An Interview with Ralf Dörper
PROPAGANDA release a compilation of their best known material from their time on ZTT, the erstwhile label run by producer Trevor Horn, his wife Jill Sinclair and conceptualist Paul Morley that also gave the world FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD and THE ART OF NOISE.
Subtitled ‘A Compact Introduction To PROPAGANDA’, the album contains 76 minutes of bite size highlights and a choice of extended variations featuring ‘Dr. Mabuse’, ‘Duel’, ‘p:Machinery’ and ‘Dream Within A Dream’.
Founded by Ralf Dörper of cult industrial electronic band DIE KRUPPS, Andreas Thein and Susanne Freytag from girl band TOPOLINOS, PROPAGANDA germinated within Düsseldorf’s vibrant art school scene based around Die Ratinger Straße. They recorded a reinterpetation of ‘Discipline’ by THROBBING GRISTLE which was heard by Paul Morley and he signed them to ZTT. The line-up was expanded to include classically trained percussionist Michael Mertens and songstress Claudia Brücken who had been in TOPOLINOS with Susanne Freytag.
Although Andreas Thein left after the Trevor Horn produced debut single ‘Dr Mabuse’ in 1984, the remaining quartet, dubbed “Abba in Hell”, recorded the now legendary album ‘A Secret Wish’ under the helm of Stephen J Lipson. The 1985 album’s notable fans included DEPECHE MODE’s Martin Gore, DURAN DURAN’s John Taylor, SIMPLE MINDS’ Jim Kerr and MICHAEL JACKSON producer Quincy Jones who later borrowed its industrial pop elements on MJ’s 1987 album ‘Bad’.
One unlikely admirer was Pete Waterman who subsequently recorded a cover of ‘Duel’ with Mandy Smith in 1988 as he plotted world domination with his PWL empire…ironically, Stock Aitken & Waterman had been suggested as producers by Jill Sinclair when Trevor Horn’s commitments with FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD and GRACE JONES made him unavailable to work on ‘A Secret Wish’!
The classic line-up of Claudia Brücken, Susanne Freytag, Ralf Dörper and Michael Mertens only ever recorded the one album but the quartet did reunite in 2004 for a performance of ‘Dr Mabuse’ during a special concert at Wembley Arena which celebrated the work of Trevor Horn in aid of The Prince’s Trust. More recently, Claudia Brücken, Susanne Freytag and Ralf Dörper have performed together at the ‘This Time It’s Claudia Brücken’ show at London’s Scala which is now immortalised on the ‘This Happened’ DVD.
With the release of ‘Noise & Girls Come Out To Play’, Ralf Dörper kindly spoke to The Electricity Club about his time with PROPAGANDA…
With ‘A Secret Wish’ being readily available and hailed by many as a classic album, who is the ‘Noise & Girls Come Out To Play’ album aimed at do you think?
For a start, we do not own our back-catalogue so that seems to be a question the record company should answer – which, I believe, initially wanted to compile a best-of covering not just the ZTT era but the Virgin period (and possibly even more) as well. But licensing issues prevented that.
I have to admit that I was quite concerned regarding this release – as it could be seen as flogging a dead horse and might backfire on us.
PROPAGANDA released just one album ‘A Secret Wish’ on ZTT… so how to make a proper introduction without repetition? But in my opinion, the curator has done an excellent job – again. After having listened (at proper volume) I can fully say that this “introduction” really gives a full picture of the weirdness that was essential to PROPAGANDA. Because behind the polished sheen of the singles – the hits are included – you get frantic string arrangements, industrial noises and weird vocal manipulations – and you get Michael Mertens singing – well worth the admission…
The only flaw in my humble opinion is the packaging. Once more the full frontals of the ‘Duel’ nude photo-sessions were omitted and just the portraits were used…
Do you think potential listeners are still possibly intimidated by the “Abba in Hell” descriptions of PROPAGANDA and the general Teutonic nature of the music, hence this ‘An Introduction to…’ compilation?
We have been demons to some, angels to others… whoever came up with “Abba in Hell” – we took it as a compliment, not as an intimidation. Much better than “Fleetwood Mac in Hell” I think. I am not sure about the “general Teutonic nature of the music” you refer to however. We never did marches – or we actually stopped doing them realising that LAIBACH are much better at that.
You and Michael co-wrote ‘Dr. Mabuse’ with original member Andreas Thein. How did that come together and was it intended originally for Susanne to perform lead before Claudia joined?
When ZTT showed interest on the strength of our first (non-released) recording ‘Disziplin’, Andreas and myself had plenty of musical sketches but just a few more structured demos, such as ‘Doppelgänger’ (recorded but not released)… in fact plenty of “D”-songs to start with, because I had the lyrical concept for ‘Duel’ already and the intention to do a song called ‘Dr. Mabuse’. it actually evolved from a sequencer-line (TB-303!).
The song structure was developed with Michael who more or less joined the ranks at the same time as Claudia, so ‘Dr Mabuse’ was never conceived as a song for Susanne but very much already with Claudia and Trevor Horn in mind… and I won’t confirm the rumour that I wrote the line “sell him your soul” after we signed the contract with ZTT.
Trevor Horn and his team – and the unlimited access to sounds – enabled us to explore the potential of ‘Dr. Mabuse’ much further and to enter new sound territories we wouldn’t have dared to image or try before. There had been re-starts, scrapped ideas – but no erased tapes. That’s why the ‘Mabuse’ takes on ‘Noise & Girls…’ are all very interesting. Maybe ZTT should have done it the ‘Slave To The Rhythm’ way and released a ‘Mabuse’ mini-album in 1984… Fritz Lang actually needed three movies to show all facets of the Doctor…
In the compositional process, what synths and equipment were you using in PROPAGANDA?
Pre-ZTT, we worked with very basic equipment as synths still were pretty expensive. As these were also pre-MIDI times, we used mostly the basic Roland machines as these synchronized well. In the recording of ‘Disziplin’, we also had temporary access to PPG and the Linn modules which we triggered.
Michael brought his marimba (which when played by a proper musician sounds like a sequencer made from wood) and an Oberheim he used. I met Michael when I answered his classified ad – he wanted to sell a rhythm machine. When I saw that equipment at his home-place, we started talking. It was great, somebody who had no knowledge or interest in actual pop music – but was keen to explore… Michael played with the Düsseldorf Symphonic Orchestra and studied composition and percussion instruments!
In London, we were confronted with state-of-art musician’s machines, which for example recorded your mistakes and did not correct them straight-away by quantisizing. This led to some hiccups and not so well spent studio time in the beginning…
Quite a few of the songs were made from scratch in London – sometimes with false starts but great advice from the engineers and producers. Here the unlimited supply of technical possibilities sometimes was a problem as the operators knew their equipment best… how should we have known what sounds JJ of THE ART OF NOISE had hidden in his Fairlight…
But it got much more focused after we had managed to squeeze some money from ZTT – or better from Perfect Songs. To become more independent from the Fairlight etc, Michael and myself invested a publishing advance to buy some equipment, especially the PPG system.
How would you describe the dynamic in the way the songs grew from your demos to the eventual Stephen Lipson productions using the Synclavier, Sony 1610 digital recorder etc?
In general terms, you could say that ‘Dr. Mabuse’ (produced by Trevor Horn) was very much based on Fairlight while the album production (by Steve Lipson) was much more Synclavier, PPG and still Roland. The Super Jupiter is featured quite often. Steve Lipson was great as he understood our ideas even when they were still in an embryonic state.
The quality of the demos improved drastically because of Michael, which means that ‘p:Machinery’ (of which an early version is included on ‘Noise & Girls…’), ‘The Chase’ or especially ‘Dream Within A Dream’ were fully structured as demos already. Whereas ‘Dr. Mabuse’ was just very basic and created step-by-step (including false starts) in the studio.
‘Duel’ was tricky as we wanted to have a musical duel taking place within the song itself – let’s say harmony and noise fighting each other. This concept was too heady and not properly working. But we found the solution in the end to have ‘Duel / Jewel’ like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – and the conceptual idea was realized by confronting the A-side of the single with the B-side. Hard to understand for someone just knowing about iTunes nowadays…
The possibilities in the studio with the digital technology became almost endless with dozens of remixes for some tracks. Were there many creative tensions with regards a track like ‘Dream Within A Dream’ for example which hasn’t really appeared in multiple versions? It’s almost like you were all happy with that?
‘Dream Within A Dream’ was a track which was nearly fully pre-arranged in Düsseldorf. This was made possible as the PPG – ie our own equipment – made us more independent from the sound sources at Sarm which were only fully grasped by their respective programmers and engineers. You really had to attend educational seminars before you could manage those complex systems as Fairlight or Synclavier. It would take ages to try to understand them just by reading the manuals.
It was also Michael’s idea to use the Flügelhorn on ‘Dream Within A Dream’. He tried that out with a former college of his from the Düsseldorf Symphonic Orchestra. And later we flew him in to do this part in the Studio. It s a real instrument, no Synclavier!
Whose idea was it to cover THE VELVET UNDERGROUND’s ‘Femme Fatale’? And why was a vocal version of THROBBING GRISTLE’s ‘Discipline’ never actually released? Did you consider doing any other covers as Claudia has done quite a few in her various guises?
I have a very stern view with regard to cover versions – I think there are too many and I hate tribute albums in particular. I believe you should only do a cover if you can add something special or move the song into another dimension – maybe that is the reason that nobody dared to cover ‘Dr. Mabuse’ so far.
Or you use a cover version as a reference point, to express where you stand or where you are coming from. This might not necessarily apply for solo singers, but in my opinion, a band should avoid covers or make very careful and conscious choices only. Did KRAFTWERK, SUICIDE or ULTRAVOX! (John Foxx version) ever do a cover? – I ask.
But ZTT’s policy in the beginning was to have a cover version on the B-side of the singles… I think the idea was scrapped after the artists realised what amounts of publishing income would go to a lucky stranger…while the Relax B-side ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’ for me is a good point of reference for FGTH as a hymn to Liverpool, we had some problems with Morley’s initial choice of a CARPENTERS (!) song.
Me and Andreas strongly opposed and it would have contradicted our concept. In the end we came to the compromise of ‘Femme Fatale’ which has quite a European sentiment in the original version sung by NICO, who is German.
‘Disziplin’ was not a full cover version of ‘Discipline’ but more a song inspired by … – I would say nowadays. Not sure if Genesis P. Orridge objected as I did totally new lyrics… however I very much would have preferred to have a THROBBING GRISTLE cover version – if any – on our debut instead of ‘Sorry For Laughing’.
What do you think the follow-up to ‘A Secret Wish’ would have sounded like had you, Claudia, Susanne and Michael been able to stay together for a few more years?
Although I like speculation (…go short in euro, long in pound…), I am not really inclined to go for this futile exercise. In 1985 the tensions were growing rapidly, there were plenty of unsolvable issues internally – not to mention the huge problem of unfair remuneration!
But three quarters of PROPAGANDA continued anyway – albeit after a long frozen period. And I think that ‘Ministry of Fear’ and ‘Vicious Circle’ are very much in the tradition of ‘A Secret Wish’…it is also rather futile to argue if the choice of producers was right…how to follow Horn/Lipson?
But one thing is for sure, in case of a continuation it would be much easier for any passing listener of ‘1234’ to identify the band’s origin: it’s Düsseldorf, Germany not Ohio, USA…
You decided not to remain with Michael for what became the ‘1234’ album?
You could also say WE decided… and you should speak to Michael to get the full account of the story as I think PROPAGANDA`s Virgin period was nearly as dramatic as the ZTT time.
We started with a handicap because we were lacking a singer when we were in the wilderness of legal proceedings against ZTT – and our accounts had been frozen.
But thanks to the help of friends in Germany and especially Derek Forbes (ex-SIMPLE MINDS) in Scotland, we had access to studios where we could work on some material which got us signed eventually by Virgin records in 1988.
The new singer Betsi Miller was discovered by Susanne (indirectly, by her bother) and we thought it should be mainly her decision after she had been pushed away from the spotlight by ZTT somewhat… however the chemistry between the two did not really develop, so she left first – but she can still be heard on ‘Vicious Circle’, the song on ‘1234’ which has – together with ‘Ministry Of Fear’ – most of the former PROPAGANDA flavour I believe.
I also have to admit that I somewhat had lost interest in pop in the second half of the 80s and was keen again on more extreme sounds. I was living in London at that time (and working in the City) and often listened to pirate stations on the radio which played Chicago Acid and Detroit Techno. And in the clubs you heard hard electronic sounds (again) which reminded me of the early 80s in Düsseldorf – for example NITZER EBB who continued where DAF stopped…
In fact I met with Andreas (Thein) again at that time. He often visited London living off the Mabuse-fame. I convinced him to do an acid track together – using his alias RIFIFI. We recorded it in Germany in two and a half days. It became the first German acid track and went straight into the charts in Germany – it was called ‘Dr. Acid & Mr. House’ and was mainly programmed on the machines we started ‘Dr Mabuse’ on: Roland TB-303 and TR-808…
So the “vicious” circle had closed – that was the time me and PROPAGANDA parted company… however I think Michael, Derek and the others made a record to be proud of. And I am still proud to have written the words to ‘Only One Word’ which was a very big hit in South America…
How was it for you to be on stage with Claudia and Susanne for the 2011 concert at The Scala to perform PROPAGANDA songs? That must have been interesting as you were unable to play live with PROPAGANDA back in the day because of your day job I understand? But what happened in Düsseldorf?
This might be the official story – however, it sounds a bit odd given the fact that I played a couple of hundred concerts in Europe and North America with DIE KRUPPS in the 90s – while still having a so called “day job”.
In fact I had a quite stubborn view on playing live as PROPAGANDA as I believed it would be not possible to give a proper impression without lifting the studio on stage. And I did not consider it an option to use guest musicians … especially no guitar player. HEAVEN 17 had a similar stance and will – for the first time – perform ‘The Luxury Gap’ this year because just now it is possible without compromising due to today’s technology.
As I like one-off events, I did the Trevor Horn event at Wembley and Claudia’s show at The Scala. This was especially for the fans – and the latter also to express my respect for the works of Claudia. However I did not do Düsseldorf as this event was not open to the public but more of a promotional tool for the local Stadtwerke (energy board). Here the audience consisted mainly of management and chosen employees – and friends and family of the promoter…
I understand you, Claudia and Susanne have been in the studio together more recently, can you tell us more about that?
No, I cannot confirm that rumour. Or do you refer to the abridged session roughly two years ago? Michael Mertens, who creates a lot of music for TV and advertising, had done a snippet for Heidi Klum’s model show, which is big here on German TV. That was a short teaser – great hook – on which Claudia did the vocals.
At that time we considered giving PROPAGANDA another try – and the hook was promising enough to elaborate…I kept the words of the chorus and added the verses…but this proved to be the final PROPAGANDA track as old conflicts / wounds / problems / whatever broke out again…
What have been your own proudest moments with regards PROPAGANDA and the band’s legacy?
It’s been 30 years! (PROPAGANDA was conceived in 1982!) So many crucial moments to recall and too difficult to bring them in a proper order – so I stick to the most recent ones…
So, recent moments of pride:
– The audience going wild at The Scala when the intros of ‘p:Machinery’ and ‘Dr. Mabuse’ were played
– The feat of charting with the reissue of ‘A Secret Wish’ in the UK (I thought this is only possible for ‘Tubular Bells’ or ‘Dark Side of the Moon’)
– Discovering a Mexican ‘Best of the 80s’ compilation which included PROPAGANDA during my holidays
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Actually I stopped recording music more or less at the end of the 90s. However DIE KRUPPS – which also stopped in 1997 – are back on the live circuit since 2005. The reason was the 25-year anniversary of our first record and the rising demand.
Funnily enough, the band is seen as some sort of EBM/industrial-godfathers and there is a big scene not just in Germany but all over Europe and the Americas. Last year we did a joint European tour together with Mute act NITZER EBB which was fun.
We like to play concerts because we have a young audience – it has nothing to do with revivalism. We play mainly our greatest hits but include from time to time new songs. We actually recorded a version of ‘Der Amboss/The Anvil’ by VISAGE which we made only available at concerts. It features Sarah Blackwood aka Client B. We also from time to time play a simplified but hard version of ‘Dr. Mabuse’ live…
And are there any new acts who you like who may be of interest The Electricity Club?
I am living in the past…well, that was a joke, but currently I am re-discovering some things which were taking place when we were sucked into the ZTT machinery… for example I discovered what exciting recordings CONNY PLANK made (mainly with DIETER MOEBIUS) in the middle of the 80s. That material – among others – has been brought back by German label Bureau B which takes good care of Germany´s electronic music heritage.
Interestingly KARL BARTOS (who once was in KRAFTWERK) will release new material there. Something to look forward to… I am also waiting for the final THROBBING GRISTLE record – and the first FACTORY FLOOR album.
With regard to new acts, I guess The Electricity Club is well aware of what is good and worthwhile. I could only name one act to of interest you might not have heard of yet: it is from Düsseldorf, called STABIL ELITE.
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Ralf Dörper
‘Noise And Girls Come Out To Play:A Compact Introduction To PROPAGANDA’ is released by Salvo/Union Square
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
10th September 2012