Title: Femme fatale
Author: Daryl Easlea
Source: Record Collector
Claudia Brücken gives a rare interview about her time with Propaganda. Minister of information : Daryl Easlea.
Prpaganda’s Claudia Brücken was the face that launched a thousand collectables. RC met her recently to discuss the heady days of the mid-80s, which were, in the main, a barren place for intelligent popular music. Although the indie end of the market flourished, as did the pop-polemic brigade, the morass of chart pop saw those who held the early ideals of futurism embrace the mullet and the Fairlight. A veneer of hedonism created a shiny patina on the face of goodtime pop.
In the middle of all that came ZTT. Producer Trevor Horn, businesswoman Jill Sinclair and NME journalist Paul Morley conceived Zang Tuum Tumb after observing at close hand the excesses of the early 80s. The team was fully au fait with the video age (at least one of its founders was an accessory when it killed the radio star) and how to play the press. The label created collectables, national slogans and an all-round exclusivity with such a strong identity that the fan was faced with little option but to buy every format whether it be in the Action series, the Incidental series or simply a T-shirt WITH VERY BIG WORDS ON IT, ZTT had a ring of confidence. It was almost as if, having passed Horn and Morley’s quality control, every release was going to be all right.
Propaganda, along with Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Art Of Noise, were one of the ‘big three’ of the label’s golden era. With their icy Teutonic beats and filmic references wrapped in the conceits of ZTT spin doctor Morley, their career — in their first incarnation — was brief, leaving behind one bona fide pop smash (‘Duel’), a widescreen album (A Secret Wish) and a lasting, fervent devotion among fans and collectors. When others were thinking wouldn’t it be good, or wanting to get to to know you well, Propaganda sang of sado-masochism, alienation, despair and set Edgar Allen Poe’s words to music.
Given that the music was produced by Trevor Horn and Stephen Lipson, the foursome from Düsseldorf (Ralf Dörper, “writing, pursuing, defining, translating”; Michael Mertens “writing, programming, identifying, demonstrating”; Susanne Freytag “embracing, accumulating, singing, demanding”; and Claudia Brücken “singing, writing, corrupting, raging”) became ZTT’s anti-Abba (‘Abba from hell’, as one wag pointed out).
It was all over quickly, and Claudia, who became the focal point for the group, departed after internal tensions came to a head in 1986. While Propaganda had a second incarnation with Mertens and vocalist Betsy Miller, Brücken — who had married Morley — went on to be half of ZTT’s last radical act, Act, and then enjoyed a brief solo career before concentrating on motherhood in the 90s.
Although Propaganda are relevant in the context of today’s electronic music, they have yet to be fully rediscovered. The release of a new collection on ZTT, Outside World (initial copies of which come with a DVD of the band’s videos, available only through the ZTT website), has accelerated her move out of exile, and she is currently writing and performing with one-time ZTT labelmate Andrew Poppy, as well as ex-OMD man Paul Humphreys.
Propaganda weren’t a group in the conventional sense that you all hung out together. How did it come together?
The original members were Andreas Thein (who left after the ‘Dr Mabuse’ single), Ralf Dörper and Susanne — I was Susanne’s friend. After they made the contact with ZTT, they needed someone else, so I was asked to join them. They needed someone who was musical, so Michael came along and the band extended. It wasn’t just the four of us, the band was also Trevor Horn, Steve Lipson and Paul Morley and then initially, JJ Jeczalik (now with the reformed Level 42 — Jazz-Funk Ed.) on Fairlight. It was a much wider band.
Were you aware of the importance to British pop of Trevor Horn?
I had no idea, although I was aware of the ABC videos. I was just enjoying music, I didn’t think of producers. But Ralf and Andreas knew his work very well.
‘Dr Mabuse’ sounded as if it had landed from a different planet. Were you aware that the single was quite different?
There was this Germanic romanticism that Paul and Trevor really picked up on> It was more like an experiment to see what happens, having Trevor taking this Germanic vision and putting it into a pop context.
The ‘Dr Mabuse’ video, with its gothic imagery and Fritz Lang references played on British impressions of the German art stereotype.
It was totally intentional. Having been an art student, the 20s and 30s were really fascinating to me. That was my first video experience; we’d done Fritz Lang and the German movie stuff, so for me it was and amazing opportunity.
For pop kids, Propaganda’s 1984 version of ‘Femme Fatale’ (on the B-side of ‘Dr Mabuse’) was the first time they’d encountered the Velvet Underground.
Do you think I did it justice?
(Whisper this softly) I think it’s possibly better than the original.
It was Paul’s idea. I was still living in Germany; we’d just got the contract and be said listen to ‘Femme Fatale’, and learn it. This was very important because I wasn’t too familiar with the song. Loads of fans wanted it on the collection. When we recorded the track, we put lots of candles in the studio, which was a good moment.
There’s this feeling that all ZTT records were done by Trevor when all the doors were shut. Was this how it was?
No. It was a creative process and we were there when we were needed. We had the right people and everybody was doing their job of what they were good at, giving people their space. Jill is a very good businesswoman, Trevor is great at making music and Paul was great at marketing.
The image you presented was quite terrifying. Was that carefully contrived or did you put much of yourself into it?
People were terrified because of the cover of ‘Duel’. Everybody was smiling and we wanted to do the opposite. With that image, people were terrified of is. Susanne and I decided to really play on that image. The 80s were all about being as cool as you can, not smiling.
A Secret Wish came out in 1985, well over a year after your debut single. What happened?
It was along process. ‘Duel’ took us four months to write, we kept reducing it. Steve Lipson did our album, because Trevor was busy with the Frankie stuff. He was overseeing the process. The album took a year to make because that’s how long I thought every album took to make. I didn’t have any previous experience.
Did you feel overshadowed by Frankie’s success?
No. We were very different, and we knew that. I never saw myself in that sort of league. I was watching it fascinated from (west London studio) Sarm West’s roof when all the Frankiemania was going on.
ZTT gave this impression that you were all a kind of family. Were you? It was almost as if Anne Pigalle was down in the garden shed and Frankie were upstairs playing.
It was a bit like that, that’s what made it exciting. Factory Records was a bit like that. It was Paul and Trevor’s vision. It was like a factory where things are made. It felt as if you were part of something. It wasn’t like you were among many others.
Whole collecting businesses built their foundation on ZTT products. Did you have any say in the mixes?
We had different points of view, the band and I. We’d have (engineer) Bobby Kraushar and Paul going into the studio and doing (remix album) Wishful Thinking, just having some spare time and seeing what else they can create. I thought that was very creative. The other members of the band felt they needed to give permission for it, where Paul would just go ahead and do it. Once you have all these pieces of music and information and you want to put it in another order, go ahead and do it, and see what happens.
Are there mixes that you were presented with that you’ve never heard before?
Yeah, things I’ve totally forgotten. Once you were a fan of ZTT you wanted everything. You wanted the T-shirt and the handbag. I guess it was being part of identifying yourself with something. Paul used to have incredible creative freedom.
When you played The Value Of Entertainment (the weekly residency ZTT too kat London’s Ambassador’s Theatre in 1985) and toured, you had a completely different sound.
We got our confidence on that tour. Having someone experienced like Derek Forbes (ex-Simple Minds bass player, touring member of Propaganda 85-86 and full-time member of their second incarnation) and Steve Jansen (ex-Japan), it puts the music in a different context. The rhythm section played very strongly.
Were the others ever jealous of you becoming a focal point? For example, in the ‘p.Machinery’ video, the other three were dressed in black, constrained by wires, but you were out in front, unfettered and all in white.
That was a very sore point for them. I was about to throw myself in the Hudson. The band decided they didn’t want to talk to me for the whole making of the video because I was not a marionette. Ralf asked the director why. I loved what he said — ‘because it is poetry’. There was all this antagonism toward me. You need trust and togetherness. That’s why certain bands are still together and a lot of them are not.
Did you start recording a follow-up to A Secret Wish?
There were a couple of tracks. We were still promoting A Secret Wish in 1986. A couple of months before we split, we started writing in Kilmarnock with Derek Forbes. We worked for a couple of months, then the terrible day happened.
Was it a difficult decision to split up?
It really was for me, because I was just married. I loved what Paul was doing. I wasn’t threatened. I know that he was doing a good job, and that Trevor was doing a good job. I wasn’t as threatened as the others were. I wasn’t given the respect I thought I should be given. Ralf and Michael always thought I was easily replaceable. They thought Susanne and I were these ‘dance mice’.
Did the relationship between you and Paul drive a wedge between you and the rest of the band?
It sadly did. I wasn’t this kind of control freak which I sometimes was portrayed as. It was because we didn’t have a very good deal at the time with ZTT, and everybody got very defensive about his or her bit, which was what drove us apart, really. It seemed for the band there were Paul and I and then the rest of them. They accused me of things; I’m really not one for making strategies and plotting behind people’s back.
You did have a certain ‘difficult’ image.
Oh yes, difficult, grumpy. That’s OK. I liked to play on that image. I had an interest in acting. Give me a role, I will think about it and portray it. It fitted the imagery at the time.
You developed this further in Act, the highly collectable follow-on to Propaganda and played on the diva image. Was that a response to the press you got?
Act was the combination of working with Thomas Leer, the interpretation of Stephen Lipson and Paul working with image — he suggested a lot, the compact, the Liberace and Quentin Crisp. I could completely relate to it. People have said that Act was ahead of its time. Singing about the decay of Britain isn’t something the nation wants to think about.
After your solo album in 1991, you dropped under the radar.
I had a child and them I parted with Paul. I had a 10-year pause being a mum. I had that on my mind as opposed to music.
Is your daughter proud of what you did in your youth?
Oh yes. She’s seen the videos. She knows what her dad did. She saw in The Simpsons, there was a ‘Relax’ T-shirt. She thinks it’s very impressive, her dad having done that.
Propaganda reunited quietly in the 90s. Was this for nostalgia, or were you foreseeing the new electro-clash climate?
My second solo album was ready, but I decided to dump that a go with Propaganda again. I wanted to work with Susanne and Michael. Then again, you need the team. I can sing and write a song, and Michael’s songwriting has made a huge progression, but you need the other elements. It was always a hard act to follow.
We worked for five years on it. Michael’s in Düsseldorf, I’m in London. I find it hard to make music that way. I want to make music instantly. There is all this Propaganda material, but it needs production and technical help. We decided to pause it again, because working with Paul Humphreys made me realise that we can get a result quicker. If there’s still a chance to for Propaganda to do something, it’s up to Michael. He’s the musician.
I’m now collecting songs to do with Paul Humphreys. We toured together in 2000, and we now need a name. As well as working with Paul, I’m also doing something with Andrew Poppy. It’s quite timeless, just Andrew playing the piano, and me singing, 15 songs of popular music being put together — things like ‘Broken English’, ‘Running Up That Hill’ and the Associates’ ‘Breakfast’. I’ve always liked covers — you can portray something. I just wanted to make music again. I forgot the importance of why I started music, just playing with someone, singing a song and just presenting it. That’s how that came together.
There seems to be a growing respect for your work from the next generation. All you need now is a few people in the know to get behind it.
That would be good. Time for a Propaganda revival!