“Another hit and nothing, short of driving a rusty meat-hook through Dave Gahan’s malformed cranium, will prevent it.”
(Geoff Barton, Sounds, 24/9/83)
By the time Depeche Mode had reached single number eight and album number three that they really hated them.
“Love in Itself” is an inoffensive little pop song. It hinted, but only hinted, at a slightly darker side to the band than had been evident on the likes of “The Meaning of Love” or “Just Can’t Get Enough”. The influence of Martin Gore as a songwriter was becoming more pronounced, the brighter hues of the Vince Clarke era were slowly, almost imperceptibly, being replaced by, dare I say it, something more…gothic.
Geoff Barton’s wilfully unpleasant and aggressive review of “Love in Itself” was not, however, representative of the music press as a whole. The N.M.E’s Chris Bohn shared my view of things, writing;
“A sober tune marks their continuing willingness to puncture any preconceptions you might have about them.”
The Melody Maker and Smash Hits were equally curious and positive about what was happening in the world of the Mode.
The album that spawned “Love in Itself” was “Construction Time Again” and it also included their finest single to date, “Everything Counts” with Dave Gahan sounding purposeful, powerful and persuasive despite singing ludicrous lines about careers in Korea…and being insincere. Despite that it was, musically, an electropop anthem…a song that you could imagine turning stadium crowds into religious revivalists; hands aloft, eyes closed, voices raised.
Darker depths would be plumbed on the follow up album “Some Great Reward” with its hymn to kinky sex “Master and Servant” and the achingly beautiful “Somebody”, a song so filled with yearning that it seems to capture the longings of the lonely the world over and place them into just one song.
Up until this point Depeche Mode had been a band searching for an identity; they had started as near New Romantics, flirted with pop, embraced electronica, lost their main songwriter, dabbled in new sounds but I don’t think anybody, least of all them, really knew who, or what Depeche Mode were…or could be.
I owned “Speak and Spell”, their debut album and “Some Great Reward” when I was 12…I knew “Just Can’t Get Enough” and when I was trawling through a second hand record store with my dad I had stumbled across those two albums. Such was my eagerness to own them that my dad sacrificed the chance to pick up a copy of Geno Washington’s “Hand Clappin’, Foot Stompin’ Funky Butt…Live” to buy them for me. By the time he got home, took out some more money and made it back to the shop it had gone. I am not sure if he ever really forgave me.
I used to listen to “Master and Servant” only with the aid of headphones.
The idea of lines like “…you treat me like a dog, get me down on my knees” reaching the lugholes of my parents did not seem particularly sensible. Even now it makes me feel like I am doing something I shouldn’t be.
What was coming next in the story of Depeche Mode couldn’t have been predicted.
Not even by a psychic.
Especially by a psychic.
Because being psychic isn’t a thing.
The point is that the Mode were about to deliver a trio of albums that would make them both the biggest band in the world and, at least arguably, the best band in the world.
First came “Black Celebration”.
The remaining memories of the frilly shirts of “Speak and Spell” and the innocence of the likes of “Just Can’t Get Enough” were now gone. Banished. Vanquished. Exorcised. In their place came songs from the edges of pop…the darkest corners.
This was the tinny, tiny sounds of eighties synth-pop on steroids.
Misery, death, lust, desire, longing, betrayal…often times evoked in a single note.
The title track came over like something John Carpenter would have dismissed as a bit much for the score of one of his more unsettling films…with lyrics that Robert Smith would have cast aside because they were a bit too dark.
“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Ding-dong the witch is dead, which old witch? The wicked witch of the norm.
“A Question of Lust” was a companion piece to “Somebody” but was laced through with a despair that made your bones ache as you listened. “A Question of Time” was equally difficult with a tale of a white knight trying to protect an innocent from the grabbing hands of men who want only to corrupt, but unlike “Lust” it is an anthem…played at eleven it sounds like a song that could fill stadiums not just indie discos. These three tracks were supported by curiosities, peculiarities and oddities like “Fly on the Windscreen” and “World Full of Nothing”.
One track though signalled the shift in tone better than any of the others; “Stripped”.
With real guitars, the sound of a car engine, a droning, repetitive, rhythm pulsing relentlessly in the background and a wall of sound that builds to an awesome crescendo this was the moment when Mode #2 (maybe Mode 3# if you want to see those post-Clarke stumblings as a separate entity) came alive.
This was synth-pop taking on traditional rock and roll…and battering it into submission.
A year later, in 1987, they returned with an album that was, incredibly, better in every way; bigger, bolder, more polished, stronger lyrically, musically immense…a masterclass in pop music and a statement of intent, to cement themselves as a band existing beyond the narrow parameters that the press had placed them in for so many years.
“Music for the Masses” is the moment that America sat up and really listened to Depeche Mode. It reached number 35 in the charts…which is quite the feat for a gaggle of boys from Basildon. It was also a big noise in the world of college radio and that key demographic fell hard for the dark romance of songs like “The Things You Said”, the sexually explicit thrust of “I Want You Now”, the near cock-rock beat of “Strangelove” and anthemic swell of “Never Let Me Down Again”.
They were now armed with a back catalogue of bona fide pop smashes from the early moments of their career, anthems, love songs, stadium fillers…and they were not about to let them go to waste.
A series of live dates at some of the biggest venues in the world followed “Music for the Masses” and the magnificence of those shows was captured for posterity on “101” a live film and album. Gahan looked every inch the rock God, dressed in white, strutting, parading and peacocking around the stage. The rest of the boys happy to soak up the adulation.
It was now undeniable.
Depeche Mode were the biggest band in the world.
When I first saw “101” I was utterly convinced that they were the best band in the world too.
Very little that I’ve seen from anyone else since has changed my mind.
For five years between 1986 and 1991 they were the most important band in my world…publicly I was making a great song and dance out of showing everyone how cool I was by professing, loudly, how much I loved Morrissey and The Smiths but, truthfully, it was the Mode I returned to time and time again.
The third album in this trilogy was 1990’s “Violator”.
It could have been a terrible fall for them.
They had scaled the heights and now, surely, they had peaked.
The only way was down.
I can see myself clearly now, twenty-nine years later, climbing the steps to the first floor of the John Menzies on Kirkcaldy High Street. This is where the record department is. I had bought a copy of “Al Capone” by Prince Buster on 7″ here, I had bought my first Smiths album (“Hatful of Hollow”) here, and now I was going to buy an album that I felt sure couldn’t match what I had last purchased from this band I loved so dearly.
I bought it on cassette.
The black cover.
The red rose…petals not yet parted.
Hinting at the move from innocence to…where?
From opening note to closing.
From first syllable to last.
It was deeper, darker, richer, warmer, cleaner, more erotic, more intense and just better than anything, and everything, else they had released to that point.
I listened to it over and over again.
Laying in bed at night.
Walking to school.
Walking home from school.
It filled my senses.
It moved me from childhood to adulthood in some, indefinable, indescribable, way.
The song that grabbed me from the very first listen was “Clean”.
It unsettled me.
Made me feel queasy.
“I don’t understand what destiny’s planned”
I had begun to have clawing, cloying, nagging doubts about faith.
Was I a believer because I believed or because I thought I should believe?
“As years go by
All the feelings inside
Twist and they turn”
My feelings were twisting and turning.
Then “Personal Jesus”…
“Reach out and touch faith
Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers”
I had prayed.
I had never had an answer.
That was my fault though…my prayers were insincere.
I didn’t have enough faith.
So I would pray a little harder, a little more fervently, a little more sincerely.
Reaching out to touch faith.
I had made promises though.
Entered into covenants.
“Vows are spoken
To be broken”
“Enjoy the Silence” seemed, to me then, to be almost blasphemous.
In just those six words I felt a guilt so profound it is difficult to explain it to you.
Then there was all the usual Depeche Mode stuff…rude bits, cool bits, dance bits.
To this day it remains one of the few albums that I can sit and listen to from giddy start start to glorious finish.
I don’t care how this sounds…it is an intimate and affecting experience every time.
Depeche Mode, from the pop thrills of their first rabbit in the headlights moments of pop stardom to their all conquering stadium filling glories, remain one of the great loves of my life. They helped give me new life, taught me the meaning of love, told me so, explained that people are people, answered the question of lust, gave me something to have and to hold and showed me the world in their eyes.
I can only be grateful.