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Title: Abba from hell!
Author: Mat Snow
Source: NME
Publish date: 24th August, 1985

ABBA FROM HELL!

Will PROPAGANDA realise their secret wish? Can they topple Frankie as the jewel in ZTT’s crown? Will the Dusseldorf puppets brainwash that ruby-lipped Barthes MAT SNOW? Who wears the promotional underpants in the Morley lovenest? Remix, remodel, read on. Publicity shots by DEREK RIDGERS.

THE SINGER marries the Tycoon, words fail the Wordsmith, the Girl Friday helps out, the Musician get highlt-strung, and the Journalist simply gets…

THE TYCOON

…37,000 FEET high, and I’m thinking very hard about Paul Morley. Gossip has it that he’s fed up with Frankie – aren’t we all? – and is thus directing all his efforts now towards promoting Propaganda, whose lead singer, Claudia Brücken, happens to be his wide of a few months’ standing. So naturally I’m flying to New York to check out this whole, distinctly anti-parochial enterprise.

Last year Propaganda released but one single, ‘The Nine Lives Of Dr Mabuse’, which dented the charts in the slipstream of ‘Relax’. A follow-up didn’t materialise until this Spring, despite rumours of its completion as far back as last Autumn. ‘Duel’ went Top Ten, and is included on their recently released debut LP, ‘A Secret Wish’, as is their new single, ‘P-Machinery’.

Or, to put it another way, we’ve so far thrilled to ZTT’s Action Series numbers 2, 8, 12 and 13. Not since the early days of Stiff has a record label been so obviously a genre-in-the-making, pop commodity designed to be collected and built for posterity. And not only does the style and tone of ZTT’s packaging rhetoric impose a unity on its contents, so also does the sound of ZTT.

Steve Lipson produced Propaganda, but it may as well be Trevor Horn for all the audible difference his acolyte makes. Vast, tectonic ziggurats of rhythm, blazing ersatz fanfares of Fairlights – the Sarmsound is precision-built, futuristic, darkly humorous (eh? – ed.) in its making except for the idea of a Secret Manipulator watching dials behind a screen of smoked glass.

“A man without shadow promises you the world” intoned ‘Dr Mabuse’, and the global criminal mastermind personifies the sound, nay, the whole feel of ZTT.

Yes for all its apologists’ protestations otherwise, the unchanging profusion to tangential images and intellectual prick-tease rhetoric leaves less and less room for the imagination to go out and play. The ZTT idea has entered its baroque phase, but at least that may allow the individual qualities of is roster to emerge.

Those three initials have enchanted the critical faculties for too long. Now, let the music play…

THE MUSICIAN

MICHAEL MERTENS slowly dangles a foot over the ground, the box on which he had stood having been kicked away. His face is gypsum-white, black-ringed eyes bulging like two fag burns in a nun’s buttock. He’s probably stone dead.

But hark! A twitch. And another! Soon his limbs are flailing around in a slow-motion doggy-paddle in time to the pulverising tape-loop of ‘P-Machinery’ as wrists and ankles are tugged by the puppet-masters poised well above him in a giant-size an of Johnson’s Wax.

So who’s pulling your strings, Michael?

“The business. You have to sell records, and you have to be aware of this if you want to do pop music.”

Well, it is both depressing and reassuring that Propaganda operate in the same market-place as nearly everybody else, Teutonic mystique or not. Which is why Michael, percussionist with the Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra, is swaying from the roof of a vast, abandoned warehouse on Manhattan’s West Side waterfront. By night the neighbourhood throbs to the sounds of such specialist clubs as The Mineshaft, The Anvil and The Glory Hole, but by day these giant premises resound to new, ad hoc industries which have taken over from the cranking of cranes, ships’ horns and the bellowing of burly stevedores.

Propaganda are making – you guessed it – a video.

Shot by Oscar-winning director of short films, Zbigniew Rybczynski, the promo for ‘P-Machinery’ is so far proving not much of a spectator sport. The image is marionettes and the concept, therefore, manipulation.

We’re talking ‘Mabuse’ revisited here, and so is the song itself. As usual, the Princess Michael Panzer Division of wrathful rhythm steams in, and for the rest, a kitsch-epic spy-thriller tune recapitulates without development. Not one of Propaganda’s finest moments, it’s a brash, wearisome low point on an LP which, by contrast, boasts perhaps the single most beautiful piece of music I’ve heard all year. ‘Dream Within A Dream’ has genuinely tragic quality, a great sorrow within it grandeur. I think of the Second Movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Bruckner, Mahler…

…and, of course, Yes. Guitarist Steve Howe plays a couple of cameos on the LP, to my mixed feelings. Is it now cool to admit to digging that brilliant Chris Squire bass-run about 52 minutes into the first side of ‘Close To The Edge’? And what price the Roger Dean revival?

“When you sit in Dusseldorf and write, and you go over to London and someone like Stewart Copeland plays on your composition, it makes you feel… er… good.”

Trussed up in his mortician’s costume like a refugee from The Addams Family, it’s hard to believe this sinister figure is such a sweetheart and so spot-on about music. Though he didn’t know that the same Steve Howe one played with Tomorrow, whose ‘My White Bicycle’ was one of the psychedelic hits of ’67, Michael first turned on to the rock machine via The Kinks, The Action, Traffic and The Walker Brothers.

And though I’d compiled an utterly different list of Propaganda’s possible antecedents – Yello, clank-period Depeche Mode, DAF, ‘Lonely Spy’ by Lori And The Chameleons, mid-‘70s Todd Rundgren – not only is Michael only vaguely aware of some of them, but it seems he is increasingly les satisfied with the studiocentric electro-regimentation of that ilk, especially rhythmically.

“I don’t enjoy the sounds. The mre I write with it, the more I find the limitations unsatisfying. It’s just like a metronome: if you programme a hi-hat on a drum-machine, you have three different options. If you play a hi-hat, you get millions of variations.”

Nor does Michael, the hood-eyes technocrat, the backroom boffin, much relish videos…

“Music is the most emotional art; you get inspired. But if you watch it on television it’s a reduction. Video tries to say everything for your eyes as well, you don’t have to think about anything. Feeding in the eyes, feeding in the ears – it’s eating an ice-cream. Consumerist. Not good.”

Propaganda – more an abstract idea than a musical force?

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I wouldn’t like it just because there is an abstract idea and we want to satisfy the people who expect us to be in that direction.

“You know, a lot of money is involved, but we have to find a way through, and I don’t think it’s that easy. I don’t want to lose any independence just because a lot of money is involved. That’s the reality of it.”

THE WORDSMITH

“RALF HAS quite and intellectual attitude,” says Michael, and he’s not kidding. With his ascetic pebble glasses yet sensually flaring nostrils, set-square jawline and icy laugh, flame-red cowlick hair and indoor pallor, Ralf Dorper could be and apprentice Dr Strangelove.

He still works in the bank in Dusseldorf; unlike the others, his role as wordsmith and conceptualist does not require that be tied up in the studio. And oddly enough, for such a cerebral creature, he prides himself on one of the best punk and post-punk record collections in Europe.

“Not the best… but quite complete, ha ha!

“I like the way they didn’t seem to care about anything and didn’t fiddle about. In punk you just make the statement and not mess around with it. If you have a big production it’s not spontaneous.”

You should know…

“Yeah, I know. We now more or less realise how the production process is having an effect on an original idea by leading to another idea which could be interesting.”

Nowhere is this paradox more evident that on Propaganda’s version of Josef K’s ‘Sorry For Laughing’, which now shudders with the full weight of a Gothic cathedral full of mad, sombre-cowled monks. It’s a dirge and I love it.

“The conscious reason for doing ‘Sorry For Laughing’ was because Josef K were part of this guitar music from Scotland and we were absolutely not into guitars like that. We wanted to improve the song by using very heavy keyboards. We also once considered doing ‘This Charming Man’ because Morrissey is so against electronics.

“It’s much more fun to do something with the song the original people would never have done…”

Ralf also like Subway Sect, Buzzcocks and Wire. Watch out, purists.

“Nowadays I’m not so impressed by records so much as I was seven years ago. Cinema is much more inspirational on me. It’s much more multileveled; you have a story-line, a setting, a soundtrack – more things.”

By contrast, Ralf is very wary of pop videos. It’s the lack of artistic control he deplores. Videos are often amputated when broadcast to fit the three-minute span, and are almost always juxtaposed with other videos in a way that dilutes or distorts the original intention.

“I think you should have a consumer’s version and an artist’s version. You can make so many possible videos for a song that I think it must be really a promotional tool. You have to be very conscious of its surroundings.

“In Germany we have Music Box, like MTV, and after a month I’m already bored by it. I’d much more like to hear the song on the radio. TV has almost stopped me from buying something. It’s dangerous.”

Still, here he is in New York, having his strings pulled too. Mind you, his absence was noted when Propaganda played London’s Ambassadors Theatre in May as part of the ZTT jamboree…

“At the time I didn’t know why we should do it. I think it was just a ZTT presentation. I think we are in conflict with ZTT from the beginning, and this is what makes it interesting.

“Last year ZTT was still a small company and every effort went into Frankie. And it’s quite logical that this year, even from a business consideration, that we are the ones. But last year I experienced how difficult it is because we were in danger of splitting up when Andreas (Thien) left. This time, OK, we are the lucky ones, but I don’t know how the others feel about it. But even then I must admit I don’t care, ha ha! Because it’s not my responsibility.”

Words are, though. How come they’re so buried in the soundscape?

“We do not want to single out any one thing. It should be a compact picture. We do not want to put a stress on one thing otherwise you’re in danger of being one-dimensional, a slogan like The Redskins.”

The other side of one-dimensionality, of course, is ambiguity. Propaganda’s German record company, Ariola, have just removed from the sleeve of ‘P-machinery’ a quote by JG Ballard, as follows…

“At this time, the Baader-Meinhof – you know, that armed gang that came out very Left politically, robbed banks, killed some American servicemen in a raid, and all the rest – was at its height. Nobody could understand these people. They were all sort of well-to-do, middle-class, well educated kids from comparatively-speaking, rich families, who all took to ‘absurd violence’. Nobody could understand them. But suddenly I realised. My God, of course I can understand them. If you’re brought up in one of those suburbs around a German city where nothing is ever allowed out of place, where, because they were so terrified by the experiences of World War II and the Nazi epoch, that they’d go any length to make certain that everybody is happy, that everyone in school or kindergarten is dutifully equipped so there would be no deviance and no problems later… if you have a world like that, without any real freedom of the spirit, the only freedom to be found is in madness. I mean, in a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom!”

How do you feel about that, Ralf?

“First of all, I didn’t know it, and I even didn’t know that the Ballard quote was about Baader-Meinhof, otherwise I would have liked to have it removed, because I do not like to give these people any space at all. As soon as you talk about someone, he gets to the consciousness of the people and it’s absolutely indifferent if you do it in a positive or negative way. Everything is propaganda.”

Ah, the oxygen of publicity!

“It’s the first good thing German Ariola have done for us.”

Paul is rather upset about it…

“I have to admit upset now I realise Ballard’s commenting or just mentioning them. As soon as you have publicity, you have credibility. As soon as someone comments, other people will try to comment also. They will find positive aspects, they’ll want to explain things. And pop is not a good place to comment on things like that. I also don’t like people from the outside commenting on it because I don’t think they have a very good understanding of it. It would be like me commenting on the miners’ strike. It would be ridiculous.

“I don’t want to talk about them any more because I would give them space.”

Oh. Ah… Why haven’t you given up your day job?

“I do not want to depend on the goodwill of other people.”

People buying Propaganda record?

“Not buying Propaganda records, but releasing Propaganda records.

“I like the business aspect: if you work inside pop, it’s business. You can’t deny it. And me not having quit my job up to now, it’s a business decision.”

THE GIRL FRIDAY

DESPITE THE air of lofty disdain she assumes in her sleeve photographs, Suzanne Freytag has one of the sweetest, kindest smiles I’ve ever seen. But not at the moment…

“Baader-Meinhof is a very dangerous thing to speak of in Germany. I can’t accept it. I don’t want to be associated with it, even with a small quote. I think it’s good they didn’t print it. Maybe it’s trendy in England, but in Germany it’s different.

“Paul told me about this quote, and he said this guy wrote something about the suburbs of Dusseldorf and how boring they are. I didn’t know that Baader-Meinhof was mentioned. If you make a statement it has to be much more complete, it can’t be said in one or two sentences and nobody knows what the context is. It’s like a slogan. Slogans can be very easy to misunderstand.”

“But things like Barthes and Benjamin we wanted to have.”

Oracular quotes ripped still quivering from their original contexts litter Propaganda sleeves. French semiologist, the late Roland Barthes, claims Suzanne’s attention in particular…

“When you think of language manipulating your thoughts, you aren’t pure. It’s terrifying, really. Who is manipulating you?”

Who indeed? Suzanne makes her contribution to Propaganda’s intellectual freight, but I’m puzzled by what else she actually does. She doesn’t sing, though she speaks on the record. She has also written some words and assisted in the music. Perhaps she’s a catalyst. Or perhaps she’s the brunette to Claudia’s blonde in Propaganda’s much-vaunted Abba From Hell, which is, however, “not so much the look as the idea that four people are equal”.

That’s Ralf’s fearful symmetry at work again, I reckon, which is why he likes Yello - not so much for the music as for the specifically European concept of job-sharing.

Is Suzanne jealous of Claudia’s prominence?

“I used to be. I’m not anymore because I’m more confident and my position in the band has improved. In the beginning I thought, what shall I do? because Claudia was singing a lot. But now I feel OK. It’s always the problem with the ego when somebody’s pushed to the front and the others are pushed back.

“I think for me it would be too quick to be lead singer now. I like more to watch and develop a situation than be pushed in it.”

A freelance goldsmith, Suzanne is now moving to London whilst maintaining a pied-a-terre in Dusseldorf.

“I try to get more involved. It was difficult just staying and working in Germany. You’re so far away from London you don’t know what’s really going on.”

Like what goes on your record sleeves…

“We try not to put too much importance in them. With the last single and the album, it was democratic, but before… And that’s another reason why I want to move to London. The main problem is distance, and that Ralf and Michael don’t want to move to London.”

Is it a problem that your singer is married to your record company boss, the man with whom you should have a free hand in negotiating?

“Er,” she laughs; “well, of course there are some conflicts. You can’t change it. Maybe it would be better if she wasn’t married to him, but maybe not. It’s difficult to say. You have to cope with the situation.”

THE SINGER

CLAUDIA BRUCKEN is the only one not hung up. She suffers, however, from a cold-sore that must he disguised under ruby layers of lipstick. “Lips are very important with Propaganda,” says Paul.

A charming, vivacious wand of a girl, today she is clad as a frothy white drum-majorette, and carries a riding-crop to beat time against her leg as she mimes to the song. I can’t help noticing how she pulls herself up into a catwalk hauteur whenever a camera sidles into view. Which is quite often.

More vengeful Valkyrie than lulling Lorelei, Claudia is not only to be heard fronting Propaganda, but also has a duet version with Glenn Gregory (Propaganda share management with Heaven 17) of Ray Orbison’s ‘Wild Hearts’, entitled ‘When Your Heart Runs Out Of Time’ (released to coincide with the opening of Insignificance, upon whose soundtrack the Big O is faintly to be heard). Though a serviceable vehicle for the nabob of sob, as rendered by two of the more poker-backed singers in pop, it just kind of sits there. No, Propaganda’s adenoidal diva shines best when mediating between High Art and High Street, as on ‘Duel’, a warm, funny and proud song which, despite a slight awkwardness of melody, nicely showcases Claudia’s intriguing ambiguity of persona.

“We wanted to come out of this evil, avant-garde thing and do the total opposite. We wanted to shock people by using all these very pop-video images, but going over the top a bit, a bit of a parody.

“What Paul tries with Propaganda is to change atmospheres and images with every single. And people can make up their own minds what they see in Propaganda.”

How come all three singles appear on the LP?

“Well, first of all, ‘P-Machinery’ is a different version. ‘Mabuse’ is a bit lighter, and ‘Duel’ and ‘Jewel’ is one song. So it’s different. I think it’s normal to put singles on the album, but I wouldn’t like the idea of releasing another single from the album unnecessarily.”

Is that value for money?

“Well, I don’t know,” Claudia laughs with a slight shrillness as if to say, change the subject, please. “I couldn’t say.”

Do you enjoy videos?

“If it would be possible, I wouldn’t like to do videos, you know. I think videos are daft. I want to let people imagine their own pictures when they hear the music. Ours, for me, are more enjoyable than other videos.”

“I’m singing the song, and the singer has to present a different role. But I’m a puppet as well.”

Why are you singled out from the group by the press?

“Because I live in London. And what’s happened with me happens with them in Germany. There’s no particular idea behind it. And people ask for interviews with me because I’m the singer.”

Do you feel a conflict of interest as both the singer and the boss’s wife?

“No… I don’t know what the others think, but for me it’s very entertaining to be on ZTT, to work with Trevor and Stephen, to work with Paul. ZTT was formed when Propaganda was formed and we know each other very well. If we have ideas, we all come together.”

Your reaction to Ariola taking out the Ballard quote?

“I think it’s typical for Germany. I was a bit shocked because if it was about just terrorists or terror they would have shown it. But because Baader-Meinhof still exists, even if they are in jail… They don’t get the point. John Ballard actually sees the reason for it. Germany doesn’t take any risks.”

Point proved.

THE JOURNALIST

AND POINT taken. But Ariola have plainly done the right thing for the wrong reasons. What concerns me is that such a self-aware, intelligent group as Propaganda should lack, in the jargon of the film world, the right of final cut. And Paul Morley - by the way, a smart, funny and affable bloke - would presumably have once shared that sentiment. Has his vision obscured his judgement?

Propaganda won’t be strung along; they’ll break first. And, at their imperious best, this jewel is far too precious to he fragmented without regret.