Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider, who has died at the age of 73, helped forge a new future for pop, changing the sounds and techniques of how music was made.
The US and the UK are often considered the twin crucibles of pop music but, thanks to Kraftwerk’s visionary synth music, Dusseldorf has at least an equal claim on the title.
In the mid-1970s, the band’s allegiance to what they called “robot pop” set the sonic template for everything from hip-hop to dance music.
In some quarters, they were called “the electronic Beatles”, and it’s hard to disagree.
Electronic music had existed before – from the musitron solo on Del Shannon’s Runaway to the mind-expanding Doctor Who theme, recorded by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1963.
But Kraftwerk developed a new musical vocabulary, sculpting hypnotic, low-frequency sounds that celebrated Europe’s romantic past and looked forward to its shimmering future.
‘Circuitry and soul’
On albums like Trans-Europe Express and Man Machine, the quartet connected “the coldness of circuitry and the warmth of the soul”, wrote music critic Garry Mulholland, “reminding us that machines are, after all, the product of the dreams of humans”.
Among those who took notice were David Bowie, who borrowed their industrial atmospherics on Low; and Afrika Bambaataa, who lifted the icy riff from Trans-Europe Express to power one of rap’s earliest anthems, Planet Rock.
In turn, those records spawned the New Romantic, synth pop and hip-hop movements of the 80s, which later bled into trance, house and EDM.
“They started it all,” said Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe in 1990.
Kraftwerk emerged from the same German experimental music community of the late ’60s that spawned Can and Tangerine Dream.
Founders Florian Schneider and Ralf Hütter met as students at Dusseldorf Conservatory, but rebelled against the constraints of classical music.
“We don’t want to end up playing Mozart and Beethoven at our local concert hall,” Hütter said. “The question is, ‘What does Germany sound like today?’ That’s where we started.”
They adopted the name Kraftwerk, meaning “power plant”, and described themselves as “klangchemiker” – or sound chemists – immersing themselves in the possibilities of emerging new technology.
Schneider even invented some instruments of his own, including an electronic flute and a vocoder-style synthesizer called the Robovox.
Kraftwerk’s first three albums were free-form improvisations, largely played on traditional instruments, and are not considered by the band to be part of their “official” discography.
In 1974, they settled on their definitive sound with Autobahn, a 22-minute synth symphony intended to evoke the feeling of a long journey on Germany’s motorways.
Edited down to three minutes, it earned the band a top 40 hit on both sides of the Atlantic – and they later appeared on BBC technology programme Tomorrow’s World to demonstrate their “machinemusik”.
But not everyone was impressed. In the era of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, the music press treated the pioneers with a sneering suspicion.
“For God’s sake, keep the robots out of music,” wrote Melody Maker’s Keith Ging.
“They sound so detached,” complained the NME. “The kind of guys who could blow up the planet just to hear the noise it made.”
Their cold, sleek image only fuelled the fire, but critics often missed the sly humour at work in the band’s music.
Take, for example, Showroom Dummies from 1977’s Trans-Europe Express album – a deadpan riposte to their portrayal as emotionless machines. They took the joke to its logical conclusion on 1978’s The Robots.
In 1982, they scored their biggest hit, reaching number one in the UK with The Model – a searing takedown of the fashion industry. But by that point, their sound had become mainstream.
Gary Numan scored a number one hit in 1979 with the synth-heavy Are ‘Friends’ Electric, paving the way for bands like OMD, Depeche Mode and The Human League, who took Kraftwerk’s sounds and transposed them to the industrial cities of England.
Bowie was also a fan, describing their sound as the “folk music of the factories”, and paying homage on his classic Berlin album Heroes with the track V-2 Schneider. Kraftwerk returned the favour by namechecking him and Iggy Pop on Trans-Europe Express.
As their output slowed in the 1980s, the band’s sound became the bedrock of early hip-hop. In subsequent years, their music has been sampled by everyone from Dr Dre and The Chemical Brothers to Justin Timberlake and The KLF.
Even Coldplay lifted elements of the band’s song Computer Love as the central motif to their 2005 song Talk.
Three years later, Schneider left the band – but by that point their legacy as the forefathers of electronic music was assured.
“They are in the psyche of modern pop, whether there is an awareness of it or not,” Underworld’s Karl Hyde told The Telegraph in 2013.
Martin Gore of Depeche Mode added: “For anyone of our generation involved in electronic music, Kraftwerk were the godfathers.”