Title: A song from Europe
Author: William Shaw
The German pop group Propaganda released their last single, “Dr Mabuse”, over a year ago. Then they had to wait while their record company devoted time to Frankie Goes To Hollywood. And what’s happened since? A new single and a lot of talk about “shocking and disgusting things”. Relax, says William Shaw, only one of them’s a vampire.
Michael Mertens has just flown in from Dusseldorf, German. Propaganda’s home country. Only a few hours earlier he was performing Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony with the Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra, playing cymbal and triangle. In one and a half hours of music, he had two beats to play on the cymbal and two on the triangle, all the time keeping one eye on his watch to see if he was going to be in time to catch the plane to London to meet the other three members of Propaganda.
That sort of tight schedule, he explains, is the worst part of sharing his time between being a professional classical musician and being a member of a successful pop group who’ve just released their second excellent single “Duel”. But apart from these problems in timetabling he revels in the contrast between his two musical careers: “I don’t like the attitude of thinking that classical music is the ultimate way of making music,” he explains. “It doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Both careers started late. It wasn’t ‘til he was 18 that he took to studying classical music and learning the rudiments of percussion, and on the other side he was almost 30 when Ralf Dorper walking into his room one day, saw his collection of classical and electronic instruments and asked him whether he’d be interested in collaborating in a musical project of his by the name of Propaganda. “It is interesting,” he says, “to meet someone who wanted to paint pictures in musical terms.”
Back in Dusseldorf his colleagues in the orchestra remain generally unaware of the other side of his life: “They don’t really know what it means. They just think ‘Ah yes. Michael is going to London to make a record…’”
Claudia is the only member of Propaganda who doesn’t live in Dusseldorf, having now moved to London, to stay with her husband, ZTT’s Paul Morley. She’s the youngest and most recent addition to Propaganda, though she’s served her apprenticeship in an all-girl Dusseldorf band called The Toppolinos (The Mickey Mouses): “We weren’t well known, we were nothing really. For me it was still a joke, you know.”
But then Ralf and Susanne, who were friends, came along looking for another member for Propaganda and now she’s taking her turn in the limelight as the voice on “Duel”: “It’s just for this song, because I’m singing. The next song might not be the same.
“We just wanted to do something completely different from the last single ‘Dr Mabuse’. That’s what Propaganda means you know, that we can show every face, we can go in every direction. So we can make a love song like ‘Duel’ which is a duel between two lovers, and we can do a very dark song like ‘Dr Mabuse’.”
Being married to Paul Morley and taking part in Propaganda, Claudia’s in the odd position of being the wife of a man whose record label she’s contracted to. “But,” she says, “I don’t want Propaganda to be involved with our marriage. It’s just an accident that we work together. I could easily have problems with Paul over ideas, but we haven’t has any and if we did I’d be with my band always.”
But meeting up with ZTT was, she reckons, a stroke of luck for Propaganda who up ‘til then hadn’t released any records. “I think that ZTT is a fantastic label, and Paul is very good at playing with images. It’s what we wanted.”
‘Playing with images’ includes things like the single sleeve, on which Claudia is pictured screaming, wearing crucifixes. (“They’re not mine,” she laughs, “they were borrowed.”) and where, on the 12” version, Paul has written the lines ‘Claudia takes an interest in shocking and disgusting things.’ Is there any truth in what Paul wrote there?
“Well yes,” she answers laughing again. “I love blood and I’m a vampire really.”
According to the same sleeve notes, Susanne compels her boyfriend to do infamous thing and Ralf loves flowers and certain special smells. Ralf chuckles at the description: “We don’t give a damn about what’s written on the sleeve.”
They’re the longest serving members of the group who came over to England with a tape they’d recorded in 1982 which led to them getting signed and to last year’s debut single “Dr Mabuse”.
“From the beginning it was more a music project, not a band. At that time ZTT didn’t exist. Someone gave Paul Morley a tape and then they contacted us and we were invited to come over to England and spend some time in the studio.
“When we signed,” he says of ZTT, “we signed to a company, we didn’t just sign to ZTT and,” he grins, “I doubt if we had that we would have signed to ZTT…” He’s interrupted by Susanne’s laughter for a second before continuing, “…because we don’t want to be part of something. We’re on our own.”
Being on ZTT also had the disadvantage of having to play second fiddle to Frankie Goes To Hollywood last year when they wanted to go straight ahead with releasing “Duel” after “Dr Mabuse”.
“We wanted to have the one following the other because it makes sense if you look at the two songs,” says Ralf. “There are quite a lot of ways we can sound, and on ‘Duel’ we show the two opposites — the one side very sweet and the other very harsh.”
There’s an animal noise on the single at one point, which sounds a bit like and elephant. Is it?
“Oh no. It’s a microchip,” answers Ralf. “A microchip with big ears.”