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:

RIP Chris Squire

chris squireEven solely based on the evidence of his rather unappreciated ’80s playing, Chris Squire would surely still get into the pantheon of bass greats.

I first heard him on Yes’s 1987 album Big Generator and worked backwards from there. I was won over by Trevor Horn’s pristine production, the band’s outrageous musicianship and the sheer originality of the songwriting, but recently Chris’s bass playing from the era is kind of obsessing me.

To my ears, he detuned his low E string on a standard four-string bass to a low A, one octave lower than the second string, presumably to best accompany the new songs which generally tended towards A major. You can hear it most clearly on the powerful title track and ‘Love Will Find A Way’.

Anyone who’s ever picked up a bass will know how potentially treacherous that tuning could be, but he just sails through. It also gives him a massive melodic range, from the funky twang of the ‘I’m Running’ riff, to the brutal low-end grooves of the title track and ‘Almost Like Love’.

The 1983 Yes album 90125 is also full of great Squire moments (with mostly regular tuning this time), from the catchy riff underpinning ‘It Could Happen To You’ to the flanger freakout ‘Cinema’ and rifftastic ‘City Of Love’. He really extended the Paul McCartney melodic bass concept into exciting new territories.

Sadly, sometimes it takes a great player’s passing to spur you on to check out music that has thus far escaped you, so the 1980 album Drama is my latest discovery. The lead-off track ‘Machine Messiah’ and ‘Does It Really Happen’ are chock-full of classic Squire moments and I’m sure loads more will reveal themselves. I must also investigate his short-lived project XYZ alongside Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

By all accounts, Chris was a great and totally unique character too. RIP to a definite lord of the low end.

Christopher Russell Edward Squire (4 March 1948 – 27 June 2015)

White City To The Hollywood Hills: Thomas Dolby’s The Flat Earth

Circa 1988, my schoolmate Seb stuck a few tracks from The Flat Earth (possibly ‘Screen Kiss’ and ‘Mulu’) at the end of the Lovesexy tape he did for me.

I was smitten – I needed as much music as possible by this guy. I’ve since bought the albums several times on various formats.

 

On Earth, Dolby deliberately downplays the ‘zany’ image and creates an atmospheric, beautifully arranged, largely introspective collection.

He covers various styles (funk, lounge jazz, synth rock, World), mastering all with an incredible consistency of mood, production and songwriting.

My mates and I also loved his habit of incorporating seemingly-random clips of audio into/between his songs, like the spoken word outbursts from the likes of Robyn Hitchcock.

The title track came from an unused jam originally intended for Malcolm McLaren’s Trevor Horn-produced Duck Rock album.

Its lilting South African melody (reminiscent of ‘Obtala’ from Duck Rock) and confessional lyrics signalled a new maturity in Dolby’s style, continuing with the majestic ‘Screen Kiss’ featuring excellent, much imitated fretless bass work from Matthew Seligman.

Techno-rocker ‘White City’ should be covered by someone. Dolby himself masters the art of the cover version with his take on Dan Hicks’s ‘I Scare Myself’ featuring a gorgeous muted trumpet solo by guitarist Kevin Armstrong who, according to Dolby’s liner notes, had never played the instrument before the recording.

And the album closer ‘Hyperactive’ (originally written for Michael Jackson, fact fans) is actually a bit out-of-place on the largely downbeat Earth but it’s a fun, funky, irresistible little pop song, perfect to send you out into the night with a smile.

Dolby is a brilliant painter of pictures with sound, relentlessly using audio fragments to augment melodic and lyrical ideas (check out the extraordinary tree-falling which pops up throughout the title track and also the typewriters which pepper ‘Dissidents’).

But these songs would also work beautifully played with just an acoustic piano accompaniment, as his recent solo tours have demonstrated.

Of course, over here in Blighty, the music press were a bit suspicious of Dolby’s technical mastery and obvious musicianship, though The Flat Earth reached a respectable #14 in the UK album chart, #35 in the US.

Dolby followed up The Flat Earth by playing keyboards with David Bowie at Live Aid (alongside Seligman and Armstrong), forming occasional project Dolby’s Cube with George Clinton, Lene Lovich and the Brecker Brothers and producing both Prefab Sprout’s triumphant Steve McQueen and Joni Mitchell’s underrated Dog Eat Dog.

But we would have to wait four years for an official solo follow-up – and it was possibly even better than The Flat Earth