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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)

Context:
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.

Categories
Tunes

Top five tunes: Depeche Mode (1980s 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 (1980s):
Speak & Spell (1981)
A Broken Frame (1982)
Construction Time Again (1983)
Some Great Reward (1984)
Black Celebration (1986)
Music for the Masses (1987)

Context:
A couple of months ago, William, a fellow blogger at a1000mistakes, posted about a Depeche Mode show he saw back in 1994. Upon reading his words and the set list, I thought it sounded very much like the sole time I saw them live with my friend Tim and my future wife Victoria and I told William that I was reasonably sure I saw that same tour on the other side of the world. I later mentioned the show and William’s post to my wife and of course, it brought a smile to her face because it was a pretty special night for both of us. We didn’t know it then, but it was actually the first of what turned out to be many concerts we would see together over many years. We decided in that same conversation that we would both be willing to see Depeche Mode again live if the opportunity arose.

Then, shortly after all that, I saw somewhere on social media that Depeche Mode were set to celebrate 40 years in existence this very year. And it occurred to me that there would likely be some special releases launched to mark the occasion but that a tour would be really cool as well. Wouldn’t a 40th anniversary show be something to see?

40 years.

The thought of it got me thinking about how long I’ve been following them (hint: it’s not quite that long) and I decided I should do something on these pages to observe the anniversary for myself. Of course, with forty years in existence comes an extensive back catalogue, too great to narrow down to one of these top five tunes things. So I decided to do three: one for the early days in the 80s, one for during the height of their popularity in the 90s, and a final one to cover off their latter output of the last two decades.

Depeche Mode was born when Andy Fletcher, Vince Clarke, and Martin Gore, all of whom were already in a band together, heard OMD and decided to dispense with their guitars and buy synthesizers, and then, Clarke heard Gahan performing a Bowie cover somewhere and asked him to join. Clarke then left the band he helped found after the release of their debut, “Speak & spell” in 1981. He went on to form Yazoo with Alison Moyet and later and perhaps more famously, Erasure with Andy Bell. Martin Gore took over songwriting duties from that point on and they brought their membership back up to four after an ad in a music magazine was responded to by Alan Wilder. This is the quartet that would put out five more albums through the 1980s, establishing themselves as an important force in the synth pop and new wave movements. All of this culminated in 1987’s “Music for the masses”, the tour for which was wildly successful, especially in the US, where they became something of a household name. A concert film was later produced, as was a live album, of this tour’s 101st show at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

I officially became a fan after the release of the hit single, “Personal Jesus”, in 1989. (You’ll soon note that I haven’t included it in the top five here and that’s because I identify it more with the 1990s.) My friend John then recorded a copy of “101” to cassette tape for me for further exposure, given that it was something like a best of collection of their tunes to that point. It was then that I put a name to the song “People are people”, whose chorus I vividly remember singing quite often while delivering papers back when I was in grade eight, though I couldn’t tell you now where I would’ve heard it at that time. From there, I started exploring their back catalogue, purchasing “Some great reward” on cassette, and later, “Black celebration” and “Music for the masses” on CD.

With six albums in ten years, Depeche Mode’s run of music in the 1980s is easily their most prolific period. If you go through the albums, or even just the singles, you can easily chart their progression, from the bright and bouncy pop of “Speak & spell” under Vince Clark’s watch to their darker and more complicated and convoluted themes under Gore and Wilder. I’m certain many of these tracks were popular in the clubs at the time, sharing sets with The Cure and New Order, and are still favourites these days on Retro nights.

Have a peek at these five early tunes, my own top five from their 1980s output and let me know what you think and what your own picks would be. I hope to get to parts two and three of this series in the early half of this year. Enjoy.

The top five:

#5: Behind the wheel (from “Music for the masses”, 1987)

“Sweet little girl, I prefer you behind the wheel and me the passenger. Drive, I’m yours to keep. Do what you want, I’m going cheap tonight.” If you google the song lyrics, you’ll find plenty of interpretations of them on the internet. BDSM, paedophilia, drug use, females taking the lead, sexually or otherwise – some are disgusted, some are outraged, and others just shrug. I don’t know that the song is all that dark and deep. It’s a great driving song and not just because driving is referenced in the lyrics. I recently learned that the original version of R&B track, “Route 66”, was the influence for the song, thematically and musically, which would explain the remix including a cover of it. But yeah, the song is meant to be played on a car stereo with good speakers, the windows open or the convertible roof down, letting in the cool night air while you fly down a deserted country road.


#4: Everything counts (from “Construction time again”, 1983)

“Everything counts” was the first single released off their third album, “Construction time again”, an album I always thought toyed with industrial music sounds. This tune in particular sounded to me like a factory production line, interspersed, of course, with xylophone and melodica melodies, and Gore and Gahan singing back and forth between chorus and verse. “The grabbing hands grab all they can. All for themselves after all.” I remember this tune sticking with me when I first heard it on “101”, a tune about capitalism and greed. It appears as the final track on the live album because as a fan favourite at the time, it was used often as final encore. On the recorded version on “101”, you can hear the crowd singing the refrain well after the boys in Mode stop playing. Like it was never meant to end.


#3: People are people (from “Some great reward”, 1984)

“People are people so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully?” As I mentioned above, I distinctly remember singing this refrain over and over and over, repeatedly, because I didn’t know any of the other words, while delivering papers, a good two or three years before I would meet Depeche Mode properly. Yeah, it’s a pop song. Yeah, it was a huge hit, their first in the US (which was likely why I heard it when I was so young). Yeah, Martin Gore regrets ever writing it and they haven’t played it live since the “Music for the masses” tour. I still love it. Lots of percussion with dregs of the industrial experimentation left over from the previous album and the shared, back and forth vocals, between Gore and Gahan. It touches on racism and hatred and war. And to teenybopper me, back in the day, it admonished the bullying I saw happen and personally felt at times at school. So as much as Gore feels it is too straightforward a pop song, it, like many a Mode song, can mean different things personally to different people.


#2: Just can’t get enough (from “Speak & spell”, 1981)

This here’s the other track I recognized when I first listened to the “101” live album for the first time. More likely heard at youth group and high school dances than on the radio, “Just can’t get enough” is a danceable pop song through and through. It was the third single to be released off Mode’s debut album and the final single to be written by Vince Clarke. A quick comparison with any of the other songs on this list illustrates the vastly different songwriting styles of Clarke and Martin Gore. More concerned with hooks than words, Clarke had Gahan repeating the title line dozens of times. However, that synth hook was brilliant and infectious and yelling out the same line over and over on the dance floor is much easier than trying to remember deep and dark lyrics. I guess what I’m saying is great pop songs like this have their time and place and I’d say this tune is as iconic as any of their later material.


#1: Somebody (from “Some great reward”, 1984)

This final song has a ton of sentimental value for me. By the time I saw them live for that aforementioned concert, it was already one of my favourites by Mode. I had actually spent most of that concert sitting on a hill at the back of the crowd because I was feeling unwell but when Martin Gore came onstage by himself for the encore and sat himself at the piano for this song, I dragged my sore body to its feet to sing along, explaining to Victoria, who had sat through most of the concert with me, that it was a very special song. Fittingly, a shade more than fifteen years later, when we were married, this was the song we chose for our first dance. And so we moved as one with our friends and family circled around us while golden leaves fell from their trees around us and Martin Gore crooned about the person with whom he dreamed about sharing his life. “But when I’m asleep I want somebody who will put their arms around me and kiss me tenderly.” Released as a double A side with “Blasphemous rumours”, the single version takes for its backbone rhythm the beating of a heart, while the album version sounds like it is being recorded outside with sounds of children playing in the distance. And then there’s the “101” version where Gore drags out the “ten-der-ly” of the aforementioned line before slaying us all with the final lines “Though things like this make me sick in a case like this, I’ll get away with it.” Just a beauty of a song.


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