics were actually there to connect electronic music with its makers and listeners like nothing had before or since. It was a heart connection and the music truly personified the “man-machine” connection. It was shocking, political, emotional, universal and beautiful and technical innovation aside, that primal and emotional connection is why Kraftwerk truly belong among the legends of any music genre.
Kraftwerk were set to do a 50th anniversary North American tour of their 3D show this year with dates to be added in Europe but most dates were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and some open air shows have already been rescheduled. It’s unclear as to whether Schneider had planned to be on the tour. What is almost certain is that once the group get touring again, there will be a large part of that emotion dedicated to one of its founding members. Florian Schneider’s legacy will live on for the forseeable future in Kraftwerk’s own shows, at punk shows, at raves and, of course, having “fun, fun fun on the Autobahn.”