The Voice of Energy: Florian Schneider-Esleben (1947-2020)

Electronic music pioneer Florian Schneider-Esleben has died, after a short battle with cancer. He was the co-founder, with Ralf Hütter, of Germany’s legendary Kraftwerk, and he played on, penned and/or produced an extraordinary series of songs, albums and concerts between 1970 and 2008 that truly changed the ways in which we make, hear and understand music. Labeling Kraftwerk as influential is like labeling water as wet, or winter as cold. It’s a statement of the obvious, even if you don’t actively think about it very often. It just is.

Schneider (Florian dropped the “Esleben” in his public music credits) and Hütter met and began collaborating as university students in Düsseldorf in the late 1960s. Their early works featured an evolving cast of co-collaborators, and reliance on a mix of organic, taped and electronic instrumentation. For a brief period in 1971, Hütter (the group’s primary vocalist, though Florian also sang) left Kraftwerk, leaving Schneider as the keeper of the flame. Here’s what that period looked and sounded like, with Florian deploying the treated flute that was his hallmark through their early years. The other two members of the group at this point were Michael Rother and Klaus Dinger, who went on to form the similarly influential Neu!.

Following Dinger and Rother’s departure and Hütter’s return, the duo issued a pair of low-key albums (one simply called Ralf und Florian, with a pleasant picture of the pair on its sleeve belying its inner weirdness) before unleashing Autobahn on the world in 1974. Its 22-minute title track was designed to capture the experience of rocketing about Deutschland on its high-speed highways, and a single edit of that monumental piece became a global pop hit, even cracking the American Top 40 charts. Of course, the fact that many English-speakers heard its lyrics as “The fun, fun, fun of the Autobahn” probably had something to do with its multi-national appeal, even though the words are actually “Wir fahren, fahren, fahren auf der Autobahn.” (“We drive, drive, drive on the Autobahn.”) No matter. It was brilliant whatever you thought it meant.

Following Autobahn‘s release, the “classic” lineup of Kraftwerk cohered, with Schneider and Hütter being joined by electronic percussionists Wolfgang Flür (who had already appeared on Autobahn and Ralf und Florian) and Karl Bartos. The quartet’s next five albums — Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man Machine (1978), Computer World (1981) and Electric Café/Techno-Pop (1986) — were all masterpieces, musically, visually, and conceptually. Florian Schneider continued to serve as a primary songwriter (with Hütter, Bartos and lyricist Emil Schult) and performer, but his particular area of expertise and interest shifted over the years into voice synthesis, and he played a key role in the development of the group’s design ethos as well.

The birth of Electric Café/Techno-Pop (the title has varied over the years and across national lines with various reissues) was a long and difficult one. As Schneider and Hütter grew more meticulous and focused on recording technology (transitioning from analog to digital) and cycling, Bartos and Flür drifted away, and were replaced by Henning Schmitz and Fritz Hilpert, longtime engineers and technicians at the group’s Düsseldorf headquarters, Kling Klang Studios. The group only produced one more studio album, Tour de France Soundtracks (2003), which built upon a 1983 single (“Tour de France”) to create an album-length audio guide to the experience of cycling, much in the spirit of Autobahn‘s ode to the magic of driving.

Schneider retired from Kraftwerk in 2008, leaving Hütter, Schmitz and Hilpert to soldier on, with the fourth spot on the stage now being occupied by a dedicated video technician, since visuals are such a key component of the Kraftwerk live experience. A couple of years before Florian left the group, they issued Minimum-Maximum, an utterly essential live album with brilliantly bright and bold interpretations of a career’s worth of exceptional songs. On a personal front, I actually listen to that album more than any of the studio ones at this point. Here’s a sample of one of its best tracks. Florian is at the right as you view the video; keep in mind the key role he played in developing the group’s vocal synthetics as you listen to it, and also compare/contrast with the 1970 clip above.

Kraftwerk were a great, original act, unlike any other at each stage in their development, but then immediately mimicked, sampled and/or invoked following each and every creative artifact that emerged from Kling Klang’s secretive confines. I discovered the group somewhere in the Trans-Europe Express to The Man Machine era, and they’ve never left my regular playlists for very long in all of the years that have passed since then. I would especially cite the first time I heard their 1982 song “Numbers” (from Computer World) as one of the greatest “my mind is now well and fully blown” listening moments of my entire music-loving life. Here’s that song too, also in its Minimum-Maximum version:

When my wife and I visited Düsseldorf in 2014, I actually made a pilgrimage to the original site of Kling Klang Studios, though it was no longer there at that point, having moved elsewhere after Schneider’s departure from the group. I was somewhat awed and amused in equal measure to consider how works so titanic had been unleashed upon the world from such a humble setting. Here’s what it looked like when I visited; the studio had been behind the metal roll-down door at center.

While few beyond the Kraftwerk inner circle knew or know exactly what the working dynamic and relationships within the group really entailed over the years, there was always a sense from the outside that Ralf was the serious one of the pair, and Florian the one who just maintained a serious facade, which cracked sometimes. When David Bowie and Iggy Pop were in Germany during their “Berlin Albums” period, the pairs met and actually wrote about each other: Bowie’s “Heroes” album features a cut called “V-2 Schneider,” and Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” contains the lyric “From station to station, back to Düsseldorf city /Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.” There’s some hilarious documentary footage with Iggy describing his adventures with Florian. Here. Watch.

At bottom line, Florian Schneider did things, created images, and made music that moved me. I was most sorry to learn of his passing today. His death is one of so, so many in these tragic times, obviously, but I still feel compelled to write in his honor and memory, and with gratitude for the gift of his music. Perhaps some of you, my readers, may discover his work if you haven’t already by reading this memorial piece, or for those in the know, perhaps you will now be moved to slap some familiar robot tunes onto the stereo and dance mechanically to them, as one does.

In closing, I chose the title for this post from the opening track of Radio-Activity. Its lyrics felt apt to me, given Florian’s work in turning speech to signal, and vice versa.

This is the voice of energy.
I am a giant electric generator.
I deliver you light and power.
And I enable you language, music and art.
Through the ether to look and receive.
I am your servant and lord at the same time.
Therefore guard me well.
Me, the genius of energy.

Rest in peace, Herr Schneider-Esleben. You were a genius of energy indeed, and I adored your work.

4 thoughts on “The Voice of Energy: Florian Schneider-Esleben (1947-2020)

  1. Excellent tribute and how absolutely fascinating to see the building of Kling Klang Studio, where it all truly began! Yes, it’s really strange how humble a setting it is, and how the actual building doesn’t match the visual imagery of the songs of Kraftwerk! Thank you for writing this post!

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