Monday, 4 February 2008

PROPAGANDA: Dr Mabuse








"There's no way back..."

I've said things about both group and song before, but hearing "Dr Mabuse" being played at Club Poptimism last Saturday got me thinking about the long-term lives of pop singles in general; how best do they survive, what amount of memory is involved in continuing to believe that a record is now as powerful as when first you heard it, in another life and perhaps in another country? And do some hit records belong in the chart, and if they don't fit in, is it necessarily their fault if they don't get remembered or celebrated?

At Club Poptimism nobody really danced to "Mabuse"; many attendees seemed quietly bewildered by its existence - it's easy to forget that its unapologetically bold retro-futurism (1933 meets 2013) is already approaching its quarter century, and since it only made number 27 on its initial release and never gets revived on radio or (much) in clubs it has tended to be viewed as a suspicious oddity which sneaked under the carapace of obscurity, a weird little addendum to Frankie.

Even in the spring of 1984 it was a future which nobody really wanted; Frankie had stormed some barriers and Art of Noise were quietly getting on with helping to invent the next generation or seven of dance music but the media were as reluctant to get behind Propaganda as they had been with DAF or Neubauten; strangely scowling Germans who may have been dubbed "Abba from hell" (and, for the record, that quote was originated by Peter Martin, that fortnight's singles reviewer for Smash Hits and quite possibly the great lost New Pop music writer) but what did that mean to a confused public already ready to retreat to a safer mock-future of shuttlecocks and underpants, plaid and manly industriousness (ah, the irony of the latter)?

Yet "Mabuse" spells out what for many became a real pop hell in the noughties: the anxiously robotics of "Sell him your soul!" and "Never look back!," the references to the "Satanic gambler" and "the man without shadow" who "promises you the world" now seems more than anything else a prophecy of Cowellism, a scarily obedient era where well-dressed, humbled youths do their best to avoid getting thrown out of the showbiz window and land in the peat of reality - a warning against the potential destruction of pop music, of which Paul Morley was acutely aware. The hammer unto anvil beats seem designed to humiliate the compromised likes of the Thompson Twins (rightly); the record's scope and damaged, dissonant eloquence, especially in its original "Ninth Life" 12-inch mix which continues beyond the song into abstract Neubauten metal, post-Darmstadt serialist string section slashes and (finally, and most unexpectedly) a close relation of the theme from Brookside, implied that most other pop records of its age might as well wrap up and go back home. Yet it was perhaps too lurid, too exposed, to become loved, to hit higher, and its relative failure may spell the true beginning of ZTT's end since I would propose - and not just because Morley married one of their number - that Propaganda were Horn and Morley's real love, the act into which they poured more of themselves than any other, the main event to Frankie's candidly colourful opening act, the Runaways which would follow Frankie's Hollywood Argyles.

Thus what I now feel about "Mabuse" might be construed as something of a sad nostalgia; that it didn't make the impact it should have done (was it really too heavy and/or too bright?) and that people still shoo themselves away from it now. Was it that "Mabuse" didn't belong in the pop charts, or that it was too good, the charts of the time too unworthy? But even then I have to question that viewpoint, since two people in another country definitely did hear both "Mabuse" and its parent album and applied its techniques and principles to making their own next album; if Thriller was Michael and Quincy's New Pop album - how can anyone listen to "Billie Jean" and not hear the ABC (and I don't mean the Jackson 5 one) lurking within, never mind the fact that its video was directed by the same man responsible for the video to New Pop's celebratory parade, "Don't You Want Me?"? - then Bad was, at least originally, intended to be their ZTT record; see how the dizzyingly ascending steppes of "Mabuse" reappear, nearly unaltered, in the title track, how the thrust and cut of songs like "P. Machinery" intrude into "Smooth Criminal"; both Jackson and Jones were avid New Pop followers, and perhaps the least celebrated, but they managed to smuggle Propaganda's throb into the mainstream pop process. Furthermore, bearing in mind t.A.t.U.'s very Propaganda-sounding number one from the beginning of 2003, it is likely that the 1984 charts let Propaganda down. Maybe their time will yet come. Then when their heart misses the beat, it really will hurt - and hopefully hurt the unwanted Mabuse of this debased age.

7 comments:

Billy Smart said...

I was eleven in the summer of 1984 and thought that Frankie GTH were the best pop thing ever, I loved the conceptualism, the beats, the idea of a remix being like a massive expanded trip into an imagined world, the idea of pop being an imporatant political statement. I think that I was scared of the adult sexuality that I didn't quite understand, though.

Even with that background, I didn't really get 'Dr. Mabuse' at the time though. It did seem too brutal, too dark, too tuneless. It certainly wasn't much played on 'Now That's What I Call Music 3'! I love it now, but that's because I understand it.

But move on to early 1985, and Duel was a single that I absolutely loved absolutely immediately. This was strange and grown-up, too - the words about cutting meant that it would be an enthusiasm that I'd hide from my parents - but also seductive and with a tune that stayed with you... for life, I now realise!

I can see why Mabuse only really has an audience of people like us, but I wish that Duel was more widely known. Back in 1985, 12 and miserable, Duel, Welcome To The Pleasuredome and Close To The Edit were a lifeline of sorts... things that changed the way that I both listened and felt.

Tom said...

When I last played the work christmas party, the boss's secretary came up to me at the start of the night and said, "I've got an odd request, you probably won't know it". Of course it turned out to be Propaganda! "Any of their singles - Dr Mabuse, Duel..." - we only had Duel but played it and she danced, amazed and thrilled that we had it!

The only other music I had ever heard her endorse was the Kaiser Chiefs and Jack Johnson so what this suggests about ZTT's legacy I don't know!

Marcello Carlin said...

Heheh...Morley would probably comment "What changed?" in the manner that George Michael contrived to be number one both before and after "Two Tribes"...it's a pity she wasn't there on Saturday but from 1984 student DJ experience I can confirm that "Mabuse" was an instant dancefloor clearer the one or two times that I tried it.

"Duel" is a strange case; it apparently sold in excess of 250,000 while never progressing beyond number 21 (though it was on the chart for quite a few months) and their TOTP performance depicted something perhaps beyond safe 1985 tolerance levels, resistant to mass love. Of course that makes it all the more outstanding!

mike said...

I was getting residual requests for "Duel" when I started regular club DJ-ing in 1987... a sure sign of a Stayer. Claudia B still performs it live with OneTwo, her collaboration with OMD's Paul Humphries, along with a cover of "Club Country" as dedicated to BMcK. (They supported last year's Erasure tour and the H.League's Dare tour.)

stan said...

I'm sorry, Marcello, I've fallen a bit behind in by blog reading. Won't happen again, I promise. "Mabuse" was played often enough on Melbourne's 3RRR to become lodged firmly in my head, where it would stay for many years until I finally found it, in one of its 12-inch guises, at a YMCA garage sale. It was every bit as alien, and every bit as lovely, as I had remembered it.

"Mabuse" is, of course, far from alone in being a song that should have become a monster hit but didn't. (The "too good for the charts" argument I'm not too sure about; that opens up lots of cans of worms. There are all sorts of factors involved in something becoming popular (or not), worthiness not always being one of them.) The consolation is that those of us who remember it love it as much now, if not more so, than when it was new. History will have to make the call.

Anonymous said...

I love Dr Mabuse to bits, but even I couldn't dance to this convincingly. It's one to sit and stare moodily out of the (rain-stained) window to!

Anonymous said...

I was 23 in 1984 when,constantly on the lookout for anything Trevor Horn produced,I heard dr Mabuse.I thought this is the musical event of my life.I wasnt wrong,I have the cover art tattooed on my arm,this record could burn a turntable! Marilyn Manson eat your heart out.