Propaganda – p: Machinery
If you happened to be born in the early 1970s then you probably had the curious pleasure of hitting puberty just when it seemed most likely that you would be blown sky high (or worse, transformed into a mutant) by a nuclear attack. Thanks to a showing of the BBC’s Threads at school (what were they thinking?) I spent much of my time from the age of twelve onwards convinced I wouldn’t live to see Abba reform, a worry that is of course still all too real. For teenagers at this point there were only two possible outcomes in life – either you’d be sucked up by a gigantic mushroom cloud or you’d die of ignorance, crushed by an enormous gravestone. Yes, the mid 80s were nothing if not fun.
Pop music seemed to be just as preoccupied as I was – there was Breathing by Kate Bush (nuclear war as experienced by an in-utero foetus), Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (America and the USSR obliterate each other), Dancing With Tears in My Eyes by Ultravox (one last shag before we get melted) and 99 Red Balloons by Nena (who knows, but it seemed quite ominous).
It’s slightly odd how compelling it all was – despite giving me regular nightmares, I was hugely drawn to this apocalyptic pop. Even the stuff that wasn’t directly about the nuclear threat carried a sense of doom with it, and this was especially true of the early ZTT signing Propaganda, a German electronic outfit whose every move suggested a nightmarish future controlled by mad scientists and sentient machines. It was both brilliant and terrifying, so naturally I loved it.
1985’s A Secret Wish album was one of the year’s strangest (only Hounds of Love is weirder), packed with references to Fritz Lang films, quotes from Edgar Allen Poe, and a very odd shouty woman (Claudia Brücken) whose voice always seemed one note away from lurching completely out of control. It’s faintly miraculous that they managed to score any hits at all at a time when Sister Sledge‘s Frankie spent a month at no.1, but Dr Mabuse reached no.27 and Duel no.21. Duel is of course frequently and correctly cited as one of the greatest singles of the decade, but my favourite was its follow-up, which was quite the most oppressive and worrying thing I’d ever heard: p: Machinery.
As a massive fan of both BBC1‘s The Tripods and Superman III, I was already heavily into machine enslavement, so this song was an absolute gift to me: “Rotating wheels of destiny inflame the city lights / Machines call out for followers far out into the night / The calls of the machines drowning in the steam.” Producer Stephen Lipson makes the whole thing sounds like it’s coming from some infernal assembly line, with every synthesiser and every beat boxing in Claudia’s wonderfully impassive vocal. p: Machinery doesn’t so much end as finish its cycle, having successfully envisioned a future where our every move is controlled by technology. Thank heavens that never came to pass (check your facts – Ed.)
p: Machinery perhaps proved to be a little too odd for mainstream tastes – hardly surprising given that it was more likely to send you scurrying to the nearest underground bunker than it was the dancefloor – but it spent ten weeks lurking threateningly around the lower reaches of the chart, peaking at no.50. Internal strife and legal wrangles with ZTT led to Propaganda‘s split (perhaps de-commissioning is a better word) the following year, with a new line-up emerging in 1990. But the 1980s would have been a dull old place without them, though in all honesty I might have slept a bit better.
Entered chart: 10/08/1985
Chart peak: 50
Weeks on chart: 10
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Well it would have been perfect for Christina Aguilera during her Bionic phase wouldn’t it?