Pandemic Playlist: Kraftwerk's five best songs that honor Florian Schneider's genre-defining work
The band's co-founder, Florian Schneider, died from cancer at 73 but his legacy lives on in the music he created with Kraftwerk
Florian Schneider's death on May 6 was the loss of a revolutionary who reshaped our ideas on what electronic music can sound like.
As the co-founder of Kraftwerk, Schneider helped reshape the music industry and inspire everyone from David Bowie to Coldplay. So today, we honor him and the band, which seamlessly fused electronic elements with lyrical themes that explored the consequences of technological advancements on human consciousness and identity.
'Autobahn' was composed by the group's co-founders Ralf Hütter and Schneider, with Emil Schult collaborating on the lyrics (in addition to painting the album's front cover). This was Kraftwerk's first track where the band sang the lyrics. Designed to capture the feeling of driving down Germany's first autobahn or highway, the A 555 from Koln to Bonn, the song was, in part, inspired by the time Hütter hung a tape recorder outside his car window and recorded the sounds of traffic. Speaking about this, he later said, "You can listen to ‘Autobahn’ and then go and drive on the motorway. Then you will discover that your car is a musical instrument."
The song was part of the group's effort to take their established brand of experimental instrumental music and transform it into something more radio-friendly. Despite being influenced by American pop acts like The Beach Boys, Kraftwerk chose to record the song in German to reaffirm their culture and identity. Their concept album, 1974's 'Autobahn', turned out to be a pioneering album that included elements of electro-funk, ambient and synth-pop and helped open people's minds to what electronic pop could be.
This song remains Kraftwerk's biggest hit, thanks to the radio edit of the originally 22-minute song turning out to be an unprecedented international success.
'The Robots' / 'Die Roboter' (1978)
Released as part of Kraftwerk's seventh studio album 'The Man-Machine' ('Die Mensch-Maschine'), 'The Robots' track marvels at the revolutionary robotics and their usefulness to humans. The band even went the extra mile with various robots replacing the members during live performances.
'The Man-Machine' revolved around Kraftwerk's exploration of the interplay between man and machine. It is considered one of their best albums, being extremely futuristic for their time and yet, a timeless classic. The album beautifully journeys through appreciating technological advancements in songs like 'The Robots', before musing about whether these very advancements have left us all part-machine.
The song featured a combination of repetitive lyrics spoken in a pitched-down voice and the main lyrics being sung through a vocoder. The song would later inspire member Wolfgang Flür to title his book "ich war ein roboter" ('I Was a Robot'), which served as an autobiography of Kraftwerk. The book courted controversy, however, after the other members of the band attempted to censor its publication.
In addition to the autobiography, the song also inspired a BBC Radio 4 documentary titled 'Kraftwerk: We Are the Robots' which focused on the band as being part of the next generation of young West Germans who lived in the shadow of the Cold War and felt a strong need to reaffirm their post-war cultural identity that was distinct from that of Britain or America.
'Computer Love' / 'Computerliebe' (1981)
'Computerliebe', one of the singles off the group's studio album 'Computer World', was released against the backdrop of a technological revolution. The song speaks about the rise of technology in everyday life and is structured around highly mechanical songs, including repetitive lyrics and rhythms that emulated a robot.
The song's melody would later be sampled by Coldplay on their track, 'Talk'.
Despite being written and released nearly four decades ago, the song's themes of boredom and the cyclical nature of daily life are highly relevant for modern times. As the song details the mechanical pursuit of love. It also highlights the experience of being isolated and idle at home as a pattern, which the lead character just can't seem to break free from.
'Musique Non Stop' (1986)
Kraftwerk's ninth studio album 'Electric Café' brought them their first number one on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play, 'Musique Non Stop'. The single would also go on to be used as a jingle on MTV Europe, though this version was slower and more melodic — in complete contrast to the original track.
The song's lyrics feature a repetitive chant from two generic voices in English and one computerized voice in French. The song was later altered by the band following Schneider's departure in 2008 so as to accommodate video technician Stefan Pfaffe during the live performances. The new version was shorter with Schneider's percussive/harmonic solo now being operated by the remaining band members.
The song's music video featured animated versions of the band members. It was considered revolutionary, owing to such animations being complex for its time. They were created by Rebecca Allen, who used state-of-the-art facial animation software developed by the Institute of Technology in New York to bring the characters to life.
Despite its lukewarm reception upon its release, mostly due to critics and fans finding 'Electric Café' to be far less impressive when compared to its predecessor 'Computer World', 'Musique Non Stop' has garnered its own fanbase in addition to carving its own space within popular culture, thanks to MTV using both the song and elements from the music video in their jingles and title graphics.
'Numbers' / 'Nummern' (1981)
Also from 'Computer World', this track is comprised entirely of numbers being spoken in multiple languages including German (Eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben, acht); English (One, two); French (Un, deux, trois); Italian (Uno, due, tre, quattro); Spanish (Uno, dos, cuatro); Japanese (Ichi, ni, san, chi), and Russian (Adjin, dva, tri). This is before the song segues without pause into the next song on the album, 'Computer World.. 2' (or 'Computerwelt 2') which also features an instrumental track with no lyrics aside from the repetition of numbers in German.
Much like the rest of the album, this song focused on the rise of computers in society. Despite it's seeming simplicity, the song managed to fuse the band's ever-evolving electronic pop sound with a highly relevant social theme in a way that was as simple as it was revolutionary. 'Numbers' and 'Computer World' essentially brought cultures together both via language and a shared feeling of uncertainty in a new world.
'Numbers' would go on to be sampled in over a hundred songs in the decades since its original release.
Pandemic Playlist is a daily list of songs that will keep you entertained instead of feeling drained while you're isolated at home. Look out for a fresh selection of great tunes from MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) to refresh your mood every day.