Best tunes of 1990: #1 Depeche Mode “Personal Jesus”

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Happy new year all!

I figured the first post of the year was a good time to finish off the first series I started this blog with and this song certainly ends it with a bang. Back at number eleven, I proclaimed “Enjoy the silence” as one of Depeche Mode’s biggest hits. Well, at number one, we have what is surely their biggest: “Personal Jesus”.

And I’m well aware that it was technically released as a single in 1989 but I feel it belongs more in 1990 for two reasons. Number one, it was the cornerstone for their 1990 smash hit, “Violator”, a near perfect album, and touched off a string of great singles and pure magic the band hasn’t been able to replicate. Number two, the use of guitar as primary instrument and the driving force behind the song signalled a turning point, a seismic shift for the group from their new wave/synthpop roots into alternative rock, a path they would tread throughout the 1990s.

By all accounts, the song was inspired by Martin Gore’s reading of Priscilla Presley’s memoirs, “Elvis & me”, and the idea of that when you love someone, that person can be your everything. Another twisted love song then. Gore certainly has strange ideas about love but he’s honest, and this alone, this ‘honesty’, is how classics are written. That iconic opening line, “Reach out and touch faith”, for instance, evokes so many ideas about how scary it can be to open up and totally trust someone. Is it as religious as he infers by invoking the idea of your partner being your personal Jesus? I suppose it could be.

Or maybe I’m reading too deeply into what is really at its heart a great pop song for your liking? I sense that could possibly be true as well.

When this song was released, I was in high school. My musical tastes had yet to mature and so I hadn’t yet become the music geek whose words you read today. And I definitely wasn’t reading too deeply into the words sung by the ever enigmatic David Gahan. The title smacked of religion, something I was starting to rebel against at this time, my parents’ enforcement of church attendance each Sunday, and so something that sounded even vaguely sacrilegious was appealing. The heavy beat of the song also didn’t hurt. It made my step fall in line with it whenever it came on over my Sony Sports Walkman ear phones and got me up to dance whenever the DJ inevitably played it at our high school dances.

Yeah, I don’t mind saying that “People are people” was my first introduction to Depeche Mode but that “Personal Jesus” was my real gateway drug. It’s the reason why “Violator” was among the first compact discs I ever purchased, even before I had my own CD player. And it’s likely one of the main reasons why “Violator” was among the first of my vinyl purchases when I started collecting records again, even before I got my new turntable. It’s all rhythm and twangy guitar. It’s rage without the anger. It’s sadness without the tears. It’s passion without the physical touch. “Lift up the receiver, I’ll make you a believer.” It’s like new age blues. But these are all just words. It’s a great song that should be danced to, rather than be written about.

So press play and dance away your first day of 2018.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.


Best tunes of 1990: #11 Depeche Mode “Enjoy the silence”

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Just outside this list’s top ten, at the eleven spot, is perhaps one of the biggest songs by one of alt-rock’s best known bands: “Enjoy the silence” by Depeche Mode.

This British synth-pop, new wave act were originally formed by Martin Gore, David Gahan, Vince Clarke, and Andy Fletcher in 1980. Vince Clarke left the group after only one album and was replaced by Alan Wilder, who stuck with the group until 1995. Depeche Mode has operated as a trio ever since. From the year of their inception through their first handful of albums, they steadily built a following, first domestically and then, internationally, especially with 1984’s “Some great reward”‘ but it was 1987’s “Music for the masses” and its subsequent tour that really broke them in the US. Then came “Violator” and they were huge.

“Enjoy the silence” was one of two advance singles that foreshadowed the brilliance of the record. The song is instantly recognizable with that steady drum machine beat, alternating synth washes that sound like breaths of fresh air, and that guitar melody, an instrument that Gore was newly adding to the band’s usual synth heavy sound up to this point. And of course, there’s those opening lines that lead vocalist David Gahan intones in his perfect baritone: “Words like violence, break the silence, come crashing in, into my little world.”

He’s almost perfectly describing an introvert’s crisis. He does go on, of course, introducing a girl to the picture, a lover’s embrace, late at night, where words only ruin the mood. Is there still love or is it just the physicality? Or is the girl just an idea, or perhaps a symbol, a representation of all that causes him pain? Then, there’s the music video that suggests another interpretation. Shot by Anton Corbijn, a frequent music video collaborator of the band, it depicts as Gahan as the little prince of literary fame, roaming many isolated landscapes with a lawn chair, perhaps in search of some solitude and some quiet.

Whatever the meaning behind the lyrics, the tune is a beautiful beast, built both for the dance floor (as evidenced by its many remixes) and for nights alone, under the shroud of darkness. Truly full of grace and worthy of all the reverence bestowed upon it. Have another listen on me.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1990 list, click here.