I was introduced to Kraftwerk by an unlikely source, an American rock promoter called Ira Blacker who in 1975 invited me into his New York office to listen to ‘Autobahn’. Ira was one of those brash American businessmen attracted in large numbers to the US music biz in those days, slightly overweight, cigar-chomping, overflowing with confidence to the extent that if you disagreed with them you were a schmuck and might live to regret it.
Ira loved Kraftwerk and I found this unusual. Men like Ira generally preferred their rock performed by men who looked like rock stars, tight pants, long hair, flash showmen who sang about boogieing all night with loose women. They weren’t normally drawn to foreign groups who dressed like bank tellers and produced music that eulogised motorways. But Ira, whom I had met only briefly before, was the first American music entrepreneur to see something in Kraftwerk, and after he’d played ‘Autobahn’ – the long version – he asked me my opinion.
“Well, it’s certainly different,” I said, or words to that effect.
“D’ya like it?”
“Yes. It’s a nice tune. Hummable. Bit long though.”
“Yea. A bit too long. You’re right.”
And that was that. Looking back on this encounter 45 years later it occurs to me that Ira had probably asked me along because I was the only European he knew in New York whom he could consult on the merits of ‘Autobahn’. Maybe he didn’t trust his own instincts.
To be honest, I didn’t think much about it at the time and promptly forgot about him and Kraftwerk. I later learned that not long after this meeting Ira had flown to Germany with a wad of cash, persuaded the group to record a shorter version of ‘Autobahn’, or edit the existing track, and soon afterwards promoted their first US tour which was not particularly successful, though Kraftwerk did perform an eight-minute version of ‘Autobahn’ on Midnight Special, the syndicated TV rock show, watched by the Jackson 5 who were also on the show that night. To my regret I didn’t go to any of the shows, perhaps because they didn’t play in New York.
I was reminded of all this yesterday as I read about the death from cancer of Florian Schneider. Florian, a deeply private man, was generally credited with being the founder of Kraftwerk, though Ralf Hütter subsequently became the group’s dominant figure, with the ‘real’ KW rounded out by Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür. This quartet was responsible for the music recorded between 1974 and 1981, beginning with Autobahn and ending with Computer World, a five album legacy on which their enormous influence rests, and while the individual contributions to what was recorded remain undefined, there can be no question that Florian’s role was crucial to the end result.
Karl, Wolfgang, Ralf & Florian, in 1975
My own relationship with Kraftwerk was fairly transient – I liked what I heard but didn’t go out of my way to hear more – until about ten years ago when David Buckley persuaded me to commission a biography on them, to be written by him, its title simply Publikation. I knew that KW were reticent individuals, especially Schneider and Hütter, so I didn’t hold out much hope for insights but I knew they had a large and loyal following, that KW books were thin on the ground and that David lived in Germany and loved them, and electronic music in general, dearly. Also, books on mysterious artists tended to do well, as I discovered when I bought a manuscript on Syd Barrett. David was my man and he lived up to his promise, this despite the problems inherent in writing about a group who rarely gave interviews and lived behind a wall of privacy.
David was able to bring to his book a German perspective that I don’t think a UK based author would bring, just like Magnus Palm brought a knowledge of Swedish culture to the Abba biography he wrote for me. When David delivered the book he also sent me sent me 10 KW CDs, and I listened to their music closely as I edited his text, all of it over a period of weeks. I soon realised what I'd been missing and three tracks ended up on one of my endlessly rotated playlists: ‘Europe Endless’, with its exquisite choral backdrop and travelogue lyrics, ‘Neon Lights’, whose melody is simply beautiful, and the fugue-like instrumental ‘Franz Schubert’. I’d been under a misapprehension that KW were merely creators of sonic blips on computers but in reality they were modern German composers inspired by European romantic classical traditions. Rightly credited with having pioneered the repetitive sequencing on which so much modern dance music is based, Kraftwerk also created luscious, trancelike melodies that turned me into a huge latter day fan. These three tracks are among the songs that, as David correctly observes, are “a sonic refutation of allegations that Kraftwerk had no soul”.
As befitting this most reserved of groups, Florian’s death was something of a mystery and may have happened some time in April. He liked to tease interviewers by offering confusing information, and sightings of him were few and far between after he left the group sometime between 2006, when he gave his last performance with KW, and 2009, when Hütter let slip he was no longer a member. Reportedly, it was because he disliked touring. Since that time Hütter and a Kraftwerk comprising three more recent recruits have toured the world, albeit infrequently, and appeared at venues not normally hospitable to rock, like the Tate Modern in London, but then again Kraftwerk were never rock in the first place.
“He was, after all, an inventor,” writes David as a tribute to Florian in Publikation, “content to work in the lab at Kling Klang [KW’s studio] on advanced techniques to mould and modulate the Kraftwerk sound, particularly in terms of vocal expression. But there seemed something inherently wrong when Kraftwerk took to the stage without him… [the] absence of Florian’s bald pate, his straight, superior nose, his mad-professor demeanour, his statuesque manner, his smile that always seemed to break out at any moment, removed Kraftwerk’s iconic figure. Show anyone a picture of Kraftwerk circa 1977 and ask them what country they came from and it would Florian who gave the game away. Florian also brought to Kraftwerk a good deal of its humour, a touch of the offbeat and absurdity, that wide smile uniquely charming yet at the same time mildly sinister. In a band that had always presented itself as the embodiment of mechanical efficiency, Florian reminded fans that Kraftwerk were human after all.”