The Ministry Of Propaganda
In 1985 Propaganda produced a seminal electronic music album - then they vanished. Five years on they've returned to pick up where they left off. Michael Mertens talks to Tim Goodyer about technology and the German tradition.
In 1985 Propaganda's 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 public's imagination captive. Trevor Horn's immaculate production and Steven Lipson's 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 samplers of S'Xpress. 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 Dorper had delivered a classic album: A Secret Wish. Conceived by Dorper in 1983, Propaganda were quickly signed by Horn's ZTT label. They introduced themselves to a bewildered public with a single, 'Dr Mabuse', which was accompanied by pop photographer Anton Corbijn's film noir video debut. Somehow the combination of the music's industrial brutality and Horn's 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 force to be reckoned with. They also demonstrated the band's 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 than 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 17's Glenn Gregory had lent their voices. Yes' Steve Howe had contributed some guitar work and Marillion's Ian Moseley had provided it with one of pop's first sampled drum beats.
Propaganda were in demand - not least for an interview with Music Technology (then under the title 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 Propaganda's 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 had 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 an album entitled 1 2 3 4. Here too you'll find evidence of Propaganda's 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, and 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 had left Simple Minds and our manager asked him if he was interested in joining us as a guest musician. Later on, for a tour, we were looking for a drummer and Derek suggested Brian McGee because he'd 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 Mertens 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 Brian's a good drummer".
Betsi Miller's family left Idaho for Germany when she was 12. Had they remained in America a photographer friend of Suzanne Freytag's 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 1 wanted to come to an 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 listening to Claudia's voice, I was thinking 'I don't know if this is right - not because I can't 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 dose to the album as possible, or I can go in there and show them what I'm capable of - and that's 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 Dusseldorf "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 it's not going to be right - she can sing as beautifully as she likes. It's a very difficult thing. It was an 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 an easy task.
"People like to look at us as a kind of icon: Propaganda 1984/85", agrees Mertens. "But I don't want to be forced to repeat what we've already done, that would be boring. I'd rather leave it like it is and do what we're doing now.
"Obviously people have now heard the first single and that isn't from the dangerous side. We've chosen that track because we think it's a good song. For us there's no obligation to fulfil anybody's expectation of what Propaganda is. When 'Dr Mabuse' came out it didn't fit in with anything. The next record that came out was 'Duel' and that was against everybody's 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 don't disregard the old Propaganda at all", counters Mertens. "Obviously if you look at the band in 1990 it's a completely different lineup. I'm 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 Dorper and Suzanne Freytag are still around us even if they're 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. That's 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 got 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, it's a real band now. And there still is a very dark side to Propaganda, you can hear that on the LP."
THE NEW LINEUP ALSO MEANS NEW working methods. When all the members of the band were living in Dusseldorf, things were easier for them, now they're 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 start writing something in his living room" explains Miller. "Then he'd call Derek in Scotland and he'd go to Dusseldorf and they'd sit down and work out the structure and put that down on tape. On the tape there'd just be the basic rhythm track: drum machine, keyboards and some bass. I'd pick up the tape, go home with it and work out the vocal melodies on my own. Then I'd go over and sing it to them and, with Derek's help, we'd 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 we've never done anything live before. After you've really jammed out together I think there's a kind of confidence you gain that changes the way you work. I'm looking forward to that."
From the demos the songs were taken into Ian Stanley's private studio and pre-production work commenced.
"Ian has a small studio at his place in Bath", says 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 Ian's Series III Fairlight. Then we sync'd it all up via SMPTE.
"If you are going to use a synthesiser you have to work hard and spend a lot of time - if you are pleased too quickly, it becomes like a fashion accessory."
"Once we decided we were ready, we went into the studio and started to lay down the backing tracks, make samples of drums and sections of drums - we let Brian play along and then we took sections of his playing and sync'd them up to the track. That was much easier than it was in '84/'85, although we did it on "Dream Within a Dream" - that's 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 that's 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. We'd go in and record and then we'd go and do some more writing because we'd find out what we had wasn't sufficient or wasn't 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."
It's an impressive itinerary, but what of the gear? Have 1985's PPGs been replaced by their 1990 counterparts? Exactly what did Mertens use in the recording of 1 2 3 4?
"What weren't 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.
"I've 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 it's the best quality machine around except for the Synclavier. That's not the point though, it was never our aim to use the newest thing. If that is your premise you've missed the point. You can have a lot of new sounds that are all crap, you know. If you're going to use a synthesiser you have to work hard and spend a lot of time. If you are pleased too quickly, it won't last. It's like a fashion accessory. Two years ago everyone was using the D50, you could hear it everywhere.
"Technology is still a big part of Propaganda. If you listen to the album there are tracks which are heavily electronic..."
"...but there's 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 tape 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 had been programmed, everybody's brain was gone, we'd be hoping that this was the take, and the tape wouldn't 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. It's still eight-bit sampling, I never upgraded it to the Waveterm B because I really like the sound of that machine. I didn't buy another sampler for quite some time. It's 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 doesn't lack dynamics. But this isn't 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 don't 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, Notator's 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 wouldn't take it on stage, but in the studio environment it's fine."
While Notator won the day in the studio, Mertens is less confident about the Atari's reliability for the gigs the band have in the pipeline.
"The Atari would be my favourite system to use, but I'm 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 aren't 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 it's a very earthy feeling. I think that's a very 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 sort 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 we'd done than to use tapes. And that's something we don't want to do again. I'm 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 he's 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 hadn't been there, I wouldn't be here", he concedes. "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 a part of the German scene, the Germans don't 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 to work in that sort of surrounding. A lot of people didn't 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 haven't suffered the same scepticism from their countrymen, Mertens expresses concern over their inactivity since the release of Electric Cafe in '86. Being in a comparable position, he's not sympathetic to the suggestion that they may be afraid to try to live up to their past.
"If you're 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 - it's a very trendy thing to do right now. So I could sit down and say 'I'm doing electronic music, there's a lot of innovative stuff happening in Britain, I'm going to jump on it'. But I'm not like that, I don't try to follow trends and I don't think Kraftwerk do either. So even if Kraftwerk came out with something that's not really good and trendy and didn't fit in with the current scene, it's still quite likely to be a very good record. I don't understand why they don't do something. You shouldn't be afraid of your own myth."
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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