‘We were a different side of the 80s. Not the Duran Duran 80s’: the return of Propaganda

In early 1983, a Düsseldorf band called Propaganda got a message: Trevor Horn wanted them to come to London. It was an enticing and deeply improbable turn of events. Horn was the UK’s hottest pop producer, a man who had unexpectedly turned the hopelessly drippy duo Dollar into a critical cause célèbre and piloted ABC’s debut The Lexicon of Love to platinum-selling transatlantic success, also making it the fourth biggest-selling album of 1982 in the UK.

Propaganda, however, were no one’s idea of a pop band. They were electronic experimentalists, a product of Germany’s burgeoning post-punk Neue Deutsche Welle scene. As vocalist Susanne Freytag puts it, they were attempting: “To go away from American music and find a kind of identity – there was a lot of shame in our generation in Germany, and it was a way of finding, or seeing people using the German language and making new music.” One of their members, Ralf Dörper, had previously been in metal-banging industrialists Die Krupps: he claimed to be less interested in music than he was in film. They had already caused a ripple of controversy in Germany by plundering imagery from the 1920s and 30s: a TV show refused to let them use a film featuring images of Zeppelin airships and Marlene Dietrich because, Dörper later said, “they didn’t understand that we might be questioning values of the past, rather than accepting them”. And they were not huge on melody. One of the songs on their demo tape was a German-language extrapolation of Throbbing Gristle’s entirely tune-free 1981 single Discipline. When the call from Trevor Horn came through, Propaganda scrambled to recruit a new member, Claudia Brücken, on the grounds that none of them could actually sing. “I felt a bit shocked,” says Freytag. “I thought ‘I’m not a singer, I’m happy to go and do something, but oh my God, we need a singer’. She is a very good singer, thank God.”

It was the beginning of one of 80s pop’s most unlikely and enduring stories. Propaganda’s career was brief and turbulent – by 1986, the band had splintered, mired in legal disputes – and they never sold huge quantities of records: their debut album A Secret Wish reached No 16 in the UK. But the people who liked them seemed to love them with a rare intensity. In 2018, when Freytag and Brücken reunited to play A Secret Wish live in London, “people came from Mexico and Japan” to see it. A similar enthusiasm seems to have greeted the news that the pair have made a new album, The Heart Is Strange, with A Secret Wish’s producer Stephen Lipson, under the name xPropaganda. “There’s someone who’s messaged me about coming to the London show from North Carolina,” frowns Lipson, sitting with Brücken and Freytag in a north London recording studio. “He’s bringing his daughter. It’s extraordinary. I don’t understand any of it.”

“Maybe,” Freytag suggests, “Propaganda represents a different kind of 80s. It’s not what we associate with … the Duran Duran side of the 80s.”

Horn had been alerted to Propaganda by NME journalist Paul Morley, with whom he was starting a new record label, Zang Tuum Tumb. The fact that its name came from futurist artist Filippo Marinetti’s onomatopoeic description of the sound of warfare underscored its leftfield, arty approach to pop, with which Propaganda fitted perfectly. “Paul liked the music, but it was also the combination of the name, the weird Germans and the really hard beat,” says Freytag. “It was a bit mad. Paul and Trevor, they were really intrigued by the thought of what they could make with people like us: four quite experimental, strange Germans. That was also appealing for us.”

So Propaganda happily submitted to a ZTT makeover, which involved first Horn, then his deputy Lipson, drastically reworking their sound and Morley decorating their records with impenetrable sleeve notes: one single’s cover featured not one but two lengthy quotes from Italian literary theorist Franco Moretti, the first about Balzac, the second pondering the gender of vampires. “I was experimental – I was very playful with creative things,” says Brücken. “And for me, the opportunity to work with Trevor was amazing, and to work with Stephen and all these fantastic people. I always felt we were doing something together, I didn’t feel like my artistic integrity was at all compromised in any way.”

Striking out on their own … xPropaganda.
Striking out on their own … xPropaganda. Photograph: Jimmy King

Under ZTT’s aegis, Propaganda became pop stars, of a sort: within a year, they were on The Tube, performing their German-language extrapolation of Throbbing Gristle’s Discipline to a visibly nonplussed audience. They also performed their debut single, The Nine Lives of Dr Mabuse, which showed what Horn could do with their sound: a sample-stuffed, cutting-edge production with a killer chorus, which still retained the original band’s harsh, experimental edge. One critic memorably called them “Abba in hell”. It made the Top 10 in Germany, meaning Brücken, still at school in Düsseldorf, had to “be excused by my art teacher to go and make a video in Folkestone”. When she returned, bearing the Anton Corbijn-directed, German expressionism-influenced end result, “for my art teacher, it was a total proud moment, because it just dived into German history and the photography was so exquisite”.

Its followup, Duel, earned them an appearance on Top of the Pops. By now, work had commenced on their debut album: distracted by the unexpectedly vast success of ZTT’s other signing, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Horn bowed out, letting Lipson take over as producer. It took a year and remains a source of controversy within the band: Lipson says he recently “came unstuck” with the band’s fourth member, Michael Mertens, over precisely who did and wrote what during its making. “I think he thinks the songs were more formed than I think they were, that was the crux of it. I remember there’s a song, Dream Within a Dream, and he just had a chord progression. A beautiful chord progression, and acknowledged as such by one and all, but there was no song, no idea, no structure, and I think quite a lot of the songs were like that.”

The sessions sound deranged, a state of affairs compounded by the fact that ZTT had carelessly neglected to set a budget for the recording. At one point, a percussionist was required to stand on a ladder throwing “huge bits of metal” into a porcelain bath. At another, Lipson and a programmer engaged in a “sample war”, taking turns to blast each other with the most outrageous noises they could find: you can hear it on Jewel. Contributions were solicited from Japan’s David Sylvian and Yes guitarist Steve Howe, the latter dragged in as he walked past the studio. The end result was hugely expensive and wildly inventive, but when Lipson played it to the assembled bigwigs from ZTT’s parent company Island, he says it was greeted with silence, broken only by the plaintive inquiry: “Have you got a single?”

A Secret Wish attracted some very high-profile fans: Martin Gore claimed it was a huge influence on Depeche Mode’s subsequent albums, Quincy Jones wanted to licence it for release in the US, and Horn subsequently claimed he had borrowed its sound on Michael Jackson’s Bad. But cracks had started to appear in Propaganda’s ranks, as Freytag remembers: “We did a tour, a lot of TV appearances, and I remember it worked really well, but after that it was a bit like: OK, we didn’t earn enough money and it was a lot of work, and people became frustrated, didn’t really understand this country.”

Lipson says that a new manager didn’t help. “We spent a fortune doing [A Secret Wish], but it was so worth doing. The manager wouldn’t see it that way because they hadn’t lived the journey.”

Brücken – who married Paul Morley – elected to stay with ZTT, the others left. If nothing else, Propaganda’s split in its aftermath bolstered the mystique of A Secret Wish: its reputation seemed to grow with the passing of time, the vanishing into history of an era when major record labels would bankroll wild experimental follies. There have been various incarnations of Propaganda since, but all attempts to reunite the quartet who made A Secret Wish have floundered, save for a single brief live appearance in 2008. When the most recent attempt to reunite collapsed – “we were working together,” says Freytag diplomatically, “then there was a time when it didn’t really work any more” – Brücken and Freytag struck out on their own as xPropaganda: the plan to write a few new songs with Lipson in order to play live turned into an album.

The irony is that The Heart Is Strange feels exactly like a 21st-century followup to A Secret Wish: not a forensic re-creation of its sound, but a modern album made with the same pop smarts, the same experimental edge, and the same dark undertow, enshrined in songs such as The Wolves Are Returning, a coolly dismayed assessment of the rise of the far right. There’s talk of a followup: an improbable second act to one of the 80s’ most improbable pop stories. “It was just that particular moment in time,” says Brücken, of their first flush of success. “It wouldn’t have happened a year later or a year before, you know – it was just this kind of peculiar series of events that happened that made this moment possible. I mean, if we’d planned it, it never would have happened. I always think that.”

The Heart is Strange is out now on ZTT. Propaganda play live at the Garage, London, 24 May