The First Cut

The other week I was delighted to discover, via the medium of a #FollowFriday tweet, that Claudia Brücken was on Twitter. Claudia Brücken! One of my favourite singers from the 1980s. Now whilst any regular readers of this blog may already have noticed from earlier entries that during the 1980s I was a big fan of Toyah Willcox, there were of course many other bands that tickled my fancy during that era.

One such band was Propaganda. Picture the scene. It was 1984 and the pop world was in thrall to Frankie Goes to Hollywood as they bestrode the charts like Liverpudlian colossi thanks to the skilled media manipulation of their label, ZTT Records.  It was impossible not to be aware of the furore and whilst I as a 19 year old goth might have liked to scoff at the blatant commercialism, I couldn't help but be caught up in the hype.

Despite what people now might remember, Frankie were not the only band signed to this cunning outfit.  Propaganda were also on the roster and unlike Frankie, they were darker and had more of an alternative edge that appealed to my nature. This was a band that were cool...

The problem with being part of a subculture like punk or goth was that sometimes you found your actual tastes at odds with what was perceived to be cool by the collective received wisdom. And more than anything else, you wanted to appear credible. That was the word I remember us using more than any other. Credible.

Not Incredible, which in retrospect would have been far more interesting.

The love of a good pop song had to be viewed through this filter.  I remember being very puzzled once when thinking about this too hard. Why, I wondered, were Blancmange cool but the Thompson Twins weren't? Some of their material was very similar. Was it all down to Blancmange's edgy use of the word "bloody" in the lyrics to Living on the Ceiling? I don't know who the arbiters of this distinction were, but they held our teenage minds in thrall.  Soft Cell, now they were cool because not only had their first album been shot through with an undercurrent of sleaze and subversion, but then they'd thrown their chart success back in the faces of pop by releasing the dark second album The Art of Falling Apart which didn't really contain any radio friendly singles whatsoever (but was magnificent nonetheless).

And Propaganda did a very canny thing. They released a double-sided single with the same song on each side. But very different versions of that song.

The A-side Duel was a wonderfully glossy radio-friendly pop song with a hook to die for. The B-side Jewel was an altogether darker interpretation, with an aggressive industrial drumbeat and shouted punky vocals.

"Which one you play depends on which way you play".

Of course the young goth me was proud to buy the single (the sleeve of which was graphic-designed to within an inch of its life and covered with all sorts of gnomic quotes that he puzzled over) and made a point of only playing Jewel on his student radio show, to confuse and bewilder people who may have only seen Duel on Top of the Pops.

Of course what I realise now is that secretly I loved the A-side more. And that was the clever thing Propaganda had done, make it OK for someone who worried far too much about being credible to buy a perfect pop song.

The album A Secret Wish appeared and was all very much to my taste - poetic female vocals against an electronic, dark background. Once again my album sleeve synesthesia kicked in and I felt that the grey cover featuring the wire torso of a mannequin felt exactly like the contents. This was gothic yet pop and in many ways the perfect answer to the pop-or-cool dichotomy that raged within the shallow part of my teenage soul. This, I decided, was credible and tracks from the album made frequent appearances on my student radio show alongside Foetus, Bone Orchard and Alien Sex Fiend (as well as Soft Cell, Toyah and Blancmange). Any comparisons that the media made to Abba due to the band's gender make-up were simply lazy maths (2♀ + 2♂ = ABBA). Similar Abba comparisons would later be made for exactly the same reason to Lush and Ladytron.

Sadly there only was one album. Like many bands of the time their trajectory was bright but short, a single-apparition comet with a hyperbolic trajectory. Thankfully before they left the solar system there was a tour which came to the Hammersmith Palais in London. By this point I was very keen on gigs and tried to go to as many as possible in Brighton, London or even further afield. My friend Bob shared my enthusiasm for Propaganda and so we both bought tickets and made a rendezvous in W6 on a cold November night.

It was an unusual crowd. The gigs we were used to going to tended to be full of people who, like us, went to see bands play on a semi-regular basis, dressed the part and knew what to expect. This lot were... well ordinary. Of course there was absolutely nothing wrong with that but it felt odd being the only goths in the room.

This was the other side of gigs. Propaganda's appearances on Top of the Pops had guaranteed a more casual audience, an audience who were perhaps not used to the whole Everyone Crowd Down The Front Until You Can Barely Move scenario. This resulted in some frayed tempers. In this sort of standing-only gig (far preferable to the violently enforced seating of the Hammersmith Odeon just up the road) you were by definition pressed up against people. More often than not you ended up with someone leaning their arms against your back whilst you leaned your arms against the person in front of you and so on and so forth. Uncomfortable and hot, but all part of the experience.

And then this guy just in front and to the right of me started turning round and angrily telling me to stop leaning on his girlfriend. I can assure you this wasn't a creepy lean, just one of necessity and besides, what else was I to do? An exclusion zone around his girlfriend simply wasn't going to happen that close to the stage.

His girlfriend didn't seem to have any problem with it and was herself leaning on someone just in front of her.

I ignored his impotent fury. I had a band to watch (and besides, sooner or later we were bound to part company by brownian motion alone).

From what I recall it was a good gig, the band and supernumeraries accurately reproduced the sound of A Secret Wish with the added power of it being played live. And I discovered another advantage of the ordinary audience. At the time I sported a messy black Robert Smith style hairdo which must have stood out like a sore thumb because I noticed that throughout the gig I kept catching Claudia's eye (a similar thing happened to me a few years later with Aztec Camera when a puzzled Roddy Frame kept glancing at me, obviously wondering what on earth a goth was doing at one of his gigs).

It wasn't that long a set, but it was enjoyable. Afterwards I felt the glow of satisfaction of having seen a band play live the songs I only knew from vinyl.

As Bob and I stepped out onto Shepherd's Bush Road another difference became apparent. No-one was hanging around; no-one wanted to meet the band. I couldn't understand it; meeting the band and getting an autograph or photo had become part and parcel of the experience for us.

Never mind. We hung around anyway. And then, giving us a smile, Susanne Freytag hurried past, too quick for us to buttonhole her. Still, that at least gave us an idea that the band were on their way out. And then we spotted Claudia with a couple of other people, so we stepped forward, said hello, told her how much we'd enjoyed the gig and asked her to sign our tour programmes.

"I saw you!" she said to me, proving at least that I hadn't imagined her noticing me during the gig.

Bob even had a camera, so he posed with her whilst I did the honours and then we swapped places.

And the flash wouldn't warm up. And the people Claudia was with were walking further and further away. And she looked awkward waiting there as we stared at the offending camera. And in the end she had to go lest she be left behind.

So I never did get my photo taken with her...

And sadly that was it for Propaganda. They split up not long afterwards. Of course I kept my ear to the ground and was aware of Claudia's follow-up band Act who released one album, plus her solo album Love: And a Million Other Things in 1991. Then much later in 2004 she resurfaced as half of Onetwo.

And now in 2012 she's released another solo album, The Lost Are Found to be followed by a UK tour in Spring 2013 which is due to take in the Concorde 2 in Brighton. I'll go along.

Maybe I'll finally get that photo.


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