“Why does it hurt when my heart misses the beat?”: an appreciation of Propaganda

Andreas Thein, the co-founder of German synth pop group Propaganda, passed away yesterday, and I wanted to briefly mark his passing. Although they only made one album, A Secret Wish (the dismal post-breakup album 1234 doesn’t count, and neither does the unnecessary remix album Wishful Thinking), Propaganda were a hugely important group to me at a certain point in my musical upbringing. A schoolfriend lent me the “Dr. Mabuse” 12” (the only Propaganda music which has Thein on it) and I was completely bowled over, as much by the Teutonic glamour and sophistication that permeated its every aspect as I was by its juggernaut riffage and stingingly memorable tune. At a time (1984) when the worship of the increasingly hopeless Gary Numan that had accompanied me throughout my entire teenage years was thankfully drawing to a close, Propaganda propagated a thoroughly exciting and, more importantly, credible alternative. Bolstered by the air of intellectual cool emanating from Paul Morley’s text-heavy covers for the ZTT label, Propaganda showed me that synth pop could be as dramatic and challenging in its way as the art rock of Pink Floyd that I was increasingly in thrall to at the time. What’s more, I regarded Propaganda, with some justification, as the hip alternative to their more popwise labelmates Frankie Goes To Hollywood, who were dominating the Top 40 at the time.

Andreas Thein had left the group by the time A Secret Wish came out in 1985, but still I played the record endlessly, hooked on the effervescent singles “Duel” and “P-Machinery” as well as the widescreen epic “Dream Within A Dream”. Even more remarkably, I travelled up to London that year to see Propaganda at the Hammersmith Palais, my first ever live concert in the capital. It wasn’t a very impressive occasion, to tell you the truth. Chronically short of original material, they were only onstage for an hour or so, and wrapped things up with an encore of “Dr. Mabuse”, which they’d already played. Co-founder Ralf Dörper wasn’t even there, but a bunch of session musicians were, who were (understandably) unable to reproduce the glistening perfection of the band’s studio sound. None of this mattered to me, though. I came away from the gig clutching a Propaganda tour programme, badge and T-shirt, the latter of which I wore until it fell apart.

For all intents and purposes, then, the Propaganda story ended with the release of A Secret Wish. I’ve certainly never showed any interest in any of the group members’ subsequent activities. But I’ll always love that album (the 2010 double CD reissue, with its slew of outtakes and remixes, is the one to go for), and especially the savage beauty of “Dr. Mabuse”. Rest in peace, Andreas.

Animals, art and death: Hermann Nitsch’s Six-Day Play

April 2022 update: RIP to the great man.  A shame he didn’t live to see the Six-Day Play performed again, stymied first by his tax affairs and then by COVID-19.

March 2022 update: it’s still going ahead, but only days 1 and 2 will be performed.

April 2021 update: the performance has now been postponed to July 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This post is linked in the Wikipedia article on Hermann Nitsch, and for that reason alone gets more hits than the usual pitiful hit count for posts on this blog. So I thought it might be useful to update it briefly, since Nitsch is finally getting around to his long-promised re-run of the Six-Day Play, which is now planned to take part in Prinzendorf in July 2021.

I wrote the post below in 2013, when my fascination with Nitsch was at its height. Since then, I’ve pretty much lost interest in Nitsch, for two main reasons. First, I left Vienna in 2017 and moved to Geneva. No longer living in the home of Viennese Actionism, and thus no longer being able to visit Nitsch’s castle in Prinzendorf or the Nitsch museum in Mistelbach, my interest in the whole scene naturally began to wane. What’s more, by then I had amassed sufficient Nitsch screenprints (original paintings were, of course, way out of my price range), signed books and LPs to last me a lifetime.

Secondly, and more importantly, I gradually became fed up with the loud and persistent way in which Nitsch’s staff were announcing his presence on social media. There were far too many events, Facebook posts and Instagram stories for my liking, all of which had the effect of demystifying an artist who had always relied on a certain amount of mystery for his impact. The first time I visited Prinzendorf for the annual Pfingstfest (Pentecost feast), it was hardly advertised at all save for a short notice buried deep in Nitsch’s website and the annual newsletter mailed out to subscribers. I suspect that Nitsch’s well publicized brush with the Austrian tax authorities, and the need to raise funds for the restaging of the Six-Day Play, made it necessary to start rattling the collection jar – which is something Nitsch, or rather his people, have been doing loudly ever since. As a result, the Pfingstfest has become uncomfortably overcrowded in recent years, which is not something I ever thought would happen at a Nitsch action. Anyway, it was time for me to bow out, and all things considered, I won’t be at Prinzendorf next summer.

Original 2013 post follows:

There seems to be a bit of a storm brewing over Hermann Nitsch‘s Three-Day Play in Leipzig next month. An online petition protesting at the planned killing of a cow and some pigs during the play has gathered over 6,000 signatures in just a few days. I can see this thing reaching the mainstream media any day now, so I’d like to use my little corner of the internet to inject some much-needed corrective thinking.

I have no idea whether any animals will be slaughtered as part of this play, although it wouldn’t surprise me. We went through all this in 1998, when Nitsch performed his Six-Day Play in Prinzendorf (a re-run of which is planned for 2020). Animals were killed there, to predictable howls of outrage and demonstrations outside the castle as the action took place. What those people didn’t understand, and the Leipzig protesters are also failing to grasp, is that the animals killed during Nitsch’s actions are due for the chop anyway. If they hadn’t been killed there, they would have been killed in the slaughterhouse. Furthermore, their meat is cooked and eaten by participants in the action, just as surely as it would be if they had met their end in the abattoir. This idea of animals being killed “in the name of art” is, therefore, entirely spurious.

As for me, I’m still seething over the fact that I’m not going to be able to make it over to Leipzig for this, Nitsch’s first major action in eight years.

Naked Lunch, Vienna Arena, 19 March 2013; Vienna Museumsquartier, 8 May 2013

With the release of their 2013 album All Is Fever, Naked Lunch seem to have finally laid to rest the film and theatre projects (Universalove, Amerika, Ecce Homo) that they have been working on for the past few years, and begun to concentrate instead on cementing their unarguable position as Austria’s finest rock band. And not before time, one might add, since although those projects (Universalove in particular) had plenty to recommend them, as a body of work they didn’t really stack up against the group’s two full-length masterpieces, Songs for the Exhausted and This Atom Heart of Ours. So it was a great pleasure to see the band play a sold-out gig at the Arena in March, which I’m only now getting around to reviewing following their free show at the Museumsquartier summer opening.

I’m still struggling to get to grips with some of the reasons why I love Naked Lunch so much. I think it’s related to endurance, the idea that here is a group of people that has undergone extremes of experience and whose songs embody those extremes in a very direct and affecting way. I’ve never quite been able to banish the thought, for example, that singer and principal songwriter Oliver Welter was homeless for a while during the group’s five-year hiatus; nor that founder member Georg Trattnig died of an alcohol-related condition (“will it ever stop to hurt/will I ever wash away my pain”, as Welter sings on the elegy for Trattnig, “King George”). Yet what comes over so strongly now, in the group’s songs and performances, is a sense of triumph at having faced down these demons and come out, battered but alive, on the other side.

None of which would mean very much at all if Naked Lunch’s songs weren’t so lyrically passionate and melodically resplendent. Now tracing skeletal, desolate melodies (“Colours”), now launching into bursts of urgent riffing (“God”), the group display an exquisite flair for the immediate and the dramatic. Electrified by devastating choral harmonies, the songs depict traumatized states of mind (“there’s too much violence in my dreams/there’s too much hate running in my veins”, Welter laments chillingly in “Town Full of Dogs”) even as they clutch desperately at purification through sexual betrayal (“I did it with my best friend’s wife/it felt like paradise”). Yet there is tenderness and optimism as well, in the gently enveloping warmth of “In the Dark” and the radiant intimacy of “Military of the Heart”.

Bringing this quest to the forefront of the group’s activity, Welter is an immensely spirited and likeable frontman. Whether engaged in manic dancing, swaggering around the stage, trading moves with bassist Herwig Zamernik or inciting the audience into ever more energetic responses, he’s impossible to ignore. So too is the stunning coup de théâtre during “The Sun”, in which tiny shards of gold paper pulsate above the audience’s heads. And so too is the way the four men line up for the encores, bringing the shows to an end in an atmosphere of togetherness that is as celebratory as it is moving. We shine on together, when we walk hand in hand.