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 in a different place on the stereo spectrum. ‘Machined’ reimagines ‘P-Machinery’ as a mid-tempo piece of minimalism, 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’. It’s nothing less than a brutalist, industrial masterpiece.

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…).

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Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Liverpool: 30 Years Old Today

frankie_1309776451It’s well known that FGTH’s deal with ZTT was one of the worst recording contracts in pop history (outlined in embarrassing detail in vocalist Holly Johnson’s ‘A Bone In My Flute’ autobiography).

But the band were already starting to show signs of subordination by late 1984 – they refused to record the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’ as the B-side to ‘The Power Of Love’, part of ZTT ideas man Paul Morley’s bizarre plan* to get the label’s acts to write a history of pop through cover versions.

FGTH also scuppered ZTT’s plan for them to star in a sci-fi movie which was to be scripted by Martin Amis and directed by Nicolas Roeg (actually, that sounds brilliant…).

The band then insisted that they actually play on their second album Liverpool rather than let session players lay down the basic tracks, a request that seems to have been granted, although close reading of the tiny liner notes reveals the names Trevor Rabin, Steve Howe and Lol Creme…

Sensing trouble, Trevor Horn took the role of ‘executive producer’ and passed production duties over to the gifted Stephen Lipson, who clearly had his work cut out. A schism was opening up between Holly Johnson and the rest of the band, or ‘The Lads’, as he dubbed them. Tensions were also running high in the UK – by mid 1986, unemployment had topped three million and anti-Thatcher feeling had reached its peak. Oxford University had even just refused her an honorary degree. So the frivolity and epicurean excesses of Welcome To The Pleasuredome were definitely out.

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Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford

Still, Liverpool is a sumptuous-sounding album, with immense care taken over recording, mixing and mastering – apparently to the tune of a whopping £760,000. It stands up pretty well today especially if taken as a separate entity to Pleasuredome, even if the songs are nowhere near as memorable as the debut’s.

Lipson pulls out all the stops, playing some superb fuzz-toned lead guitar, particularly on ‘Maximum Joy’ and ‘Rage Hard’, and piecing together an album of musically-rich, prog-influenced hard rock. Synth players Andy Richards and Peter-John Vettese contribute intriguing intros and outros, often involving backing vocalist Betsy Cook too.

And though Liverpool is obviously a more ‘serious’ album than Frankie’s debut, there are still amusing spoken-word inserts from members of the band in broad Scouse (‘In the common age of automation, where people might eventually work ten or twenty hours a week, man for the first time will be forced to confront himself with the true spiritual problems of livin”!).

‘Warriors Of The Wasteland’, ‘Kill The Pain’ and ‘Rage Hard’ are tough techno-rock tracks which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on It Bites’ debut album. Holly’s vocals are unhinged and powerful. ‘Rage Hard’ was also subjected to a fantastically overblown extended mix featuring Pamela Stephenson (doing her best Thatcher impersonation?) taking us on a tour of the 12” single.

‘Maximum Joy’ is superb; pure ZTT bliss, while ‘Lunar Bay’ is also brilliant, balls-out prog/pop in the style of Propaganda’s A Secret Wish. ‘For Heaven’s Sake’ is completely barmy, an anti-Thatcher ballad (‘She should buy us all a drink’) in queasy 6/8 interrupted by some Native American chanting by Holly and a weird musical-hall middle section.

‘Is Anybody Out There’ is a fitting end to Frankie’s recording career, a majestic, distinctly Suede-like ballad (the guitar solo is totally Bernard Butler) with some beautiful Holly vocals and a subtle Richard Niles string arrangement. The only real dog on Liverpool is ‘Watching The Wildlife’.

The album was not a commercial disaster, reaching #5 in the UK album chart and the top 10 in many other European countries, but a disappointing #88 in the US. It wasn’t enough. Frankie were going back to Liverpool. And Thatcher still had four years left in Downing Street.

*Morley’s influence was apparently running amok, evidenced by Liverpool‘s fairly ridiculous liner notes (‘Best wishes to Stan Boardman’) and a choice of album title that suggested he was pretty certain the band would soon be returning to their hometown, banished from pop’s high table. Holly apparently hated the title.

Alex Sadkin: Sonic Architect Of The ’80s

Grace_Jones_-_NightclubbingOne of the nice things about putting together this website is finding out about some important – though often completely unsung – characters who pop up in the credits of many a classic album. Alex Sadkin is just such a figure.

You could probably write a history of 1980s music purely from the perspective of producers. Perhaps it was the decade of the pop producer. There was certainly a lot of turd-polishing going on, but on the flip side it was a chance for someone to establish their own sound, hopefully in collaboration with a great artist or band.

In the early ’80s, everyone was pretty much using the same fairly limited (but very expressive in the right hands) equipment, so it was a question of being as original as possible.

Though he died at the age of just 38 in July 1987, not many producer/mixer/engineers of the early ’80s had a more distinctive sound than Alex Sadkin. He worked with James Brown, Grace Jones, Bob Marley, Sly and Robbie, Robert Palmer, Talking Heads, XTC, Thompson Twins, Foreigner, Simply Red and Duran Duran during his short life. His productions are full of colour and detail, usually featuring multiple percussion parts, kicking bass and drums and a very characteristic, super-crisp snare sound.

Alex’s first gig in the music biz was as a sax player in Las Olas Brass, a popular Florida R’n’B outfit, alongside future bass superstar Jaco Pastorius. Jaco and Alex had gone to high school together, and Alex later became the house engineer at Criteria Studios in Miami where Jaco recorded the demos for his legendary 1976 debut album.

Sadkin then engineered James Brown’s ‘Get Up Offa That Thing‘ single and also worked on Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration album, which brought him to the attention of legendary Island Records owner Chris Blackwell. Sadkin quickly secured a new gig as in-house engineer at Island’s Compass Point Studios in Nassau on the Bahamas.

This was where it really all began for Sadkin – an amazing melting pot of talent passed through the Compass Point doors including Talking Heads, AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Tom Tom Club, B-52’s, Robert Palmer and Will Powers AKA Lynn Goldsmith. But his first bona fide producer credits were alongside Blackwell on Grace Jones’ stunning trio of early ’80s albums (Warm Leatherette, Nightclubbing, Living My Life).

Sadkin was now a name producer with a trademark sound and considerable rep, and as such started to attract significant attention, sometimes of the negative variety – legendary NME scribe Paul Morley even took agin him for some reason in a review for Thompson Twins’ ‘Hold Me Now’ single. It probably meant Sadkin was doing something right…

Later in the decade, though his work arguably became more anonymous (but then so did a lot of post-1986 pop), Alex’s career went from strength to strength, producing some big albums such as Robbie Nevil’s debut, Simply Red’s big-selling Men And Women and Arcadia’s (admittedly fairly dire) So Red The Rose.

Sadly, Alex Sadkin died in a motorbike accident in Nassau on 25th July 1987 just before he was due to begin working with Ziggy Marley. He had also just recorded some demos with Jonathan Perkins, later to front criminally-underrated early ’90s act Miss World. Robbie Nevil’s song ‘Too Soon‘ and Grace Jones’ ‘Well Well Well’ are dedicated to Sadkin’s memory, as is Joe Cocker’s album Unchain My Heart. Gone too soon, indeed.