xPropaganda: The Heart Is Strange

Though not a big hit on its original release, Propaganda’s 1985 album A Secret Wish only seems to grow in stature as the years pass.

It was arguably the last meaningful release on the ZTT label, spawning two UK top 40 singles. More importantly it was a sonic treat, full of grandeur and drama, one of the great pop albums of the 1980s.

The Dusseldorf-formed band made a couple of botched attempts to reunite – the 1234 album in 1990, a Martin Gore/Tim Simenon-assisted try in 1998, then a partial gathering at Trevor Horn’s charity gig at Wembley Arena in 2004.

But now they’re back as xPropaganda (who knows the legal machinations behind that moniker). Founding members Michael Mertens and Ralf Dorper are not around this time but vocalists/songwriters Claudia Brucken and Susanne Freytag are, alongside Secret Wish producer/guitarist Steve Lipson.

Excitingly their album The Heart Is Strange is also on the newly reignited ZTT (Horn is credited as ‘Advisor’), via Universal Music Catalogue.

My expectations were high but then were slightly dashed with the choice of ‘Don’t You Mess With Me’ as lead-off single/trailer. It’s easily the least interesting track on the album.

Lush, cinematic opener ‘The Night’ definitely evokes memory of A Secret Wish’s epic track one ‘Dream Within A Dream’, even if Terry Edwards’ muted trumpet is incongruously ‘jazzy’ as opposed to the resplendent playing (by whom? Guy Barker? Steve Sidwell?) on the 1985 track. And there are too many vocal melodies to choose from, none particularly intriguing.

Elsewhere there are better tunes and the odd appealing lyrical zinger. And if synths are your bag, these sounds – mostly courtesy of Pete Murray – are fantastic, sometimes lush and ominous, sometimes intricate and ingenious. It’s great headphone music.

But there’s not enough memorable Lipson lead guitar on The Heart Is Strange and the drum programming is a bit flat. Paging Steve Jansen. Best track? The enigmatic closer ‘Ribbons Of Steel’, a nearly ten-minute spoken-word rumination on the end of a relationship with hints of the Pet Shop Boys and Prefab’s I Trawl The Megahertz.

The Heart Is Strange is a solid B+. Good in places but must try harder. Too many mid-tempo songs. Certainly not in the league of the freaky A Secret Wish (a lack of Mertens may have a lot to do with that?) and without that album’s pristine mastering, depth of sound, harmonic intrigue and wacky guest appearances, but some decent new material to play live. Maybe next time they’ll let their hair down a bit – and hopefully get Mertens involved again.

Brucken and Freytag speak about The Heart Is Strange in this podcast.

And Stephen Lipson deconstructs A Secret Wish and xPropaganda here.

Propaganda: Wishful Thinking

ZTT Records – under the auspices of Trevor Horn – really used the remix format.

No throwaway, rush-released projects for them. Their remixes were petri dishes for sonic experiments and situationist pranks, many worthwhile and innovative.

And of course several remix albums were released on ZTT – Grace Jones’ Slave To The Rhythm was essentially one song done eight different ways, and there was also a whole Frankie Goes To Hollywood LP dedicated to ‘Two Tribes’ remixes.

But maybe a lesser-known example is Propaganda’s Wishful Thinking, a reworking of the Düsseldorf unit’s seminal 1985 album A Secret Wish, originally produced by Stephen Lipson (with one track – ‘Dr Mabuse’ –  helmed by Horn).

A Secret Wish’s stock seems to keep rising year after year, gaining more fans and sounding better than ever. But Wishful Thinking is a weird project, to say the least.

Co-remixer (alongside former tape op Bob Kraushaar) Paul Morley’s absurd liner notes quote Goethe and boast that the album is the result of ’39 studio hours’, which, by ZTT’s painstaking standards, doesn’t actually sound like much.

But it’s a thrilling, epic collection just the same, regurgitating many of the original album’s sonic motifs but in a different order and a different place on the stereo spectrum.

‘Machined’ reimagines ‘P-Machinery’ as a mid-tempo minimalist piece, featuring mainly Claudia Brucken’s vocals and gentle drums.

‘Jewelled’ fuses the two versions of ‘Duel’ from the original album, mixing her ‘angry’ vocals with the backing from the ‘pop’ version. It’s pretty funny and genuinely surreal.

Hidden elements embedded in the original mix are subtly revealed, like Lipson’s chiming guitars on ‘Laughing’. ‘Loving’ exposes and amplifies Andy Richards’ gorgeous piano and synth from ‘The Murder Of Love’, finally revealing it as the fantastic pop song it is.

The two versions of ‘Dr Mabuse’ bring out Horn’s genius and natural flair for the dynamic, showcasing not one but two brilliant bass vamps and a whole host of other sonic delights (thrillingly, one version is used in the absurd opening credits of John Hughes’s 1987 movie ‘Some Kind Of Wonderful’).

But possibly the best track on Wishful Thinking is the closing ‘Thought’, an excerpt of the band’s version of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Discipline’.

All in all, it’s an epic, exciting hour of music, and a real one-off. For anyone still fascinated by A Secret Wish, as this writer is, it’s required listening.

The band probably hated it, though Brucken did donate one of her paintings for use on the cover (but then she was married to Morley at the time…).

Propaganda’s A Secret Wish: 30 Years Old Today

propagandaZTT Records, released 2nd July 1985

Bought: Our Price Hammersmith 1994?

8/10

To many fans, A Secret Wish represents the peak of ’80s pop. The glamorous though mysterious project was a flawed masterpiece but also the beginning of the end for big-budget, endlessly-fussed-over ‘concept’ albums.

I was 12 when it came out. Though I liked ‘Duel’ at the time, it took me another ten years or so to finally get hold of the album.

If anything, it has only gained in mystique in the years since, quite possibly because it’s such a singular project.

It doesn’t really sound much like much else around in mid-’85 (though Pet Shop Boys and a-Ha were definitely listening), nor is it particularly similar to other ZTT releases or Propaganda’s subsequent albums.

A large part of the mystique is provided by Stephen Lipson’s pristine, widescreen production (Trevor Horn only produced ‘Dr Mabuse’), as well as his formidable mixing and guitar work (check out the extended mix of ‘Duel’).

Claudia Brucken’s lead vocals are original and Suzanne Freytag’s spoken-word interludes carry unmistakable echoes of Nico (emphasised by their seriously weird ‘Femme Fatale‘ cover from the album sessions).

Yes guitarist Steve Howe contributes a nifty solo to ‘The Murder Of Love’ and David Sylvian has a hand in writing the gripping ‘p:Machinery’. But man of the match is ZTT house keyboardist Peter-John Vettese, purveyor of doomy soundscapes and intriguing chord voicings.

Josef K’s post-punk classic ‘Sorry For Laughing’ is reinvented as a Wagnerian synth-pop anthem and there aren’t many more epic album openers in pop than the majestic ‘Dream Within A Dream’.

Paul Morley, ZTT marketing/content man and former husband of Claudia Brucken, has talked about Trevor Horn and David Sylvian’s involvement in A Secret Wish:

Propaganda

‘When Trevor pulled out of producing them, I actually asked David Sylvian. While he was thinking about it, he came up with the ghostly top line of ‘P:Machinery’ – the music, if you like – and a gorgeous watery slowed down version of ‘Duel’, but he decided against producing them, and it stayed within the Sarm (London recording studio owned by ZTT label owners Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair) pop factory. Actually, another sign of the split between sensibilities at the label: I asked David Sylvian to produce Propaganda and Jill approached Stock Aitken and Waterman!’

A Secret Wish wasn’t a huge hit and surely didn’t make back its sizeable recording costs, reaching just 16 in the UK album chart, but the singles ‘Duel’ and ‘p:Machinery’ both made the top 30.

The band picked up the first-class rhythm section of ex-Simple Minds pair Derek Forbes on bass and Brian McGee on drums (as well as Bowie/Dolby guitarist Kevin Armstrong) and toured the album extensively. I very clearly remember this performance on the BBC music show ‘Whistle Test’ in late 1985. Happy days:

Claudia Brucken: Bush Hall, London, 12th March 2015

where_else_acpsc1Ex-Propaganda/Act vocalist (and, dare we say, ’80s icon?) Claudia Brucken has enjoyed a real career renaissance in the last decade.

Her recent studio albums have featured collaborations with members of Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, Erasure and OMD, and new release Where Else is a very strong record of torch songs which foregrounds fine melodies and an unexpected ’60s pop influence.

The Bush Hall was the perfect venue for this classy, deceptively low-key return to the London stage. With a minimalist red-curtain backdrop and versatile two-man backing band, Claudia began the gig seated but moved through the gears with consummate ease.

downloadHer vocals sounded rich and rounded, a big improvement on the last London gigs in 2013, and it was also great that she kept audience banter to an absolute minimum, a lesson to some younger artists who seem desperate to pass the time of day with audiences given half a chance.

Where Else was played pretty much in sequence as is the current way, and what’s clear is that the new songs are stark and slight but very catchy, with attractive, slow-burning melodies.

To go along with the string synths, piano and digital beats, there was generally an unmistakable Zombies/Colin Bluntstone influence on the new material too, with some distinctly Doors-style keyboards thrown in for good measure.

The resplendent, still striking ‘Duel’ (which my companion very adroitly pegged as the sound a-Ha had vainly aimed for throughout their career) and ‘P-Machinery’ were saved for the rapturously-received encores, and a rousing cover of Bowie’s ‘Everyone Says Hi’ was perfectly judged.

The gig was crying out for a real drummer though (paging Neil Conti…) to add more of the human element, but budgets are budgets.

If all her stars are aligned, Brucken might yet enjoy an Everything-But-The-Girl-style sleeper hit. What seems unlikely is any kind of Secret Wish 30th anniversary tour; she seems very happy and musically fulfilled where she is right now.