Friday, 4 February 2011


As the decades roll past it generally takes a little time for their traits to be revealed. As we look back on the sixties we now think of miniskirts, Carnaby Street, concrete high-rise buildings and the summer of love. Closer to home, the 2000s and 1990s are still a little vague but time is now beginning to bring a decade like the 1980s into sharper focus. It was a time of big shoulders, even bigger hair, mobile phones and Yuppies, wine bars and loadsamoney.

Musically, it can be thought of as the decade when music was transformed by technology. Synths bred like rabbits and in some arenas replaced the evergreen guitar completely. Synthesised bass and drums replaced the real things and by the end of the decade, computers were putting in a bid to take over music completely.

Whilst we kicked off with the largely traditional New Wave and the New Romantics, by the end of the 80s music had been reinvented by the onslaught of Rap and Hip-Hop based around the beatbox. In between, bands struggled to adapt to the acceleration in technological change by mutating into electro-pop outfits. Whether you were New Order, Depeche Mode, The Human League or The Pet Shop Boys, you had to embrace the synthesiser, the sequencer, the drum machine and (gasp) the use of backing tapes for live performance. It is a style of music that is finding favour again with today’s young artists and it was against this backdrop that German band Propaganda produced their stunning debut, ‘A Secret Wish’ for one of the coolest record labels of the time, ZTT.

Formed by entrepreneur Jill Sinclair, music journalist, Paul Morley and ultra-trendy producer, Trevor Horn, ZTT was home to Frankie Goes To Hollywood and the Art of Noise, two bands that typified the 1980s as an in-your-face-whilst-backed-by-cutting-edge-tech sort of time. But the real gem in their stable was neither of these two, but a band called Propaganda whose 1985 album; ‘A Secret Wish’ is a shining example of what could go right with the 80s.

In the early 1980s, Propaganda was part of Germany’s arty hardcore industrial music scene and comprised Ralf Dörper (keyboards), Michael Mertens (percussion), Susanne Freytag (spoken vocals) and Claudia Brücken (sung vocals). ZTT invited them to the UK and gave their insistent hardcore rhythms an electro-pop treatment, allowing main vocalist, Claudia Brücken, space to project their strangely beautiful melodies in her unique yet oddly attractive nasal, Teutonic voice. As you would expect, the production is classic Horn/Stephen Lipson larger-than-life fare which, at its best, is quite intoxicating. ‘Duel’, Dr Mabuse and ‘P-Machinery’ are all fabulous slices of 80s overdrive sourced from computer based instruments and given a sheen of musicality by their shimmering melodies.

Firmly rooted in the Me-Me-Me attitude and burgeoning technology of the day, this album could only exist in the 1980s and it is worth a visit back to 1985 to bask in its strange Anglo-Germanic glow.

Even after all this time, Claudia Brücken is still my favourite German – fact.

Here is the fab ‘P-Machinery’ essayed in a completely bonkers German Art School video.


Charlie said...

I think the 80s were a terrible decade in music. The synthesizer ruined everything. The name of the instrument is accurate. It comes from the word synthetic, meaning the sounds in makes are fake. The synth, when used as another musical instrument that is part of the band is perfectly fine. A great example of this is Van Halen's "Jump." However, when the synth becomes the band trouble ensues. That's when things sound fake. Drum machines are the worst. In the 80s a band could have all died right there on the stage and the concert would have kept going forever. UGH!

music obsessive said...

Hi Charlie - Like most of your comments, I'm half with you and half not! On the plus side, I am in total agreement about drum machines - they are the spawn of the devil, and probably less forgiving. Also, my patience was sorely tried when Stevie Wonder once had to cancel a gig because HE LOST HIS DATA DISC! I mean, wtf?

On the minus side, I'm not so convinced that syths ruined music per se. In fact some of those old analogue sounds hit the nostalgia button like nothing else. The music was just different and any artist worth his/her salt can make use of new tools without ruining the output. Have another listen to Depech Mode's 'Violator' - one of the best synth albums ever.

Zee said...

I agree that synthesizers completely changed music...but I still can't decide whether it was for good or worse. I agree with Charlie that when the synthesisers become the band, things get kind of boring. Having said that...there are some songs that would sound naked without synthesisers. Like Kate Bush's 'Running up that Hill'.
Actually, you know what, I think synthesisers changed things for better. Yes, sometimes they can be a bit overused, but there are so many songs out there that wouldn't have the same quirky feel without them.
By the way, I had never heard of Propaganda before, but the song Machinery you put up is really good ...especially the video itself. 1:17 when they start swinging around is hilarious.

music obsessive said...

Hi Zee - there's no doubt that sythns changed the sound of music and I do agree with you that some now well-known songs wouldn't be the same without them. I think tech in music is a bit of a dodgy subject - after all an electric guitar with effects is not the same as an acoustic one and who plays a double bass these days?

PS glad you like the Propaganda video!