Paul Morley discusses “A Secret Wish” with Andrew Harrison
As part of his research when writing the liner notes for ZTT’s deluxe Element Edition of Propaganda’s A Secret Wish, journalist Andrew Harrison (associate editor, Word Magazine) interviewed Paul Morley about the group, the album and his memories of the times. Here we present the full transcript of the interview.
Alongside A Secret Wish, Propaganda have contributed to the Element Series’ The Art of the 12" and Claudia Brücken’s Combined.
Paul Morley is asked to fill in a questionnaire about Propaganda and ‘A Secret Wish’. He goes outside and punches the doorman.
Is it correct that your friend and fellow NME writer Chris Bohn first put you on to Propaganda? Where did you first encounter the band? What were your first impressions of the band and the individual members?
Chris played me their version, almost an original new piece, almost absurdist, of Throbbing Gristle’s ‘Discipline’, and having made my mind up very early on that I wanted Zang Tuum Tumb to be more European than American, and arbitrarily fancying the idea of a group from the home city of Kraftwerk, and the idea of connecting the label to a then relatively new but already deep and fascinating history of techno/electro/industrial music, and thinking their name was perfect, in all sorts of ways, for a group, and a group on a label that I was planning to be like the label was for a short while, they were the first group I wanted to sign.
Their ‘Discipline’ was pretty harsh and uncompromising, sort of the avant edge of Fad Gadget more than the post Human League II of Vice Versa that became ABC, a teutonic Suicide, and it took some time to convince Trevor Horn, and of course his wife Jill was Jewish – and so there was something I had not even considered – that the first signing to the label was going to be German. This was considered an issue. I thought that they were a very interesting way of establishing much of the intended avant pop identity of the label, and a way of very quickly opposing the Buggle-gum type image of Trevor and the possibility that it was going to be merely some kind of production company churning out sugary pop product. Art of Noise were part of this mission as well, the idea that the follow up group to Buggles was a little more out there, and had conceptual energy and ambition to match the studio/technological radicalism.
It seemed interesting to balance out the fact that in the studio Trevor was clearly ahead of the pack with a label sensibility that reflected that with its overall patterning, sense of presence and play. And I guess that overall sense of presence needed to be post-punk, if still pop, electronic and experimental, if still glamorous, and rooted in avant garde tradition stretching back through the time of Pop Art, Warhol, Fluxus, musique concrète and Serialism to Surrealism, Futurism, Dadaism and the dawn of Modernism. Oddly enough, I was really thinking this way, and Propaganda seemed perfect for this kind of plan. A sort of record label that was around the edges an abstract history of how the 20th Century went from Modernism to Post-Modernism, how the 20th Century created so much artistic and technological information to mix and mangle and mutate etc.
There were three of them at first, and because Suzanne could not sing as such, Claudia was brought in very early as a singer, because obviously Trevor as a producer did like his singers, and this gave the group, before the recruitment of Michael Mertens, the two-girl-two-boy balance that was very effective if only as a subversive representation of a pop ideal. Ralf and Andreas were not as such musicians, more proto-versions of the post-punk curating DJ that would increasingly emerge over the next few years, using primitive programming and sampling to create pressurising soundscapes and distorted of-the-moment dance rhythms. I thought it would be interesting to see what happened if such personalities were given the chance to have access to top of the range studios and the engineers and technicians that came with that.
It seemed unfair – as in fact is ultimately the case, especially now – that it is less high-minded pop that gets a first chance to use the liberating new technology rather than the more artistically adventurous minds. I suppose there was a sense of “what would happen if we took this very austere post-DAF German electronic expressionism and filtered it through the same techno-machinery that had processed the ideas of Malcolm McLaren into a sort of proto-hip-hop-world-montage?”. I don’t know if I ever discussed this with the group in specific detail, and it was an approach that came from the way I was mutating from NME writer into post Factory/Mute record company man. I suppose my zeal and vision for the label was like what members of groups usually have which I thought, maybe wrongly, the group appreciated.
Andreas seemed as mad as a rock critic, and very happy to be part of all this initial craziness, which suited him. Ralf was also something of a student of pop music and underground energy and seemed very comfortable with allowing things to take their own shape, to see where all this collection of ideas led – this was what I thought at the time, that everyone was up to speed with my thoughts, even if I wasn’t sharing them directly, and that everyone was also thinking in the same way about how to create original pop music in original new settings.
Had you actually signed Frankie Goes to Hollywood to ZTT by that point? Did you have an image in your mind’s eye of what the band could be? Who coined “Abba in hell” and how do you feel about that nickname?
Propaganda were my first recommendation as a signing, but in the end they were signed slightly after Frankie, as it was difficult to persuade Trevor and Jill that this was going to be the best way to launch their new label. In fact the group only had a couple of pieces, no songs as such, and when they came over to do some music at the Sarm Studios were, shall we say, very foreign and not exactly capable of setting up equipment and playing music.
Jill and Trevor were very traditional in their approach to pop, and this was much more of a concept, a project, an experiment, and so there a lot of resistance to it. The Frankie signing relaxed them – really – a little, so they were then more prepared to go with my ideas, even if they seemed a little obscure. The development of Propaganda alongside Frankie and Art of Noise meant that the label could start with a little bit of a roster, and I think Trevor could see that the label would have something of an original shape, and in fact all three acts were in their own ways concepts turned into an illusion of a group, and that whatever it was that he had brought me in to do seemed to be working. That ZTT was indeed a record label with its own mission and identity, and not just a house for Trevor – not, in fact, simply an early 80s version of Xenomania, which it could have been, full of hits but slightly empty of cultural impact.
‘Mabuse’ took time to be turned from sparse but compelling electro sketch with hints of a song into what it became, a deviant epic, extreme pop melodrama, but it sort of confirmed my feelings about what would happen if experimental underground musicians with a few original ideas and instincts were given the Trevor Horn treatment – that Trevor would relish the experimental ideas, and his pop approach would in fact be inspired by the unusual nature of what he found in the music Propaganda made. He was worried, as he admitted to me, that “they were very dark and I don’t really do dark music”, and to some extent the whole thing was a combination of Horn’s Spielbergian tendencies and me coming from a more David Lynch area – but the combination seemed to work, and once the multi-track was loaded with sonic information and various sound sources, and an extraordinary string arrangement by David Bedford – again, the ideologically risky getting access to things usually given to the obviously commercial – it created endless potential for something Trevor was loving at that time, the non-stop remixes meaning he could keep working on a track for, more or less, ever.
Another plan I had at the time, which lasted for a few months, was that all the groups would do cover versions for inclusion on the twelve inch singles, to eventually produce a kind of ZTT album history of pop music (this never happened). I got them to do The Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’, to make the connection with Nico, and indeed the feverish literacy of the Velvets and their connections to 20th century currents etc, and this supplied more information about the kind of group they could be. (I actually first asked them to cover The Carpenters’ ‘Goodbye to Love’, but they did not see the point of that, and not hear what I heard, a motorbeat mash up between sinister, desolate lightness and dangerous pressure, and this thing I was keen on, the invention of alternative pop universes, ones that didn’t exist but could have, in this case a Carpenters that supported the Stooges and wrote the soundtrack for ‘The Shining’.)
I got Anton Corbijn who I worked closely with at the NME to do the video for ‘’Mabuse’ – his first real pop video – and also to take their photographs and make a painting for every track they recorded . This was, of course, before his collaborations with U2 and Depeche Mode, and was an absolutely integral part of creating the image of the group: enigmatically glamorous, art but still pop, mysterious but right in front of your eyes, and full of its very own intense style. There was almost as much fury within the label as there was with the apparently porno ‘Relax’ video that the ‘Mabuse’ video was in black and white, as if this was somehow an act of terrorism. In reality this was a very important statement to make. At a time when the world was exploding into slick MTV colour and everyone was going crazy for the multi coloured superficial, we stood firm in the shadows, and even to some extent pulled Trevor Horn into the shadows, where I personally felt he was going to be more amazing as a producer.
This was the split in the label. I ended up wanting to sign the likes of Front 242 and The Fall, the other side of the label were looking for commercial pop acts. For a while, the tensions at the label between my worked up post-punk idealism and the more mainstream pursuit of hits were held in fantastic check by the very existence of Propaganda. I wasn’t necessarily being wilfully opaque, as the idea that Anton’s ideas about presence, shade and image, and pop as an explosive, intelligent secret, have proved to be not completely poisonous to success.
The “Abba in Hell” label I think came in a Time Out Review – perhaps Alix Sharkey – and even though I had not thought of it, it was definitely not something to deny. Even when Michael joined we kept the two-boy-two-girl thing in the photos as all along my main concern with pop group photos was to make sure the pictures did not look like a bunch of people waiting at a bus stop.
How would you describe your contribution to developing them between ‘Dr Mabuse’ and making ‘A Secret Wish’? Did you talk about song ideas, the presentation of the group and so on with the band – or was the presentation entirely your creation?
It was a long year between ‘Mabuse’ and the next stage, taken up by Frankie fuss. Michael arrived, because a musician seemed necessary, and he had a classical background which suited the situation. In his own way he probably had prog tendencies, just like Trevor and his teams, and he was a percussionist, which opened up new rhythmic possibilities. It also looked great to have an electro group with a xylophone player, and I was thinking of ways to extend the group’s repertoire. Putting to music the Edgar Allan Poe poem A Dream Within A Dream became a great way to emphasise various elements musically and conceptually: this sort of absorbing hallucinatory atmosphere, something that was at the edge of gothic, at the edge of electro, at the edge of post-punk, and at the edge of prog.
I was being the A&R man but also as such a sort of Andrew Loog Oldham in terms of suggesting songs, thinking of titles – write a song called Murder Of Love, I said, because surely all the “of love” titles are taken, and it’s time to kill them off – and arranging their image. I liked Josef K very much and thought it would be interesting for an electronic group to cover a song by a guitar group – underground pop that should be chart pop – and that seemed to work, to the extent that I said to Michael, when he was having trouble writing songs, just do a cover version of something, and by the time you’ve worked it out, it will turn out so different, it might become an original piece.
It seemed very natural, this way of working – of advising, suggesting, framing, as though it was a legitimate collaboration, something that was clearly working. There was a very definite group called Propaganda emerging, so that I did not think of it as a classic record-company-versus-exploited-group thing, and was too inexperienced in business to appreciate that they were being practically exploited. I was just in interested in the group as a surreal pop object with a soundtrack that developed from a Kraftwerk point of view musical ideas I had liked in Simple Minds, Associates, Japan, DAF, Vince Clarke, Grace, Cabaret Voltaire, ABC…
When Trevor pulled out of producing them any more, figuring it was going to take too much out of him to do ten ‘Mabuses’ especially as ‘Mabuse’ itself had turned into ten ‘Mabuses’, I actually asked David Sylvian to produce them. 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 pop factory. Actually, another sign of the split between sensibilities at the label: I asked David Sylvian, and Jill approached Stock Aitken and Waterman. One side of ZTT was seeing them as a sort of Dollar (a Deutsche Mark) and the other side was seeing them as a sort of supremely eerie avant-pop ensemble.
The group were actually going to be dropped from the label, during the time when I was losing any power I once had and the Art Of Noise had already moved off. Steve Lipson, I guess, was a kind of compromise otherwise two thirds of the roster would have disappeared in one go – and Frankie wanted to leave as well. ‘A Secret Wish’ was a sort of folly, really, in the way that many of the great lost classics often are: no real commercial, or to an extent, specific artistic reason for it to exist, just that the momentum to complete it became so great, for all sorts of unlikely reasons, that it did get finished. At many stages, the production was threatened with being shut down.
What’s your key memory of the making of ‘A Secret Wish’? Did you and/or Trevor brief Steve Lipson beforehand? How many of the songs were new and written for/during the recording of the album?
Steve used to ban me from the studio. I talked too much, about things that scared and/or irritated him, but then he didn’t like any of the group being in the studio, or any of Frankie. He worked solo. Mad professor stuff. Nerdy needs to perfect the hi-hat sound. A frenzy of programming, accumulating of effects, and patient craft. But there was a basic outline to the album made up of the dream, the new songs, and the cover, and what was interesting for me, being biased, is that there was a sense of mission to the material, a commitment to beauty, mystery, surrealism, intelligence, strangeness, and – even though Steve scoffed at such whimsy, very suspicious of my ideas about pop, any theory, any belief in pop as something other than just a way of passing the time and lightly dusting memories – the template was so strong in terms of the material, the lyrics, the adventure, the electro-style, that Steve concentrating on the expensive soundscapes couldn’t undermine any of this, indeed it in fact enhanced it – gave a sort of immense elevating post-prog attention to detail to music that doesn’t often receive such care and attention, giving a level of studio power of an almost Quincy Jones level to ideas and intentions that were attractively ethereal and even intellectually playful.
Whatever part of the record is a sort-of lost masterpiece comes from that. Steve was indulged and allowed to spend a small fortune on a lovely non-commercial set of oblique songs that would normally not be given such a budget and such a sense of imposing grandeur. In a way, all the attention Steve gave to ensuring that every sound worked in every way and was layered with a neurotic need for some kind of order was matched by the work the rest of us were doing in terms of selecting material, imagining melodies, writing words, taking photos, conceiving rhythms.
Can you tell me about the background to turning ‘Duel’ into a dualistic word game (‘Duel’/‘Jewel’/‘Dual’ etc, double singles and so on)? Is the “evil” Propaganda of ‘Jewel’ closer to the band that you originally encountered – a pop version of Einstürzende Neubaten?
There was another version of Propaganda that existed in the studio – my version. I would often form my own critical response to the gloss and glory of Steve’s productions by expressing possible alternatives, so for instance when Steve Lipson used Steve Howe of Yes on a track (as he did, to my horror) I would get in John McGeoch of Magazine and the Banshees to play on my mix of ‘p:Machinery’. I loved the Steve Propaganda sound but I didn’t want to lose sight of another Propaganda sound, one that you could play alongside The Creatures, the Cocteau Twins and Echo And The Bunnymen. (Hiring Steve Jansen of Japan and Derek Forbes of Simple Minds to play live with them was also my way of highlighting where I felt the group belonged in pop history.)
This was why I did ‘Wishful Thinking’, the album of alternative, stripped down, deconstructed versions, possibly purely for me, the critic anxious that the studio pomp was getting out of hand, because the group, the record company, just about everyone seemed to hate it. But I just had this need, as much as I love ‘A Secret Wish’ as one result of the experiment, to point out how there is a fascinating ideological element to the content and context of sound, and all these different histories of pop music that coexisted even back in 1984. So Steve Lipson’s Propaganda was the Propaganda of a fan of Steely Dan and Queen. Mine was the Propaganda of a fan of Can and New Order. Steve’s Propaganda was a group that Stevie Nicks invited on to a tour, and that concerned me, as I wanted them to be the kind of group that would go on tour with Depeche Mode or indeed Cabaret Voltaire.
‘Duel’/’Jewel’ and therefore ‘Dual’ was, I’m afraid, another of my ideas, reflecting the a and b side of the group itself, the pop side and the other, out there side, and a way of getting a b side for a single that did not have a b side. I asked Steve to come up with a quick b side, what I described for the sake of shorthand Steve would understand as the punk version, and encouraged him to roughen up the dynamics of the a side, and not too worry if some of the order was shattered as, after all, it was the b side, and it could be a vocal for non-singer Suzanne – we didn’t want to lose Suzanne’s presence.
So we got a piece of ecstatically sung perfect pop – when Michael first played me his rough demo version I thought it was like Buzzcocks as if they were on Mute, so I was very very happy – and also the dark side. Steve gave me the dark side even though there was a little anxiety about the dark side of Propaganda at the label. There was a view that as there were girls in the group, couldn’t they be a little more Bananarama, a little prettier? Being as NME as I was, stubbornly committed to avoiding cliche, trouncing the obvious, resisisting the corporate line, my response was to have them scream aggressively on the single sleeve and push the Abba From Hell side. I was thinking 4AD, others were thinking RAK.
My impression is that Michael Mertens was particularly stubborn and believed that Propaganda was his band and thus he should have the key say in what happened. Is this true? What are your thoughts on that?
I treated the group as a sort of fluid, flexible, mobile project that was in the shape of a pop group but was actually just a way of presenting a pop concept in sonic form – everyone else treated it as the straightforward relationship between a pop group, and a record label, and the two things were not really meant to meet, at least not in a productive creative way.
Of course, if they had been fairly treated contractually, my dreamy theoretical approach might have been more successful, but the combination of cruel contracts and my interference meant the group got quite rightly annoyed. At no point did I think of money or royalties or shares or whatever – just the thing itself, probably too much as though I was a much a part of the project as the group, seeing myself, not in a cynical way, but probably annoying for the group, as the controlling designer of the thing.
From the outside, other labels became interested when they realised the ZTT contracts might be suspect – see the departure of Art of Noise, and the Frankie court case – and one particular lawyer pointed out that he could get the group a massive deal elsewhere. This was obviously seductive to the group, although of course the group was not really the people in the photos, but also the person who took the photos, Trevor, Steve, the Sarm engineers, and me. It was not a usual type of show business pop group. It was an impression of one, a conceptual reading of the idea – although I alone seemed to notice this, and if Ralf noticed, his enthusiasm for playing around a little with the idea and seeing if it could be done elsewhere, away from ZTT, took over.
Michael protected his interests as a musician very thoroughly, and seemed to have some borrowed ideas about “artistic control”, but to an extent such self-protection can get in the way of the emergence of the kind of randomised, spontaneous magic that I think came about before there was too much thought about who was getting what and who was in it for what reasons. Also, he didn’t have any experience of another record label, so didn’t appreciate the difference of having someone like me sort of running a label, even if only in my own head, loving the very idea of turning the label itself into a work of art, of being committed to the unusual rather than the everyday. For him, I was just “the record company”, getting in his way, being greedy, manipulating him, serving my own interests. I might have been serving my own interests, but they were the interests of a fan of Fassbinder, Factory Records and Faust, not really of someone wanting to build a business empire.
It’s not possible to talk about Propaganda’s story without the estrangement between Claudia and the rest of the band. When did you and Claudia start going out? When were you aware that a breach was starting to occur in the group? The other members later claimed that you were promoting Claudia at the expense of them – what’s your response to that?
Well, I plead innocence, naivity, excitement, and also I thought we were all in this together – and my commitment over and above favouring individuals, including me, was to promoting the idea of the label, and the idea of the group, and for a short while I thought everyone was in on that, the possibility that we could all do something really special that was going to be noticed by more than a select few.
The idea of plucking an obscure electronic ensemble from darkest Düsseldorf who’d only written two songs and were covering Throbbing Gristle, and then within two years making an extravagant art pop album that entered the album charts at 13, seemed to suggest we could all do even more fantastic things. If I got close to Claudia, it wasn’t to spite the group at all, and in fact I was always, again probably very naively, surprised that they didn’t actually exploit it more to their advantage – after all, my emotional involvement did help when I had to more or less beg Trevor and Jill to keep them on the label and finish ‘A Secret Wish’.
Also, a major breach in the group actually came from the old classic, the songwriting, the royalty sharing. I felt it unfair that Claudia and Suzanne were receiving no financial reward from songs that were credited to Mertens and Dörper even though they wouldn’t have existed without the substantial abstract compositional contribution of Lipson and Horn – and indeed Sylvian and one or two others – neither of who received credit and who to an extent were making their contributions based on an idea of the group that contained the two girls. I suggested a four-way split, which particular seemed fair once the group went on tour, when Ralf actually stayed at home, leading to a situation where Claudia and Suzanne were on the road and liable to make no money, as the album cost so much to make it would probably never ever recoup, while Ralf, with his writing, keeping his job in the bank, which he was doing, would make money.
The only money to be made was publishing money – so I figured the group would have more of a realistic future if they shared their money. Ralf and Michael decided this was me favouring Claudia – forgetting Suzanne was involved as well – and in hindsight I can see they thought, being on a label that was treating them elsewhere financially very poorly, that I was just trying to haul in more cash. They wouldn’t have known that my own deal was not necessarily much better than theirs. All this mundane rummaging through contracts etc ruins the romance of the record itself, but at the time it quickly became a reality, and began to take over… I was aghast to actually see something I had previously scoffed at as a critic – this idea of “creative differences” and the economic reality behind that – form in front of me and overwhelm and undermine the actual project…
Did it disappoint you that the band disintegrated so acrimoniously and never built on ‘A Secret Wish’? If you could have done it all again, would you have done it differently?
If it had been done different, different from the chaos, studio persistence, and incidental revelation, we might not have ended up with ‘A Secret Wish’. It exists as one particular reaction to the abnormal peculiarity of the unstable dynamic at the label at the time between my philosophical search for some kind of meaning and purpose in music and pop and Trevor’s ruthless ambition to excel at production for its own sake.
I have always thought it was a shame that Michael especially could not have seen a little more clearly that Propaganda was a unique, troublesome hybrid of different specialist talents, and that it worked because the group’s impressions, sketches, attitude, talent, desires got strangely amplified, magnified, positively distorted by going through the imaginations of Horn and Lipson, and bloody Morley, who all had different agendas, but agendas which actually gave the group a chance to become something both innovative and commercial.
Virgin signed not just a group without a singer, but a group without, essentially, the studio and conceptual minds that gave it its actual shape and texture. In a sense they signed an inanimate picture. We were left with the singer, the concept, the studio, but not the name, and not the history, so we were just as badly off. You can see from other Trevor Horn projects, though, that to some extent, all his records are sort of solo projects, branded in different ways, and he tends not to really make a second album with many of these projects.
And finally a couple of questions about quotations you used on the record sleeves:
Regarding the lines on the back of the original CD, “Wir denken die Bequemen gedanken der anderen und fühlens nicht, dass unser bestes Selbst allmählich abstirbt. Wir leben ein totes leben. Wir ersticken unser ich.” (a German friend translates it as “We think the conventional thoughts of the others and do not sense that our best self gradually dies. We live a dead life. We suffocate ourselves.”). Where did this come from? Did you mention it to the band or just put it on the sleeve? How did they feel about it?
That might have been Nietzsche.
I tended not to check things with the group based around the entirely reasonable view that if I did they would say no, which would have broken my heart, because once I got an idea into my head it was incredibly hard for me not to do it. I had unreasonably decided, although it seemed reasonable at the time, that my ideas were amazing, and had to be pursued, and would make the groups on the label look fantastic. I had made a decision early on that all ZTT sleeves were my area and that this was where I got the chance to express my ideas visually and conceptually about the label and the groups on the label, which just goes to show that I was used to operating as a writer, and not necessarily as a record company executive. I thought that groups would be chuffed that on their sleeves there was such provocation and information and random references to other forms of creative enterprise. I was, effectively, wrong.
There’s a Goethe quote on the back of ‘Wishful Thinking’ (“And refashioning the fashioned lest it stiffen into iron is work of endless vital activity”) which acts as an elegant justification of remixing among other things. Had you had that one in the back pocket for a while or did you stumble upon it while working on the record?
Well, I’m glad you noticed, as I was incredibly excited when I myself noticed that Goethe had described so brilliantly the purpose, the potential, of the remix, and also the way that Horn was working in the studio at the time.
I think that I had it written in one of my ZTT notebooks, where I formed manifestos and campaigns and prepared the next stage of ideal advancement, and even though I thought of it a lot as we spiralled off into numerous alternative ‘Two Tribes’, and was also bearing it in mind as I planned the next Art Of Noise album – which was going to consist of remixes of remixes of remixes of the first album, so remixed they had all become new pieces of music – it seemed to suit the Propaganda remix record, not least because it needed justifying as no-one liked it. These new remix albums were meant to be for the dance floor, and although these were not as such dance remixes they were indeed examples of refashioning, and where that goes.
And there we have the label that I felt might as well be invented because it didn’t exist – one that reported on its own eccentric workings by quoting Goethe, and by implication suggested that pop music existed inside some kind of exalted self-invented world where there was Goethe and Ballard, Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag as well as Bowie, Kraftwerk and Bolan. IE it was all about independent thinking, however that manifested itself.