Ralf und Florian: a transitional Kraftwerk album from the duo’s psychedelic origins to an electronic pop universe

Kraftwerk, Ralf und Florian, Germany, Philips, #6305 197, vinyl LP / #7105 147 cassette (1973)

In the wake of news of Florian Schneider’s death from cancer on 30 April 2020, I thought I’d remember him here at The Sound Projector by highlighting one of Kraftwerk’s lesser known albums from the band’s early pre-Autobahn period, when it was just a duo of himself and Ralf Hütter. These albums are the first two self-titled releases I and II, and the eponymous third album “Ralf und Florian”. Why Kraftwerk themselves more or less disowned these albums – they have never been officially reissued on CD or other formats as far as I’m aware – I’m not sure why and can only hazard that they don’t fit the image of a band that sprang fully fledged as a particular electronic version of The Beatles, one in which anything resembling human emotion has been carefully expunged from the music, yet at the same time incorporating a Romantic or utopian vision of human society while also being critical of trends in the use of technology and what these could lead to (a greater emotional dependence on technology and a resulting infantilisation of human society and culture, among other things). While Kraftwerk’s influence across contemporary popular music is undeniable, helping to spawn entire new music genres, the band itself embodied the various contradictions that its music and themes generated. In many ways the music and the musicians, and Schneider and Hütter in particular, became their own worst enemies: having birthed an entire new musical universe and left an enormous legacy to their followers, the duo were unable to progress beyond their ultra-refined, minimalist style and image, and eventually became as twee and quaint as, let’s say, the world’s earliest personal computers which appeared in the mid-1970s as their musical offspring forged far ahead. Undoubtedly being left behind must have been a source of frustration and conflict, and among other things this may explain why in 2008 Schneider decided to leave Kraftwerk in spite of the work and energy he had put into creating its distinctive style of music and its image over nearly 40 years of the band’s existence.

Being the last pre-Autobahn album that Kraftwerk put their name to, “Ralf und Florian” forms a transition from the band’s early psychedelic and improvisational beginnings to the more commercial electronic pop, smooth, refined and disciplined with everything more or less planned in advance, of the band’s later and better-known output. The underground meandering nature of Kraftwerk’s early phase is still apparent but already the melodic synthesiser lines, the insistent robotic percussion beats and the sparse airy minimalist style, allowing the music to flow and expand to almost every corner of the sound universe, are present. The experimental quality is very strong: the musicians were in the early stages of building their own KlingKlang studio and needed to use other studios to record the album – much of the music sounds as if Hutter and Schneider are still feeling their way with the instruments at hand, trying out their ideas and concepts and seeing which ones work or don’t work.

The general tone of the album is sparse and gentle yet often very playful, quirky and wistful. While “Tongebirge” looks towards the more pastoral Romantic aspects of “Autobahn” and “Heimatklange” is a beautiful and elegiac Romantic classical piece of piano, flute and some electronics, “Tanzmusik” looks towards Kraftwerk’s futuristic electronic dance-pop period with the emphasis on synthesised beats, the sparse and tinkly melodies and loops, the rarefied atmosphere and production, and above all the notion of movement, of travel, of going somewhere or striving for something. The long track “Ananas Symphonie” (“Pineapple Symphony”) has the quality of a long wandering piece, at times seeming disoriented and dreamy, with visions of floating on clouds or bumming around beaches on remote tropical islands, and with a nostalgic air as though reminiscing about a past more real in its idealisation than it ever was in reality.

Perhaps because of the experimental nature of the music and the ideas and concept behind it, the album still sounds fresh, full of the wonder of the potential of electronic music instruments and of the studio itself as a musical instrument in its own right, after nearly 50 years since its release. There are ambiguities and tensions present – which perhaps can be seen only with the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge of where Kraftwerk eventually ended up over their career – that make the album a beguiling and sometimes mysterious work.

RIP Florian Schneider-Esleben (1947 – 2020).