Florian + Richard + escape velocity
After Florian Schneider died, I could only think of one person who might have met him. I emailed Ryuichi Sakamoto and asked if he had. The answer was yes:
it was funny that all the members of kraftwerk and yellow magic orchestra went to a disco after their 1st show in tokyo in 1980.
in contrast of looking very robotic on stage, florian wore a grey simple jacket and looked like a worker in a german factory.
we started dancing on the floor and i saw he tried talking to a Japanese girl.
since then i’ve got along with ralf many times but that was the only memory i have with florian. ;)
i heard he was working with atom heart in the past several years to make music. i’m not sure the music has been out yet.
I never got a chance to meet Florian, but I interviewed Ralf Hütter eight years ago for this New Yorker piece about Kraftwerk.
There was a period of convincing involved. I had to go to several shows and rehearsals in a row before Hütter trusted me enough to talk. We only had one session together, and it was good. He was polite and open and more or less free of an agenda. He had only kind things to say about Florian, whose departure from the band wasn’t explained. The Kraftwerk shows at MoMA were the first popular music concerts my younger son, Jonah, went to. (He was 12.) He liked the 3D projections and appreciated that the volume was very deliberately kept below traditional club levels. He also thought it was done about fifteen minutes before it was actually done. When “Tour de France” kicked in, he was out.
The idea that one of the two founding members of Kraftwerk and Little Richard died within a week of each other has been acting like a slow dissolve capsule that releases a dementing agent into the already fragile connections of time. If we removed these two forces from popular music, what would be left?
I recommend putting on this three hour Kraftwerk mix that Charlie Bones did for NTS last week. Bones talks a lot, and it’s all to the good. Gently, but not without a viewpoint, Bones goes chronologically through the band’s catalog. He’s trying to tell us what he liked about them, while also sort of reminding himself. He marvels repeatedly how long “Klingklang” is and how much was in the one song, recorded long before Kraftwerk became the heart of machine rhythm. It, like Florian, is a gentle thing.
I can listen to Kraftwerk all day long. I never listen to Little Richard, though I could probably watch two or three hours of his TV interviews from the Seventies. If you want the basics on Richard, go with the pieces by David Remnick and Bill Wyman, both of who seem to feel his trajectory close to the skin. I know Richard purely as an historical occurrence, and I’m not sure I heard more than “Tutti Frutti,” probably only in the context of some awful movie. I hated Chuck Berry and Elvis in the Eighties, my teen years, because they said nothing to me about rap or punk. (Never mind whether or not this was true.) Anyone from that time, like Fats Domino and Little Richard, was simply lumped in and ignored. Later, when I decided to go more slowly through these things, I found reasons to be patient, and all of these performers found purchase in the outer rings of my heart. It was homework!
Little Richard was another thing. His scream curved through time like a sharpened paperweight and plowed right into punk rock. His intensity bled sideways into James Brown. The makeup and clothes airlifted him into John Waters and ballroom culture and half a dozen cultural sidebars I probably don’t know that well. You saw who cited him as foundational—Bob Dylan (on Twitter!), the Beatles, Bowie, Prince (did he? did he cop to it?), the Stones, and I’m sure more I haven’t seen. His excess was liberation for many who still have to reestablish that freedom every day. But that overage and hairy, meter-pinning voltage burned an outer limit that few in popular music ever breach. Our ideas about catharsis and loss and rebirth come from many sources, and one of the most important was Richard Wayne Penniman.
Kraftwerk worked in rhythm as much as Richard, though the similarities barely even begin before they end. It’s not just uptight silent German cis buddies versus black Southern pansexual vortex. It’s that Richard couldn’t find a big big enough for his big and Kraftwerk were as resolutely medium as numbers allow.
One of Kraftwerk’s many abiding concerns was how small things can resonate. They realized early on that popular music recordings are as much driven by sound as by music. Ralf Hütter is one of the few musicians who has actually re-recorded his entire catalog. Taylor Swift may threaten to do it, but Ralf went there. He knows Kraftwerk’s legacy is not the compositions but the recordings.
Kraftwerk represent a delineation of how popular music can contain itself and Little Richard signified the ending of that containment before it even began. Both of them had to achieve escape velocity to make their things first. Little Richard had to conjure an entirely new way of fitting the unmeasurable into a 45 record. Kraftwerk had to build the machines to make the sounds you can now buy as plug-in software.
This delightful LRB piece by Owen Hatherley makes an audacious claim that I love very much while also believing not even a little bit. He claims Kraftwerk forged “a link between the two most revolutionary things that happened in the arts in the 20th century, the two movements that transformed the most people’s everyday lives—Central European modernist design and African-American music.”
Does he mean—by CEMD—the apartment blocks and carparks that Schneider’s father designed? I haven’t a clue, but we don’t get eleventh hour unified theories like this often enough. I’d place Kraftwerk in line with Mid-Century Modern furniture, which may be exactly what Hatherley meant, give or take some geolocation. Nobody wants furniture to be wild! You live with it all the time.
Kraftwerk’s sonic recipe is inexhaustible. There is a certain aquatics to their sequence, a relationship of rhythm to itself that powered Detroit techno. I made this playlist to start finding a line. It’s set on Spotify as collaborative, so have at it. It’s also a work playlist, which Florian would have liked.
YouTube user Caprice 87 has uploaded many episodes of “The New Dance Show,” which came out of Detroit in the Eighties. Cybotron is one of the purest American responses to Kraftwerk, and this is one of their purest manifestations.
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You’re crazy for this one, Sam Sifton. Thank you.