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Making David Bowie: Low – Classic Pop Magazine

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David Bowie Low cover
David Bowie Low cover

In 1976 David Bowie fled his demons, seeking seclusion, healing and creative freedom. he landed in Germany and set about creating the first album of his celebrated ‘Berlin trilogy’, the mighty Low

Though Bowie had finally achieved his long-sought goal of gaining chart success in America, it had come at a cost. The laid-back sophistication of Young Americans had morphed into the destabilised desperation of the still utterly marvellous Station To Station.

The latter album was a sonically and lyrically textured masterpiece, but psychologically Bowie was somewhere else entirely – indeed, he would later claim to not remember recording it at all. 

A now-crippling dependence on cocaine had addled Bowie’s mind, and his stylistic adoption of the consciously dark Thin White Duke persona had now swamped his being more thoroughly and totally than even his earlier situation with the Ziggy Stardust character had.

Bowie fled to Switzerland in an effort to be free of this evil twin, his dependence on drugs and the vacuity of his former Los Angeles home.

His first project was to work with his good friend Iggy Pop, who had a range of predicaments to work through himself, and Bowie’s behind-the-scenes puppet mastery on the iconic The Idiot opened many musical doors that led Bowie directly onto his work on Low – which was initially titled New Music: Night And Day.

Low’s dynamic and sonic adventurousness can be partly attributed to Bowie’s tight relationship with his latest creative muse Brian Eno, who would inspire Bowie and his band to explore a range of new approaches to songwriting, performing and mixing that would shape the Berlin Trilogy’s creative process.

Though Bowie and Eno’s relationship was a major piece of the creative jigsaw, another important element was Tony Visconti’s production, utilising such innovative sonic tools as the Eventide Harmonizer, which Visconti radically applied to many of the drum tracks on the record.

Aside from the addition of versatile lead guitarist Ricky Gardiner, the core band remained pretty much unchanged from Station To Station. It included rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar, who remembered: “All cards were off the table for this album. We knew that Brian was running the show.

“Visconti and I had brought all our effects. I had footswitches, bypass phasers and Tony had his toys. Brian had a synth that had a magnetic ribbon hanging from it. I later found that he could connect with it, somehow, through this ribbon and have it sequence. Pure genius.” 

Read more: Making “Heroes”

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The record is divided into two distinct halves. The more conventional songs fill up most of Side One’s running time, while the second side is wholly instrumental in nature, with these nuanced arrangements dominated by textured EMS synth. 

On the few songs that Bowie does lend his vocals to on the record, we tend to get lyrics that are fragmentary and which thematically offer shattered pictures of a life in turmoil.

Opening instrumental Speed Of Life is a brief sonic preview of all that’s to follow, including a fade in/fade out that’s used on many of the tracks on Low, giving the listener the impression that doors are being opened and closed, and that somewhere, this unresolved music is still playing.

Breaking Glass follows, a painfully resurrected memory of a relationship, and a mind, in strife, while the poppier learnings of What In The World offer up a depressing, agoraphobic lyric that speaks of yearning for love, though seen through the eyes of a dark lyrical protagonist “talking through the gloom” and waiting “until the crowd goes”. 

Similar subject matter is dealt with in one of Bowie’s finest songs, Sound And Vision. The song’s scant lyrics serve as a paean to inspiration, and thus represent the sonic distillation of everything he sought to achieve with Low.

However, the themes of the song also highlight the utter blank misery of depression, with the “pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to do, nothing to say” in Bowie’s isolated room. These lyrics, and Bowie’s irregular delivery, are contrasted by the track’s upbeat arrangement, the “doo-doo-doo” backing vocals, and the nursery-rhyme-like descending melody.

Elsewhere on Side One, Always Crashing In The Same Car is a weary and resigned piece that references the relentless cycle of Bowie’s dismal mental state as well as an unfortunate incident with his Mercedes, where the singer rammed a car that belonged to a coke dealer who had ripped him off. Be My Wife is an anguished plea for companionship, complicated by Bowie’s inability to stay in one place too long, both geographically and musically. 

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While two of the songs proper sit among the finest of Bowie’s entire career, it’s the instrumental side where Low comes into its own, particularly when viewed as a unique listening experience. The instrumentals, which really begin with Side One’s poignant closer A New Career In A New Town, offer a broad collage of both sonic succour and despair, in a less internalised form. 

On Side Two, Bowie turns his attentions beyond himself and instead paints a picture of the various cultures, communities and cities that surrounded him, from the solemn Warszawa’s bleak evocation of the Warsaw that Bowie encountered while travelling through the city the preceding year to the punsomely-titled Art Decade (perhaps the first Berlin-oriented piece of the trilogy), which illustrates the disengagement of West Berlin society at that time, when it was by-and-large a hedonistic, culturally malnourished environment.

The other side of the city’s wall is invoked by the album closer Subterraneans, a harrowing sonic eulogy to those who were caught in East Berlin after the separation.

These two pieces are deliberately divided by the spine-tingling Weeping Wall, serving as the aural equivalent of that imposing dividing line, with a multi-instrumental arrangement that contains guitar, vibraphone and piano.

Initial reaction to the record was somewhat baffled. This was the year of the Sex PistolsNever Mind The Bollocks in the UK, and the US market expected the further funky exploits of the chat show-friendly Bowie of 1976.

But Low has since come to be regarded as one of Bowie’s central works: it’s honest, raw and anguished, but Bowie’s mission here is to move beyond this state of mind, attempting an exorcism of his demons via music. In this sense, Low is a positive record.

The rich instrumental work on the album shows Bowie’s desire to explore music in an advanced and original way, particularly for a major pop star. He’d continue this approach on Heroes later the same year, demonstrating he’d indeed found the sound and vision he evangelised on the eponymous lead single.

Low is an important record in a broader context, too, impacting on the mindsets of many young Bowie-heads who would take on the spirit of musical (and conceptual) audacity and push those ideas into the mainstream, as well as throwing a spotlight on many of the electronic inspirations Bowie and Eno revered.

No doubt, it helped mould the synthesiser into an object of ‘cool’. 

Is Low David Bowie’s best album? Well, that’s one of those perpetual debates that shifts and alters as trends and perspectives change – but it’s a fascinating collection and undeniably one of his most transcendent, superlative listening experiences. 

David Bowie: Low – the songs

Speed Of Life


Propelled out of the ether by a whirling buzz of Eno’s quickly faded-up synthesiser, bold instrumental opener Speed Of Life exhibits many of Low’s sonic facets. There’s the impactful rhythm section – Dennis Davis’ processed drum sound, the inconspicuous but effortless bass playing of George Murray, the fizzing synth that increasingly dominates and a cyclic, tightly structured arrangement. Before we can get too comfortable, the track moves into a fade out, making for a tantalisingly unresolved listening experience.


Breaking Glass

“David and Angie had been arguing and it was easy to hear what was going on, so the music of the song needed to represent the way people argue,” Carlos Alomar remembers about this Low highlight. “I really thought out the arrangement. The drums and bass start out like somebody knocking on the door, hard.” 

While Breaking Glass is the shortest song on Low, it’s one of the record’s most memorable moments. From the infectious lead riff to the tight (yet unsure) funk arrangement that bounces to life during the verses, to Bowie’s lyrical shards and yelps of histrionic self-reflection, Breaking Glass finds Bowie laying bare his pained mindset. Though the lyrics are few, they work incredibly effectively, including the provocative: “You’re such a wonderful person, but you’ve got problems…”

What In The World

Originating as a track earmarked for inclusion on The Idiot, Iggy Pop appropriately lends vocals to this relatively upbeat track that is among the more commercially flavoured compositions on Low. Despite this, the arrangement and mix are occasionally challenging, from the chirruping synthesiser, providing a futuristic veneer, to the unsettling, isolated lyrics that imply a yearning to escape and find love. Once again, the lyrics and allusions are fragmentary.

 Sound And Vision

The album’s lead single is also among its high water marks – some would argue it’s one of the highlights of the entire Berlin creative endeavour. Sound And Vision is, on the surface, an incongruously breezy and buoyant pop song, with an upbeat but reflective feel. This relatively straightforward arrangement is impaled by shards of descending synthesiser, which stream into the song like the sonic equivalent of sunlight beaming into a dimly-lit room – the same kind of room, perhaps, as the one that’s evoked by a sublime but brief lyric which, though gloomy, is ultimately a positive manifesto that distils Bowie’s creative approach to his album entirely into one song. 

Bowie searches for a creative muse, going cold turkey on distractions and vices and focusing on achieving “the gift of sound and vision”. Though the song was inspired by this sense of inner turmoil, it’s nonetheless extremely infectious, making it one of the most accessible pieces of music recorded during the Berlin period. This was reflected by its No.3 chart placing in the UK singles chart. 

Always Crashing In The Same Car

A haunting, shimmering song that (unusually for Low) starts and ends with no fades, Always Crashing In The Same Car is a beautifully elaborate piece of music that highlights both Ricky Gardiner’s sublime lead guitar skills as well as Eno’s multi-layered synthesis. Bowie once again sings with sad uncertainty, though the despondency evoked in the resigned lyric is in the past tense, perhaps implying that this state of mind is consigned to memory. However you read it, Always Crashing… is one of the most glorious compositions on the record.

Be My Wife

With an over-the-top piano dominating proceedings, Be My Wife finds Bowie romantically yearning for love with a lyric that also heavily references his wanderlust (this would be a more pronounced concern on 1979’s Lodger). Be My Wife is perhaps the oddest song on Low, even though it’s one of the more accessible and conventionally structured songs. An interesting choice for a single, then – which perhaps explains why, when it was released shortly after Sound And Vision, it failed to chart in the US. The garage-band style and vaguely intoxicated air that pervades Be My Wife would be resurrected again during the Berlin Trilogy, and is also an interesting sonic precursor to the kind of sound that Blur adopted in the late 90s. 

A New Career In A New Town

This ghostly, evocative instrumental segues Side One neatly into the (relatively) vocal-free Side Two. It’s a moving, transitional piece, as the title reflects. The wonderful harmonica work serves as a despairing human wail in the dark, counterpointed with the sluggish mechanisation of the repetitive rhythm section. This harmonica line would be reused later in Bowie’s recording career, on the title track of 1987’s Never Let Me Down and on the heartbreaking, triumphant closer of 2016’s Blackstar: I Can’t Give Everything Away.

Warszawa


And so to Side Two – the experimental milestone that astounded and dumbfounded in equal measure. Warszawa begins what is, in essence, a travelogue. Here, we’re taking a look at the Warsaw of the mid-70s. Bowie would say that the second half of Low contained tracks that concerned things he couldn’t put into words and “required textures” – and here, in a mournful and solemn-feeling track, Bowie and Eno do just that. Through the synth, we zone into the mood of a particular place and a time. Bowie would add the bizarre, lyric-free vocal after the composition, with Visconti speeding up the tape to raise his register.

Art Decade

This eerie, nostalgic piece evokes better days – as the obvious pun in the title implies. Art (ie, culture, society) had decayed on the western side of the Berlin Wall, the former glory of the city now a fading memory of yesterday. Though Eno composed much of the initial arrangement in solitude, Bowie contributed to establishing the tension of the track, and the addition of real instruments – included a gorgeous cello – contributed to the impression of former glory.

Weeping Wall

Eno might have played a big hand in the shaping of the previous two tracks, but Weeping Wall was a solo exercise for Bowie who, entirely alone, created this sonic reaction to the ever-imposing presence of the Berlin Wall, and its divisive effect on the city’s inhabitants. It was also the only track on Low to be recorded entirely at Hansa Studios in Berlin, with a view that directly faced the wall. It’s a distorted jumble of melodic ideas and occasional vocal snapshots – evoking, perhaps, the graffiti and snippets of human communication that covered the wall itself.

Subterraneans

Originating as a piece of music intended to soundtrack The Man Who Fell To Earth, Subterraneans was worked on further and grew into this fitting closer for the record. Conceptually, it’s a reference – and a salutation – to the forgotten families and lives that resided on the other side of the wall, in Communist East Berlin. The backwards music and the faint-jazz effect of the distant saxophones are unsettling as well as being sonically fascinating, as are moody chant-like vocals that are conjured from the ether. It’s a tense piece that closes without resolution, ending Low on a stunningly moving note.

Read more: Top 40 New Romantic songs

David Bowie’s official website

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xPropaganda interview: “Music should be a playground”

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xPropaganda

Alongside Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasuredome, Propaganda’s A Secret Wish defined the grandeur of ZTT. Their debut album stood alone as a beacon of extravagant synth-pop… until now. more than three decades on, Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag – now xPropaganda – tell the remarkable story of their stunning comeback LP, The Heart Is Strange…

Sometimes, the toughest problems can be resolved by a matter of straightforward practicalities. The making of a new Propaganda album, 37 years after the imperious synth-pop masterpiece A Secret Wish looked to be their only major statement, was instigated by a simple wish for the band’s singers. Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag wanted to start playing live again. There was one major issue to overcome first.

“We realised a Propaganda show would be quite short,” smiles Claudia, sat next to Susanne on a sofa at Brücken’s home in London. “When we first played together again at The Garage in London in 2018, we had to fill the set out with B-sides. If we were to do more shows, we wanted to play for 70 minutes, not 45. That meant we really needed to write a few fresh songs, if only to make our concerts longer.”

That was four years ago. The pandemic has, of course, delayed matters, but was the wait for triumphant comeback album The Heart Is Strange also down to the kind of intricately detailed, money-no-object 1980s-budgeted studio sessions exemplified by A Secret Wish? Not exactly. Claudia and Susanne would generally meet at Brücken’s home, joined by co-writer John Williams, who’s fitted in perfectly with the pair since producing the latter’s solo album Where Else in 2014.

“We’d never be so presumptuous as to try to make A Secret Wish Part 2,” insists Freytag. “It was daunting when we started, thinking, ‘OK, which direction do we want to go in after so long?’ But we’ve found our style naturally, without thinking of the stress of trying to make a sequel to that record. If you impose that sort of pressure on yourself, forget it, that’s no good.

“Music should be a playground, and where there is similarity between our new record and A Secret Wish is that they’re both quite playful. We were free of pressure, and instead it was, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ That’s what works best.”

Without a record deal in place, the financial reality when they embarked upon the project in 2019 was a world away from A Secret Wish. “John would bring his sandwiches to my house,” laughs Claudia. “Then, twice a week, Susanne and I would pack our sandwiches to write at John’s. A lot of the budget for this record is sandwiches.” 

xPropaganda

The writing trio were helped by Propaganda’s other (sort of) member, Stephen Lipson. The producer of A Secret Wish, Lipson played with Propaganda at that 2018 London comeback show. Before becoming a producer for Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones and Robbie Williams, he’d been a guitarist.

“Stephen joining us on stage was so great,” smiles Claudia. “Once we started writing, we asked Stephen if he had any backing tracks that we could get our heads into. He lives close by, so we could often meet up.” 

“I’ve always stayed in touch with Claudia and Susanne,” explains Lipson. “Mostly Claudia, because she’s in London and Susanne lives in Berlin. But we’ve all chatted about life over the years. I have a store of song ideas, so when they asked for backing tracks, it was easy to send ideas over and say, ‘How about this?’” One of those ideas became the new album’s magnificent 10-minute finale, Ribbons Of Steel. “Oh, that was much longer to start with,” laughs Stephen.

“Me and a producer friend, Pete Murray, had been asked to create a piece for a music library in Los Angeles. We made three pieces of music that segued together into this 20-minute track. Only after we’d sent that in did we learn the library wanted something short and sweet.

“It had a Propaganda feel to it, so when Claudia and Susanne wanted ideas, it was easy to send them Ribbons Of Steel. It’s a lovely way to end such a dramatic album, a soothing and peaceful piece to play out.”

Asked about Stephen’s status in the new line-up now dubbed xPropaganda, Claudia enthuses: “Lippo is so key to the music, I definitely think of him as part of the band. But he might not think of it like that.”

Susanne adds: “He’s in the video for Don’t (You Mess With Me). He’s performing at the London launch gig for the album. We’ve played with the idea of Stephen being in the band, I’d say.” As predicted by Claudia, Lipson isn’t so certain. “I’m their happy helper,” he smiles. “I’m not in the band, nor should I be. We work well together and I’m always happy to help out, but we’re just buddies, really.”

Whatever Stephen’s role, the original men from Propaganda aren’t involved. The band’s labyrinthine line-up started in Kraftwerk’s hometown of Düsseldorf in 1982, when Ralf Dörper of industrial rockers Die Krupps started Propaganda with Susanne and artist Andreas Thein. Flamboyant percussionist Michael Mertens soon joined from the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra, while Freytag persuaded Brücken on board, too, after the two had already sung together in B-52s-y art-popsters The Topolinos. 

John Peel was an early champion, with listeners including Paul Morley. The journalist wanted ZTT’s first signing to arrive from outside Britain, and there was enough mystique about Propaganda to make them ideal. Trevor Horn produced dramatic debut single Dr Mabuse. Thein promptly left, fearing Propaganda were about to become too commercial. He sadly died from cancer in 2013.

The remaining quartet finished A Secret Wish with Lipson. Horn might have been too busy to carry on with Propaganda, but Lipson was the ideal replacement. Not only was he Horn’s de facto right-hand man anyway, he was perfect for getting the best out of Susanne’s intoxicating melodrama and Claudia’s persuasive intimacy. “Stephen is instilled with the ZTT sound,” reasons Brücken. “The sound we make together is so attractive.” 

Although now rightly hailed as a masterpiece, A Secret Wish was only a modest commercial success, reaching No.16 in the UK Albums Chart.

“I feel completely bemused when people call A Secret Wish a classic,” frets Stephen. “Nobody really bought it. It’s not an initial flop that’s sold well over time, like The Shawshank Redemption. It’s just never really caught fire. But I didn’t reflect on that lack of success, because back then we were always onto making the next record. It’s like when people talk about how big the budget was.

“In the mid-80s, people didn’t discuss recording budgets. It was just about trying to make a good record. A Secret Wish took a long time, as we were experimenting with new equipment. It was detailed work, and everyone was happy for us to take the time to make it good.”

Stephen’s bandmates/buddies are more celebratory of their first album’s status. “We all knew at the time that we were making something special with A Secret Wish,” Freytag believes. Brücken agrees, noting: “My first musical experience in a studio was with Trevor Horn. That’s an astonishing privilege. But I’d never thought that, nearly 40 years later, people would still be discovering our album.”

It didn’t help in the detailed process of making A Secret Wish that Susanne, Ralf and Michael still lived in Düsseldorf, coming to England for a few days at a time. Claudia soon settled in London, marrying Paul Morley. (The couple separated soon after their daughter Maddy was born.)

“We were very young and inexperienced,” reflects Susanne. “Our record company contract could have been better, and a different manager could have held us together. It felt like we were being divided into two halves and there were so many different facets to any one story, it was difficult to know what was going on.” 

In 1986, Claudia left to form Act with Thomas Leer, staying with ZTT, while the rest of Propaganda instead signed to Virgin. By the time second album 1234 was released in 1990, Susanne and Ralf had quit, too, leaving just Michael with a new line-up, including former Simple Minds rhythm section Derek Forbes and Brian McGee. Michael persuaded Susanne to sing on two songs that had been written before Ralf had left.

“I didn’t want to be involved,” she admits now. “I only changed my mind for sentimental reasons when Michael asked me. I had nothing to do with 1234 creatively.”

Brücken is still frustrated that a myth has grown up around Propaganda that ZTT boss Trevor Horn and his wife, Jill Sinclair, refused to renegotiate the band’s contract. “Jill did invite us to renegotiate our deal,” she insists. “But the band decided not to do that. Different management would have encouraged us to at least listen to Jill. But there were four different people with different views and agendas. It was tricky.”

There have been various efforts to reunite the A Secret Wish line-up, but Claudia and Susanne are clearly right for each other 37 years on. Having lived in London for so long, Brücken is more talkative, but Freytag’s English is flawless, too, and her dry wit matches her friend’s.

“I don’t think we were conscious in the 80s of how different we were, being women in electronic music,” considers Susanne. Claudia adds: “Susanne and I have solidarity, females in a world where there’s a lot of male energy.” 

xPropaganda
xPropaganda – The Heart Is Strange cover

Again, the band’s management didn’t help. “There was division in the band, and that division was created,” Freytag states. “That made it difficult. We were only in our twenties, and it was difficult to put into words, the feeling of certain attitudes towards women that were accepted, where Claudia and I would think, ‘Hmm, I’m not certain what to make of that.’ It wasn’t a negative experience, but management could have been more inclusive.”

The patronising attitude of the press didn’t help. Propaganda consisting of two women and two men, making grandiose and at times gothic pop, they were promptly dubbed “ABBA from Hell”, a tagline Claudia dismisses as “silly”, before Susanne interjects: “I thought it was quite funny. It was so silly that we used it ourselves later on.” 

This is news to Brücken, who stares at her friend. “Did we?!”  

Ralf has returned to playing with Die Krupps, while Michael released music in the 90s with Dreamware and Black Mesa, but has appeared musically quiet since 2011 single I’m A Cathedral with Italian dance musician Beppe Loda.

“We tried many times to make it work with Michael and Ralf,” says Claudia. “It worked beautifully 35 years ago with them, but it became like a relationship that doesn’t work. People change.” Susanne adds: “You can’t try to recreate situations again and again. We’re all different people. Claudia and I, this is the moment for now. Once we made the decision it should just be the two of us, it just clicked.”

The Heart Is Strange is released under the subtly yet pointedly changed name of xPropaganda. Brücken admits: “The guys weren’t happy for us to call ourselves Propaganda. Otherwise, that’s what we’d call ourselves.”

“But it’s also a name to show that it’s different now,” reasons Freytag. “The name xPropaganda shows that Propaganda was then, and here we are now.”

In truth, Michael and Ralf’s absence isn’t really noticeable on The Heart Is Strange. As comeback records go, it’s unimpeachable, Susanne and Claudia’s voices driving heart-racing pop songs still full of unexpected twists.

“Susanne and I like our music to be disturbing,” laughs Claudia. “But we also like it to be tender. There are lots of contrasts in our work, and we dramatise those contrasts in our words, our delivery, our music. Susanne makes our music beautiful and touching.”

For his part, Lipson says: “Our tastes align. The only thing that’s not appropriate for Propaganda is swing music. Anything else that comes out of my addled brain is usually appropriate in one way or another for Claudia and Susanne.”

To an extent, finally making a record together after so long was like a dam bursting. The single Don’t (You Mess With Me) was written in less than a day, its message that xPropaganda aren’t here to put up with anyone’s nonsense pouring out of the pair. 

“It was cathartic, that song,” laughs Susanne. Claudia adds: “We’d only met up to see what we might do that day. Coming out at the end of a session with a song like that, so honest about feeling frustrated, was astonishing.” It was also a song where John Williams’ help proved invaluable.

“Usually, I labour over things,” admits Brücken. “I take ages to write a melody. John has a lot of discipline in nailing things down. On my own, I usually think, ‘I could sing that word… no, it could be that word.’ Having a song like Don’t flood out was great to experience. Usually, my process is laborious, but it’s productive, too, because when I do sing the song, the polishing of what words to sing means it flows better.”

The compelling No Ordinary Girl also flowed beautifully, inspired by Claudia walking through London’s bustling Embankment. “I followed this hypnotic sound I could hear in the distance, because I couldn’t work out what it was,” she recalls.

“I realised eventually that it was someone playing steel drums. I thought it’d be cool to recreate that hypnotic feeling, creating a song that was equally mysterious.”

The attitude of not putting any pressure on themselves continued throughout recording, as Stephen explains: “Our to-and-fro of writing and recording continued, until we concluded we possibly had an album. We had enough songs to make an album, rather than trying to create an album. It was that way round. Once we had enough songs, why not call it an album and see if we could get a record deal?”

With fateful timing, Universal’s catalogue label UMC had recently bought the rights to ZTT’s back catalogue – and its name. Once UMC discovered Claudia, Susanne and Stephen had made a new album worthy of A Secret Wish, it would have been downright rude not to release it on ZTT.

“Where else could it go?” laughs Claudia. “This record follows the sound and mentality of ZTT. ZTT makes a lot of sense for us, and for UMC. Yes, it’s unusual for a new album to be released by Universal’s catalogue company, but why not? ZTT is where The Heart Is Strange should be.” “It’s like the circle has closed,” Susanne smiles. “Everything has come around.”

The majestic 43 minutes of The Heart Is Strange also means xPropaganda now have enough music to realise their dreams of a 70-minute show to tour. Stephen Lipson, who produced the soundtrack for the last James Bond film No Time To Die and is currently working on four albums and movie soundtracks, is too busy to tour.

“I like rehearsals for a gig, figuring out how we’re going to make it work,” he states. “I’m looking at The Heart Is Strange, thinking, ‘How should it be represented live? If the audience doesn’t know this song, does it matter?’ It’s challenging, but we’ll get there. That’s the bit I like. Playing a one-off gig is great, but a tour? Not sure. It certainly wouldn’t fit with my current life.”

“Stephen is a busy guy always doing a million things,” continues Susanne. “He can play whichever shows he likes, but we know great musicians for when he can’t play.”

There are whispers of deluxe plans for Propaganda’s back catalogue but, after so long without new music, the rebranded xPropaganda are looking to the future. “We’ve got our focus and we just want to get on with it,” summarises Claudia. “Susanne and I, we’ve recovered.” With a future now as strong as their past, for electronic music pioneers Claudia Brücken and Susanne Freytag, x marks the spot. 

Read our review of xPropaganda’s The Heart Is Strange here

Read our feature on the making of A Secret Wish

xPropaganda photos copyright: Kai Freytag, Peter Brown, Jimmy King



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Your instant guide to Dreampop

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Dreampop

We lose ourselves in the hazy sonic textures of dreampop, that most painterly of musical genres…

What is it?

With dreampop the clue is in the word ‘dream’. This is music to immerse yourself in, to take a long warm bath in. It’s music that carries you gently from the real world to another, more abstract and ethereal place. In the case of dreampop figureheads Cocteau Twins, that place can be tranquil and balmy, with My Bloody Valentine it can be intense and threatening. There are elements of psychedelia in dreampop, but the emphasis is on sonic textures, not melodies. It’s ambient, with pop flourishes.

Common characteristics include fuzzy guitars, breathy, multi-tracked vocals and introspective lyrics. Expect plenty of reverb and echo, too. Dreampop can be downbeat or upbeat – it can take you up or bring you down. Often at the same time.

Musically, its origins lie in the thick sonic soup that was Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, though there are hints of dreampop in some of The Byrds’ acid-fuelled experiments and the delicacy of Vini Reilly’s Durutti Column. Also check out The Beach Boys’ All I Wanna Do, from 1970’s Sunflower LP, which sounds 20 years ahead of the curve.

Dreampop’s heyday may have been in the 80s but it’s still out there, with bands such as Beach House and – until last year anyway – Chromatics still flying the flag for hazy, transportative pop music.

Essential songs

The Beach Boys – All I Wanna Do (1970)

This Mortal Coil – Song To The Siren (1983)

Falling – Julee Cruise (1989)

Cocteau Twins – Cherry-Coloured Funk (1990)

Mazzy Star – Fade Into You (1994)

Essential bands

This Mortal Coil

Dreampop’s sole ‘supergroup’, This Mortal Coil were started by 4AD label boss Ivo Watts-Russell in 1983 alongside producer John Fryer. Though they were the only two official members, the collective had a revolving door of guest artists, including Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie as well as various members of Cindytalk, Dead Can Dance, Colourbox, The Wolfgang Press, Breathless and Modern English. “The idea,” states the 4AD website, “was to allow artists the creative freedom to record material outside of the realm of what was expected of them; it also created the opportunity for innovative cover versions of songs personal to Ivo.” 

Cocteau Twins

The quintessential dreampop band, Cocteau Twins were formed in 1979 by Robin Guthrie and Will Heggie. It wasn’t until 1981, however, and the arrival of the honey-voiced Elizabeth Fraser and later multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde (replacing Heggie) that Cocteau Twins became the group we know. Fraser’s shimmering vocals, often singing words you needed a Smash Hits lyrics sheet to understand, sat atop Guthrie’s shivery guitars and Raymonde’s growling bass to create music of transcendent beauty. Sadly, they split in 1997, after the breakdown of Fraser and Guthrie’s relationship. FAST FACT: The band were named after the Johnny And The Self-Abusers (later to become Simple Minds) song The Cocteau Twins (itself later to be retitled No Cure).

A.R. Kane

Though A.R. Kane remains one of the lesser heralded dreampop outfits, it’s said that it was singer Alex Ayuli who first coined the term itself. Formed in 1986 by Ayuli with former schoolmate Rudy Tambala they were first inspired by seeing Cocteau Twins on television. “They had no drummer,” Tambala recalled to The Guardian. “They used tapes and technology and Liz Fraser looked completely otherworldly with those big eyes. And the noise coming out of Robin [Guthrie]’s guitar! That was the ‘Fuck! We could do that! We could express ourselves like that!’ moment.” Three albums followed – 69 (Indie Chart No.1), “i” and New Clear Child – until they split in 1994. Later bands such as Slowdive, Dubstar and Apollo Heights have all cited A.R. Kane as an influence.

My Bloody Valentine

Imagine the ethereal beauty of Cocteau Twins with the cold-eyed aggression of the Jesus & Mary Chain – that’s the sound that My Bloody Valentine have perfected over the course of their nearly 40-year-long career. Formed in 1983 by Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig, they took their name from a 1981 Canadian slasher film. The band signed to Creation in 1988 and later that year released their debut long-player, Isn’t Anything (“the first full-length expression of this remarkable new sound: gossamer vocals and insinuating melodies glimpsed through sheets of blurred, opaque noise,” enthused Stuart Maconie in Q). The classic Loveless followed in 1991, but Creation dropped them shortly after. Just one more studio album has surfaced since then, 2013’s m b v, though Shields keeps promising
more material. 

What they say

“An atmospheric subgenre of alternative rock that relies on sonic textures as much as melody.”
The AllMusic Guide To Electronica

“[Dreampop] celebrates rapturous and transcendent experiences, often using druggy and mystical imagery…. After 12 years of Conservative government in Britain, any idealism or constructive political involvement seems futile to these alienated middle-class dropouts.”
New York Times, 1991

“As a genre term, dreampop embodies some of the same characteristics as the music it describes: it’s hazy, ever-shifting, often undefinable and yet somehow distinctly recognisable.”
Long Live Vinyl

Read more: Popscene – C86



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Classic Pop’s John Earls wins top industry award

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Classic Pop’s John Earls has won a coveted industry award for his work on the magazine.

John was named as the winner in the Best Writer – Specialist category at the British Society of Magazine Editors Talent Awards, beating fellow nominees representing Time Out London, Stylist, BBC Top Gear magazine, Glamour UK, Which? Travel and Prima.

Staged at 100 Wardour Street in London, the event was hosted by Tim Pollard, British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) chair and group digital editorial director of Bauer Media, and author, journalist and NHS doctor Dr Ranj Singh. Judges combed through hundreds of entries to find the best writers, designers, sub-editors, social media teams and support staff who make Britain’s editorial industry the best in the world.

The BSME judging panel concluded: “A great writer communicates effectively with their readers and John Earls has done just that! A clear winner in this category. We loved this entry; it was different and engaging and also highlighted John’s great interview skills.”

Tim Pollard, BSME chair 2022 and group digital editorial director at Bauer Media added: “The 2022 Talent Awards are proof that the UK’s magazine industry has bounced back from the toughest two years in living memory. I was blown away by the resilience and creativity, storytelling prowess and teamwork demonstrated by editorial teams the length and breadth of Britain. Congratulations to all our winners and thank you to everyone for entering and making the awards party a memorable night.”

John, who has written for Classic Pop since our first issue in 2012, said: “I’m absolutely delighted to win, especially against such a great field of other writers from such leading magazines. I’m obviously thrilled for myself, but I’m more pleased the judges have recognised not just the hard work the Classic Pop team do to get the best interviews and features possible every issue, but in seeing the value of pop music itself.

“It’s been traditionally easy to dismiss pop music as unimportant, and it’s great the BSME have realised that what artists like Duran Duran, Boy George and Soft Cell have to say is of value, as well as hopefully entertaining the readers. Of course, it’s also true that chatting to Boy George about turning 60 beats having a proper job any day of the week. But pop is important, and so are magazines.”



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