Updated: May 8, 2020
Some facts about the late Florian Schneider-Esleben: his father was a successful architect who designed the terminal of the Bonn-Cologne airport, and his first band was called Pissoff. Equidistant between those two biographical poles, between a world of urbane technological elegance and one of gleeful nonconformity, lay the soul of Florian Schneider and, by extension, that of his band, Kraftwerk, arguably, alongside The Beatles, the most influential ensemble in popular music history.
Schneider was always a splendidly incongruous pop star – his kindly, moon-like face always seemed to belong to some former, more gracious decade, and when the early iteration of Kraftwerk swapped lengthy tresses and leather jackets for short-back-and-sides and tailored suits (a revolution in a world dominated by the denim-clad and the ostentatiously hirsute – and one almost almost as seismic as that set in train by the unprecedented electronic avant-pop that the Düsseldorf quartet pioneered) it was as if Schneider had simply stepped into the wardrobe he’d been born to wear.
A flute and recorder player by training, with a talent for adding pastorally mellifluous ear worms to early Kraftwerk tracks (he can be heard in his woodwind-wielding element on the track ‘Morgenspaziergang’ on the second side of Kratftwerk’s 1974 breakthrough album, Autobahn), Schneider would later become fascinated by voice synthesis, something which reached an apotheosis on his ensemble’s 1981 long-playing chef d'oeuvre, Computer World..
I had the pleasure of witnessing a 1981 Kraftwerk show at London’s Lyceum Ballroom (on a balmy Sunday evening in June – the 18th to be exact – I still have the ticket), on the UK leg of the Computer World Tour. It remains one of the most exhilarating, and oddest, shows I’ve ever witnessed. At the climax, Kraftwerk’s four robot-like members suddenly broke free from the glinting metallic workstations behind which they’d been rigidly positioned to perform the song ‘Pocket Calculator’ (hook-line lyric: ”I’m the operator/With my pocket calculator”), swapping synthesisers and drum machines for the titular hand held devices, which allowed them to dance like weird, delighted marionettes across the stage.
A permanently grinning Schneider seemed to relish this part of the show particularly – even permitting the front row to do some freeform button-pushing on his calculator-keyboard every time he delivered the electronically mutated line, “By pressing down a special key/It plays a little melody”. It was pure musical showbiz, but pure musical showbiz as imagined by a curious child, or by the mind of someone for whom the Stylophone was a way more epochal musical instrument than, say, Hendrix’s Stratocaster. It was sublime, funny and ineffably moving and, thus, of course, encapsulated everything that made Florian Schneider such a unique and cherishable musical figure.
Ruhe in Frieden, Florian.