HEAVENS TO BETSI
AFTER YEARS OF LITIGATION AND PERSONNEL CHANGES, PROPAGANDA HAVE RETURNED WITH ‘HEAVEN GIVE ME WORDS’, A SINGLE EVERY BIT AS ELEGANT AS THEY EVER WERE. DAVID STUBBS MEETS THE NEW LINE-UP.
YOU see, I’m trying to explain, Propaganda’s approach to pop is a Brechtian combination of epic theatre and alienation effects. In the grand tradition of ABC and Billy Mackenzie, it’satoncegrandiloquentand demure, drunk at its own scale and potency and yet at heart detached, self referential and…
Betsi Miller: “I think you’ll find there’s a great deal of humour in our music, I mean, we can’t help it. Look at the size of our noses! We can’t be for real! How do you think I got the audition?”
Hmmm. Betsi Miller, the German-based American expatriate who’s replaced Claudia Bruecken and Susanne Freytag as frontwoman of Propaganda, has her own theory about the common factor that has seen the group through good days and bad since their inception in 1983. Their noses. And she’s probably right. Claudia, you’ll remember, had a hooter that wasn’t to be sneezed at, and, lest seismic devices go haywire, not to be sneezed. Betsi herself has an impressive nasal protuberance that stands out almost falsely on her otherwise conventionally glamorous countenance. Michael Mertens and ex-Simple Minders Bryan MacGhee (drums) and Derek Forbes bear out the theory impressively. Like a fine wine, Propaganda have plenty of nose.
They’re back after four years of litigation and personnel shifts. Outare Claudia Bruecken, who left three years ago to join ACT. All but out are Susanne Freytag, whose duties on the new album are limited to a couple of cameo vocals, and founder member Ralf Dorper, now more of a “lyrical collaborator”. Both are taking up conventional careers, Susanne as a goldsmith, Ralf as a banker.
This third manifestation of Propaganda are at last to release a new single, “Heaven Give Me Words”, and an album, “1-2-3-4", their first since 1985’s “A Secret Wish”. And it’s a barbed beauty, as spectacularly overwrought as before, but less overtly Germanic, American Betsi Miller’s lush, funky voiceallowing them a more versatile, more recognisably pop sound.
On first hearing, “Heaven Give Me Words” or “Wildlife”, are striking for the unproblematic freshness of Betsi’s voice, a ray of sunshine caressing a deceptively accessible middleweight dance track. Then, with repeated listenings, it’s the subtlety, the shadows, the refinements, the details, the pop references that emerge from the backdrop.
Propaganda Mark III are astonishingly versatile. I’m reminded successively of Heart, Yello, Chaka Khan, All About Eve, fleetingly, The Blue Nile, eerily. All of this comes in twists and turns, yet Propaganda are not too baroque. Propaganda are bright, as in sunny, clever. Ultimately, I’m reminded of the first breath of spring (or was it the last sigh of summer?) that was “The Lexicon Of Love”. How about you?
Propaganda signed to Virgin after finally disentangling themselves from their contract with ZTT in 1987. Michael Mertens, what’s your version of events?
“Well, it depends on which version you want to hear, the shortened version or…”
The biased, bitter version.
“Oh, I would have given you the biased, bitter version two years ago, but it’s such a long time ago now, I’d rather look forward to what I’m doing now. It took me a year to get over it. I was talking to lawyers all the time instead of writing, it’s the last thing you want to do. The whole business nearly split up the band. Basically, we didn’t understand that we had entered into a contractual agreement because everything had been very informal, very verbal to that point. And, we realised that the implications of the contract were that we would have been selling thousands and thousands of records and not seeing a penny. When you think that, after we sold more than half a million records, Jill Sinclair offered me £5,000 a year for living expenses and I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry, that’s not good enough’.
“To be fair, there were two sides to the dispute. I didn’t have any problem with Trevor Horn getting more money than I was. I still give him credit for making ‘Dr Mabuse’ (Propaganda’s debut 1984 single, produced by Trevor Horn) the great record that it was. But, I saw him last week and he still sees us as the bad guys for leaving the label, even now.”
Quite apart from financial difficulties, you must have felt overshadowed by the ostentatious, designer machinations of ZTT The Label, of “merely” being the group, a mere product in their game.
“Yes, there were three mega-egos. Paul Morley said it was all down to the genius of his promotional ideas, Jill Sinclair said it was all down to her fantastic marketing and Trevor Horn said it was all down to his amazing production work. But it was a great time and it could have been a great label, like Tamla Motown…”
WHILE Propaganda were undergoing divorce proceedings with ZTT, Derek Forbes was in the process of diving off the side of Simple Minds, with or without a discreet push from Herr Kerr. At that point, their self-sanctifying bombast was already swelling to uncomfortable proportions.
Derek: “I liked some of the stuff on ‘Once Upon A Time’, but after that it started getting much too muso. The people they were drafting in couldn’t play the stuff I was writing because they were too competent. And when it got to that stadium level, you never met anyone backstage—
I pass on to Forbes and MacGhee uncomfirmed reports of a Simple Minds split and they indulge in a qleeful flurry of obscure handshakes across the table, a sort of neo-Masonic equivalent of delirious cheers.
“Thing is,” says Derek, “if Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill are still together it isn’t really a split. Basically, it’s been The Jim Kerr band for the last few years.”
Their addition to Propaganda’s line up lends the sound a prestigous buoyancy, a turbo sheen that pumps up rather than pomps up their volume. Propaganda begin again where Simple Minds fell off after “New Gold Dream”.
LIKE “Mabuse” previously, Propaganda’s pop has a Wagnerian effrontery about it, plunging off in a variety of directions, running ring cycles around the paltry sequence of chord changes that usually consitutes the three-minute single. Continue »
“Trouble was, I never got to do much. There isn’t much percussion in classical music before the 20th century. If I’d been playing strings I might have stayed on because I would have felt more fulfilled, but having to wait for the one cymbal stroke in a Bruckner concerto, getting up after two and a half hours—
Like Yello, Propaganda are dreamers in glorious technicolor.
Mertens: “A lot of time it’s just pictures, or cinematic images, the haunting trombone section at the beginning of a James Bond film, the red sports car in Italy in 1964. There’s a great deal of simple escapism in our work… certain things just drift off into a musical reverie and I love it.”
Propaganda’s inheritence from ZTT is a deliciously formalist approach to pop, a scrupulously fulsome sense of artifice and attention to surfaces, a subtle sense of “play” strangely lacking in these supposedly pop times. Even when they do a ballad, and they do a couple of belters that would make Heart eat theirs out, it’s like they’ve constructed a facsimile of a perfect ballad, rather than been driven to pour out their souls. Which is fine. As anyone around closing time knows, there is no worse public nuisance than a compulsive balladeer. The distance they preserve from the game they are in, which makes them so good at it, is inferred in the name they have chosen to stick by, in spite of the drastic team changes through the years.
Mertens: “It was Ralf’s idea. I think that pop music from day one has always been seriously into propaganda, establishing a certain image, not by lying but leaving out certain truths.”
It’s all too perfect. But is it too perfect to sell?
“There’s only one way to find out, of course,” says Mertens, gazing enigmatically and teutonically into the middle distance.
“By releasing it.”
Hmmm. Yes. Deliciously clever. Beautiful pop with a big nose.