A Secret Wish by Propaganda

propaganda1.jpg

A Secret Wish (1985). Design by the London Design Partnership.

The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns
— William Blake

It’s a hallmark of musical obsession when you find yourself buying the same album over and over. Propaganda’s meisterwerk from 1985, A Secret Wish, was finally released in a definitive double-CD version this week, the fourth edition I’ve bought (after the original vinyl and two other CD releases), and this new set is easily the best of the lot.

Propaganda were always my favourites among the early acts on Trevor Horn and Paul Morley’s ZTT label: smarter than Frankie Goes To Hollywood and more musical than the Art of Noise. How could I resist another quartet of Germans from Kraftwerk’s home city of Düsseldorf, a group memorably described as “ABBA from Hell”? The first single in 1984, Dr Mabuse, came along when I’d been immersed in Lotte Eisner’s celebrated study of German Expressionist cinema, The Haunted Screen; an avant garde pop outfit devoted to the same material was just the thing I wanted to hear. Almost a mini-album, the single’s A-side was filled by an epic ten-minute song describing the character of a villainous anti-hero from several Fritz Lang films, Dr Mabuse. On the B-side there was a cover of The Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale (and another Lang reference in the subtitle, The Woman with the Orchid) followed by some metal bashing and a taste of the A-side’s Schönberg-esque orchestral stabs then a return to the song. Cover versions were an important thing at ZTT, as was the idea of the 12-inch single as a self-contained work, Mabuse being a prime example. All of this came packaged in a sleeve whose Anton Corbijn painting referenced another Fritz Lang film, M… It felt as though they were doing this purely for my benefit.

propaganda2.jpg

Dr Mabuse (1984). Design by Anton Corbijn and XL.

The intertextual reference on this and subsequent releases isn’t surprising given the people involved. Paul Morley took a great delight in embellishing the ZTT releases with quotations—the Frankie album was probably the first chart-topping release with a recommended reading list—while band member Ralph Dörper had been with the Neue Deutsche Welle band Die Krupps prior to Propaganda, and it was his influence which gave the group the abrasive industrial edge that I found so attractive. While between groups he released an experimental EP in 1983 under his own name which included versions of In Heaven from Eraserhead and John Carpenter’s theme from Assault on Precinct 13, and it was he who chose Throbbing Gristle’s Discipline as the demo song which the group used to catch the attention of ZTT. That cover version never made it to A Secret Wish although they did perform it live on The Tube, and a later version appeared on the remix album, Wishful Thinking. This recording is happily included on the second disc of the new reissue.

A Secret Wish was released in 1985 and pushed further buttons of obsession for me with the opening track, Dream Within A Dream, which is Edgar Allan Poe’s poem set to music. The album artwork came liberally decorated with Morley’s signifying quotes, the one for the Poe track being the opening lines from HP Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu. Yes, they really were doing this for my benefit… Two further 12-inch singles appeared: Duel/Jewel was the same song presented in an “ABBA” version and a “from Hell” version: sweet and melodic versus harsh and industrial.

propaganda3.jpg

A Secret Wish inner sleeve.

The third and final single, p:Machinery, expanded the short album mix to another nine-minute epic whose vision of a population enslaved to industrial technology easily invokes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, so much so that I used to play the single whilst running scenes from the film on TV. The enormous “Polish” mix of this song has always been scarce on CD, with a Japanese release in 1988, and a later reissue (with some shoddy and superfluous remixes) in 1995. Another benefit of the new edition of the album is that the extended mix provides the climax of the second disc and sounds even more enormous, its brass fanfares accurately described in a review at the time as conjuring images of cities rising from the sea.

Also present for the first time on the new CD is Do Well, the twenty-minute Duel suite which was a cassette-only release, and a number of other previously unavailable mixes. If you have this double-disc set and the Outside World single collection from 2002 then you’ll own pretty much everything that’s great about Propaganda. A lot of pop music from the 1980s sounds horribly dated now: tinny synths, empty production and a paucity of ambition. Propaganda sound as thunderingly magnificent as they did in 1985, and still unique. It’s a shame that A Secret Wish was their finest moment, things fell apart fairly soon after. But one masterpiece will always be worth fifty Duran Duran travesties.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Metropolis posters

Weekend links 14

fraser.jpg

A drawing by Eric Fraser from the Radio Times, 1947. From this Flickr set.

• I helped put together the design for the Pursuit Grooves album recently. FACT magazine interviewed Vanese Smith about her work.

• One of the books whose interiors I designed last year for Tachyon was The Secret History of Science Fiction, a story collection edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. (And a book which I’ve yet to add to my web pages, I’m still behind with updates.) The LA Times has a piece about the anthology here, focusing on the Don DeLillo contribution, Human Moments in World War III.

• It’s been another week of Facebook hate; being a self-satisfied refusenik I can’t help but find this amusing. Too many good pieces to list but Gizmodo had more reasons why you should still quit Facebook, Jason Calacanis gathered lots of links to other stories on his blog while social media expert Danah Boyd got to the heart of the matter with a very cogent polemic.

• If you want an alternative to Facebook, Diaspora is “the privacy aware, personally controlled, do-it-all distributed open source social network”.

• David Toop has a new book out next month. “Sinister Resonance begins with the premise that sound is a haunting, a ghost, a presence whose location is ambiguous and whose existence is transitory. The intangibility of sound is uncanny – a phenomenal presence in the head, at its point of source and all around. The close listener is like a medium who draws out substance from that which is not entirely there.”

• Coilhouse looks at the late Decadent artist and designer Hans Henning Voigt (1887–1969), better known as Alastair.

mclark.jpg

come, been and gone.

• “After a sold out season at the Barbican in 2009 Michael Clark Company returns with the next instalment of his critically acclaimed production made primarily to the music of David Bowie. come, been and gone also embraces the work of Bowie’s key collaborators: Lou Reed , Iggy Pop , Brian Eno and touches on some of his influences; The Velvet Underground , Kraftwerk and Nina Simone……This production contains loud music and graphic images.” I should hope so.

• “Why should boys always be boys, and girls always be girls?” Brutal/Beautiful, photography by Austin Green.

• John Foxx, Iain Sinclair and others appear at Short Circuit 2010 next month.

Black, Brown, and Beige: Duke Ellington’s music and race in America.

Jane Siberry has made all her albums available as free downloads.

Ruth Bayer photographs people after they’ve inhaled poppers.

Swiss artist catalogues mutant insects around nuclear plants.

Pompeii’s X-rated art will titillate a new generation.

The Happy, Haunted Island of Poveglia, Venice.

The Art of American Book Covers, a blog.

Kanellos, the Greek protest dog.

• Song of the week: Twiggy Twiggy (1994) by Pizzicato Five.

The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda II

invasion.jpgLong, Strange Trip for a Hypnotic Film

By James Gaddy
August 27, 2006
The New York Times

IT TOOK 38 years, but Ira Cohen’s cult film, The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, which was first screened in 1968 at the high point of the psychedelic hippie head rush, is now commercially available. Given the close calls, the long absences and his chaotic archival system, Mr. Cohen, 71, is a little surprised himself.

“It didn’t really involve patience,” he said in his apartment on West 106th Street in Manhattan, surrounded by books stacked waist high. “It was just reality.”

In 1961 Mr. Cohen built a room in his New York loft lined with large panels of Mylar plastic, a sort of bendable mirror that causes images to crackle and swirl in hypnotic, sometimes beautiful patterns. After a few years experimenting with the technique in photographs, he invited his friends from the downtown scene—like Beverly Grant, Vali Myers and Tony Conrad—to make a film.

The finished product sets languid images of opium smokers (in fantastic makeup and costumes) against a droning, chanting, tabla-beating soundtrack by Angus MacLise, the original drummer of the Velvet Underground. Xavier Garcia Bardon, film curator at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, said the film is an important artifact of the era.

“It’s like going on an ecstatic journey to another planet, full of magical beings, animals and plants,” he said. “It’s a hallucinatory, almost trance-inducing experience.”

Mr. Cohen left New York in 1969, shortly after the film’s first screening, for art- and drug-filled travels in India, Ethiopia and Nepal. He roamed through the 1970s and 80s. While he was away, the film’s legend grew, even as the original few copies slowly disappeared.

Mr. Cohen said he dropped off the original print at DuArt Film Laboratories before he left; the staff reached him in Kathmandu in 1978, asking for $300 in storage fees. He asked the lab to send the print to the Museum of Modern Art, but the museum has no record of receiving it.

“If you have money, you can store it any way you want,” he said ruefully. “But for some people, $280, $300 changes the way things turn out.”

It wasn’t until a compilation of Mr. MacLise’s music came out in 1999, 20 years after his death, that interest in distributing the film began. Jay Babcock, editor of the underground magazine Arthur, and Will Swofford, a composer who was then studying at Wesleyan University, independently tracked Mr. Cohen down.

Mr. Babcock said he was curious to see how Mr. Cohen’s early Mylar photographs would look like in a film. “I had dreamed for years what it would look like,” Mr. Babcock said. He began pressing for distribution rights.

Meanwhile Mr. Swofford had persuaded Mr. Cohen, whose health has been failing (he’s had two strokes in the last year), to let him operate as an archivist and agent. Mr. Swofford eventually found 40 cans of unused outtakes in a green trunk, buried beneath books, papers, slides and assorted creative runoff.

“No one had touched the film for 25 years,” Mr. Swofford said.

Because the original version lasts only 22 minutes, he began beefing>up the content for the DVD age. Mr. Cohen wanted to use part of the found film, an eight-minute section in which he is buried in mud, as a prelude; Mr. Swofford used the nearly four hours of outtakes to fashion Brain Damage, a 30-minute coda. The DVD also features a slide show of Mr. Cohen’s photographs, audio recitations of his poetry and two alternate soundtracks to the film.

One of these versions was by the band Acid Mothers Temple, which had recorded a live soundtrack to the film at the music festival Kill Your Timid Notion, in Dundee, Scotland, in 2003.

“I had no idea what a DVD could be,” Mr. Cohen said. “I would have just put the film on there.”

The film was released last month, the result of a collaboration between Bastet, Arthur magazine’s music and video label, and Saturnalia, Mr. Swofford’s label, with distribution limited to the magazine’s Web site and a few independent music retailers. Thanks to labor donated by both parties, the initial 1,000-copy print run cost about $8,000.

But $8,000 is still a lot of money for a magazine like Arthur, a break-even labor-of-love venture. “It’s shameful, with the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on movies every year in Hollywood, it’s left to a penniless publication to put this out,” Mr. Babcock said.

Yet he remains optimistic. The film received positive reviews when screened at the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Next month Mr. Bardon will hold a screening with live music in Brussels, and Tony Conrad, now a professor in the department of media studies at the University of Buffalo, will screen the film in Atlanta.

Mr. Babcock is already making plans to release Mr. Cohen’s two other films if Arthur can recoup the investment on this one. “We hope this is just the beginning,” he says.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda

Maximum heaviosity

comets.jpg

Left: Comets on Fire at the Arthurfest,
Los Angeles, 2005.

Bassoons, flamenco, monks’ cowls…
welcome to the new rock underground

Julian Cope explains why heavy metal, so often maligned, is at the heart of today’s rock avant-garde

Julian Cope
Friday August 18, 2006
The Guardian

IN APRIL THIS YEAR, after my half-hour stint as a guest vocalist for the US doom metal band SunnO))), I left the stage at Brussels’ Domino festival and removed my burka. Backstage, I remarked to the band’s biographer, Seldon Hunt, how open-minded heavy metallers had become: they were accepting, as festival headliners, a band without a drummer, a bass player or guitars, and with every bearded, long-haired musician among them clad in the habit of a Christian monk. Percipiently, Seldon commented that because the support acts had contained all of those ingredients (except the habits), SunnO))) considered it their duty to reject every metal cliche, replacing each of the archetypal rock instruments with Moog synthesizers, downtuned enough to bring the plaster off the theatre’s ceiling.

SunnO))) are taking metal to places you never imagined. Their music inhabits the territory that once was the preserve of meditative, ambient and experimental music alone. And they are doing it through the most critically reviled music of all. More remarkably, they are not alone. Across the world, underground scenes are using the shell of heavy metal—the volume, the grinding riffs, the imagery, the nomenclature—to test rock’n’roll perceptions and explore boundaries, all the while shamelessly subsuming other vastly different musical styles into their own work.

In a worldwide underground music scene that encompasses artists playing improvisatory music, folk, psychedelic and free jazz, metal is the common thread. You don’t hear much about this music in the mainstream press, especially in Britain, where the kingmakers of the music press have inadvertently created generations of musical whores, all doing their utmost to produce what they think the NME will want, rather than the music they want to make. But why is metal the link? Because the avant-garde musicians in the vanguard of today’s experimental underground scene grew up on it. They spent their late childhoods/early teens playing noisy computer games, watching 24-hour news of the first Gulf war and listening to grunge and metal. As they are mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, their strongest cultural landmarks are the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1994, and, before it, the overwhelmingly loud sludge of Slayer, Megadeth and Metallica. Therefore the “inner soundtracks” of the new avant gardists are informed by grinding metal bands, just as the sound of the Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray informed that of my own punk generation. Older readers who equate the term heavy metal with the brash, stupefying 1980s anthems of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi will do well to remember that these bands are long out of the equation, having been at their height over 20 years ago.

Continue reading “Maximum heaviosity”