V-2 Schneider

V-2 Schneider.
V-2 Schneider (live, 1997).
V-2 Schneider (live, 1997).
V-2 Schneider (Philip Glass, “Heroes” Symphony, 1997).

[A note, from 2016: as several have said over the years, this entry builds much of its arguments on a basic error—that Bowie was referencing the V-2 rocket and not, as seems far more likely, just referencing Florian Schneider’s nickname. This will be rectified in the book, and this entry will be improved—take it as a very flawed first draft. I likely will replace this text with the revised version whenever I’m done with the latter.]

“V-2 Schneider” is Bowie’s poisoned tribute to Florian Schneider, one of Kraftwerk’s founders, with Bowie prefixing Schneider’s name with one of Hitler’s last gambles, the Nazi rockets that fell on London in 1944-45. Though Tony Visconti said the title came together randomly, there seems more to it, at least on some subconscious level, as Bowie’s relations with Kraftwerk were a mingle of admiration and darker projections.

“I think there are two bands who now come close to a neo-Nazi kind of thing: Roxy Music and Kraftwerk,” Bowie told Ben Edmonds in 1976. “It’s not Nazism so much as nationalism. I think it may be too cliched to use the Nazi thing; it’s more nationalistic.” Of course this interview came at the height of Bowie’s Thin White Duke, fascist-sympathizing, cocaine-addled public incarnation, whose public excesses Bowie would later recant. Still, Bowie’s words gave some of the British press free reign to call Kraftwerk fascists, and it seems clear that, at least at the time, Bowie was willfully misreading Kraftwerk for his own ends.

In interviews Bowie would contrast Kraftwerk to his own work. Kraftwerk was emotionless, rigid, pristine, a sealed box, he said, where Bowie was making music that still had a human element in it, particularly the sound of his African-American rhythm section. Something about the Kraftwerk sensibility seemed to jar Bowie as much as it attracted him—not just the crystalline structures of their synthesizer and electronic percussion arrangements, but their utter lack of irony, or an irony so deep that it relegated much of Bowie’s work to the surfaces.

With their dress suits and investment bankers’ haircuts, their deadpan expressions and their absurdly literal lyrics, Kraftwerk seemed to court being called automatons, fascist droners. Coming out of the same milieu, postwar Düsseldorf, that had produced the painter Anselm Kiefer (born two years before Schneider), Schneider and his partner Ralf Hütter were of the generation that, as Werner Herzog said, “had no fathers, only grandfathers,”* coming of age in a country whose recent past had been erased by general consent. By the late ’60s, when Kiefer and Kraftwerk started working, they began picking at the scabs. Kiefer first got attention by photographing and painting himself giving the Nazi salute against various backdrops, while Kraftwerk took ideas from one of the Nazis’ favored composers, Carl Orff, while fetishizing what Richard Witts called “the shiny, new everyday objects of the Nazi period—its cars, its motorways, its short-range radios…and like Kiefer, present[ing] them in a utopian glow…the provocation is that of a society projected as though it is not yet defeated.”

As Witts wrote, Kraftwerk was combining the pre-Nazi utopianism of Bauhaus Germany (which was permissible, as it was now considered the “real” modern Germany), the now-verboten spiritual and technological obsessions of the Nazis (culminating in the Nazis’ desperate efforts to build an atom bomb and affix one to long-range rockets like the V-2, which seemed like a modernist adaptation of Das Rheingold) and, finally, the “miracle” transformation of West Germany into capitalism’s favorite child. These aspirations bled together: the gleaming Trans-Europe Express, celebrated by Kraftwerk, could easily have been a Nazi innovation, crossing a Europe without borders because it was all one cleansed Reich.

Bowie appears to have discovered Kraftwerk while in Los Angeles in 1975, constantly listening to Autobahn while being ferried in his limo. He had wanted them to open his 1976 tour, and when that didn’t work out, Bowie baffled his audiences by playing Kraftwerk as pre-show music.** “Station to Station,” opening with a slow assemblage of train sound effects, was directly inspired by the car-ignition opening of “Autobahn,” yet Bowie was already drawing distinctions, using an “analog” device (a sound effects LP) where Kraftwerk had used synthesizers. And where in “Autobahn” Kraftwerk had depicted a West Germany existing in a present tense of fast cars, superhighways and sunlit valleys, Bowie had brought back the sound of the train, the transport of wartime Europe, carrying troops going West and prisoners going East.

Kraftwerk’s masterpiece Trans-Europe Express (recorded around the time Bowie cut Low, released in March 1977) seems like their answer record to “Station.” In the title track Kraftwerk reclaims the train: it’s now another figure removed from history, cleaned up, modernized, humming along contentedly, rolling across the borders that had been fought over (and rewritten) for centuries. To top it off, they name-checked Bowie and Iggy Pop in the lyric.

So is “V-2 Schneider” Bowie’s retaliation, a little barb reminding Schneider that he was the heir of Nazis? The track opens with what sounds like an incoming wave of airplanes, and “Schneider” isn’t as much a Kraftwerk imitation (Low‘s “Speed of Life” is far more in their debt) as it’s a defacing or questioning of their sound, with its distorted, off-beat saxophone hooks and the track’s centering on a tensed, quivering muscle of a bassline by George Murray. There are two obvious call-backs: Dennis Davis’ snare fills, which seem like analog equivalents to the synth percussion fills on “Trans Europe Express,” and the vocoder-sounded title phrase, which coheres near the fadeout after being a murk of vowel sounds for much of the track.

(Keeping with the make-do improvisations of the “Heroes” sessions, the vocal wasn’t actually done by a vocoder. Visconti said that Bowie had been “too impatient” to track down a vocoder, so “we had a cheap little synthesizer in the studio and found sounds that had a vowel shape that resembled: Vee-Too-Schnei-Der. The idea was to use those four separate patches for each note and David would supply just the consonants with his voice filtered electronically (all the ‘body’ taken out), i.e.: V-T-Sch_D…and it kind of worked…”)

Bowie’s saxophone work, starting off-beat and mainly keeping there, was an error, Bowie missing his cue while doing overdubs. However, recalling one of Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards about honoring your mistakes, he didn’t recut the saxophone track. Compared with the rest of the “Heroes” instrumentals, “V-2 Schneider” is more conventional in structure (after the intro, the track is basically a series of 4-bar horn or guitar passages and 8-bar vocal “choruses”) and is far more of a band track. A fresh challenge to Kraftwerk or yet another misreading of them, it’s one of Bowie’s most compelling instrumentals in any case.

Recorded July-mid-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. Used as the closing movement of Glass’ “Heroes” Symphony. Performed live in 1997—a recording from the Paradiso, Amsterdam, on 6 October 1997 was issued as a b-side of “Pallas Athena” (it’s the latter of the two live links above).

Of great help with this entry was Richard Witts’ “Vorsprung durch technik – Kraftwerk and the the British fixation with Germany,” reprinted as Chapter 8 of Kraftwerk: Music Non-Stop, ed. Albiez & Pattie; Continuum, 2011.

*Florian Schneider’s father, the architect Paul Schneider-Esleben, had served in the German army during the war, though not a Nazi party member. His ’50s work, including the Manesmann Hochhaus, was associated with the “Year Zero” movement of rejecting the Nazi obsession with neo-classicism and championing the “lost” modernism of the Bauhaus school.

**Edmonds, attending an early show in Vancouver in ’76, watched as Bowie’s audience at first were intrigued by Kraftwerk, then grew restive and finally angry, mocking the vocals, clapping to drown the music out.

Top: Kraftwerk, promotional photo for Trans-Europe Express, 1977. Schneider is first from left.

15 Responses to V-2 Schneider

  1. diamond dog says:

    Fantastic piece once again with a great insight into its connection via title to Kraftwerk. I imagined the title as just a namecheck , your piece sheds more light on it.
    Its a good track but Low has 2 better instrumentals So not my fav by a long shot …its a bit of a piss take I always thought , 2 fingers insult. Its a nice opener to a side containing the darkest pair of tracks in his canon.

  2. Marion Brent says:

    Thanks for this great piece. “Autobahn” is surely not just about a West German present, it necessarily has Nazi undertones as well, since Hitler was such an enthusiastic builder of the Autobahn network. The imagery Kraftwerk uses is really fascinating – it seems to hark back to a utopianism of the 20s and 30s but almost with the ideology drained out. We could be in the Weimar Republic (‘Neon Lights’), we could be in constructivist Soviet Russia (cover of Man Machine), and of course we could be in Nazi Germany, it almost doesn’t matter. It’s a reminder that the style we associate with Nazism – in particular the neo-classicism – was in fact just the style of the era (there are plenty of oversized ‘Nazi-style’ neo-classicist buildings in London, Paris and elsewhere).

    Of course Kraftwerk referenced the present as well, but I’m fascinated how they latched onto present-day concepts that were in themselves destined to become futures-that-never-were. I mean, could there be anything more techno-retro than to sing about pocket calculators or Spacelab?

  3. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Hmmm …
    Weren’t the contrasts with Kraftwerk that Bowie made in interviews more as a consequence of a simplistic critical sentiment – based on nothing more than the fact that Bowie had rented a room in Germany for a few months and there were some electronic instruments on the records- that his output at this time was somehow derivative of Kraftwerk? I never saw any negativity towards Kraftwerk in his comments.
    I remember listening to an interview where he was asked if he had any desire to collaborate with any other artist. His immediate response was no, but then he became very effusive about Kraftwerk and how much he would have loved to work with them.
    Audience ‘clapping to drown the music out’ or impatient audience anxious for major star to appear on stage for the first time in a long time?
    As for the song itself, I always associated it with New Career New Town – probably because they were both B-sides on the lead-off singles. If only the rhythm section on this song had been recorded like its counterpart on Low …

  4. diamond dog says:

    These 2 albums are always compared to kraftwerk but in reality the style and content bare little more than a well disguised influence. Even the remote and almost cold style of some Bowie work seems like a collection of hearfelt love songs compared to the android remote work of Kraftwerk. The title is a playfull wink to beware of the pitfalls of fascist imagery a sort of yep its cool but watch out it will bite you in the ass. Look at the press response to some of Bowie’s wilder claims about fascisim and the notorious salute footage. He can deny the salute but the interviews are crazy and the images of him and his gigs only a year before deserved a backlash. So is the title a ‘I know what your up to’ nod or an attempt to detach himself once and for all from the misunderstood period.

  5. Jeremy Earl says:

    I agree – fantastic writing about a track that largely goes unheralded. I remember reading that Bowie realised that when he finished the track he had written his first song backwards. You can hear that, after all it begins with a fade up (if such a term exists.) Love the Earthling versions of the track, so thanks for the links.

  6. Remco says:

    I don’t think Schneider and company needed any warning on the dangers of fascism, certainly not from an Englishman who read a couple of books on the subject while he was off his head on cocaine. I also hope it wasn’t intended as petty name calling.

    I always figured it was a metaphor, the V-2 Schneider as the symbol for German electronic music. It ’s a pretty cheerful song and it sounds to me like he’s actually welcoming the bombers coming to destroy what was happening in London at the time.

  7. diamond dog says:

    I suppose it is a pretty upbeat recording and the kraftwerk bomb landing on punk london is a great image. Maybe it means nothing just sounded good at the time , but with most Bowie tracks you read what you want into it. Was it a temp lyric that sounded good its apity it never became a song with lyrics.

  8. ace inhibitor says:

    maybe its a play on (assume cod-German accent beloved of 70s british comedy) ‘We too, Schneider’ (or ‘We two, Schneider’)?

  9. Birch says:

    Brilliant account of two of my favourite artists’ relationship. However, I don’t hear any Kraftwerk in V-2 Schneider. What I do hear is a loyal tribute to or a blatant rip-off of Neu (which ever you prefer). I knew Bowie before I knew Neu, so when I first heard Neu’s Hallogallo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAXYMOgHQI4) I thought I heard a bunch of shameless Bowie imposters. Untill I got the chronology straight of course. My point is that your piece on V-2 Schneider should have been the pivotal piece on the inspiration Bowie drew from Neu, since this is the most obvious example.

    Just found your blog by the way. It’s appears to be excellent work and I can’t wait to read on.

  10. s.t. says:

    “The Thin White Duke” sure had some gall to be pointing fingers and crying “Fascism!” But he wasn’t completely wrong about Kraftwerk.

    BBC4 aired a great documentary called “Kraut Rock” that made me think twice about the Machine-Menschen.

    Other German bands of the time like Amon Duul II and CAN consciously reacted against popular German culture, which they interpreted as a form of nostalgic escape from the sins of WW2. These bands actively embraced multicultural hybridism as a means to exploring common humanity.

    In contrast, Kraftwerk come sought to create a strictly “German” sound (free from those Black influences) and married it to a fantasy of Progressivism. I don’t think they were flirting with Nazism, but it comes off as reactionary and decidedly nationalistic, especially compared to some of their colleagues at the time. I remain a fan, but their innocence now seems a bit more like stubborn escapism to me.

    I wouldn’t say the same thing about Roxy Music. Ferry certainly wanted to embellish the Britishness of their sound, but he was too in love with American R&B and rock ‘n’ roll to make anything that bordered on fascism. However, Throbbing Gristle seemed (at least initially) to want to forge a sound that was free from other nation’s influences, and some of their interviews about the cultural purity of their approach make me cringe.

  11. crayontocrayon says:

    I love this track but it has forever been tainted once somebody pointed out that the drum fill at the start almost perfectly matches that of the theme to ‘Baywatch’. For me it gives the image of a beat up old jazz band playing for people in underground bomb shelters while the missiles fly overhead. the human spirit prevailing in bleak times – a theme revisited in the recent video for ‘id rather be high'(not the fancy handbag related one)

  12. Christos Tsanakas says:

    CO: Deleted.

    Here’s the thing: I am not your publisher, and I am not interested in being a space you can rant about Kraftwerk for 2,000+ words. If you have a lengthy comment like this, please put it up on your own space and then leave the link here. Thanks.”

  13. Julian says:

    I sort of hate to point this out but V2 was Florian’s nickname (Ralf’s nickname was The Doktor) so it wasn’t a swipe at him. Have a look at the KW article printed in Interview magazine back in the 70s for reference. I would agree that Bowie was never influenced by KW musically.

  14. jigsawpuzzle says:

    TRANS EUROPE
    REPRESS

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