My earliest musical memory is listening to Lotte Lenya singing ‘Mack the Knife’ from The Threepenny Opera. My grandmother played this musical often and I remember listening intensly to the story even though I couldn’t really understand it. My grandma also listened to the wonderful recordings of Edith Piaf, Zara Leander and Marlene Dietrich and to this day their voices have a great power over me. They have this ability to move and transport me every time I hear them. I think these early musical impressions created my interest and love for the theatrical aspect in music. I feel interpreting songs from that genre and era comes quite naturally to me, as I feel that they are part of me.
One night after an (amateur) performance in a club in Düsseldorf in the early 80s I was invited to join a band called Propaganda of which my friend Susanne was already a member. I was intrigued by the image that Ralf, Andreas and Susanne were projecting and liked the sound and noise they were making and so I decided I would like to be part of this new musical venture. This decision would shape my life, and a few months later I was signed to Trevor Horn’s and his wife Jill Sinclair’s new label ZTT and my life as a recording artist was about to begin.
I was a fan of the pulsing hypnotic sequenced beats they produced and Susanne’s deadpan yet evocative vocal delivery plus their stern hard image and thought that the name was a great name for a band and one could have some fun playing with that.
The making of the first Propaganda album A Secret Wish was a huge challenge for Stephen Lipson. He’s a quite traditional musician at heart and a fan of bands like Pink Floyd, Steely Dan and the Rolling Stones, very into well-played and well-recorded rock music. Propaganda was something very Germanic and electronic, coming out of music and ideology very alien to Stephen and it had a real dark avant-garde and – as Stephen saw it – arty side to it, and we needed to bring these elements into the music production. He is a good listener and we would feed him with material we liked, as reference points – stuff from Can and Kraftwerk to D.A.F and Cabaret Voltaire – and sometimes he’d give us a look that said, ‘are you for real or what?’ or ‘you can’t be serious!’ But he did respond, and had this wonderful ability to incorporate these experimental elements with that straight musicality of his, and I think that this combination/fusion in the end is what makes A Secret Wish special – experimental electronic music with a melodic aspect recorded with as much sophistication as a Pink Floyd record, and in a way our electronic interests met in the middle with his interest in the way the recording studio was becoming more electronic, soon digital.
I always felt very much at ease working with Stephen. He has a way of criticising without hurting someone’s feelings or de-motivating the artist/performer. I was starting out as a singer and was quite inexperienced in a studio environment but he would make a recording session fun and relatively painless. At the very early stage of working with him, when we recorded ‘Femme Fatale’ he picked up on me being uneasy singing whilst everyone else was hanging out in the control room and he made everyone leave. He also organized candles to be put everywhere in the room where I was singing to create a special atmosphere/relaxed ambience and that made me feel at ease. I could get into a zone where I could achieve the right performance and interpretation for this song. When I listen to the song now the candles are still flickering… He was creating and encouraging drama, and even though we came from different directions – me from Piaf, Lenya and of course Nico, Steve from American rock – we both wanted to represent musical drama and excitement.
The creative process of recording A Secret Wish was incredible so say the least. As nearly all of the recordings took place in Sarm West and ZTT’s offices were in the same building there was a constant flow of artists and bands and creative people coming and going and I had the pleasure to mix and mingle with some wonderful people (a great creative fusion).
David Sylvian helped us with his writing and musical skills on ‘p:Machinery’, pretty much influencing the final structure and atmosphere of the piece – a hint of what might have been if he had produced the album, which, for about a second, he considered, after Paul Morley, who was really our A&R man, panicked for a moment that Steve Lipson was going to make it too Genesis. One of my favorite memories of David is from Cologne, where we both met up with Holger Czukay at his local café. Later that afternoon Holger chauffeured us in his old Mercedes through the city for a special sightseeing tour.
David Bedford’s string arrangement for ‘Dr Mabuse’ was truly beautiful – he translated Fritz Lang’s film vision of chilling suspense and private madness into music and picked up how we had created a modern Germanic soundtrack to the film.
One of my favorite musical moments of the album is the closing track, a reprise of ‘Mabuse’, titled ‘Strength to Dream’. At 1.47 minutes into the song when the thunder breaks and the heavens open… Susanne’s melancholic delivery of the spoken words ‘Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream’ completes Propaganda’s epic journey and brings us back to reality, leaving us wondering what on earth has just hit us… David Bedford arranged this wonderful string arrangement, and here again there was this wonderful area where both Propaganda and Steve and Trevor were after the same things, a sense of the epic, and Bedford, coming from the classical world, satisfied all our desires.
It was really exciting to promote our album and it was also the first time that I experienced playing live (even though we didn’t tour for very long). It was something I had never done properly before. We had Derek Forbes and Brian McGee from the Simple Minds as our rhythm section and Kevin Armstrong, who was Bowie’s guitarist, was also part of our live setup. Their expertise and experience helped me to become a confident life performer… One of my favorite and biggest gigs was playing a concert in Rotterdam for Greenpeace with INXS and OMD in 1985.
It was the only album that came from the combination of Propaganda and ZTT, and perhaps there was so much put into it, and so much clashing of egos and influences, that it couldn't really go anywhere from A Secret Wish – which was the culmination of something even though it was a debut, rather than the beginning of something. Propaganda carried on without me and ZTT, and were therefore a very different group. I still had ZTT, but not Propaganda, so I was a different singer – but because there was still me and Steve Lipson I felt as much ‘Propaganda’ as the group that signed to Virgin, because I was the voice, and to some extent Steve was the sound.
Anton Corbijn painted images for each track, took the photograph of the mannequin on the cover, and of the group, and the sleeve design, by the London Design Partnership and Paul Morley of ZTT was fantastic – it looked as great as it sounded, which is saying something, and everyone involved gave everything they had in ensuring it was some sort of classic, which, if we had managed to make a follow up, might have led to something huge. In a way, though, it is better that it exists in splendid isolation, and nothing, no disappointing follow ups, ever spoilt the illusion.