Watch Florian Schneider (RIP) in Classic Early Kraftwerk Performances

The sev­en­ties, am I right….?

Not that I can claim to have expe­ri­enced it first­hand. But if I could have been a wit­ness to any peri­od in pop his­to­ry it would have been the decade in which exper­i­men­tal fusion move­ments invad­ed rock and roll. There was Miles Davis and his pro­tegees, of course. But there was much more besides: The Wail­ers’ fusion of rock, reg­gae, and soul; Fela Kuti’s fusion of Ghana­ian high life, James Brown funk, and Niger­ian jazz; Ryuchi Sakamoto’s fusion of indige­nous, clas­si­cal, and elec­tron­ic dance music….

Few of these influ­en­tial inter­na­tion­al artists became wide­ly known among U.S. audi­ences at the time, but we have their music to thank for some of the most inter­est­ing direc­tions post-punk and New Wave bands would take.

One of the most influ­en­tial artists of the sev­en­ties, the recent­ly depart­ed Flo­ri­an Schnei­der, who resem­bled an office man­ag­er at a Ger­man Dun­der-Mif­flin, was tru­ly an unlike­ly char­ac­ter for major inter­na­tion­al star­dom. And yet the mild-man­nered flautist from Düs­sel­dorf co-found­ed one of the most famous exper­i­men­tal fusion bands of all time with class­mate Ralf Hüt­ter.

I’m talk­ing about Kraftwerk, of course, though the label “fusion” may not espe­cial­ly come to mind when think­ing of the robot­ic Ger­man funk of the band’s major eight­ies’ releas­es. But Kraftwerk first emerged from the psych-blues-jazz-con­cep­tu­al-elec­tron­ic hybrid of the so-called “krautrock” scene, a some­what deri­sive label applied to bands like Pop­ul Vuh, Tan­ger­ine Dream, Can, and Neu!, one of the most obscure­ly influ­en­tial bands of the decade, and one whose two members—guitarist Michael Rother and drum­mer Klaus Dinger—played in an ear­ly ver­sion of Kraftwerk. “We had no father fig­ures,” says Hüt­ter. “We were part of this ’68 move­ment, where sud­den­ly there were pos­si­bil­i­ties, and we per­formed at hap­pen­ings and art sit­u­a­tions.”

For a brief time, in fact, Kraftwerk con­sist­ed only of Rother, Dinger, and Flo­ri­an Schnei­der on the flute. They made one appear­ance in this con­fig­u­ra­tion on the Ger­man TV pro­gram Beat Club. See them at the top play “Rück­stoss-Gon­do­liere.” No, it’s not at all like “Auto­bahn,” although syn­the­siz­ers were always cen­tral to the band’s sound. It’s a lot more like Pink Floyd, and they look the part. To what might we com­pare the sound of the band’s first TV appear­ance, above, live at Rock­palast in 1970? Hüt­ter, look­ing like a Ramone, plays some sort of key­tar-like synth that sounds like a dying goose; Dinger shows off his strict-yet-funky, now world-famous “motorik” beat; and Schnei­der lays down some very heavy flute grooves.

Rother and Dinger took these exper­i­ments and turned them into what David Bowie would call “the sound of the eight­ies.” He might have said the same of Kraftwerk, who heav­i­ly influ­enced Bowie, espe­cial­ly after Schnei­der and Hüt­ter adopt­ed their tongue-in-cheek businessmen/technician per­son­ae, inspired by po-faced artists Gilbert & George. Kraftwerk brought a dead­pan sense of humor to New Wave that was adopt­ed by every eight­ies syn­th­pop star from Gary Numan to Depeche Mode to New Order, whose “Blue Mon­day” was part­ly inspired by “Ura­ni­um” from 1975’s Radio-Activ­i­ty. This is a strange, tran­si­tion­al album, and one per­haps most often cit­ed by oth­er musi­cians inspired by Kraftwerk. It was their fifth album, but only the first in which they went ful­ly elec­tron­ic, and fea­tured mem­bers Karl Bar­tos and Wolf­gang Flür, who would com­plete the clas­sic line­up of the late sev­en­ties and ear­ly eight­ies.

As you can see in the “Radioac­tiv­i­ty” video fur­ther up, they have not become robots just yet. These are clear­ly humans, still a lit­tle loose and shag­gy around the edges. (If Hütter’s deliv­ery, hair­cut, and the band’s sound in gen­er­al, make you think of Joy Divi­sion’s Ian Curtis—he was a huge fan.) How sil­ly were Kraftwerk’s lat­er con­cepts? Tremen­dous­ly sil­ly. But so too was Radio-Activ­i­ty, an album full of pun­ning banal­i­ties and geeky astro­physics ref­er­ences. By the time of The Man-Machine, Schnei­der and Hüt­ter had so com­mit­ted to their roles that we might almost, for a moment, believe the fan-made video above is a “rare pilot for the uncom­mis­sioned Kraftwerk sit­com, ‘Ralf and Flo­ri­an.’” The sin­gle “Das Mod­el,” below, has a bit more of a 70s Cabaret feel to it. And maybe a bit more danc­ing than we’re used to see­ing from Kraftwerk.

They were in on the joke, but also so musi­cal­ly and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly savvy they could update its premise every few years and shift pop music in new, weird­er, fun­nier, and more dance­able direc­tions. “Do you want to know what the eight­ies will sound like?” they asked in 1981. And there was Com­put­er World, which you can see the band per­form in part below in Nagoya, Japan. Schneider’s flute is nowhere to be seen, but his pen­chant for pen­e­trat­ing, repet­i­tive grooves and waves of weird syn­the­sized sounds still dri­ves the sound. Kraftwerk’s fusion of influ­ences evolved prin­ci­pal­ly through the part­ner­ship of Schnei­der and Hüt­ter, the Richards and Jag­ger of exper­i­men­tal elec­tron­ic pop.

Kraftwerk was not a band, Hüt­ter insist­ed, but a “mul­ti-media project.” Their onstage act was what Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield calls “cere­bral tech­nocrats” very much derived from their per­son­al­i­ties, espe­cial­ly Schnei­der’s, mag­ni­fied into per­for­mance art. “Kraftwerk is not a band,” Schnei­der said back 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.” Yet those ideas, which Schnei­der tend­ed to express in cold­ly ana­lyt­ic terms, also pro­duced some of the most joy­ful­ly dance­able music ever made. That is the para­dox of Kraftwerk, and their genius, from Dinger’s motorik beats to the puls­ing synths built by Hüt­ter and Schnei­der. They tru­ly achieved a musi­cal syn­the­sis, one that hon­ored the human desire for groove and melody and the machine’s desire for inhu­man sounds and robot­ic pre­ci­sion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kraftwerk’s First Con­cert: The Begin­ning of the End­less­ly Influ­en­tial Band (1970)

Pio­neer­ing Elec­tron­ic Com­pos­er Karl­heinz Stock­hausen Presents “Four Cri­te­ria of Elec­tron­ic Music” & Oth­er Lec­tures in Eng­lish (1972)

Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” Per­formed by Ger­man First Graders in Adorable Card­board Robot Out­fits

The Case for Why Kraftwerk May Be the Most Influ­en­tial Band Since the Bea­t­les

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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