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 2010: #14 Diamond Rings “Wait and see”

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Number 14 on this list marks the third artist, following P.S. I Love You at #30 and Library Voices at #25, that I discovered at the 2011 edition of Ottawa Bluesfest. Like the two others, Diamond Rings, one of the many performing names for John O’Regan, hails from Canada. His set that year was part of his tour supporting his debut album, “Special affections”, and took place early on a Sunday afternoon on the festival’s smallest stage. I had heard the album in advance, which was the only reason I had made such a special effort to be there so early in the day, but I wasn’t at all prepared for the Diamond Rings experience.

I’m also reasonably sure the early, sun-baked crowd weren’t sure what to make of the skinny white dude with bleached blonde hair and a swath of rainbow coloured makeup swiped across his eyes. And the confusion likely increased when he started, using loops, drum machines, programming, and other trickery while strutting and dancing across the stage with his guitar, brimming with all the confidence of a glam rock hero performing in front of a stadium of adoring fans rather than a handful of people scattered around on the hill facing him. His performance was infectious, though, and he had the crowd, which grew substantially, by the end and it turned out to be one of my favourite sets of the year. Two years later, when he returned to the festival in support of his sophomore album, it was also on a Sunday but this time, it was the headlining set on the medium sized stage. And now, he fittingly had a full band backing him, smoke machines, cool lighting, and a bigger, more adoring crowd.

“Wait and see” is the second track from that debut album, which I went out and bought for my vinyl collection early on. It’s a phenomenal track that you really have to listen closely to in order to guess that it’s a one man show. The sensibility is post-punk revival with a touch of darkness and a whole load of glam. The guitars are like chain saws messing with the industrial beat but it’s O’Regan’s silky baritone vocals that raise this track up to the rock heavens. You can hear and almost taste his persona in the song. He’s like a time traveller from the eighties, a forgotten rebel that had fallen asleep behind a stage, waking up almost thirty years later, and decided to wreak havoc on his new reality.

I loved this song and album and even the next one but lost track of O’Regan, and his Diamond Rings persona, after hearing he was touring with OMD in 2013. It seems like I wasn’t the only one because putting his name into google resulted in a handful of articles titled “Whatever happened to…” and one by Exclaim from last year that talked about a newish, yet still mysterious, project that had nothing to do with Diamond Rings called JG Ballad.

It is a bit of an unfortunate and unfinished story, but I feel like Diamond Rings was never really meant to be anything more than an experiment for O’Regan. Whatever he had to prove, though, I’m sure he did… and then some.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2010 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.