Propaganda: A Secret Wish (ZTT)
Art of Noise: Influence (ZTT)
Emilie Simon: The Big Machine (Wrasse records)
I have so many memories of the 1980s and few of them are of the stereotypical view of big hair, flashy suits and garish clothing, cellphones the size of bricks, bad music and an obsession for money.
Much of the decade for Porky was spent penniless, dressing from cut-price shops and buying obscure vinyl records from independent record stores.
So the likes of Propaganda fitted nicely with my lifestyle, even if there was an element of absurdity and pomposity to them.
They were a product of their time: The early to mid-1980s were a revolutionary era in music, the synthesiser and other technical arrangements bringing new life to an industry still in shock after the 18-month barrage of ideas, independent thinking and rebelliousness that punk kindly delivered to a world in much need of them.
First came post-punk, a genre that used the energy of punk but left behind the naughty little child element. Eventually, all the gobishness behaviour of punk was ironed out into a scene your grandmothers and their teenage gay lovers could digest: New Romance. All designer haircuts, smart suites, chicks on boats and great pop songs. And once that fizzled out, well there was all sorts of things, and among those shoulder-charging their way toward the finish line were the bands on a label set up by Trevor Horn, Paul Morley and Jill Sinclair. It was known as ZTT, short for Zang Tumb Tumb, and included radical acts like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Propaganda and Art of Noise, composer Andrew Poppy and even Roy Orbison released one record on the label.
While Frankie had the controversy, number one hits and superstardom, for me the label was primarily about Propaganda. My copy of A Secret Wish has been much played, not to the worn out the needle cliché extent, but it was certainly a regular visitor to the turntable in the late 80s when I first purchased it.
It was dream-pop, it was agit-pop, it was electro-clash, it was a cohesion of sounds, symphonies and beautiful Teutonic accents. It was, and remains, a radical bastard of an album.
Propaganda came from Dusseldorf, but this album was sung entirely in English. Album curator Ian Peel has included the “refined” version, created months after the LP and cassette was released, for compact disk, a format that was then only just breaking out of the test-tube.
While three of the nine tracks remained untouched, others were given a decent retuning: There are snippets of German and both Jewel and Duel – essentially the same song but with different pace – are rougher, tougher, stroppier and several more minutes longer.
Full of orchestral symphonies, sparse but evocative vocals, driven rhythms and oblique references, A Secret Wish, remains a timeless classic, an album that was shaped by the era but still sounds fresh in 2010.
ZTT was renowned for beating the shit out of the records in a series of remixes, and some of these are included here, p:Machinery being one that positively invited it. Some of these could have been kept in the vaults, but I’m delighted to hear Do Well, a 20-minute medley of five elements of Duel that was released only on a cassette in 1985.
Propaganda split in 1986, having enjoyed their 15 minutes. This is their legacy.
Another release in the ZTT reissue series is Influence a compilation of “hits, singles, moments, treasures” from the Art of Noise.
Like Propaganda, the mysterious Art of Noise – the band was never shown in videos – were masters of new technology, but they were much more concerned with using samples, computer sounds, minimalist vocals and an unusual selection of songs they covered. Both Horn and Morley were involved and the influence is apparent, in Horn’s use of digital technology – he was one of the first people to develop the Fairlight CMI sampler – and Morley’s ideas and habit of throwing out slogans that would become song titles.
Unlike the Dusseldorf quartet, I never quite took to the Art of Noise although I love Beat Box and Close (to the Edit) – both good enough and accessible enough to get into the British pop charts. It was a productive time for music – the likes of The Smiths, New Order, The Pogues, The Waterboys, Redskins, et al led a vanguard of male-dominated indie bands while on the outskirts peering out were obscurities like I, Ludicrous, Half Man Half Biscuit, the Shop Assistants, Easterhouse and so many others. John Peel on Radio One late in the evening was the aural bible for all teenage music aficionados hungry for new sounds.
Art of Noise didn’t fit into any handy labelling, nor did they sound like any of the above. I never knew of anyone who was “in” to AoN, but I knew plenty of people who liked them in easy to digest bites. Hearing a new AoN single was always an interesting experience – it could be a old standard like Duane Eddy’s Peter Gunn or the Dragnet theme tune, it could be a mix-up of sounds, samples and rhythms and it could have a guest such as Max Headroom or Tom Jones involved. Sometimes, to be honest, it just didn’t work. But when it did it was a truly wonderful concoction.
If mass adulation never quite came their way, many acts at least owe much to them: The Prodigy sampled a part of Close (to the Edit), and the KLF took sampling to a whole new level.
With numerous albums, eps and theme tunes behind them compiling Influence can not have been a simple task. Ian Peel has gone for the obvious by putting the hits, non-hit singles, soundtracks and collaborations on the first disk, with some variations on the familiar, and by giving the second disk over to an array of unreleased experiments, some variations on the old, but some rarely heard before.
Emilie Simon is someone who probably wishes she was born in time to be a popstar in the 1980s.
She’s a Frenchwoman now living in New York, and The Big Machine is an observation of the Big Apple from a relative newcomer. All the tracks are sung in English and there’s definitely the essence of Kate Bush among the waves of electro-lite, notably on the big voice and dramatic lyrics of Nothing To Do With You.
I can’t help but feel that Simon is trying too hard to break the American market and that, maybe, the sound of her signing in her native language would be much more rewarding.