a voyage through some musical worlds via Dusseldorf punk, industrial and Neue Deutsche Welle in search of the origins (and off-shoots) of Propaganda, cultural Inspiration and some of the finest recordings of metal bashing ever made...
Although never really a punk himself, Ralf Dorper (born in Dusseldorf 1960) was heavily influenced musically by the DIY approach of bands like the Buzzcocks, Subway Sect and Wire and once said: ,,I like the way they didn't seen to care about anything and didn't fiddle about. In punk you just make the statement and don't mess around with it, so it's much easier to get the message across". He built up a huge record collection which he describes as: ,,not the best... but quite complete", with score of singles by late seventies punk acts and some recordings by early electronic artists like Thomas Leer, Human League and early Factory bands.
Ralf's first musical project was when he joined the avant-garde punk band S.Y.P.H., formed in Dusseldorf in 1977. The band established their own record label, Pure Freunde but broke up in 1980 as a protest against the commercialisation of the local punk scene. A year later the band was restarted by original member Harry Hag. S.Y.P.H.'s album include "Hello to the Mipau" (their first, limited to 1000 copies), ,Pst' and the compilation "In Die Zukunft" (Into The Future').
Ralf soon moved on from S.Y. P.H. and worked as a solo artist and released his first single in 1980 (on Germany's Rondo Biermeier label (Rondo FIT 11). The lead song, Eraserhead was inspired by the David Lynch film of the same name. Dorper's work of that period was largely influenced by film, in 1985 he told the NME: "Nowadays I'm not so impressed by records so much as I was seven years ago. Cinema is much more inspirational to me. It's much more multi-levelled: you have a storyline, a setting, a soundtrack, more things."
Following this brief solo period Ralf collaborated with Jürgen Engler (an ex-member of Male, the early German punk outfit) as Die Lemminge. They released one single in January of 1981 titled Lorelei ,which was apparently recorded in Bedroom on a four-track and they distributed it themselves. Backed by "Im Himmel", the single was released on the Pure Freude label (08-CK-4) and gained the pair their first musical attention outside of Germany. In l990 Eraserhead and its original b-side, Assault was re-released in England coupled with both tracks from the "Die Lemminge" project as a RoughTrade 12" (OPT 018).
After their brief exploits as Die Lemminge, Dorper and Engler carried on working with the rest of their main bind "Die Krupps" which they had formed the year before. In the beginning Die Krupps consisted of Dorper (who largely provided synth-percussions). Engler, another ex-member of Male Bernward Malaka, Frank Kollges and Eva Maria Goßling. Their first recording were made at Can's Studio, mixed at the late Conny Plank's and released on the seminal early independent label Zick Zack. Stahlwerksymphonie ("Steel work symphony" , Zick Zack 30, 12") was the first release from this "post industrial big band" and was a forthright expression of "Die Krupps" ideals - a 12 minute marathon of electronic, steel and guitar hammerings underpinned by bass and noise. The track was also vehicle for Engler's patented new invention - "The Stahlophon", a xylophone made up of strips of industrial steel. A follow up disc came in the form of "Wahre Arbeit -Wahrer Lohn" ( A fairy days of work for a fairy days pay), another Zick Zack 12" only release (Zick Zack 55).
Through these records Die Krupps became a minor part of the "Neue Deutsche Welle" - Germans early eighties boom of post punk, synth / industrial groups that included Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (DAF), Der Plan, Malaria, Palais Schaumburg, Nitzer Ebb and Einstürzende Neubauten. The latter two being the only ones who make a major impression in the UK after some releases on the Mute label. In Wahre Arbeit Wahrer Lohn Die Krupps continued in the minimalist post-industrial vein but managed to distance themselves from the others by incorporating elements of experimentation both firmly rooted in music exploring modern german history and culture. The track appeared on their premier 1982 album "Volle Kraft Voraus" released on WEA Germany having settled for the financial security of a major label that was decidedly lacking in Zick Zack's operations. Another track from the LP, Goldfinger, was released as a accompanying single and slipped out in England in June '84 via the Quiet label (QST 003)
In 1982 Ralf Dorper left Die Krupps to pursue a new venture, he said later: "I had a sad experience with the Dusseldorf scene and the whole `German New Wave`. It was made up of very tight-nit circles.". The group carried on and went through several major line-up changes, labels and re-thinks and released one major LP, ,Entering the Arena' in 1984. `Entering..` was an attempt on the part of the new Krupps line-up to capture larger audience outside of the "Neue Deutsche Welle" and as a result featured their first English vocals. The LP does contain some minor classics in Risks and Your Voice, a refined stahlophone sound still at the fore-front
Ralf's new project was with a new musical partner he bad found who shared similar enthusiasms and ideas - Andreas Thein. A long-term unemployee and DJ, Thein had no previous recording history (as far as I can find). In Dusseldorf at the time he was known by friends as "Das Tote Huhn" (the Dead Chicken) following an experimental performance titled ,Industrial Music for a Dead Chicken'! Following that he bad bummed around America before returning to Germany and meeting Ralf Dorper.
Almost as soon as the pair met Propaganda was formed. Their first move was to recruit a mutual friend Suzanne Freytag as vocalist. As a three piece they totally re-vamped the last Throbbing Gristle single Disziplin, turning the original TG mesh/ mess into ,New Pop'. This was to be released as the first Propaganda single but when they came to release it (independently) the Gristle refused to allow it. Their interpretation of the piece did get a TV airing ,though two years later when Propaganda performed Dr Mabuse and Disziplin as a short live slot on "The Tube" in 1985.
Turning conventional guitar-based music into unconventional synth tracks was one of the first ideas of this new band Propaganda. They went on to revise a song by Paul Haig's band Joseph K for their first album, Ralf Dorper: ,,The consciencous reason for doing "Sorry For Laughing" was because Joseph K were part of this guitar music from Scotland and we are absolutely not into guitars like that. We wanted to improve the song by using very heavy keyboards. We also once considered doing This Charming Man because Morrissey is so against keyboards." (Act did go on to record "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now though).
Another policy of the fledgling Propaganda was to relocate away from Germany where their performance style and images of German History could be performed without censorship. While still there they experienced problems when a very early performance was planned for a TV talent showcase. Andreas Thein came up with a set that incorporated a backdrop of an expressionist film and images of Marlene Dietrich, a zeppelin (R10) from the Dr Mabuse sleeve) a gramophone and so on. The whole extravaganza opening with a fanfare from Wochenschau - an old German Pathe-style newsreel. But the whole event had to be dropped from the show, Ralf Dorper recounts: ,,They didn't like the idea of a pop group playing with the past. They didn't understand that we might be questioning values of the past, rather than accepting them. In the end it wasn't shown".
Following the whole Disziplin project the Propaganda trio took on two new members. Bavarian born Claudia Brucken was recruited for Co-vocal duties. At age 14 Claudia bad joined a band called Haarstrauben (,hair-raising") and before being asked to join Propaganda she had spent two years as part of the all girl band the Toppolinos (,Mickey-Mouses'), says Claudia: ,,We weren't well known, we were nothing really. For me it was still a joke, you know.". When Ralf answered a For Sale ad. for a small drum-machine he visited the house of one Michael Mertens, the house was full of bizarre percussion instruments Mertens had collected, Mertens was percussionist for the Dusseldorf Symphony Orchestra having started technical music training at age 18. He had experimented with other forms of music during a stay with the Symphonic Orchestra of Cologne. In 1982 Mertens met Ralf Dorper: ,,purely be accident. I had a small drum machine for sale and I had put an advert in a Dusseldorf newspaper for it. Ralf was interested and came `round to my place to try it out. My room was completely cluttered with all sorts of musical instruments, percussion, marimbas. Ralf asked me tons of questions about my musical activities and we became friends.
After this meeting, Ralf asked Michael to join Propaganda, but for the following 2 years of the bands existence he had to remain an "invisible" fifth member, primarily writing and arranging, due to his orchestral commitments. Indeed in May of 1985 Michael had to commute between Dusseldorf, where he had to provide cymbals and triangle for the Dusseldorf Symphonic Orchestra's rendition of Bruckner`s Eight Symphony, and England where as par of Propaganda he helped promote their Duel single.
The group relocated permanently to England when their Disziplin caught the ear of Paul Morley at Zang Tumb Tuum The rest, it could be said, is documented history. Except for the quiet disappearance of Andreas Thein, Ralf`s co-founding member, after their first single release on ZTT. He was there promoting Dr. Mabuse with Ralf, Claudia and Suzanne, then when Duel was released he was nowhere to be seen, Michael Mertens having filled his space on group photos.
Certainly in 1984 Andreas Thein was exited about the Duel single release: " We see it as the next episode - as dramatic and imaginative as Mabuse. He next step will be quiet different - a fairly radical departure from this single (Dr. Mabuse). but it will still be a great fantasy ... a burst of imagination ... something more than effort", but it would seem could not put up with the 13 month wait for its release while ZTT were ploughing all their energies to Frankie Goes To Hollywod. As a result he left Propaganda and ZTT and the band almost collapsed there and then, Ralf Dorper " Last year (1984) ZTT was still a small company and every effort went into Frankie Goes To Hollywood. And it's quite logical that this year, even from a business consideration that we are the ones. But this year I experienced how difficult because we were in danger of splitting when Andreas left.".
On the outset Andreas Thein seemed happy enough with the band's ZTT contract telling Zig Zag magazine:" We have a great freedom at ZTT. The idea of Propaganda is always changing in some way. We know that we could do well and we work in terms of those limitations. We try to exhaust those limits. The image of Propaganda fitted in with the idea Paul Morley wanted for his next stage at ZTT." But by August `85 and the release of p:Machinery Ralf Dorper had different views of the label: " I think we are in conflict with ZTT from the beginning." He told NME.
After leaving Propaganda in 1984 Andreas Thein has been involved in various obscure music projects. He first resurfaced in March `86 as part of the band Kino. They released one single on Chrysalis records (UK: CHR 2974) titled "Room in my heart". Kino was a trio comparing Schengel, Thein and Sarah Gregory (Glenn's ex-wife). Room In my Heart was a precise and epic slice of euro-synth pp, musically in the same vein as Dr. Mabuse bur lyrically not as heavyweight. The b-side Ugh Ugh... - was innovative in its mix of vocal effects and dancey beats.
After this one single Kino appeared to have called it a day though Andreas appeared one year later in a writer / arranger / producer capacity for the band Rififi whose single "Accelere Mon Amour" was released in France on Barclay records and in Germany on the Cool grove label (distributed by EMI). Dieter Meier from Yello was also involved in the Rififi project, whose lead vocalist was Martha Lagache. Following this Andreas Thein became involved in the acid house scene that appeared one year later though nothing has been heard of him since.
Bringing the whole story full Ralf Dorper rejoined Die Krupps in 1989 after the reshuffling with the ranks of Propaganda after the split from ZTT. The re-grouped Die Krupps line up of Dorper, Jürgen Engler and Rüdiger Esche first put out a 12" titled The machinery of Joy - a rework of Wahre Arbeit - Wahrer Lohn, the result of a collaboration with Nitzer Ebb. The track in its original form was one of the precursors of techno and the cyberpunk genre and remade on modern equipment is as vital as ever. The trio followed up with Germaniac, a similar sequence / sample driven epic 12" using familiar lyric themes, stalophon samples and vocal excerpts from Billy Wilder`s film "A foreign affair". Both these 12"s were released on Metall Maschinen Musik, the new label the band have set up which is distributed in UK by Mute subsidiary The Grey Area. The Machines of Joy and Germaniac also appear on the bands recent retrospective compilation "91 - 81 Past Forward" (Krupps 1) which also has excerpts from "Entering The Arena" , "Volle Kraft Voraus" and their earlier steel - work - symphonies. ".. Past Forward" is an excellent introduction to "Die Krupps" work pre- and post- Propaganda.
It's mid `85 and everything seems to be going swimmingly for Propaganda. May saw their second ZTT single , Duel, peak at no. 21 in the UK single charts and although in July the next single p:Machinery only manages no. 50, their debut album, A Secret Wish, also released that month is regarded as one of the years finest and climbs to no. 16.
It was later that year when Art Of Noise left ZTT that rumours first occurred regarding tensions both within Propaganda and between the group and ZTT. Eyebrows had already been raised earlier in the year when Ralf Dorper did not appear with the rest of the band at ZTT`s A Value Of Entertainment showcase concerts. But the label denied any problems and pointed out that Propaganda were working on a remix album that would be out at the end of the year.
For the showcase concerts, the band needed a bass player so their management got in touch with ex- Simple Minds bassist Derek Forbes. Derek was a mutual friend of the band who had worked with them before, playing on p:Machinery single. When Propaganda's 1985 Outside World tour was organised, Ralf Dorper again chose to stay out of the lime-light, but Forbes carried on on bass and suggested his former Simple Minds cohort and fellow Scot Brain McGee for the post of drummer. Whishful Thinking, ZTT`s promised remix LP appeared at this time, but a look at the sleeve-notes shows that the reworking of the Propaganda songs from A Secret Wish had not been carried out by the band themselves but by ZTT co-director Paul Morley and producer / engineer Robert Krauschaar. p:Machinery was released to promote the album, but it failed to chart, leaving Wishful Thinking to scrape a mediocre placing of no. 82.
By the end of the tour at the end of 1985, the rumoured tensions within the group were confirmed when Claudia Brucken announced plans to leave. A split was announced although this was not the case. Claudia`s decision arose from split loyalties when she married Paul Morley. She had originally told press: " I don't want Propaganda to involved in our marriage. It's just an accident that we work together. I could easily have problems with Paul over ides but we haven't had any and if we did I`d be with my band always.", but later ZTT co-director Jill Sinclair stated: "Propaganda had split up after rows with Claudia Brucken after she married Paul Morley, .. she can't help who she fall in love with." . On choosing a replacement for Brucken, Michael Mertens said: " We had a lot of personality problems with our old singer and we wanted to make sure things were right this time."
Claudia officially left in early 1986 and due to contractual problems / obligations the band were injuncted by ZTT for fourteen months, preventing them from releasing any material. In that time the three remaining Propagandists moved back to native Dusseldorf, Germany. Michael Mertens worked for a television company and Ralf Dorper and Suzanne Freytag went back to their day-jobs, working in a bank and as a professional jewellery maker.
During this time they tried out many singers, Michael Mertens: " We tried out a lot of good singers but the problem we encountered was personality. Sometimes you know as soon as someone walks through the door that is not going to be right - she can sing as beautiful as she likes. It` s a very difficult thing. It was an unpleasant experience but there was no way around it."
In 1987, the ZTT injunction was lifted leaving propaganda without a record deal but in was they decided to give the band their all, instead of regarding it as a "hobby" or "music project" as they had done earlier. This was met with a mixed response, Mertens: " in 1987 we decided that it had to be real and whoever wanted to come along for a ride was in. That's when Suzanne and Ralf decided to stick to their day jobs." That split was amicable and when Mertens tamed up with former Propaganda helpers Derek Forbes and Brian McGee, Ralf and Suzanne continued to lend a hand with writing and recording. Indeed it was thanks to a photographer friend of Suzanne that a replacement singer was eventually found.
Betsi Miller was born in Idaho, America and moved to Germany when she was twelve. Years later, said friend of Suzanne Freytag spotted her to singing in Munich night club where she waitressed by day. Her phone number was passed on to Suzanne who went to meet her. Michael Mertens: "Suzanne met her first and come back to the band and said `well I hope she can sing` because she felt she would be right.". Betsi recalls " Suzanne asked my if I wanted to come to an audition. They sent me a tape of Duel, Murder Of Love and p:Machinery off the first LP.". But she was unsure as to how to conduct the interview: "It as just a playback without vocals so they obviously wanted me to sing over it, and after hearing Claudia`s voice, I was thinking `I don` t know if it` s right, not because I feel limited`. Some of the vocal melodies are so simple and I was used to singing a little more exotically, a little more free. So I thought I could either go in there and sing it as close to the album as possible, or I can go in there and show them exactly what I` m capable of - and that` s hat I did"
Needless to say, Betsi won the audition. She then re-located from Munich to Dusseldorf in the space of two days and the regeneration of Propaganda was complete: Michael Mertens - Keyboards, Electronics; Derek Forbes - bass; Brian McGee - drums; Betsi Miller - vocals. The group was then snapped up by Virgin records who over late 1990 released the first Propaganda material for over five years in form of the album "1234" and it ´s two associated singles Heaven give me words and Only one word. Thus the Propaganda story is brought right up the present day.
Michael Mertens : " Some of the early tracks which were written after A Secret Wish are here (on 1234) so there's an element of what Propaganda was when we first started." But its easy to see and hear the complete transformation of the group "part Scottish, part American and part German!" - Derek Forbes. Mertens agrees: "there` s now an expansion musically into different areas due to the influence of new people".