Florian Schneider, Kraftwerk co-founder, dies aged 73

<span>Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

Florian Schneider, who as one of the founding members of German group Kraftwerk changed the sound of pop music forever, has died aged 73 of cancer.

The news was confirmed to the Guardian by one of his musical collaborators, who said Schneider had died a week ago and had a private burial. It was also confirmed via Sony Berlin.

Born in 1947, Schneider was the son of Paul Schneider-Esbelen, a noted architect who designed Cologne’s airport. Schneider first played music in various groups while studying in Düsseldorf, beginning in a band called Pissoff. Operating in the experimental, open-minded rock scene dubbed “krautrock” in the British press, he formed the group Organisation with Ralf Hutter, the pair later forming Kraftwerk in 1970.

Related: Kraftwerk: where to start in their back catalogue

Schneider played the flute, violin and guitar, though often filtered through electronic processing. His interest in electronic music grew. “I found that the flute was too limiting,” he later said. “Soon I bought a microphone, then loudspeakers, then an echo, then a synthesiser. Much later I threw the flute away; it was a sort of process.”

After three albums with Hütter in the mid-70s, Kraftwerk released Autobahn and expanded to a quartet. The album was composed primarily on synthesisers, and its highly original sound and witty lyrics made it a hit, reaching the Top 5 in the UK and US.

Kraftwerk in 1976, with Schneider, left.
Kraftwerk in 1976, with Schneider, left. Photograph: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Adding ever-more sophisticated synthesisers and drum machines, and with Hütter’s distinctive vocals, the group went on to release a series of albums that became hugely influential on pop music, particularly the four-album run of Radio-Activity (1975), Trans-Europe Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978) and Computer World (1981). They described their music as industrielle volksmusik: “folk music of the factories”, as translated by David Bowie.

As well as being forefathers of the synthpop that would dominate the 1980s and beyond, the title track of Trans-Europe Express was sampled in 1982 by Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force for one of the earliest hip-hop hits, Planet Rock, while Computer World was hugely influential on the house and techno music that emerged from Chicago and Detroit that decade.

Their work also brought them into the orbit of the Berlin-dwelling Bowie and Iggy Pop – in a TV documentary, Pop recalled that he and Schneider once went shopping for asparagus together. Bowie’s track V-2 Schneider is thought to be a tribute to him.

Known for his enigmatic, somewhat faraway smile, Schneider worked on all of the group’s studio albums, including The Man-Machine, which yielded their biggest hit: The Model, a melancholy synthpop song which topped the UK charts in 1982.

Following their final studio album to date, Tour De France Soundtracks in 2003, and a return to touring, Schneider left the group in 2008.

No reason was given for his departure, and he has maintained a mostly low profile since. Hütter told the Guardian in 2009 that Schneider “worked for many, many years on other projects: speech synthesis, and things like that. He was not really involved in Kraftwerk for many, many years,” and in 2017 said that the pair had “not really” spoken since Schneider left.

In 2015, Schneider released a new piece of music, Stop Plastic Pollution, in collaboration with producer Dan Lacksman. He said the track, released to raise awareness about pollution, was inspired by “taking a swim in the ocean at the coasts of Ghana, watching fishermen catch nothing but plastic garbage in their nets”.

Those paying tribute to Schneider include Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, who said they were “absolutely devastated” and that he was one of their heroes. Ultravox’s Midge Ure said he was “way ahead of his time”, while producer Thomas Dolby said: “Another of my great heroes gone.”

Techno star Nina Kraviz tweeted: “What would electronic music be without Kraftwerk? RIP,” and film director Edgar Wright said: “To say he was massively influential and changed the very sound of music, is somehow still a understatement.”