Sometimes fate can derail even the most promising of musical careers.
Just ask Propaganda, the Dusseldorf electronic four-piece who were personally scouted by Paul Morley to become a core part of the artist roster of ZTT records, the label he had founded alongside producer Trevor Horn and Horn’s partner Jill Sinclair. The group specialised at the time in bombastic, grandiose sonic constructions, the sound of heavy industry mixed with the lyrical depth of Edgar Allen Poe (literally in the case of Dream Within A Dream, the opening track from their debut album).
The beneficiaries of Horn’s increasingly genius-like wizardry, Propaganda were unleashed upon the British charts in the spring of 1984 with the bold statement of intent Dr Mabuse. A thundering neo-gothic disco track which in typical Horn style of the time de-emphasised the lead vocals in favour of making them but one part of the wall of sound effect his studio toys enabled him to construct. A breathtakingly bold way to unleash a new act upon the world, the single was received with praise and is rightly regarded as a classic of its age, but commercially failed to take off, its place in history a Number 27 peak and a part of the tracklisting of one of the very first Now That’s What I Call Music albums.
A swift follow-up may have served them well but none was forthcoming. Their presence on ZTT turned out to be as much of a curse as it was a gift, the all-encompassing success of labelmates Frankie Goes To Hollywood meant that the talismanic producer was too preoccupied with the inadvertent funk superstars to perform any further work with Propaganda. Morley and Sinclair scouted for alternatives, reportedly at one stage engaging the then nascent Stock-Aitken-Waterman production team in a discussion about working with the German group. Eventually however the task of completing the group’s debut album A Secret Wish fell to engineer Steve Lipson who essentially made his own producing reputation overnight with the completed work.
The album was heralded by the second and in many ways equally famous Propaganda single. Released after a delay of over a year, Duel was one of those pop hits which essentially defines its era and the chart sound of the time. The story of warring lovers played out as if in a sporting arena was blessed with a breezy, cheery tune (belying the dark nature of the lyric), the clear and distinctive vocals of Claudia Brucken pushed to the front of the mix for the first time and of course that chorus and its thudding, nagging bassline which meant that the extended introduction from the 12-inch mix saw the track soundtrack all manner of different sporting broadcasts. Radio One listeners of the time will remember it as the jingle which heralded the sports news in the network’s extended news bulletins at the start of the following decade. It really was that evocative. But also another oddly small hit, peaking at Number 21 to at the very least become the highest charting Propaganda hit ever. And perhaps more extraordinarily a Sophie Ellis-Bextor b-side in 2007. But that’s a story for another time.
Famous as these two singles were, however, they are not the focus of this article. Propaganda then endured a five year break in their career, a delay necessitated by the extended legal wrangles needed to extricate the group from their ZTT contract after a more savvy media lawyer noted that their requirement to fund most of the costs of any of their rather expensive recordings meant their chances of royalties were limited. The group and label eventually settled out of court, but not before shedding talismanic lead singer Brucken who elected to go solo and extraordinarily remain signed to their original label.
Now sporting essentially a totally revamped lineup with only founder member Ralph Dorper remaining from their Dusseldorf roots, Propaganda signed a new deal with Virgin and recorded an album 1234 produced by Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes. Its release in the spring of 1990 was heralded by a carefully crafted lead single Heaven Give Me Words.
The 16 year old me heard it once and was captivated. A track as exquisitely crafted as anything from the group’s previous incarnation, the song was a thing of almost fragile beauty. The cascading clockwork rhythm that tickles away throughout, giving the impressive the track is being performed on multiple layers of machinery, the Hammond organ which rises to meet the voice of new lead singer Betsi Miller and the lyric which like all the best pop records deals simply and directly with the moment of needing to tell the person in front of you just how they make you feel. It remains for me one of the best pop singles ever.
Yet once more the public disagreed and although the single appeared to have momentum on its side, bounding 73-39 in a single week it then hiccuped and stalled, limping to Number 36 and fading away. In a sense this is the worst of all worlds, to big to be regarded as a true lost classic (how many Top 40 singles are ever considered truly “lost” after all) yet so small as to be an irrelevance in the grand scheme of things, a footnote in the history of the year and one of those records which came and went without anyone ever noticing it had appeared.
The album 1234 came and went in the summer with little fanfare, so little regarded that it is not uncommon to see the ZTT album mistakenly signposted as Propaganda’s only album proper. A second single Only One Word was released in August 1990 but when the dreary ballad sounding like a bad Eurovision entry stalled at Number 71 it signed the death-knell for the group’s mainstream career.
Still, they gave us their fair share of classics. Even if the one I remember most fondly is the one many others don’t.