It’s that catchy little ditty that has been turning up on the radio every so often for years but you can’t quite put a title or band name to it. In fact it did this week (and last week) which is why I’m writing this. But Duel, probably Propaganda’s most poppy song, hides the fact that the relatively short-lived Düsseldorf-originating group was quite a significant member of a German new wave synth-art-rock movement throughout the 1980s.
Relocating to the UK and signing to Trevor Horn’s ZTT label was both their route to success beyond Germany and their undoing as the underfunded ZTT put all its eggs in the basket of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Propaganda didn’t get the support they needed, the first album wasn’t actually produced by Horn who was otherwise engaged, and that probably showed in low chart rankings.
They released two albums: A Secret Wish on ZTT in 1985 and 1234 on Virgin in 1990. A Secret Wish received the greatest critical acclaim despite Horn’s absence. It contains Duel and also the band’s two other singles, Dr Mabuse and p: Machinery. It’s about as art-house as you can get. The track ‘Dream within a Dream’ ‘covers’ Edgar Allan Poe’s poem while ‘Sorry for Laughing’ is a cover of a song by Josef K, a Scottish post-punk band named after the central character of Kafka’s novel The Trial (not the easiest of reads) and which was itself influenced by a raft of philosophers (and Joy Division). Dr Mabuse and p: Machinery with its Tusk-like beat are definitely worth checking out and are probably more representative of Propaganda’s work than is Duel.
One of the things I like about Duel is that it is a truly timeless song. It didn’t do well at all when it was first released, reaching only #30 in the German charts, #21 in the UK (earning them a one-off appearance on ‘Top of the Pops,’ where, regrettably, they mimed, as just about everybody did), while its highest rankings were in Italy and the Netherlands at #3 and #5 respectively. But in recent years it has been a stalwart on popular music radio programmes, becoming the theme tune for several TV shows and even the call to action at Hearts football club in Edinburgh when the team takes to the field.
What really gets me is the excellent arrangement; a brilliant instrumental bridge (piano) that’s right up there with the one in Thunderclap Newman’s Something in the Air, and the fact that Propaganda tell a story in Duel, with real emotion. And there’s a little frisson in the air here too, from the moment you hear the opening notes. Aspiring songwriters please note.
Duel is unusual for having a second version, on the same album. Jewel (Rough Cut) was also the B-side to Duel the single. The same lyrics were presented in a more aggressive manner with a heavier beat and sound effects.
Propaganda were Claudia Brücken, Michael Mertens, Ralf Dörper and the cold teutonic beauty that is Susanne Freytag (harpist/waitress/jailor in the video). They broke up in 1990 then reformed in 2005. Brücken still performs solo occasionally – most recently in the UK in 2013 – and has worked with other bands since Propaganda and in between their reunions. She released a CD/vinyl collection called The Lost are Found, ‘lost’ songs from a range of artists including Pet Shop Boys, in 2012, and a solo album ‘Where Else,’ last year.
Like all classic songs you’ll still be hearing Duel on the radio (assuming there is a radio) in another 25 years time. I can’t remember the last time I heard Holly Johnson.
©D J Bentley 2015