The group, led by him and Ralf Hütter, was then becoming popular in the U.S., after the release of its third album, Autobahn. Schneider, who died of cancer last week, generally spoke less than Hütter, and neither ever got personal. “Kraftwerk isn’t a band,” Schneider said. “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.”
And what a vehicle it was. Between 1974 and 1981, Kraftwerk made five startlingly original albums that were influential enough to shape entire genres, including experimental rock, synth pop, and electronic dance music. (To say nothing of hip-hop: “Trans-Europe Express” alone was sampled by Afrika Bambaataa, Dr. Dre and countless others.) But Kraftwerk itself sounded entirely new. It’s hard to think of another act that sounds so little like anything that came before it, and at the same time influenced so much that came after it.
There’s a reason Kraftwerk seemed to come out of nowhere. Schneider and Hütter came of age in prosperous postwar West Germany, where the dominant genres were Schlager — which evoked the traditional Germany that the generation born after World War II wanted to break with — and Anglo-American rock, based on the blues. Neither spoke to Kraftwerk. “We had no father figures, no continuous tradition of entertainment,” Hütter told British music journalist Jon Savage in a 1991 interview. “Through the ’50s and ’60s everything was Americanized.”
Along with Can and other krautrock bands, Kraftwerk invented a new kind of pop music, influenced by both psychedelia and the avant-garde but not beholden to either. Looking to Stockhausen rather than the Stones, Kraftwerk made distinctly Mitteleuropean rock.
The group’s first two albums are improvisational, and synthesizers didn’t dominate the group’s sound until the third, titled simply Ralf and Florian, with their pictures on the cover, as though that vehicle for their ideas was still warming up. The group didn’t get much international attention, until 1974’s Autobahn and its iconic title track about driving down the titular German highway. Other on-the-road anthems are about running away from or toward something, which is very American, but “Autobahn” is about just enjoying the ride. With automotive noises and its steady, repetitive rhythm, the nearly 23-minute journey sounded mechanical, monotonous, and also oddly romantic.
Hütter described Kraftwerk’s albums as industrielle Volksmusik — industrial folk music — and he wasn’t entirely kidding. Kraftwerk has its eyes fixed on the future, but Schneider and Hütter also wanted to make music about where they were from – the industrial heartland of Germany. They represented for Düsseldorf as much as the Beach Boys did for Los Angeles. And their music could be clever as well as optimistic: Toward the end of “Autobahn,” the driver turns on the car radio to hear….a song about driving on the Autobahn.
After the Autobahn tour, Kraftwerk set up its own Kling Klang Studio, where the group recorded 1975’s Radio-Activity and then 1977’s Trans-Europe Express, which the Los Angeles Times in 2014 called “the most important pop album of the last 40 years.” It presented a new sound for a new Germany, located at the heart of a new Europe. With its lyrics about taking the train to visit Champs-Élysées and a Vienna café, “Trans-Europe Express” isn’t only about the romance of train travel or the joy of motion but also an optimistic vision of a continent without borders to fight over. So is “Europe Endless,” which in a better world would have been the official anthem of the European Union.
Kraftwerk’s next album, 1978’s The Man-Machine, veered closer to pop, and the group – which then also included Wolfgang Flür and Karl Bartos – embraced a kind of robot schtick. By 1981, on Computer World, Kraftwerk was already looking at the future we now live in, presenting themselves in pixilated images on the cover. They did everything they could to de-emphasize the personal, as they embraced a more conceptual vision of what pop music could be. Hütter often referred to the band’s members not as artists but as musikarbeiter — music workers –– and its performances over the past two decades have emphasized the audiovisual whole over individual musicians, to the point that it could be hard to tell which human was making what sound. Perhaps they were Gesamtkunst-workers.
For all of Kraftwerk’s influence, Schneider probably wasn’t much more recognizable than the members of Daft Punk would be without their helmets. The only common celebrity anecdote about Schneider is how he once met Iggy Pop in Berlin and took him shopping for fresh asparagus, a seasonal delicacy in Germany. For a guy who glammed it up as a robot, it’s a strikingly down-to-earth invitation.
When Schneider officially left Kraftwerk in 2008, it was only announced after months of concerts, and neither he nor Hütter ever said much about what happened. (Schneider’s last release seems to be the electronic track “Stop Plastic Pollution,” a song intended to raise awareness of the titular issue that samples the sound of water drops.) And since Hütter has a Kraftwerk tour set for this summer — which will presumably be rescheduled — the machine will keep running.
It has lost one of its heartbeats, however. For all of Kraftwerk’s efforts to become part of the machine, it’s the recognizably human emotions in the group’s music that makes its songs about technology and mechanization sound so utterly timeless. “Ohm Sweet Ohm” and “Neon Lights” convey a loneliness that could bring tears to a robot’s eye. Even Autobahn, which starts with a drive in the country, ends not with a kling-klang but with a “Morgenspaziergang” — literally a morning walk — complete with electronic chirps that evoke science-fiction birdsong, and Schneider’s soothing flute riff. It’s the walk after the car ride, or home from the dance club, and it sounds completely and utterly human.