An appreciation of Florian Schneider :
The 6th of June 1981 was a dull and overcast day in what was still then Industrial North Lanarkshire. In the distance, the cooling towers of the massive steelworks around Motherwell dominated the landscape, while the factories of Coatbridge hadn’t all yet succumbed to the decline that the 1980s would eventually wreak upon them. It was definitely beginning though : for some now forgotten reason the dole offices were taking strike action and, already unemployed at the age of 16, I queued with around 50 others at a shopping centre to receive a cash benefits payment, about £60 for a fortnight if I remember correctly.
I was far from unhappy though, and I jumped onto the train that would get me into Glasgow city centre in about 25 minutes with an ever increasing sense of anticipation as, that evening, I was going to the Glasgow Apollo, to see Kraftwerk.
I got to the Apollo around 3pm, I paid my £4 for a ticket. My seat was near the back of the stalls and surprising as it seems now, the concert was far from sold out. If I remember correctly I had only found out about it a day or two before and I was there on my own, or maybe I wanted to go there on my own. I suppose I must’ve spent an hour or two around the city centre record shops or wherever before joining the queue and at about 7.30 the doors opened and the audience were admitted.
I hadn’t been quite as enthusiastic about a gig for a while. I was already a Kraftwerk fan of sorts, only a month or two earlier I had bought the Computer World album and a compilation of some of their older music, and somewhere in a pile of scratched and sleeveless 7” vinyl was a copy of the Autobahn single, its label printed in silver and black plastic. I knew who they were alright. Or at least I thought I did. The cover of the Man Machine album showed them as identically dressed, stern and inscrutable, looking as emotionless as they were able. Was this really the band that had recorded Pocket Calculator?
I can’t entirely speculate about which member of Kraftwerk had the most creative input in relation to their songwriting. Florian Schneider and Ralph Hutter had formed the band at the end of the 60s, they had made a spectacular impression with Autobahn, even featuring on Tomorrows World as the actual sound of the future. There wasn’t anyone else like them, certainly no-one you would have easily heard of. Whatever they were, they weren’t hippies (unlike say, Tangerine Dream) and their actual influence was only beginning to make itself heard. In my record collection were assorted singles by the early Human League, The Normal, Thomas Leer, Metal Urbain, all of them somewhere indebted to the quartet from Dusseldorf.
I wasn’t certain what to expect though. A little more than a year previously I had seen Gary Numan at the same venue, and his show had featured a spectacular for its time stage set with dazzling rectangles of light, had sounded very like his recorded output and had also featured what was advertised as an actual robot, a pyramid on wheels that had trundled about halfway across the stage (it was admitted that its radio control system hadn’t been perfected). Numan was a pop star compared to Kraftwerk though. I had also seen Ultravox more recently, and they had seemed less reliant on their glacial synth sound in a live setting, more of a guitar band and about to become actual pop stars at that.
Kraftwerk, for all their profile, were retaining their actual mystery alongside an air of credibility that was hard to define. For one thing, there wasn’t a support act this evening. The Apollo was about two thirds full tonight, there were empty seats around me towards the rear of the stalls, and it was as dark and shabby as ever. Onstage were stands that held those instruments which, as was known, Kraftwerk had built themselves, they had spoken about taking their entire studio on tour with them. No other band in 1981 would have talked about let alone done this, in fact a lot about what this show involved seems ordinary now but the whole point about Kraftwerk then was that they were genuine innovators. They were also, like Gary Numan, promising to bring actual robots onstage with them, and it was fair to assume that these would indeed function correctly.
The performance itself was, I’ve thought for a very long time, superb. I remain convinced that, for all that almost four decades has passed that Kraftwerk, were they able to, could restage that show in its original format and it would work every bit as well as it did on their 1981 tour. We might be used to seeing DJs perform on laptops today but the sight of the four musicians, uniformly dressed and playing the oddest looking collection of instruments that 1981 had to offer, let alone the music itself, would be worth paying more than £4. I should also mention the four video screens that provided the stage backdrop. Large enough to be seen clearly at the back of the hall, and startlingly effective during Trans Europe Express in my recollection. No, you hadn’t quite seen that before. Then the actual showroom dummies appeared onstage, plastic replicas of each member of Kraftwerk although from where I was sitting they didn’t appear to do very much. It didn’t matter.
If they were influential at the end of the 70s, that of course only increased with time. The website www.whosampled.com lists 773 tracks that directly sampled Kraftwerk alongside 180 cover versions and 56 remixes. Then there was the legal argument involving Coldplay, who were accused of using part of the Computer Love tune in one of their songs – Talk, from 2005’s X&Y album – although that’s one for the industry lawyers to busy themselves with (I’m unsure what the actual outcome was). And Florian Schneider left the band he founded in 2008, for reasons that will now remain unknown. His Wikipedia page is a suitably enigmatic tribute to his reserved and cultivated image. He gave few interviews, probably preferring that his musical legacy did the talking on his behalf.
There are a number of recordings of Kraftwerk made during their 1981 tour available on YouTube – including one from the Glasgow Apollo show – and I’ve included what I think is the best quality version of these at the end of this article, so if you’ve time to spare you can experience at least some of the phenomenon that was Kraftwerk at their creative peak. I can’t find out where this show was recorded, although that just seems irrelevant now. If there was one band whose influence traversed national, cultural and musical boundaries, I think that was definitely Kraftwerk.
Words © Jon Gordon 2020