So Kim Jong-Un is alive, but Florian Schneider really is dead. Not that the two have anything to do with each other (outside of strong opinions on the benefits of physical exercise) but it really is emblematic of 2020 that the one time the rumor of someone’s death wound up being false it was a fucking murderous dictator. Not only that but the news happened to fall on May 6th, which is my birthday, so while I’m waking up to birthday wishes I’m also seeing the news that one of my musical heroes has died.
Kraftwerk were of course one of the most influential and forward-thinking bands ever, almost singlehandedly responsible for the evolution of several very successful genres. And they did it despite the fact that they really did not put out a whole lot of music. As a teenager who was huge into stuff like Underworld and The Chemical Brothers I’d read about them in several magazines and e-mail lists but never really felt that compelled to check them out, figuring an electronica record from 1977 could not possibly be all that great, especially when it’s got a cover like Trans Europe Express. Sure, this stuff was legendary and paved the way for all the stuff I like now, but there were just so many other albums I wanted to buy.
The first Kraftwerk CD I bought was Computer World, mostly because I’d found a new copy for $9.99. This must have been in 2004. I remember my first listen well, thinking that I’d bought a CD full of Fisher Price noises and songs about what all the different numbers are. The subwoofer in my car barely even registered any of the bass noises. I got that these folks were influential but I remember thinking “come on, nobody should listen to this today”. Of course, I was 17 then and idiot snark was kind of my default setting. But I kept listening. And eventually I came to see Computer World as deeply fucking hilarious. And soon after that, a legitimately great album.
Within a year I’d bought several other Kraftwerk CDs, plus the newly released Minimum-Maximum live set, which by the way, did trigger my subwoofer in a pretty massive way. Funny how just a few tweaks suddenly made their music sound totally modern and relevant. I liked their studio work fine but here is where I really *got* what they were all about. Through that live set I managed to get a few friends into them too. In 2008, they for some reason decided to make a tour stop in Milwaukee, at the Eagles Ballroom. I’d actually satellited into a $200 poker tournament and just punted it because it happened to be on the same day. Kraftwerk were coming to Wisconsin of all places and I was not gonna miss it. The show was great of course, and getting to hear those signature bass tones register in your chest was an unforgettable experience. What really surprised me was all the young people there. I’ve seen a lot of bands whose heyday ran roughly concurrent with Kraftwerk’s but none of them had such a young audience. Which was incredible, considering that the band had not really done much in the two decades prior. One studio album, one album of remixes, and a single. Even the Monkees were more active.
What I couldn’t figure out was whether or not Florian Schneider was there. Ralf was on the far left, and of course I recognized him as the “lead singer” of the group, but from where I was standing I could not quite tell who the man on the far right was. I remember thinking “he looks different” but it wasn’t until a while later that I found out that he actually left the group later that year and hadn’t done any of the 2008 dates. Not that this really mattered, since Kraftwerk’s live show was fine tuned to the point of absurdity, just four emotionless men standing behind laptops, occasionally twisting a knob in an exaggerated fashion. You heard the “they must be checking their email” joke from a few people.
Not to say the show was anything less than incredible, but Kraftwerk had reached the point where they were more like a museum exhibit than an actual band. They remastered and repressed their catalogue, replacing their iconic sleeves with emoji-like cover art, presenting their 8 LPs as a perfect set of carefully arranged textures and tones. Which of course required some degree of retconning. We know, of course, that the band actually has 11 albums, that Autobahn has a back cover full of hippies, and that the band actually used to dance around and crack a smile onstage. My favorite clip of Kraftwerk is from 1981 (and I know I’m hardly alone on this), performing “Taschenrechner” with their little homemade instruments, dancing with a stiffness reserved for bands like Devo. It’s hard to remember they were actually part of a scene at one point.
If you watch you can see Florian “break character” a few times, which always convinced me that he was the “funny one” while Ralf was the one who took the “man-machine” concept seriously. Which is not to discount the contribution of the other guys, though quite frankly I don’t really know who does what in this band. But I do know that without them, the music I spent my life listening to would sound a lot different.
I was lucky to acquire the five classic Kraftwerk LPs when I was in Green Bay – all original copies too, including a transparent Computer World which is super cool. I had them framed on the wall for years, but decided last weekend to change them, just cuz it’s been a while (my wife’s reaction: “aww, I miss the boys”). Talk about bad timing. But at least it’s easier to play them now. It turns out my 5-year old thinks they’re funny too.