Perhaps Germany’s, and certainly Dusseldorf’s most famous pop export after Kraftwerk, Propaganda were once described by Paul Morley, “The Minister of Disinformation” at their label ZTT, as being a cross between 70’s boy-girl act Dollar and electronic experimental composer, Karlheinz Stockhausen. While Kraftwerk put their faith in technology, and robots and computers, Propaganda, however, who Morley was also to define as “Abba on acid, Abba on hell”, took their inspiration from the fantastic. The poetry of Edgar Allan Poe was an influence, as were the films of Fritz Lang. The group’s’s glacial twin frontwomen, Suzanne Freytag and Claudia Brucken ; their use of keyboards and percussion as predominant instruments, and innovative panoramic pop soundscapes made them one of the most musically and visually striking bands of the 80’s. They released two classic singles, ‘Dr Mabuse’ and ‘Duel’, and a groundbreaking debut album, ‘A Secret Wish’. Yet their tenure in the public spotlight was brief, lasting from early 1984 through to late 1985 barely 18 months, and would end, amidst a litigation suit and line-up changes, in complete disaster. Although Propaganda have made various attempts at reformation, and even released a second album upon which nearly all the original members were absent, they have never lived up to expectations. Their story, even amidst all the other musical excesses of the 80’s, is one of the most tragic, but also the most farcical of the era.

Propaganda was first formed by keyboardist Ralf Dorper and programmer Andreas Thein towards the tail end of 1982, shortly after Dorper quit his regular band, harsh electronica experimentalists Die Krupps, as a result of creative differences.

Dorper, who was then aged 22, was already a veteran of the Dusseldorf music scene. He had released his first single, ‘Veil Fiend, Viel Ehr’ with an avant-garde punk act, SYPH, in 1979, before turning briefly solo in 1980 to record a second single, ‘Eraserhead’, which took its inspiration from the David Lynch film of the same name. Later on that year he joined Die Krupps, with whom he recorded another single, ‘Wahre Arbeit, Wahrer Lohn’ (1981) , and two albums, ‘Stahlwerksymphonie’ (1980), and ‘Volle Kraft Voraus’ (1982).

Thein had no previous recording history, but was a well-known figure in local musical circles. Seen as something of an eccentric, he had picked up the nickname ‘The Dead Chicken’ (‘Das Tote Kuhn’), following an experimental performance entitled ‘Industrial Music for Dead Chicken’.

While Dorper held down a regular day job as a banking analyst, Thein in contrast had spent some time bumming around America, but since his return, other than hustling occasional work as a DJ, had been long-term unemployed. Although Propaganda’s two founders were in many ways polar opposites, there was, however, an immediate rapport between the maverick Thein and the more conventional Dorper, and the pair began recording demos, first of all on an instrumental basis, in a studio in the nearby city of Cologne.

Despite the experimental nature of their previous work, Dorper and Thein planned Propaganda from the outset as both a pop group and also a vocal act, and shortly afterwards they recruited into the line up, their mutual friend , Susanne Freytag. Freytag, who was then aged 25, was a jewellery maker by trade, but also sung in Das Toppolinos, a local Dusseldorf all-girl group.

Dorper and Thein brought Freytag into the studio in Cologne and had her put vocals on some of the compositions they had already recorded. They then began to tout these around various record companies, and contacts that Dorper had picked up from his time in Die Krupps.

Many bands wait years to find a record company, but for Propaganda it took only a matter of weeks. From the beginning Propaganda composed their own music for which Dorper would write the lyrics. They had also begun taking songs from guitar bands, a genre of pop music which Dorper in particular loathed, and "improving" them by turning them into synthesiser tracks. A demo of one of these, a cover of ‘Disziplin’, a Throbbing Gristle number, was passed on by Chris Baum, one of Dorper’s musical contacts, and a journalist at the London music newspaper NME, to Paul Morley.

Morley had begun his career as a music writer. Famed for largely spearheading the career of Joy Division through his coverage in the NME, he had, however, in January 1983, immediately prior to receiving Propaganda’s demo, abandoned journalism so that he could concentrate on establishing ZTT (or Zang Tumb Tuum to give it its full title), together with producer Trevor Horn and Horn’s wife, Jill Sinclair.

One of Britain’s most notorious producers, Trevor Horn has garnished a reputation over the last two and a half decades for producing music that is lush, theatrical and danceable. Horn had had a number one hit in 1979 as one half of the duo, the Buggles, with the self-produced ‘Video Killed Radio the Star ?”, and had then gone on to join the prog rockers Yes, taking over as their frontman after their regular singer Jon Anderson quit. Horn appeared upon and produced their 1980 album, ‘Drama’, briefly giving them a more contemporary edge. He had also worked with Dollar, and the previous year in 1982 had earned much acclaim for his production work on ABC’s smash hit debut album, ‘The Lexicon of Love’.

While Jill Sinclair concentrated on its day-to-day management, and Horn produced the bands on its roster, Morley was ZTT’s publicist. Responsible for its carefully-crafted image, he designed most of its early record sleeves, often adorning them with secret messages and symbols, and became eventually involved in creating a clothing range for it. He also manufactured slogans for the label and in florid prose wrote manifestos and missive statements for it and its bands.
“ZTT’s main aim is to re-establish the glory of pop records as one of the fanciest and most fascinating ways of communication in the 20th century” Morley proclaimed in a 1983 agenda in an early example of the exhibitionism, bluster and ambition for which his label would become renowned. “And to make ZTT the most interesting, provocative, crazy and unpredictable record label of the 80’s”.

Intrigued by Propaganda, Morley flew out to Dussledorf with the intention of signing them. In the time between recording the ‘Disziplin’ demo and Morley’s arrival in Dussledorf, Dorper, Thein and Freytag had recruited into the band two additional members, co-vocalist Claudia Brucken and percussionist Michael Mertens.

Brucken, who had recently left school, had been singing with local bands since she was 14. The former girlfriend of Susanne Freytag’s brother, she had remained close to Susanne. She joined the band at the modest Freytag’s instigation, who felt that Brucken’s voice would be more better suited to some of Dorper and Thein’s music than her own.

While Brucken, who was 19, was the youngest member of the band, Michael Mertens, who joined Propaganda shortly after her, was at 32 the oldest. The only professionally-trained musician in the group, he was a percussionist in the Dussledorf Symphony Orchestra. Mertens had become a member of the band after a chance meeting with Dorper, who, responding to a small ad Mertens had put in a local newspaper, had turned up at his home to buy a drum machine. For his first two years in the band Mertens would remain by mutual agreement a secret member, both so that he could maintain his orchestral commitments, and also because Propaganda and ZTT wanted to keep a two boy, two girl Abba-style image for the band.

Propaganda had recorded a new demo, an early blueprint of ‘ Dr Mabuse’, which featured both Freytag and Brucken. Morley, who soon began dating Brucken, decided he wanted to make this rather than ‘Disziplin’, which was quickly forgotten about, Propaganda’s first release.

Horn was, however, still building ZTT’s studios in London. While he had now left Yes, he had broken up with them entirely amicably ,so much so that he had also recently accepted their invitation to produce ‘90125’, their next album after “Drama’, which featured the return of Jon Anderson as lead singer. Both these factors caused initial delays. In what was to quickly become a habit with ZTT, Propaganda were forced into a period of inactivity while they waited for Horn to become available. Further hold-ups soon followed.

Although Propaganda had been the second act after Frankie Goes to Hollywood to sign to ZTT , both bands found themselves superseded in the queue to record material by the Art of Noise, a studio project which Horn had formed with Anne Dudley, Gary Langan and J.T. Jeczalin, all three of whom had worked with him as session musicians on ‘The Lexicon of Love’. Their six track EP, ‘Into Battle with the Art of Noise’, was ZTT’s first release. The Art of Noise, who initially refused to be photographed, or even to reveal who their members were, were one of the first bands to use a Fairlight, a synthesiser which could musicalise and reproduce any sound or sample. ‘Into Battle with the Art of the Noise’ combined this influence with dance beats and an early New York hip hop sound.

While it had too many tracks to enter the singles chart, ‘Into Battle with the Art of Noise’ sold relatively well and was a cult club hit. It was, however, the label’s second release, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s infamous ‘Relax’, a paean to oral sex, which firmly thrust ZTT into the limelight .

A five piece Liverpudlian group , Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s two frontmen, Holly Johnson (Vocals) and Paul Rutherford (Vocals, Dancing), were flamboyantly gay , while the other members of the band, Mark O’ Toole (Bass). Ped Gill (Drums) and Brian Nash (Guitar) were heterosexual “scallies”. Horn signed Frankie to ZTT after spotting them perform an early version of ‘Relax’ on the rock programme ‘The Tube’ in January 1983, and re-recorded the number, enhancing its instrumental parts by computer, as a pulsating disco track. Released in October 1983, ‘Relax’ began to slowly climb the UK charts, but, despite having been aired over 70 times already on the BBC’s Radio 1, it met with a sudden ban from the station when its breakfast programme DJ Mike Read, twigging what the song was about, objected to its lyrical content (“Relax, don’t do it’/When you want to suck to it/Relax, don’t do it/Whenyou want to come’) and refused to play it. The resulting tabloid frenzy and its sudden notoriety sent ‘Relax’ spiralling to the top of the charts, where it would stay at Number 1 for the next five weeks and in the charts for most of 1984, eventually going on to sell over two million copies.

With Horn exuberantly producing remix after remix of ‘Relax’ to keep it in the charts, and a gleeful Morley hyping it up for all it was worth, they had little time to spend on Propaganda. It was almost a year, after Propaganda first signed with ZTT, before ‘Dr Mabuse’ was finally released at the end of February 1984.

‘Dr Mabuse’ took its inspiration from a classic 1932 Fritz Lang film, ‘The Testament of Dr Mabuse’. It was the last German film Lang would direct before fleeing to America to escape the Nazis, and. a metaphor for its time, tells of arch criminal Dr Mabuse, who, despite being confined to a cell in an insane ayslum, starts by mind and body control to erode away at and to destroy the state through theft, violence and murder.

“Why does it hurt when my heart misses the beat ?” Freytag eerily, enigmatically monologues at its beginning, before Brucken, her frosty and distinctively Saxon-sounding voice elaborating further the record’s surreality, takes over with a whacked-out , forceful vocal, warning of Dr Mabuse’s soul-stealing evil. Mertern’s sledgehammer-sounding, top-heavy percussive beats ; Dorper’s rattling keyboards and Thein and Horn’s atmospheric computer and studio ramblings, each of which has been layered over and over, surge and swell against each other to give ‘Dr Mabuse’ an orchestral and epic texture. Ten different remixes of it were released over the next few months, and it reached a respectable number 27 in the British charts.

The Frankie phenomenon in the meantime continued. The group’s second single, ‘Two Tribes’, a simplistic anti-war number which Horn had wrapped up in a sumptious production, was released in June. Promoted by a controversial video that depicted lookalikes of America’s then president Ronald Reagan and his Russian counterpart Konstantin Chernenko beating each other up in a wrestling ring, it went straight in at number one and stayed there for nine weeks. While it was there, ‘Relax’ climbed back up the charts, reaching number two.

By the time both records had dropped out of the charts , Horn had produced no less than fourteen different version of ‘Relax’ and nine of ‘Two Tribes’. Morley’s range of ‘Frankie Says...’ T-shirts, each of which featured a different Frankie slogan (‘Frankie Says Relax’ etc), also became that summer Britain’s biggest-selling fashion item.

In October of that year, Frankie Goes to Hollywood returned with their debut album ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’. The group’s third single, ‘The Power of Love’, a Christmas ballad, followed in November. Both again went to number one. The Art of Noise also continued to be a success. Their first single, ‘Close (to the Edit)’, which was released in May of 1984, went to number 8, while their album ‘Who’s Afraid of the Art of the Noise’, charted at number 11.

All of this would contribute to there being another gap, this time of fourteen months, between ‘Dr Mabuse’ and Propaganda’s second single, ‘Duel’.

By the time ‘Duel’ was released, Andreas Thein had left. He had become disgruntled at the wait between records. His relationship with Trevor Horn had always been always rocky, and there were now arguments between him and the rest of the band. Tensions were particulary fraught between him and Claudia Brucken. She had moved to London to be with Morley, and spent much of that year modelling his fashion wear. It was a relationship that Thein vocally expressed his disapproval of, and, in November of 1984, Brucken issued the group with an ultimatum. If Thein didn’t leave the band, she would. Michael Mertens, who would now take Thein’s place as the regular fourth member of the group, was given the task of firing him.

Claudia Brucken and Paul Morley married three months later in February of 1985. Their wedding took place in Acapulco on St Valentine’s Day. With all the excesses of the era, they then flew on to Bali for the honeymoon, before returning to London the next day.

‘Duel’ finally arrived in early April. Trevor Horn, who had been the mainstay reason why Dorper and Thein had been orginally keen to sign to ZTT, was also absent. He had become too busy with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and, although he would remain as a consultant, his place at the production helm on this and all Propaganda’s subsequent ZTT records was taken over by Steve Lipson, his deputy.

‘Duel’ is the most pop-orientated of all Propaganda’s records. Its lyric was pinched from a poem by Flavio Volpe, an obscure Brazilian poet, and tells of a brutal case of husband-battering. Yet, despite its graphic subject matter, ‘Duel’ , in terms of noise and tone anyway, is also the least dramatic track in Propaganda’s oeuvre. The wall of sound layering that dominates ‘Dr Mabuse’ and most of the other songs in their catalogue is largely gone. Stripped down and bittersweet, it bounces Dorper’s perky synth beats and a breezy vocal from Brucken up against occasional clashes of percussion from Mertens. ‘There were four different versions, and it proved to be the most successful of Propaganda’s singles, going to no. 21 in the charts.

Propaganda’s debut allbum ‘A Secret Wish’ arrived three months later in early July. It began flamboyantly with the trumpeting, slow-cascading eight minute ‘Dream Within a Dream’, the lyric of which was pulled from an Edgar Allan Poe poem. ‘The Murder of Love’, which came second, was,exactly as its title suggested, a theatrical and klanking, industrial-sounding tale of a love affair gone violently wrong. ‘Duel’ followed and was preluded by its B side and much-bastardised offshoot ‘Jewel’, a harsh, frantically-paced punk number , which, other than an occasional wild shout or scream from Freytag and Brucken, was entirely instrumental.

‘P-Machinery’, Propaganda’s third single, took up the middle segment of the album. It reached no. 50 when it was released later on in July and, going eventually through eight different remixes, again seemingly took its inspiration from Fritz Lang, this time from his 1926 silent film, ‘Metropolis’. About a futuristic, nightmarish society ruled by machines, it threw wildly spiralling synthesiser noise effects up against more rattling industrialised sounds. “Power-Force-Motion-Drive-Motion” Freytag and Brucken chanted in its chorus, obviously happily relishing beneath their mock iciness at playing at being factory slaves.

‘Sorry for Laughing’, which was next , was, like the early unreleased ‘Disziplin’, a reworked, heavily synthesised cover of a song originally performed by a guitar band , this time by the early 80’s Scottish indie group, Josef K. After this there was ‘Dr Mabuse’ and then ‘The Chase’, which combining spine-tingling keyboards with staccato, machine-gun style drum beats, meandered refecltively on the art of chasing after the impossible. The penultimate track was ‘The Last Word’, a cinematic instrumental, which climaxed by merging Dorper’s large washes of keyboard with thunder cracks and the sound of a downpour. The album then concluded with the 5 second ‘Strength to a Dream’, a reprise of the opening moments of “Dream Within a Dream’. “All that we see or dream is a dream” Freytag murmured, reflecting not perhaps just on the illusory nature of life, but also on that of Propaganda themselves.

‘A Secret Wish’ featured apparent guest appearances from Japan’s David Sylvian and Steve Jansen ; Glenn Gregory from Heaven 17 ; Steve Howe from Yes, the Police’s Stewart Copeland and one-time Simple Minds drummer Brian McGee. With mix after mix , however, having been done, noone could remember entirely who had done what and exactly where many of these cameos were and even if they had made the final cut of the album.

Glamorous, tawdry, emotional, cold, tender, discordant, ‘A Secret Wish’ was nevertheless a tour-de-force. A critical success, Propaganda briefly that summer became the darlings of the music press. Freytag and Brucken in particular found themselves the subject of intense media scrutiny and undertook interviews in publications as diverse as the style magazine ‘Blitz’ ; teen pop magazine ‘No. 1’, and ‘The Guardian’ newspaper and also the made the cover of the “NME’.

Yet, beneath Propaganda’s glittering surface, all was not well. Even before ‘A Secret Wish’ came out, the group had started to fall apart. After its release the band would, in its classic line-up of Brucken, Dorper, Freytag and Mertens, last only another six months before fracturing irreparably .

The second and final part of this feature will be published next month

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That was J.J. Jeczalik in AON - there is no such person as "J.T. Jeczalin".

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