Title: Duel personalities
Author: Stuart Husband
They make “radical but entertaining pop music”. They call themselves “Abba in hell”. They are Propaganda. Stuart Husband sorts the fact from the fiction.
Propaganda — two boys and two girls from Dusseldorf, West Germany — have a burning desire. They want to make “radical pop music — entertaining, but with a twist”.
So far they’ve only released two singles, but some would say they’ve already achieved their goal. Their first, ‘The Nine Live Of Dr Mabuse’, was an explosive mixture of shrill chanted vocals over a threatening electro back which reached No. 26 in the UK last year.
Their new single ‘Duel’ is something else. A fragile, haunting song reminiscent of Abba in their more reflective moments, it’s backed by ‘Jewel’, a frenzied electro-punk version of the A-side.
So the record has a ‘light’ and ‘dark’ side. A concept single!
But the four Propaganda people stress that the singles show just a little of what the group is capable of. “None of our songs sound alike. We want to cover as many different areas and appeal to as many people as we can.”
Their debut LP ‘A Secret Wish’, produced by Trevor Horn, should prove their point.
Ralf Dorper, 27, and Michael Mertens, 31, are the men behind the Propaganda sound, writing and arranging the music.
With his wiry thatch of hair and small pebble glasses, Ralf has the look of a slightly mad professor.
“I started the group in 1982,” he recalls. “I’d been doing lots of experimental stuff with tapes, but I was getting fed up. I met Michael when he was working in an electronics shop, and he tried to sell me a microcomputer. We both wanted to make pop music, and started making tapes.
“I asked Claudia and Suzanne to sing on one of our tapes, which we then bought to England to look for a deal.”
Why England? “London is still the main city in the world for pop,” says Ralf. “People here are much more open-minded. In Germany, people would rather listen to rock — like Genesis!”
A new label named Zang Tuum Tumb loved Propaganda’s tape, and signed then at the beginning of 1983.
“You could say we have grown up alongside ZTT,” says Ralf. “I don’t think any other label would have supported us as strongly as they have.”
Ralf was born and brought up in Dusseldorf, where Propaganda have their own recording studio.
Michael is originally from East Germany. His parents defected to the West when he was 12.
“I trained as a classical percussion player, and I’ve played in a symphony orchestra. But it was The Beatles who first turned me on to pop.”
The main inspiration for Propaganda, however, was the English punk movement.
“We weren’t inspired by any group in particular,” says Ralf. “We want to make good pop songs, but we don’t want to repeat anything that other people have done, even though we’re going for the mainstream.
“That’s why we chose the name — if no one was listening to Propaganda it wouldn’t have any effect!”
So why is ‘Duel’ split into a poppy and hardcore side?
Ralf: “The idea was to have two fighting extremes. The listener can decide who is going to win. We were trying to show the light and the dark side of a love affair.
“The chorus, ‘The first cut won’t hurt at all’, is saying that a relationship can turn sour without you really noticing it, and it gradually builds up until you’re screaming.
“We are very painstaking about what we do. We don’t want things to be too clear.
“We want people to be able to return to one of our songs in ten or 20 years’ time and still find it fresh and exciting.”
Claudia Bruchen, 21, and Suzanne Freytag, 27, are enjoying the spring sunshine on the roof of the ZTT building, home of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Claudia is small and spiky, occasionally showing flashes of irritation; Suzanne is shy and reserved.
They are quick to deny that their contribution to the group is limited to singing Ralf’s lyrics.
Suzanne: “Ralf and Michael build the foundations — we have the ideas for vocals and melodies.”
How do they feel about the comparisons with Abba? (Propaganda have described themselves as “Abba in Hell”.)
Claudia: “It was a conscious thing to model ourselves on them. Even when there were five people in the group, we only used four in the photos — so that we could look like a warped version of them!”
The pair are excited about Propaganda’s coming live appearances as part of ZTT’s package at the Ambassador’s Theatre in London.
Claudia: “They’ll be our first experiences of playing live, apart from The Tube.”
How much of their lives does Propaganda take up?
Claudia: “At the moment, with the single out and an LP coming, a lot. But we really enjoy it — we’ve always liked showing off!
“We’ll carry on Propaganda until it gets boring, and I think we’ll all know when it’s reached that stage.”