ZANG TUMMM TUMB ARTICLES “the first draft of history”

The ministry of Propaganda

In 1985 Propagandas Trevor Horn produced A Secret Wish was received as a seminal electronic music work — yet the band regarded the project as “a hobby”. Silent for five years, Propaganda are now playing for real.

In 1985, popular music had yet to feel the full impact of the sampled drum loop and the revolution in dance music that was to follow. Instead, it was the producer who held the publics imagination captive. Trevor Horns immaculate production and Steve Lipsons innovative Fairlight and Synclavier programming represented the ultimate in sonic and electronic sophistication. Electronic music, meanwhile, was feeling its way from the tape machines of Stockhausen to the samples of SXpress. In 1985, if you knew anything about electronic music, the Word was Propaganda.

In the purest tradition of electronic music, Propaganda came from Germany. Between them, keyboard player Michael Mertens, singers Suzanne Freytag and Claudia Brücken, and lyricist Ralf Dörper had delivered a classic album: A Secret Wish. Conceived by Dörper in 1983, Propaganda were quickly signed by Horns ZTT label. They introduced themselves to a bewildered public with a single, ‘Dr Mabuse, which was accompanied by pop photographer Anton Corbijns film noir video debut. Somehow the combination of the musics industrial brutality and Horns grandiose production found a place in the hearts of the record-buying public — and the pop charts.

More singles followed — ‘Duel and ‘P-Machinery further established Propaganda as a musical fore to be reckoned with. They also demonstrated the bands ability to encompass a variety of musical styles without endangering their own identity. Typically (for ZTT) cryptic sleeve notes, disturbing lyrics and the sexuality of the singers presented another side of Propaganda the “dark side”.

And there was more to A Secret Wish that intellectual intrigue and a masterful statement of electronic music in the mid-‘80s, for alongside the German musicians and the British production team, other notable musicians had contributed to the recording of the album. David Sylvian and Heaven 17s Glenn Gregory had lent their voices, Yes Steve Howe had contributed some guitar work and Marillions Ian Moseley had provided it with one of pops first sampled drum beats.

Propaganda were in demand — not least for an interview with Music Technology (then under the title of E&MM). But the band were difficult to tie down.

Based in Germany, they moved freely around Europe and were rarely in the same place at the same time. The interview always seemed within reach, yet somehow failed to materialise. Then the trail went cold. The British management were no longer handling the band; ZTT were at war with them. A Secret Wish had become Propagandas epitaph as well as their finest hour.

Five years on, the face of pop music has changed out of all recognition. The heavy electronic beat that Propaganda had experimented with and the technology they explored have become common currency. The line between musicians and producers (never a very clear one in electronic music) has all but disappeared. Propaganda appear to have pioneered much that has become accepted since their disappearance. Yet few, if any, of the current crop of single buyers would recognise the name of the band that helped pioneer the current phase of pop. But suddenly and unexpectedly the name is current again.

Heaven Give Me Words announces the return of Propaganda — not just to the ‘90s music scene but also to the charts. True to previous form it is a deviation from what might have been expected. But what should you expect of a band who specialise in the unexpected? Still very much in evidence are the sounds and sequences that characterised A Secret Wish — particularly on the B-side of ‘Heaven in a track called ‘Count Zero (stolen from William Gibson?), where the rhythm and sounds are strongly reminiscent of Peter Gabriel. Following ‘Heaven Give Me Words is and album entitled 1 2 3 4. Here too youll find evidence of Propagandas dark past; ‘Your Wildlife, for example, plays up the intimidating use of rhythm — Mertens is a classically-trained percussionist.

Only one of the current lineup remains from that of ‘85, three new musicians bringing the outfit up to strength. Gone are ZTT — replaced by a new deal with Virgin — and gone is the Horn/Lipson production partnership — replaced by that of Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes (famed for their work with Tears For Fears).

The new names are drummer Brian McGee, bassist Derek Forbes (both ex-Simple Minds), and American singer Betsi Miller. The one original member is Michael Mertens. He is eager to talk, at last, to MT, an in his quiet German accent he begins to describe the sequence of events that has led up to 1990. The story begins in ‘85 when Forbes left Simple Minds.

“We did 12 showcases as part of a ZTT presentation, and we needed a drummer and a bass player. Derek left Simple Minds and our manager asked him if he was interested in joining us a guest musician. Later on, for a tour, we were looking for a drummer and Derek suggested Brian McGee because hed worked with Brian previously in Simple Minds. Derek has been around Propaganda for around five years now — not as a face to be recognised as a member of the lineup, but he even played on ‘P-Machinery.”

Of the Simple Minds connection Merten says, “The issue was never that Derek and Brian had been together in Simple Minds, the issue was that Derek ‘s a good bass player and Brians a good drummer”.

Betsi Millers family left Idaho for Germany when she was 12. Had they remained in America a photographer friend of Suzanne Freytags would not have seen her gigging at a nightclub and passed her phone number on to the band.

“I was working at this place in Munich when I got a phone call from Suzanne Freytag”, she recalls. “Suzanne asked me if I wanted to come and audition. They sent me a tape of ‘Duel, ‘The Murder of Love and ‘P-Machinery off the first LP. It was just a playback without vocals so they obviously wanted me to sing over it, and after I listened to Claudias voice, I was thinking ‘I dont know if this is right — not because I cant do it, but because I feel limited.

Some of the vocal melodies are so simple and I was used to singing a little more exotically, a little more free. So I thought I could either go in there and sing it as close to the album as possible, or I can go in there and show them what Im capable of — and thats what I did.”

“It was sheer luck that we met up”, comments Mertens. “Suzanne met her first and came back to the band and said ‘well, I hope she can sing because she felt she would be right.”

“Right” she was, and she moved from Munich to Düsseldorf “in about 48 hours”.

“When Claudia left the band — early ‘86 — we were injuncted by ZTT for 14 months”, says Mertens. “Obviously we wanted to look for another singer. I went back to Germany and did work for a television company, and during that period we were thinking we wanted a German singer — not so much for ideological reasons, but because we looked at ourselves as a German band. We tried out a lot of good singers, but the problem we encountered was personality. Sometimes you know as soon as somebody walks through the door that its not going to be right — she can sing as beautifully as she likes. Its a very difficult thing. It was unpleasant experience but there was no way around it. We had a lot of personality problems with our old singer and we wanted to make sure things were right this time.”

The first problem facing the new Propaganda is A Secret Wish. Now widely regarded as a milestone, producing a worthy follow-up would not be and easy task.

“People like to look at us as a kind of icon: Propaganda 1984/85", agrees Mertens. “But I dont want to be forced to repeat what weve already done, that would be boring. Id rather leave it like it is and do what were doing now.

“Obviously people have now heard the first single and that isnt from the dangerous side. Weve chosen that track because we think its a good song. For us theres no obligation to fulfil anybodys expectation of what Propaganda is. When ‘Dr Mabuse came out it didnt fit with anything. The next record that came out was ‘Duel and that was against everybodys expectations, because they thought it was going to be crash… bang — more of the same thing. ‘Duel was a very lightweight pop song. We like having the freedom to do that. Within the context of this album ‘Heaven Give Me Words is a good song to start off with.”

That the song is well written, well executed and is being well received is in no doubt, But does this mean divorcing themselves from the achievements of the earlier lineup?

“I dont disregard the old Propaganda at all”, counters Mertens. “Obviously if you look at the band in 1990 its a completely different lineup. Im the last remaining member from the old days. But all those changes took place very gradually over four-and-a-half years. You could ask why do we still call it Propaganda? But Ralf Dörper and Suzanne Freytag are still around us even if theyre not part of the lineup.

“When we did the first album it was a hobby for us — Ralf had his job in the bank, I had my job in the orchestra — but in 1987 we decided that it had to be for real and whoever wanted to come along for the ride was in. Thats where Ralf and Suzanne decided to stick to their day jobs.”

“We could have made this record so much like the last one”, comments Miller. “We go offered a direct-to-disk system for practically nothing. We could have made it so electronically and technically over the top. But why? Why do that? Propaganda is no longer this conceptual thing, its a real band now. And there still is a very dark side to Propaganda, you can hear that on the LP.

The new lineup means new working methods.

When all the members of the band were living in Düsseldorf, things were easier for them, now theyre spread between Germany and Scotland — although Mertens and Miller are currently living in London. Consequently the early stages of writing involved passing cassettes from one musician to another.

“Michael would write something in his living room” explains Miller. “Then hed call Derek in Scotland and hed go to Düsseldorf and theyd sit down and work out the structure and put that down on tape. On the tape thered be just the basic rhythm track: drum machine, keyboards and some bass. Id pick up the tape, go home with it and work out the vocal melodies on my own. Then Id go over and sing it to them and, with Dereks help, wed work out the vocal melody. I think that this will all change in the future. What we all need is to go out and do a live tour, because weve never done anything live before. After youve really jammed out together I think theres a kind of confidence you gain that changes the way you work. Im looking forward to that.”

From the demos the songs were taken into Ian Stanleys private studio and pre-production work commenced.

“Ian has a small studio at his place in Bath”, say Mertens. “He has a lot of gear there, a big desk, the Fairlight, a DX1 — so before we went into the studio we were doing as much as we could outside. What we did was put a lot of stuff in Ians Series III Fairlight. Then we syncd it all up via SMPTE.

“Once we decided we were ready, we went into the studio and started to lay down the backing tracks, make samples of drum and sections of drums — we let Brian play along and then we took sections of his playing and syncd them up to the track, That was much easier than it was in ‘84/85, although we did it on ‘Dream Within A Dream — thats a drum loop on there. It was played by Ian Moseley, a lovely bit of drumming. At that point I realised how good it is to have the perfection of all the sequences and let the human element translate it into something much, much better. I really think thats a great way of making music.”

Miller picks up the story: “We spent about a year-and-a-half actual recording time in the studio. Wed go in and record and then wed go and do some more writing because wed find out what we had wasnt sufficient or wasnt great enough to put on tape.”

If the writing was disjointed — and some of the ideas and sequences date back to shortly after A Secret Wish the recording was equally disjointed.

“We started at The Wool Hall out in Bath”, Miller recounts. “We were there for three months and then we had a break for two or three months, then we came back to London and worked at Abbey Road. Then we spent a bit of time at Marcus before going back to The Wool Hall to finish it. We mixed it at Olympic and Metropolis.”

Its an impressive itinerary, but what of their gear? Have 1985s PPGs been replaced by their 1990 counterparts? Exactly what did Mertens use in the recording of 1 2 3 4?

“What werent we using?” comes the reply. “My setup consists of the PPG system, a Super Jupiter, Oberheim Xpander — Ian has got a Matrix 12 which in connection was fantastic. I love all the analogue stuff very much. Later on in the recording I got a MIDIMoog. It was expensive but I really wanted it — especially for the live work we plan to do.

“Ive got a D550 and the Yamaha TX rack. Sampling-wise most of the stuff was either Fairlight Series III or Chris Synclavier. Some samples we did on the Lexicon 480, which for bass drums is fantastic. I think its the best quality machine around except for the Synclavier. Thats not the point though, it was never our aim to use the newest thing. If that is your premise youve missed the point. You can have lots of new sounds that are all crap, you know.

If youre going to use a synthesiser you have to work hard and spend a lot of time. If you are pleased too quickly, it wont last. Its like a fashion accessory. Two years ago everyone was using the D50, you could here it everywhere.

“Technology is still la big part of Propaganda. If you listen to the album there are tracks which are heavily electronic…”

“… but theres a human element in it too”, concludes Miller.

And what of the past — what was behind the sounds that amazed and confused in the mid-‘80s?

“In 1984, when we did ‘Dr Mabuse, we had a Fairlight Series II” reveals Mertens. “But everything was all pre-SMPTE then. We had a code on tap and every time we had to start the tape from the beginning and hope that it would catch up. There were always these moments: everything has been programmed, everybodys brain was gone, wed be hoping that this was the take, and the tape wouldnt pick up. Those were the days. Then MIDI came along and made life much more easy for us.

“Next I bought a PPG 2.3 system with a Waveterm which I still use. Its still eight-bit sampling, I never upgraded it to the Waveterm B because I really like the sound of that machine. I didnt buy another sampler for quite some time. Its very good for some things but these days if you have an S1000 you can put anything in there — you can put down almost a whole track with it and it doesnt lack dynamics. But this isnt the case with the PPG at all. If you do that it sounds terrible.

“Then I got into sequencers and started using an Atari and C-Lab Notator software — although, most of the time I dont use the note display. The way we recorded was that there was a lot of stuff in Notator, there were still a few sequences in the old PPG, which we used an SRC synchroniser for. When we first went into the studio Ian Stanley was suggesting that we should both learn a new sequencer. He was suggesting that we use Opcode Vision on the Macintosh. But I said ‘no, Notators so fast and so reliable. And we had this argument — he was advocating the Macintosh and, as far as I was concerned, the Atari was good enough. I wouldnt take it on stage, but in the studio environment its fine.”

While Notator won the day in the studio, Mertens is less confident about the Ataris reliability for the gigs the band have in the pipeline.

“The Atari would be my favourite system to use, but Im not sure how it would behave on a tour. A lot of people have recommended the Macintosh to me but the Yamaha C1 might be interesting. Vision looks good though, so I might prefer the Macintosh. There arent really any hardware sequencers around any more are there — apart from the MC500? I used the MC500 a lot before I had the C-Lab software, but I prefer the C-Lab now.

The fascination with live performance began back in 1985 when Propaganda joined forces with Forbes and McGee for the ZTT showcases.

“That was one of the things that helped us realise that a step towards being a live group was actually what we wanted”, says Mertens. “When Brian hits a drum on stage he hits it very hard, and its a very earthy feeling. I think thats a good connection with all the electronic stuff going on around him.

“The problem we had in 1985 was that we would have wanted to put the soft of production we had in the studio onto the stage. And that would have been vastly expensive. There was no way we could have afforded to tour with a Synclavier, so there was no other way to recreate the production wed done that to use tapes. And thats something we dont want to do again. Im quite nervous about it actually.”

The timing of the tour is still as uncertain as the equipment that will make it possible.

All Mertens is sure of is that he will be taking along a second keyboard player to assist himself and whatever he chooses to play his sequences, and that he has a lot of homework to do in preparation.

While hes doing his homework for Propaganda, Mertens is happy to be identified with the tradition of German experimentation in electronic music and to admit that his homework has been done for him by bands like Kraftwerk.

“To a certain extent, if Kraftwerk hadnt been there, I wouldnt be here”, he concludes. “They were the ones who prepared all these things for us — without even knowing what they were starting, Nowadays people are doing what Kraftwerk were doing 15 or 20 years ago — without the technical problems.”

But while Mertens is happy to be part of the German scene, the Germans dont always seem to have been as appreciative of his efforts.

“I tell you, in Germany in ‘85 we had problems with everybody hating us”, he says sadly. “I think they hated us being so successful — being linked with a producer who was the producer of the time. We came out of Germany not having done anything, and people probably thought not deserving the work in that sort of surrounding. A lot of people didnt like it, so they were saying it was all down to the production.

“Then in 1987 it sounded like it was all over — the singer had left, we had problems with the record company. When ‘88 came, ‘89 came, people were saying ‘well, Propaganda, that was a good band.

While Kraftwerk havent suffered the same scepticism for their countrymen, Mertens expressed concern over their inactivity since the release of Electric Cafe in ‘86. Being in a comparable position, hes not sympathetic to the suggestion that they maybe be afraid to try to live up to their past.

“If youre dealing with popular music I think you should be prepared to take a risk and do what you think is right at the time. If I started to think about what is expected of Propaganda it would make me paranoid. There are people who are doing dance music and doing it very well. So I could sit down and say ‘Im doing electronic music, theres a lot of innovative stuff happening in Britain, Im going to jump on it. But Im not like that, I dont try to follow trends and I dont think Kraftwerk do either. So even if Kraftwerk came out with something thats not really good and trendy and didnt fit in with the current scene, its still quite likely to be a very good record. I dont understand why they dont do something. You shouldnt be afraid of your own myth.”

Equipment list

  • Atari ST/C-Lab Notator
  • Akai S1000
  • Fairlight Series III
  • Korg M1
  • Lexicon 480
  • Oberheim Matrix 12
  • Oberheim Xpander
  • PPG 2.3 with Waveterm A
  • Roland Super Jupiter
  • Roland D550
  • Studio Electronics MIDImoog
  • Synclavier
  • Yamaha TX816