Top five tunes: Depeche Mode (1990s edition)

Who? Depeche Mode

Years active: 1980-present

Band members:
Dave Gahan (vocals) 1980-present
Martin Gore (vocals, keyboards, guitars) 1980-present
Andy Fletcher (keyboards, backing vocals) 1980-present
Vince Clarke (keyboards, lead and backing vocals, guitars) 1980–1981
Alan Wilder (keyboards, piano, drums, backing vocals) 1982–1995

Discography (1990s):
Violator (1990)
Songs of faith and devotion (1993)
Ultra (1997)

It was way back at the end of January that I posted the first part of this series. I got the idea to do a three part “Top five tunes” series of posts on Depeche Mode when I read the news late last year that they would be celebrating their 40th anniversary together in 2020. I focused on their 1980s back catalogue in that first post and I was hoping to post this second part focusing on their output from the 1990s back in March but that obviously didn’t happen. And it’s pretty obvious by now that my plans of wrapping things up with a final post on the rest of their work before the end of July is dead in the water. However, I’m still optimistic that I can wrap this one up before the year is out.

A lot has transpired since I started writing for this series back in January (and since I actually started writing this post at the end of March). And I’m not just talking about the announcement that Mode was named part of the class of 2020 for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though that ceremony has been delayed now until the end of the year. You might have also heard talk about this thing called COVID-19 and the havoc it is wreaking on what we have all come to know as our ‘normal lives’. Indeed, the pandemic likely had a huge impact on whatever plans the three remaining members of Depeche Mode were hatching to celebrate this year, much as it has for musicians the world over, whether it be album releases or tours or music festival appearances. Everything ‘normal’ has pretty much ground to a halt and our purveyors of music have had to find innovative ways, mostly via social media, to stay creative and relevant. My own personal celebration of Mode’s 40 years can still continue, as it must, albeit perhaps at a slower pace than I was planning.

I mentioned in passing back in January that my first real introduction to the band came by way of “Personal Jesus”. It was released as a single in 1989 and appeared on their 1990 album “Violator”. If you’ve gone back to check, you’ll notice that the song didn’t appear in my 1980s top five and that’s because I’ve always lumped it in with their 90s output, so (*spoiler alert*) don’t be surprised to see it below. “Violator” really blew things wide open for Depeche Mode, continuing the work of exposing them to a worldwide market that “Music for the masses” and its ensuing tour began. They would only go on to release two more albums in the 90s but each were, if not as iconic as “Violator”, at least tremendously successful and continued to build on the momentum from the album before.

I had become a serious fan in the years between the releases of “Violator” and “Songs of faith and devotion” and I distinctly remember the first time I heard anything new from the latter album. That’s right, a certain song came on the radio while I was working kitchen at the King Street Bar & Grill. From the very first blood curdling screech and the bluesy guitar riff, I knew things were heading in a very different direction for Depeche Mode. And then I saw photos in the music magazines of frontman Dave Gahan, the long hair, beard, and tattoos, and read the stories of his relocation to Los Angeles, the drug use and near death experiences. I saw the band live for the first and only time in the summer of 1994 while they were touring that album at Kingswood Music Theatre. Incidentally, it was the first of many concerts that I would see with my wife Victoria, back when we were just kids and didn’t know what life had in store for us, so it was a pretty special show for us both.

Multi-instrumentalist and one of the principal songwriters, Alan Wilder left the group the year after that concert, making the quartet a trio, and leaving a lot of question marks in all of our minds. The biggest one for me was would there ever be another Depeche Mode album. That question was answered in the affirmative in the spring of 1997, a great year for music in my humble opinion, with the release of “Ultra”. And though my tastes had moved on and Mode weren’t as near to my heart at that point, the album drew me in nonetheless and featured some very excellent music.

So yeah, Mode in the nineties, only three albums, but some very excellent tunes and many of them are a big part of my memories from that time. Let’s go.

The top five:

#5: Barrel of a gun (from “Ultra”, 1997)

I will forever associate this song with the night my wife and I officially celebrate as the night we got together as a couple after a few years of friendship. Even though the song wasn’t released as a single in North America until the end of the following month, I swear that we heard “Bullet of a gun” on the radio as part of a new music preview driving home from the coffee shop Victoria brought me to, planning to break up with me, a funny thought considering we weren’t yet a proper couple. Instead, I convinced her that we should give it an honest try. I remember taking this song as a sign, given that we had seen Depeche Mode live together, two years prior. Though had I gotten a closer listen to the lyrics at the time, I might not have thought the omen a good one. Frontman David Gahan felt as though Martin Gore had written it about him and his struggles at the time, the drugs that had him “staring down the barrel of a gun”. The track was the first single since Alan Wilder had left them a few years earlier and had their fans breathing a sigh of relief. It was dark, electronic, industrial, sexy, sleek, and undeniably, Depeche Mode.

#4: Waiting for the night (from “Violator”, 1990)

I remember my friend John using this song and quoting lyrics from it to spin yarns about his ability to visit parallel, dream-like worlds to the young ladies in our group of friends back in the day. Even now, I couldn’t tell you if he truly believed it or if it was just an attempt at getting some play. Listening to this song loudly, though, in a darkened room, through half closed eyes, might have anyone believing in the supernatural. “And when I squinted, the world seemed rose-tinted and angels appeared to descend.” Everything seems better when partially obscured says track five on Depeche Mode’s iconic album, “Violator”. The rapid fire, repetitive, percussive synths mesh together and wash miasma to create a sort of mist, a haunted space where all seems at peace, and Martin Gore and David Gahan sing together as one, a dream, a pang at the heart, a big glass of deep red wine. Just lay back on your carpet, let the night wash over you, the vibrations sink into your bones, and it doesn’t really matter if the story was true or not. It just is.

#3: I feel you (from “Songs of faith and devotion”, 1993)

“Violator” saw Depeche Mode branching out and adding other instruments, like guitars (!), to their typical synth palette but their next album, “Songs of faith and devotion”, was the closest thing to a rock album that the band would record. “I feel you” has a serious blues riff, care of Martin Gore on guitar, and Alan Wilder played the rhythm on an honest to goodness drum kit. Though truth be told, his playing was then looped, digitized, and sampled throughout. The religious overtones in their lyrics were taken to new heights on the album, flirting with gospel tropes and choirs, and here on “I feel you”, as per usual, Gore has Gahan equating God with the very human emotion: love. “You take me where the kingdom comes. You take me to and lead me through Babylon. This is the morning of our love. It’s just the dawning of our love.” It’s a sensuous piece that bumps and grinds along and Gahan roars like the sexy beast that he is, newly long hair a flailing, attitude personified. Yes indeed.

#2: Enjoy the silence (from “Violator”, 1990)

The fact that there are three songs from “Violator” on this list of Depeche Mode’s best five tunes from the decade (don’t worry, I know you’ve already skipped ahead to see which one was number one) only serves as a reminder (as if it was needed) as to how great that album was. Both this track and the number one also hit these pages as part of my Best tunes of 1990 series. “Enjoy the silence” was number 11 on that list and only comes second here to an indisputable modern classic, but it too is definitely one of my favourite tunes of all time. It is breaths of fresh air interspersed with delectable guitar licks that, together, approximate the beauty of the soul. Drum beats explode with confetti and get frenetic and tribal. It is worldly and interstellar, calling to mind the vastness of the grand canyon and the grandeur of the alps and the solitude of the Sahara or Antartica. It is all this and yet, all David Gahan (or was it Martin Gore) wanted and needed was here in his arms, the love of his life, the love of your life, equating silence, equating everything. Yeah, it’s all that but it’s also a great tune with which to smash the dance floor.

#1: Personal Jesus (from “Violator”, 1990)

I hinted earlier in this post that this song would appear somewhere in this list and given that I mentioned that it was my introduction to Depeche Mode and that this very same song was my number one track on my best tunes of 1990 list, you shouldn’t at all be surprised to find it number one here. Don’t be disappointed. Really, is there anybody that was alive in 1990 that doesn’t know  and love “Personal Jesus”, at least to some degree? Just play the twin chiming bells at the start of the song and I’d say that most people will respond with “reach out and touch faith”, call and answer like. The song was everywhere for a time and with good reason. “Personal Jesus” is an excellent track that feels that it pokes fun at televangelists at the same time as it examines the nature of love and obsession. The bluesy guitar riff and and the stomping percussion that plays through the first part of the verses is sexy and danceable and then things get all erratic and driving and needy before the familiar refrain kicks in. Yeah, we all need faith and we all need something to believe in, love is a religion. “Personal Jesus” is a revolution.

For other top five lists in this series, click here.

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