Soon after my departure from Propaganda I teamed up with Thomas Leer, and together we would create Laughter, Tears and Rage, a very different kind of album to A Secret Wish, but one which I think is still closer to the Propaganda of A Secret Wish than the group that signed to Virgin and made what was officially the second Propaganda album…
Thomas lived close by so we saw each other a few times a week to exchange ideas and work on melodies and lyrics. Thomas had very much his own style and signature with his strong keyboard hooks and melodies, which were quite funky at times, so stylistically I moved very much away from the sound of Propaganda, but because we made it with Steve Lipson, it had the ZTT sound. It was his idea to call us Act, and I loved the name, and felt that as a group, as an electronic two piece, we were very underestimated.
This album is quite experimental – I was developing my song writing skills. The recording costs were enormous as Stephen was using all sorts of new cutting-edge technology which was then charged to us. In hindsight, we really should have not been allowed to spend that amount of money on the production costs of this album, certainly when it was a much more experimental pop group and we had no real say in what Steve was using. He was experimenting more for himself than us, and a leaner, harder (and indeed cheaper) sound might have suited the songs more – Thomas was an original Mute act, and in a way that was how we should have sounded. Then again, the Lipson effect did produce some amazing moments, and the debut single ‘Snobbery & Decay’ had more going on in the seven inch mix alone than a lot of other bands at the time… To some extent I am still paying for that song, which cost about as much to make as a house. I loved the video for ‘Snobbery & Decay’ – it was shot by the Molotov Brothers and it really does visually reflect what the song is all about – living in the 80s, the arrival of the MTV age, the way pop was getting very caught up with image, and presentation, and how under the skin there was something very decadent and strange going on.
Act was so much about the theatrical, the decadence of the 80s, the snobbery… the drama of it all. A dark electronic showbiz fantasy. Lyrically we were like removed social commentators observing the society we lived in and how we perceived the world around us; Thatcher’s Britain, atom bombs, mental health, the tragedy of being successful and the darker side of fame were just some of our themes – there was an 80s of Wham, Duran and Spandau, but for me Act was more about that 80s represented by New Order, Depeche and the Associates, full of 80s energy, sometimes ridiculously lavish, but not as pointlessly extravagant and self-indulgent.
For me, it was a time of experimenting with who I was as a performer, in a new group, and discovering what I wanted to say. From a creative point of view I always felt that this album was a bit of a compromise. I feel that from a songwriting point of view some songs on the album could have been improved. To some extent, Thomas would not let Steve experiment as much with the structure and arrangements of the songs as he had with Propaganda, so there was never as much room for Steve’s sort of experimental energy as we made it, and for me this was actually a compromise, even though Thomas was uncompromisingly protecting his integrity. I had discovered in Propaganda the value of letting a great producer transform your songs in the studio, exaggerating and enhancing their essence, rather than merely recording them. Steve was not allowed to go mad like he wanted to, and got frustrated, and Thomas felt he was taking too many liberties, and got frustrated – and I was stuck in the middle.
For all the difficulties and frustrations making the album, which also got mixed up with record label changes as ZTT went through a drawn-out move from Island to Warner Bros, it still produced tracks as intense and invigorating as ‘Snobbery’ and ‘Absolutely Immune’ – tracks as good as anything on ZTT. Act was a tricky time for me, because it basically involved me working on a second album, my follow up to the well liked and successful A Secret Wish, which was also a sort of debut, while the record label was itself going through lots of changes.
I had the wonderful opportunity to have my picture taken by the Queen’s cousin Patrick Litchfield – we thought it all fitted into the era of excess that the 80s was all about. To have his name dropped on our packaging was like the absurd icing on the cake… I very much liked how the photos turned out. I remember large Litchfield prints being delivered to my door and I was asked to get creative with them and make a collage, for the single artwork to ‘Absolutely Immune’. So I got the scissors, glue and paint out and ‘attacked’ these beautiful prints, in the spirit of Act art. I have to laugh now thinking about how I did this without a moment’s hesitation – God knows what the Earl thought, but you could see he wasn’t sure what was going on as soon as Paul Morley, art directing, asked him to recreate a photo that Cecil Beaton had taken of Edith Sitwell pretending she was dead.