Author: Ted Mico / Source: Melody Maker / Published: 9th November 1985
Screw down your hats, this will be no ordinary ride. In this latest instalment from the continuing saga of a young pop hack in search of The Truth. Ted Mico, the People’s Thesaurus, travels to Manchester to confront ZTT enigmas, PROPAGANDA. Are they the most perfect example yet of Paul Morley’s dream of subversive expansion? Can they be typecast by a man with a typewriter? Are they taken too seriously or taken for granted? Will you read on or be left out? The answers to all or none of these questions will remain open to debate long after you’ve turned these pages
Pictorial aberration: Barry Marsden
POSING the question…
Where does the propaganda end, and Propaganda begin?
It begins with a full stop and ends with an exclamation mark. Stop. Propaganda are the four horseman of the apostrophe, four voices swirling around a cauldron, sculpting dreams from the dreary, and setting alight their embroidered fantasy as soon as it has begun.
“That’s the dangerous thing about Propaganda - you never know when it starts and stops.” Suzanne Freytag’s words. The band’s working. Working well. It’s a fantasy promoted by their press officer, and the husband of their chanteuse, Claudia Brücken, a certain Mr P. Morley.
It’s been a tough time for Paul and ZTT lately. Morley and I only have one thing in common - a mutual distrust. Sitting in the hotel lobby he looks bewildered, “I don’t know what people want any more,” he says. “They’ve all seen too much and think they know too much to get enthusiastic about anything.”
This from a man who is mistakenly believed to have sold his soul for a chapter of hollow quotes! A more esteemed theologian named Nietzsche coined a similar phrase when I rang him - “What the hell do you want?” A good question. What the hell do you want? It seems you crave for nothing. Nothing comes of nothing. And nothing’s exactly what you get.”
No excitement, no fun, no thrill from the unexpected, and no pleasure. Nothing. We’ve been left with the feeble bleating of The Alarm, the fermented sediment of pub rock, and the jaded (once jilted) anachronism of rock. Nothing. It is potently obvious that anyone of our so-called pop stars could plunge us even further into lethargy. The question is, who will pull us out?
Propaganda - they could change all that. I know. I have just seen them perform live without diminishing their enigmatic appeal, without wearing through their veil of intrigue. I was wearing shoes that pinched. Pain sharpens the reactions. It prevents cold feet. It all went well …the gig that is.
Propaganda are now more than just a name that flits from lip to lip, never touching the ground. Before the start of this tour they were nothing more than on invisible quartet - a calling card that never arrived. Now they have arrived. Now another fantasy begins. Claudia tells me that it was always their intention to tour: “I think it’s the best way to communicate with people.” The Manchester audience didn’t know what to expect, and “we didn’t expect too much from an English audience. In Europe audiences enjoy live music. In England they consume it. It’s very cold.”
As was the reaction to their debut. The backing tapes, greeted with such abhorrence by one puerile MM reviewer, were used because of financial constraints. No money, no extra musicians. Next year will be different story.
ONE by one the band file into my chamber (thinly disguised as bar of the Britannia Hotel). One member leaves, another arrives. Suzanne tells me, “that’s the danger of propaganda - you never know where it stops.” The fourth man, their lyricist Rolf Dorper, tells me nothing. He’s still counting piles of Deutschmarks in his bank in Dusseldorf, their home town. Ralf keeps his job at the bank because he doesn’t like to rely on other people’s whims.
Claudia carries her fatal charm in the hem of Marlene Dietrich’s dress. Suzanne has a face for everything and everything in her face, Michael Mertens has just left his job as percussionist for the German opera. He carries a book about Van Gogh and misses Germany. Lucky man, Van Gogh was missing an ear. All three are sweeties affable, articulate and fun to be with. They also have a savage streak of heart stopping kind hearts and coronaries.
P stands for Propaganda - the principles of pleasure. Pop pure and simple - revised but unrefined. The band epitomise the absurd. That perverse but universal pleasure in playing the game, and playing to win. To put it another way: Propaganda is that elusive union of passing fancy, passing time, and passing water.
BUT do Propaganda play their games through desire of calculation? “Both,” they all cry. At different times. Of course it’s both. Everything about the band is never less that two opposing forces. “The Murder of Love” is spurred on by desire which in turn spurns the devisive strategy with which the song commenced. Morley and Trevor Horn resort to gesticulating ideas from the tram lines - it’s Propaganda who run the race. Claudia in particular, is far too strong-willed and obsessive to acountenance any outside interference that might hinder their progress.
“Trevor Horn had nothing to do with the production of the album” (“A Secret Wish”), Claudia announces with a look of innocence. “He is just a quality control person. He won’t let anything leave ZTT which he feels is poor. Besides, he’s been working with Grace Jones for over five months. We could never afford such a ridiculous amount of money.”
There’s defiance in Claudia’s eyes. There’s a piece of yesterday’s nut rissole caught between her teeth. “We suggest all our image changes, not Paul or anyone else. He just writes a few texts on the sleeve. We want to change our image all the time otherwise it would get boring and we would repeat things.” Claudia’s softened accent fades…
PROGRESSION. There must always be progression. Propaganda are after all, the sum of pretension and extension; aspiration and perspiration. They ran on enormous risk by touring. They might hove smashed their own distant and beguiling mirror. They didn’t. On stage they were at once human, tangible, soothing and seething.
One song scythed into another, enveloping the senses, enlivening limbs. The bittersweet rhapsody of “Duel” was perfectly recited, affectionately received, and then devoured by Suzanne’s mordant shrieks of “Jewel” - the violent and manic step-sister of “Duel”.
Claudia grins. “We like the contrast. People think we are very cool but we aren’t. People seem shocked last night to see us smile!” Claudia sees pleasure in singing to people in intimate surroundings. Suzanne likes distorting and collapsing the band’s spires of beauty. There is pleasure in the danger it creates. Suzanne also has a most demonic laugh - a fitting wife for Mephisto.
“Without love, beauty and danger it would almost be easy to live” P. Morley
Claudia revels in the idea of using the pop machinery, not being used by it. “With ‘Mabuse’ (the epic) we wanted to introduce just our music so we didn’t show our faces. With ‘Duel’ (the aspic) we were looking pure and nude and evil. With ‘P Machinery’ (the icepick) we used a combination of both. It must always change (the toothpick).”
“P Machinery” should have been a hit. Its delicate harmonies magnified to the scale of a Wagnerian opus should have sent people into rapturous convulsions. They tell me the song was also accompanied by a fearsome video. I wouldn’t know. It was never shown on TV. It didn’t sound like Dire Straits who sound like Elton John who sound like Duran Duran who sound like Dire Straits. An ugly, vicious circle. The band were never given the chance. The charts are at present levelled and regulated by the TV which has successfully stifled pleasure and tightened a tournequet around the arteries of distinctive pop. If a song doesn’t appear on Wogan, it doesn’t exist. The whole country is stricken by three terminally crippling diseases: AIDS, apathy and chat shows.
“All art is propaganda for itself.” Pablo Picasso.
CLAUDIA blames the Chart failure of the single on other things: “The single was never given any press because of the ZTT backlash. There was so much jealousy about the company in the industry.”
And yet the NME wrote a cover feature about them…
“I said that,” Claudia says, clipping her wings. “We didn’t get any good press.”
Propaganda dislike repetition. It’s time to change the subject. The readiness of some to tear down the walls of ZTT’s success has been attacked largely by people who wish to justify their own failure, and Propaganda have been caught in a lethal cross-fire. Because they are signed to ZTT they must always prove something to someone. They must prove they are not marionettes. They are not aloof continentals who turn the other chic. They are not pop intellectuals tinkering with the circuits in a laboratory. In fact, Propaganda have accrued enough nots to rig the Cutty Sark. “With Frankie I thought it understandable to think them puppets,” Claudia insists. “But we are a German band with a very different attitude towards things. We have always made it clear that we wouldn’t do anything we didn’t want.”
Self-indulgence is the antidote to indolence. What is their wont?
“We can do everything. That’s our strength,” replies Claudia. “We have the talent and we have the opportunity.” And they have the sense of adventure to take it, twist it, caress it.
“We are all seaparate and very different from each other, but we usually agree with our own conflicts.” Conflict and contrast collide and embrace. Claudia wants to insert more political ideals into the music. The others are more chary, anxious not to generalise and dilute their message with trivial slogans.
Propaganda’s first venture into polemics came with the inclusion of a J. G. Bollard quote on the 12inch of “P Machinery”, citing the Baader Meinhof group as heroes of freedom in a world of madmen. The quote had to be removed in Germany before the disc could be released. They succeeded in provoding a reaction, but foiled to engender wider attraction.
“The Germans are always very afraid,” says Ms Brucken, shaking her head with dismay. “They always refuse to take any risks.”
Propaganda don’t. They are dangerous. Musical terrorists, holding a patina of eclectic pop to ransom. Their demand is: “Listen!” Their domain is stateless, but not motionless. There is motion but no direction. No music is their music. This makes them impossible to typecast with a typewriter. A masterstroke.
A band that cannot be categorised remains dangerous and unpredictable because they cant be safely locked inside a filing cabinet. To avoid being labelled, Propaganda have hurled out more snippets of propaganda than have been thrown at them by the press. The effect is a smokescreen - a fog that keeps their picture incomplete – a mist that never allows reality to encroach upon fantasy.
Suzanne: “It’s like the freedom we search for. It’s an empty word, you can’t define it.” It’s propaganda. It’s ingenious: a band that is difficult to write about is difficult to write off.
“It’s our intention to be difficult and not to top then all the time. The English charts are so ridiculous at the moment, with Jennifer Rush and John Parr, that I wouldn’t be proud to be in their company.”
“Words are like witchcraft. Propaganda is a spell” - Walter Pater.
“Rum-te-tum-te-tum-te-tum” - Winnie The Pooh
CLAUDIA considers Propaganda to be successful enough. An end in itself. Not for her the concerns and angst over success and failure. Michael disagrees. He wants more. The Oliver Twist of the bass drum. He is frightened by his desires. “I’m much more used to failure. Everyone is. We become conditioned to it. Because we know it better it it less frightening than success.”
Michael’s tousled hair and slattern dress are the antithesis of Suzanne’s pristine elegance. Her’s is a slinky colour scheme - his a conspiracy. Claudia’s voice is brittle, Suzanne’s fragile. Claudia believes the band has a perfect image. A tuetonic Bucks Fizz?
“Oh God no!”. She looks appalled “We are a cosmopolitan band, which makes us exotic in England. We are all very equal - In Propaganda it’s not only the girls who have no clothes on (the cover of “Duel”), it’s the boys as well. Everything is equal.”
Symmetrical. They frame it. They have embarked upon an abstract (abstruse) oddessy to build a myth… and then ravage the icon. All three of them despise idolatry. It debases self respect.
Claudia: I don’t want to be responsible for other people’s lives. I admire people, especially Marlene Dietrich, but I hate being idolised. Besides this, I’m quite easy going.” Michael has other ideas: “Claudia can shock people. She can be very rude and direct which is her strength. But she is sometimes difficult to get on with because she’s so selfish and egotistical. I’m much more of a diplomat.”
Both Michael and Claudia enjoyed their recent tour of Spain and Portugal. Suzanne isn’t sure. But Suzanne doesn’t like to argue: “We are too different sometimes,” she admits, which is why we are willing to do different things. We will always take risks in things because we could never agree about things otherwise.”
Progression through argument. Now seriously, should Propaganda ever be token seriously, or taken to the cleaners?
Claudia: “Oh, no. People should play with the idea. They should toy with their imagination, and see it as funny. As something absurd. We treat it just like a Dada play.”
Act One: Scene: Hysterical: Propaganda is the risible ascension at Dada to dumdum and back again.
SUZANNE: “There’s no message you have to take with Propaganda, because the messages do not make sense together. It’s just pop.”
Claudia: “If there are bonds like Wham! and Tears For Fears around, then you need Propaganda. You need someone who is playing the game for fun.”
Propaganda are an alarm signal pressed at a time of depression and devaluement. The alarm rings. We go to sleep. The phone rings. It’s Uncle William Yeats: “Culture does not consist in aquiring opinion, but in getting rid of them.”
THE rules change as the stakes get higher. The more money involved, the less pleasure and the more pressure to play the game softly and safely.
Micheal: “You should never be blinded just because commerce is involved.”
So speaks a real ZTT subversive – or so The Sunday Times says. Micheal gathers steam as he accelerates into streams of consonants that obliterate anything resembling a language barrier.
“We try and dismantle things in the charts. We would never tell people that’s it’s wrong to buy these records, but by playing the game we will show up the stupidity of the whole business. We will make our own fantasy.”
Until one month ago, Micheal and Suzanne held down jobs as percussionist and jeweller, allowing themselves the luxury of distance and perspective. It’s a luxury they were loath to give up. Time was not on their side. Time will tell if they now become embroiled in the “stupidity” they are attempting to render useless. Rolf is still counting. Without a firm grasp on reality, there can be no fantasy. There is only fallacy. What’s that Suzanne?
“This elevator is only going up.”
Indeed. Indeed. If success can be measured by other people’s jealousy. Propaganda have made it. They have also had it in the Fatherland.
Micheal: “There are a lot of people who hate us for being successful in England. In Germany that’s very rare and you are quickly despised by people who believe and continue all those pop myths.”
Suzanne wants to talk about her favourite maxims - they splatter across the wallpaper, but she has a sore throat and a cold, typical souvenirs from Manchester in October. From Brighton you bring home rock, from Glasgow haggis and from Manchester, a cold. Claudia speaks for her – an hour before her: “We have lots of quotes to use yet. We have some more Poe, some more Schopenhauer, some more Brecht…”
Some more tea?
“But maybe it will all change on the next album,” she continues, inviting questions she refrains from answering. The new album in the new year. The band show no sign of weakness in their gambit to outploy convention.
As Dietrich said “You have to work so much harder to convince the public you’re suffering when your gloves and handbag match.”
WHERE there is Propaganda, there is pleasure… and there is danger. Most of all there is pleasure in danger. Fractured ideas congeal, then splinter with the abandon of a drowning man. Claudia is not afraid of death.
“I think it’s just wanking to believe if you perform and are famous, you’ll live on after death.”
Tell that to the Blue Anqel. Tell that to Suzanne (the angelic sylph): “Inside I think everyone want not to be forgotten. Fame can do that”.
A pact with immortality or a practical joke? Where is the finish line?
In their search for the ultimate fantasy for the ultimate pop, Propaganda have an end - sight unseen. Their absurd and potent mirage will eventually and inevitably lead to the self-destruction of Propaganda.
Dada would love it. Dodos didn’t. But that is the future.
For the present Propaganda have lit the blue touch paper and sent molten catherine wheels soaring into the twilight of the imagination. They may eventually fail - Guy Fawkes did. But the whole of my admiration goes out to people like Propaganda and the great Magus, inconsolable and obstinate seekers of a fantasy they knew might never exist, yet still pursue it, for it would have been the ultimate dream and the perfect pleasure.
And what do Propaganda say?
“A penny for the guy.”