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.