Friday, May 8, 2020

Life is Timeless, Music Endless

It's yet another bad occurrence in a bad, bad year- the death of Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider, who succumbed to cancer in April. I've never made bones about being a big Kraftwerk fan, having first heard their single Tour de France on the Storied WLIR as a youth. It was like hearing music from the future, a song that Captain Kirk would listen to on a classical music station. The impact of Kraftwerk's oeuvre on subsequent popular music cannot be underestimated- not only were they a major influence on electronic music genres, they were also a big influence on hip-hop and rock and roll. Simply put, they've been sampled by a wide variety of subsequent artists, as attested to by the numerous tributes to the man and his music. Billboard has a staff pick of the 10 best Kraftwerk songs that I find no fault with, and it's a nice introduction to the band's music. Kraftwerk's DNA is embedded in subsequent music, as Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield put it, they rewired popular music.

Described as a 'sound fetishist' by longtime collaborated Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider started off his career as a multi-instrumentalist, playing flute and saxophone, violin and guitar. Then something happened:

"I had studied seriously up to a certain level, then I found it boring; I looked for other things, I found that the flute was too limiting... Soon I bought a microphone, then loudspeakers, then an echo, then a synthesizer. Much later I threw the flute away; it was a sort of process."

Herren Schneider and Hütter got their start in a band called Organisation zur Verwirklichung gemeinsamer Musikkonzepte, which released one album, Tone Float, before dissolving. Milk Rock gives us a hint of what is to come, with its sweeping electric organ, but the funky bassline is 'messier' than Kraftwerk's eventual precision:

Unfortunately, Kraftwerk seemed to have disavowed their earlier albums, not playing any of the songs live, not re-issuing the early catalog, and generally ignoring their pre-1974 work as non-canon. It's a shame, because their earlier material is more experimental, being messy and fun, a blend of jazz, electronic noodling, and musique concrete. Their later material, the result of successful experimentation, is polished and lush, stripped of any acoustic anarchism. Here's a live version of Ruckzuck from 1970's Kraftwerk, the band's first album, featuring Florian Schneider on flute:

I dig this a lot... Florian Schneider could have been the Ian Anderson of techno! One can also detect the origins of the band's hit Trans Europe Express in the flute riff.

1972's Kraftwerk 2 opens with Klingklang, a seventeen minute sonic odyssey which gave its name to the studio the band opened in Düsseldorf. I would characterize it as a 'mission statement', but for the fact that it is among the early material abandoned by the band:

In 1973, Kraftwerk contracted to a duo, and released the album Ralf und Florian. They were joined by future bandmate, percussionist Wolfgang Flür, for a promotional video for the gorgeous Tanzmusik:

1974's Autobahn, marking the debut of Kraftwerk as a four-piece, marks the beginning of the band's 'canon' and the beginning of their international success. The album version of the title track is a side-long epic of almost twenty-three minutes. The song's chorus 'Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn' seems to echo the Beach Boys' Fun Fun Fun, but the song is not about driving to get a hamburger, but about driving to Hamburg, Herr. Here's a shorter version of the song, recorded for American television:

Kraftwerk's 1075 Radio-Activity marked the band's transition to full electronic instrumentation, and the wistful, almost plaintive title track plays on the dual meanings of 'radioactivity' and 'radio activity'. I particularly like the use of the electronic drum pads to simulate static:

Later versions of the song eschewed the dualism of the original, transforming the song into an environmentalist anthem (STROBE EFFECT WARNING):

Commonly regarded as the band's masterpiece, 1977's Trans-Europe Express is a love letter to Europe. The title track name drops Iggy Pop and Dejvid Bovi as well as Bovi's Station to Station album, and the coda Metal on Metal, which emulates the noise of a train, is a nice example of musique concrete and a proto 'industrial' music track:

1978's The Man-Machine can be seen as a mission statement, being rooted in a concept described by Florian Schneider in a 1975 interview with Rolling Stone:

“Kraftwerk is not a band. 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.”

The title track of the album bookends the album, like opening track, Die Roboter, having similar subject matter. To me, Die Roboter is the more interesting of the two songs:

The band's signature look at this stage was gently lampooned in The Big Lebowski.

1981's Computer World was a paean to technology, with Computer Love presaging the internet dating app era with its mention of 'data dates'. Meanwhile, Pocket Calculator is perhaps Kraftwerk's funniest song, with a self-deprecating bit about what happens when the 'special key' is pressed:

A special musical calculator
was developed to promote the single, something I wish I'd known as a teenager.

In 1983, the single Tour de France, my introduction to the band, was released. In a testament to the band's popularity in New York City, the song is used to open up the Tour de Bronx bicycle ride every October:

The band went on a recording hiatus, but released Electric Café in 1986. My favorite song from the album is The Telephone Call:

After Electric Café, the band released a bunch of remixes and live albums, with 1991's The Mix being a good introduction to the band, a sort of 'greatest hits' album of rerecorded tracks. As an example of the updated sound on the album, here's the uptempo 1991 version of The Robots:

Florian Schneider left Kraftwerk in 2008, but he released another environmental track, Stop Plastic Pollution, in 2015 Here's a video of the man himself talking about the importance of ocean conservation before playing the song:

So long, and thanks for all the beats, Florian!

This post took a while to compose, most of the time gloriously spent listening to Kraftwerk's discography, a lot of that hunting down the obscure early stuff that I wish the band had embraced in its maturity, stuff which I now rank among my favorite Kraftwerk songs. I even tracked down a bunch of tributes from musicians who were inspired by Florian, including a hot take that I agree with.

Years ago, I found a documentary on Kraftwerk's influence on electronic music. It's a fun film, for anyone interested in a deep dive:

Rest in peace, mein Herr, you're place in the pantheon of popular music is assured.

Post title inspired by the glorious Europe Endless and the amusing Music Non-Stop


DocAmazing said...

This is a weekend for dead giants of popular music: Little Richard Penniman, definer of most of what is timeless about rock & roll, has died.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Thanks, Doc, this year just keeps getting worse.