Depeche Mode and Me (Part 2)

Violator (1990) is looked upon by most people as Depeche Mode’s best album and it certainly shifted major units. As a coherent and innovative offering it is certainly up there, but for me Black Celebration is on an equal par because it carries so much emotion for me personally. That said I did buy two copies of Violator – the normal UK release and a crazy-ass Japanese import with a second CD of extra tracks and remixes including the excellent Happiest Girl and Sea of Sin.

I remember hearing Enjoy the Silence for the first time on Radio 1 in February 1990 while decorating my Nan’s bathroom; I thought Dave Gahan had done a song with New Order and was majorly surprised when the DJ said ‘that was the new single from Depeche Mode’. Wow. What a difference there was from the stuff on Music for the Masses. I’m not sure why it had such an impression when Personal Jesus had already shown DM’s new direction the previous year.

Bizarrely Enjoy the Silence is tied to The B52’s Love Shack in my memories. The reason for this is that a local pub I frequented with friends had Enjoy the Silence incorrectly identified on their jukebox and when selected Love Shack played instead. Selecting Love Shack instead just played Love Shack. It felt like I had heard Love Shack more than Enjoy the Silence prior to the release of Violator in March. Tin roof, rusted!

World in My Eyes was another great single and the ‘hook line’ – ‘That’s all there is. Nothing more than you can feel now. That’s all there is,’ is superb. In iTunes I have a five-star rating against every track on Violator with the exception of Sweetest Perfection which has a generous three stars. The only way this album could be any better for me was if Sweetest Perfection was dropped and either Happiest Girl or Sea of Sin (or both) be included in some form.

Cassingles. Remember cassingles? Well I bought all the singles from Violator on cassette as well as CD because Mute had cleverly made sure some remixes were exclusive to this format. I was such a mug for Depeche Mode in those days. I never bought any Depeche Mode on minidisc though, I am happy to say, despite having an MD player. The only original MD I ‘bought’ actually came with my MD Walkman and was This is My Truth Tell Me Yours by the Manic Street Preachers – another five-star album with its own associated collection of bitter memories, but we’re not here to talk about the Manics are we? So moving on…

I went to see Depeche Mode at Birmingham NEC during their World Violation tour with the friend who had let me copy the Blasphemous Rumours 12-inch all those moons ago. Despite our distance from the stage and the players looking like something out of a Lowry painting it was everything I had hoped it would be, but it left me empty. I was emotionally drained perhaps by the emotional build-up of actually finally going to see them play. Apart from Personal Jesus I don’t think I connected very well with the band – it was a stark contrast to listening to them on my own in my room and I felt embarrassed to show my enjoyment in public. Perhaps if we had been closer to the stage it may have been different? I was pretty fucked up mentally at the time so probably nothing would have pleased me – going back stage and meeting them probably would have left me cold too.

I think I recognised that the band and my feelings towards them had peaked and everything else afterwards would be downhill. I was getting into ‘student’ groups like James, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, The Wonderstuff and Pop Will Eat itself and so my devout concentration on Depeche Mode was waning. Subsequent attendances at gigs from these other groups seemed to solidify it in my mind that Depeche Mode were too mainstream to like too much – I guess a lot of this was down to peer pressure. The 101 poster and the Personal Jesus poster featuring Gahan with a naked women with her back to camera leaning against him came down to be replaced by Carter and Ned’s posters.

Songs Of Faith And Devotion (1993) reached number one in the UK and US album charts (and in a dozen other countries) but its creation was troublesome with the pressure to follow the success of Violator, Gahan’s spiralling drug problem, Wilder and Gore not getting along, and Fletch getting depressed. That said it seems like out of adversity came a really powerful album, admittedly not as coherent as Violator but one of their best nonetheless. Gahan in particular is on fire, he admits having very little to do with the creative process, but his vocals are brilliant especially on Condemnation.

I was oblivious to the internal problems with Depeche Mode and bought the album as soon as it hit the shops. I immediately noticed more guitars, real drums and a kind of Gospel feel to the songs which seemed like a departure from the more ‘programmed’ nature of Violator, but in hindsight feels like a natural progression – it’s not like Violator didn’t have any guitars in it! The album in places felt more accapella, echoey and emptier than Violator too which took a little getting used to.

That said there’s nothing empty about I Feel You which is majorly rocky. Walking in My Shoes made me feel a little better about being such a cad with girls at university, One Caress, Rush and In Your Room are particular favourites. These three songs, if not the whole album, felt like a message to one particular girl in my life at the time who seemed to complicate it beyond sanity but I felt I couldn’t do without, although looking back now I wonder if I was in love with the drama more than the people involved? Erasure’s Drama could be equally as applicable. It is amazing to listen to the album now and understand that the production was such a shambles that it reduced Flood to tears of frustration at the time. Songs Of Faith And Devotion represents the last of the four key albums for me, the others being Black Celebration, Music for the Masses and Violator.

Gahan was forced into rehab in 1996 and thankfully the band did not split like a lot of people were anticipating. Fletch and Gore had less publicised issues of their own – depression and drink. Ultra (1997) is the first album after the perfectly understandable departure of Alan Wilder after the marathon Devotional world tour. Surprisingly it was their second UK number one album.

I used to think that only two of the four singles from the album were much cop – these being Barrel of a Gun with its twisted tortured guitar sample loop and massive grungy vocals from the reanimated corpse of Gahan and It’s No Good with its brilliant chugging base line, fat beats and ‘cynical love song’ sentiment. However Home is a grower and as I have been listening to the album again it has led to a new appreciation – some of the tracks I detest I could almost like to misquote a Depeche Mode lyric. I do find some of the songs disappointing – The Love Thieves and Jazz Thieves in particular – in comparison to other ‘album’ tracks from other albums. Depeche Mode do seem to be a band (with the possible exception of Black Celebration and Violator) who spend a lot of time on developing their singles to the detriment of the other eight or so tracks on an album.

Given the state the band were in at the time (Gahan describes them as a three-legged horse) it is amazing that they even stayed together let alone ended up with a number one album with Ultra. Credit is due in no small quantities to producer Tim Simenon (best known as Bomb The Bass) who stuck with the project despite it taking eighteen months on and off mostly due to Gahan’s state. At times it sounds a little like William Orbit’s work with Madonna and in places like Big Beat; in this respect I can understand some fans saying that Ultra was ahead of the loop although feeding everything through a pre-amp was hardly ground-breaking in 1997. At the time I felt that it was more like the start of a downward trend.

There followed a period where I couldn’t go into a newsagents or the magazine section of the supermarket without seeing Dave Gahan banging on about he ‘almost died three times’. I know he was using the interviews as some form of therapy and I was happy that he had not actually died and not turned into a rock and roll cliché, but part of me (the secret subconscious monk-like inhabitant of my inner high moral ground) thought he was a complete dick for getting into heroin in the first place. Trainspotting had been out the year before, so I thought I knew all about it. Now I am pleased he survived and came out the other side of it, that he seems a lot happier in recent interviews and that the band stayed together. I don’t think I would have bought Ultra if it had been a Martin Gore solo project.

It’s not that I don’t like Gore’s lyrics or his performances when he takes lead vocals on tracks – in fact some of my favourite Depeche Mode songs are Gore-fests (One Caress, Blue Dress, The Things You Said and Somebody come to the top of my brain immediately as examples), but I found his Counterfeit EP a bit crap and I think Gahan’s voice has the edge. Both of them together is even better; because I don’t think Gahan’s solo stuff is much to write home about. It’s the same thing with Queen – although I own quite a few Roger Taylor albums and love his edgy rock vocals and I have all Freddie’s solo stuff somewhere, I don’t listen to it all that much, wouldn’t buy a Brian May solo album and can pretty much take it or leave it. Just like Depeche Mode the whole of Queen is far greater than the sum of the parts.

My attention after this disappointing album turned towards a plethora of other groups, mostly UK indie, and I listened to Depeche Mode less and less. I think this was partly because my navel-gazing was dimming in intensity, and I had finally finished university and entered full-time employment. I also made a conscious decision not to listen to Depeche Mode, to wean myself off them; because I was convinced listening to them was fuelling the depressive demons in my head. I seemed to be spending too much time looking backwards when I should have been more concerned over what lay ahead of me. I needed to stop staring down the barrel of the gun. It’s funny even now all these years later while I am writing this and listening to the remastered versions that dark thoughts are circling like sharks in a midnight ocean. But I am in a much better place now than I was in the Nineties so I can shrug it off with ease and get on with life. Holy shark repellent Batman!

During this period Depeche Mode released the long overdue Singles 86>98 collection, but I didn’t buy it because I already had all the singles in one form or another (or in multiple forms in a lot of cases – record cases that is – black of course). Siggy has it, and the only track I did not already have was Only When I Lose Myself. No sad loss.

My first impression of Exciter (2001) was that it sounded like music to fall asleep to and carried the most ironic title of all the Depeche Mode albums in my opinion. I was totally underwhelmed. They should have named it after track 8 – Comatose. I think their titles have always been somewhat tongue in cheek. Music for the Masses in particular was a definite piss-take and Violator, Ultra and Exciter are all types of condom aren’t they? Nice of them to promote safe-sex.

The guitars are still there but have been relegated into the background of an almost underwater electronic sound which disconnects it from Ultra. The album as a whole was far too laid back for me and as a post-drug comeback a little lacklustre; apart from the bombastic electro-goth-rock track The Dead of Night it lacks any great energy. That’s not to say that Gahan’s vocals and Gore’s lyrics don’t work anymore and that there’s no inventiveness, I guess I just lost interest at this point.

I think Exciter is probably a ‘grower’ and listening to it now I am surprised at how fresh it sounds (but this might just be because it sat largely ignored in my collection for a long time). It does sound like a confident new start, with a new producer Mark Bell (who did well with Bjork) and videos without Anton Corbijn. I find Corbijn’s artwork for Depeche Mode too similar to the stuff he does for U2 and with Ultra it was as if Depeche Mode were aspiring to be ‘Rock Gods’ when they really didn’t need to – there’s a certain pomposity required for that which they just didn’t have. Looking at Gahan on the videos for previous singles trying to have a rock hardness makes me cringe and the videos for Violator were also pretty dire – too arty-farty like Corbijn was trying too hard to be clever. Pretentious. Actually I can’t think of a decent DM video apart from Wrong. Am I saying they might have been more successful if they had better art direction / videos? Maybe.

The film on the remaster of Exciter is titled ‘Presenting the intimate and delicate side of Depeche Mode’ and I guess that sums it up. They needed to go somewhere after Ultra but the delicate-tescent wasn’t where I wanted to meet them. I was waiting in the zombie room and they were only there for one track. I Feel Loved is also up-tempo, less rock more disco, but for some reason it still bores me. I imagine if the BPM was upped it could be mixed with Donna Summer, but as it stands it doesn’t quite work for me – the lyrics are sparse and it’s too repetitive. Picky picky picky…

I was in the middle of a strange relationship in 2001 and I can’t really remember clearly what I was listening to instead of Depeche Mode at the time. I guess The Hives, The White Stripes, The Datsuns and Jet were pretty much where I was at with new music. I also vaguely recall digging out some old rock albums (Guns ‘N Roses in particular), the Stone Roses (inexorably linked to one previous girlfriend), Del Amitri (who had quite a bit to tell me in the Nineties) and I think the appearance of electro rob-dogs Fisherspooner sparked a revival in old Depeche Mode stuff, but music, like a lot of other things I enjoyed, seemed to take a back seat while I struggled with the moment I had got stuck in and couldn’t get out of (to borrow from U2).

Around that time I sold quite a lot of my rarer Depeche Mode vinyl to a fan who seemed to be where I was in the early Nineties. He had my German Imports (splatter vinyls some of them), On U Sound System white labels, a sealed copy of World in My Eyes/Happiest Girl in blue plastic with a ‘violate here’ indicator of where to cut it open, a set of four picture disks with interviews that didn’t even play (I told him, he didn’t care) and some other stuff I can’t (or refuse) to remember. It seemed like a good idea at the time to pass them on to someone who would enjoy them as much as I did. I could sit in my cold house and enjoy the silence instead.

I got out. I survived and spent some time putting myself back together again. I moved house in 2004. I went through a phase of nothing but early Queen and then did my first A-Z marathon of listening to the whole of my CD collection. It was a very illuminating and enjoyable experience and one I repeated in 2011. The first time around I think I actually got rid of quite a few albums, the second time around I bought more, filling gaps where I had missed albums. I think this was a signal of my rediscovered love of music and an acceptance of its importance in my life. It’s no coincidence that I started thinking about the plot of my book ‘The Music’ at around this time.

Playing The Angel (2005) was the first album I didn’t actually buy for myself. I bought it for Siggy. This probably says more about my relationship with Depeche Mode than with Siggy. It’s difficult to know what to buy for a loved one, so why not buy something for her that you might like to listen to yourself? I have recently ordered the special edition of the album to complete the collection and of course I have listened to it on iTunes every now and again.

It seems like Depeche Mode finally found their feet again after struggling as a trio in the post-Wilderness. I think this is in no small part thanks to Gahan emerging as a songwriter and contributing songs to a Depeche Mode album for the first time. The songs on the album are generally soulful and introspective and come across as messages of wisdom and regret. I turned a new page in my life when Siggy and I became an item and so Depeche Mode is not really talking to what’s actively inside me any longer but that’s not to say I can’t connect with the memory of when I felt a certain way. My connection with Depeche Mode is therefore probably a whole lot healthier these days.

I think that the first half of Playing the Angel is stronger than the second. A Pain That I’m Used To opens up the album with some sawing synthesized horn noise that sounds like the trumpets of heaven announcing that Armageddon has arrived, a creeping unrelenting build-up of the tune and then that noise is back. They repeat the trick and it works much like the soft /hard /soft /hard format of a lot of Nirnava tunes. John the Revelator is very catchy with great grungy Gahan vocals and to my mind triggers thoughts of Iron Maiden (Seventh Son of a Seventh Son) and The Sisters of Mercy stuff without it being out-and-out rock – a very clever trick. Suffer Well has Gore on bass guitar and sounds like it could have been on Violator (along with Precious which seems genetically related to Enjoy The Silence).

Macro may as well be a song about the discount store; although Gore seems to be trying really hard with his vocals I think it is a poor precursor to the themes in Sounds of the Universe. Damaged People is slighter more enjoyable with its multi-layered vocals, but I don’t think Gore had a particularly good ‘turn’ on this album.

In general while I think the album is less innovative than Exciter it sounds a lot less empty – the tunes are more full of complex analogue sounds which gives it a darker more determined feel – The Sinner in Me is a good example of this – despite the relatively gentle singing, the bass line, tinny synth notes and percussion seems to say – ‘you will listen to this tune and you will enjoy it – prepare to be assimilated’. Nothing’s Impossible and The Darkest Star with its retro ping-pong noises also have that feel and knowing what other projects the producer Ben Hillier has worked on (The Doves, Elbow and Blur’s Think Tank) I think he had a lot of influence over the soundscape.

Sounds Of The Universe (2009) has been in my car stereo for the last few days – it is a long album produced by Ben Hillier again and features some retro-Depeche Mode sounds courtesy of excavated synthesisers with excellent vocals from Gahan up there with Condemnation.

After reading some useful reviews on Amazon and being blown away by Wrong and the accompanying video, I decided to buy this one for myself. Although In Chains is great once Gahan and Gore’s vocals get started the opening instrumental minute or so is a really awful way to open an album it sounds more like an orchestra warming up than a band trying to impress after a four-year haitus. Hole to Feed compensates and then Wrong kicks in with its Personal Jesus like overlaid bass-laden declaration and the stupid start is forgotten for a while.

Peace with its big multi-layered vocal chorus, inspiring lyrics and ingenious synth loops and In Sympathy with its clever lyrics and deep vocals are my favourites I guess.  Corrupt is pretty cool with its complex arrangement and its theme – ‘I could corrupt you, it would be easy… you’ll be calling out my name, begging me to play my games’. It is a good solid album and another step in the right direction away from the wishy-washy Exciter.

I am interested to see what Depeche Mode come up with next. Gore and Gahan have completed projects with the likes of Vince Clarke and Soulsaver (an easy Crimbo present for Siggy) and were reportedly working on a new album for 2013.

As far as I am aware Depeche Mode have never had a guest vocalist on a track (plenty of drummers though!) and it would be cool if they did something along the lines of The Manics’ Your Love Alone is Not Enough with Nina Persson of The Cardigans. It’s such a cool track combining two of my favourite vocalists in one not quite 4min gold nugget. Strange that Depeche Mode have not done something similar in their long career. Yes there are plenty of mash-ups out there, but no official collaborative studio track with a singer from another band.

Here’s a link about the forthcoming album:

http://www.spin.com/#articles/depeche-mode-new-album-march-2013-columbia-records

Sounds like good news!

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