V-2 Schneider

May 17, 2011

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.