Depeche Mode

TrackAlbum / Single
New LifeSpeak & Spell
Dressed In BlackBlack Celebration
In Your MemoryMute 7 BONG 5
StrangeloveMute BONG 13
Never Let Me Down AgainMusic For The Masses
Personal JesusViolator
Enjoy The SilenceViolator
One CaressSongs Of Faith And Devotion
WrongSounds Of The Universe
Cover MeSpirit

Depeche Mode photo 1

Andy Fletcher, Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Alan Wilder

 

 

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Depeche Mode playlist

 

 

Contributor: Austin Fisher

I first saw Depeche Mode perform in early 1982, when I was 15. Three synths and a tape machine (operated by the singer, Dave Gahan) performing songs written by their leader, Vince Clarke, who had recently left them high and dry. They seemed nervous and at least one keyboard had colour-coded stickers. This tour was to promote their tentative new single, See You. Rather than confidently riding on the crest of a wave after two hit singles and a top 10 album, Depeche Mode were up against it.

In 1982, they were very open about how much they were winging it. In an interview in Smash Hits they discussed the probability of being claimed by the dreaded “Dumper” by year end. I had problems too – at my cold, grey, grim suburban catholic state school, liking bands like Depeche Mode meant you were a called a “poof”, spat at and roughed up by the bike sheds – and that was just the nuns! Male teenage music tribalism was also very much a Thing and violent thickos hated them because they didn’t play ‘real’ music, see. Although they were on a small independent label and wrote their own songs, they had no credibility because they went on Top Of The Pops and girls liked them.

For these very trivial reasons, I viewed them as outsiders and became intrigued by their music as they slowly asserted themselves. In time, obsessive fans from all over the world viewed them as outsiders for their own reasons. Their near-constant touring in the 80s, particularly in eastern Europe, built up a hugely loyal fanbase – mostly outside of the UK.

So – nearly forty years later, I think about their 10 best songs but these songs would be nothing without the others. In the following list are the “Eric Morecambe” songs and the others are the symbiotically necessary “Little Erns”.

New Life was their second single and the reason why I wanted to see them. A beautifully simple synth pop song that caught the ‘new romantic’ zeitgeist by delivering a nonsense lyric, white billowy shirts (to hide physical weediness) and eyeliner. ‘Depeche Mode’ is very much a New Romantic-era band name too. New Life was the gateway to a New Life. New Life. You see, I was already attaching personal poignancy to their lyrics, even the nonsense ones.

There now followed a few precarious years of Cheggers Plays Pops, Top Of The Pops, Crackerjacks and Jurgen’s Krazy Banana Shows in Europe. The TV appearances acted like a crucifix to the always-advancing Dumper (for this purpose, let’s assume the Dumper is in a cape and has fangs). These singles and albums varied in quality but they did enough to keep it at bay, leaving the Dumper to gobble up JoBoxers, Jimmy the Hoover and Blue Zoo instead.

The songs were increasingly about guilt, religion, lust, politics and global warming. As a freshy lapsed Catholic and a politically earnest young man, I was lapping this up. Just Can’t Get Enough was still the song they were best known for but if you wanted to be immersed in Depeche Mode from now on, you’re going to have to work a bit. It turned out that they could just get enough. One of the very chirpiest Vince Clarke-era songs was called I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead! because the Essex punk Dave Gahan said those words after recording it. In the beginning, I liked the cheesiness but I became a bit tired of those early songs at around about the same time they did. I love them now, of course.

By the time we get to 1985, they had established a much darker sound and to signal this, they called their fifth LP Black Celebration. Dressed In Black is on that LP and this is my second choice. If it wasn’t for Dave Gahan’s voice, you wouldn’t immediately identify this as Depeche Mode. It has a velvety, breathy harmonium sound and could easily be a number in a mainstream West End musical (particularly if it’s a pervy West End musical).

Alan Wilder (the quiet, classically-trained musician who replaced Vince) is now asserting himself by sprinkling his magic dust in the studio. The Black Celebration LP took a long time to finish because Wilder had raised the bar. The process was that Martin Gore presented rough demo versions of songs and then Alan Wilder + producer du jour then painstakingly turned them into Depeche Mode songs.

In Your Memory is written by Wilder and is Depeche Mode’s Brown Girl In The Ring. What the hell do I mean by that? Well, it was the B-side to their big hit single in 1984, the slightly embarrassing People Are People. If I was a DJ on Fab FM at the time I’d have flipped it over. There’s an enormous groove going on here and it needs to be played at a high volume.

Dave Gahan sounds monumentally fed up on this one. His vocals can be cold and emotionless – which is perfect for the electro-gloom music they were perfecting. The song appears in this top 10 to represent the many one-off nuggets you can find outside of the LPs. These songs didn’t fit into the vibe of the album of the day, but they do have their place. Sea Of Sin, Kaelid, Christmas Island, Breathing In Fumes, Ghost, Ice Machine are all exceptional standalone pieces.

 

In 1987, Strangelove was a next-level move. You felt that something had changed. This single was the curtain-raiser for the sarcastically-named Music For The Masses LP (because they assumed only the diehard fans would buy it). Photographer Anton Corbijn had arrived by now and stylish videos and artwork followed. They didn’t look so awkward, weedy or embarrassed any more. The 7″ version is the one to go to. That version is urgent-sounding, loud, fresh, confident and tuneful. Martin Gore’s lyrics were becoming more distinctive. Slightly wonky – they don’t always work – but a lyric like this can only come from him:

There’ll be times when my crimes will seem almost unforgiveable
I give in to sin – because you have to make this life liveable

Strangelove still packs a punch and never grows old. It’s the sound of a confident and (still) very young band hitting their straps. Imperial Phase begins.

Also from 1987, Never Let Me Down Again‘s chorus has Dave Gahan singing the same note throughout and Martin Gore singing the melody behind. Very clever. It’s also one of Depeche Mode’s most thrilling songs. Not a big hit single at the time but it’s an ever-present at the live shows due to the euphoria it creates and ‘wheat field’ audience participation sequence. Everyone raises their arms and waves along with Dave, who is no longer hiding behind the mic stand – he’s now prancing around the stage in a white vest like a hyped-up Vanian/Mercury hybrid.

This is an opportunity to acknowledge just how good he is as a frontman. There’s his voice of course, but it’s his performance on stage that draws the crowds in. He is the focus of the live show and in the last half hour, the hysteria he generates is something everyone should witness at least once in their lives.

 

Personal Jesus from 1989 was inspired by a TV evangelist who promoted a premium rate phone line as a way to directly connect with Jesus Christ Himself. A massive global hit, covered by Johnny Cash no less – and sampled by many others. A repeated six-note guitar (!) riff and a stomping glam rock beat starts the song and continues throughout, pausing only for the shouted refrain “reach out and touch faith”. It’s the second of two Depeche Mode guaranteed floor-fillers at your local wedding disco or work do (the first being Just Can’t Get Enough).

So … their 24th (!) single had finally broken them into the big time i.e. the States. The Pump Mix of Personal Jesus played loud can knock your head clean off, so please be careful. The Stargate remix 2011 takes away the signature guitar riff and still sounds majestic.

A note here on an important part of Depeche Mode: the remixes. Along with at least one B-side, the 12″ remixes were also great value. You’d get at least half an hour of new music each time a single was released. Most bands didn’t do that. In 1984, an almost unlistenable banging cutlery drawer of a remix, Are People People? by Adrian Sherwood stretched the definition of ‘remix’ (and ‘song’ for that matter). Did Duran or the Spands ever put their name to anything like this? Of course not.

Next is Enjoy The Silence. An airy, fluffy bed of heavenly electronica delivering a seemingly eternal groove. We are hitching a ride on it for a few minutes. Lyrically, we start with another classic Martin Gore line: Words, like violence, break the silence …

Note that it’s not the word “violence” that’s breaking the silence it’s *all* words – so … basically … he’s saying “Shush!”. It’s one of those songs that sounds like a tender love song but he’s tackling the same issue that Chas & Dave covered more directly in their song Rabbit! Exactly the same message but a world of difference in delivery. This is why we have diplomats. Bu-hut, seriously readers, Enjoy The Silence is a beautiful song. It was polished so much by Alan Wilder and Flood in the studio that you can see your tear-stained face in it.

My next choice is One Caress to represent Depeche Mode’s secret weapon, the voice of Martin Gore. His trembling falsetto complements the low tones of Dave Gahan in many of their songs (e.g. Here Is The House, The Sinner In Me) but occasionally Gore has a song all to himself.

Martin’s involved with a woman that’s making him do sinful things. In songs like this he presents himself as the hapless victim, which is about as convincing as the recidivist late-night A&E patient presenting a bizarre medical predicament due to falling awkwardly in the shower (again).

He generally teeters on the edge of his range but he makes it. Very near to this top 10 is Home from 1997 – Gore’s voice is a thing of wonder there too. One Caress is from the huge-selling 1992 Songs Of Faith And Devotion LP. The LP is not a favourite of mine but it was number 1 in the UK and the US, so what do I know? One Caress is completely different to the rest of the LP. This is not a bombastic anthem with massive synths, guitars and drums but a simple string quartet and Martin’s voice. It’s another straightforward, beautiful song.

Not a beautiful song by any stretch is 2009’s Wrong. However, it is a masterpiece. How wrong can you be? Well, this song tells you. Here’s the second verse:

There’s something wrong with me – chemically
Something wrong with me inherently
The wrong mix in the wrong genes
I reached the wrong ends by the wrong means
It was the wrong plan
In the wrong hands
With the wrong theory for the wrong man
The wrong eyes on the wrong prize
The wrong questions with the wrong replies

I imagine a comically unlucky character singing Wrong in a pre-war variety show. A young Norman Wisdom perhaps, in an ill-fitting suit, falling over repeatedly. But there’s no laughs to be had here. We have an eerie and determined electronic beat building up slowly and by the time the song abruptly ends – you realise that this is a confession. Something really, really awful has happened. What is this evil that he’s done?

Cover Me is a Dave Gahan song and a highlight of the recent live shows. I’d earmarked it as the best song on 2017’s Spirit LP before knowing it was one of his. Gahan’s sad voice is the main thing here – it sparks an emotional response. The song is about to finish but then we move into a three-minute sequence of glorious sweeping electronic loveliness not heard since the days of 1990’s perfect Violator LP. As Gahan says, every few years you listen to the new songs and wonder whether this is worth doing. But then there are moments where you think “oh yes … I’m in”.

 

Depeche Mode is now a late middle-aged group of men who I have had the privilege of growing up alongside. Alas, all of us are old now. The portraits in the attic have been exposed and on stage they now look like stalwarts of a determined elderly local amateur dramatics group, glammed up for their racy production of the Rocky Horror Show. I notice now that they sprinkle themselves with glitter onstage. Horses sweat, women glow and ageing pop stars glitter.

A key part of Depeche Mode’s success is the people around them. The same group of accomplished ‘proper’ musicians have beefed up the live shows for about 25 years. Daniel Miller, founder of Mute Records, is still very close. Anton Corbijn drops everything when Depeche Mode need him. Interestingly, he notes that the band never, ever question his judgement. U2 have long meetings but Depeche Mode just let him do his thing. The most important non-musician is Andy Fletcher. He’s in the band and respected internally as an equal. We probably don’t fully appreciate why that is (he doesn’t seem to crave fame or performing) but it’s really none of our business.

Depeche Mode started as a cheesy pretty-boy pop band with cheap synths, and they couldn’t even play those very well. Forty years later they are a live act that can fill a stadium anywhere in the world because they have built up a fine collection of songs and can perform them very, very well. I am sure they have at least one more mammoth tour in them, and if you get a chance – please do see them for yourself. If you are one of those that still claim that they don’t play ‘real’ music, then there’s nothing I can do for you, I’m afraid.

 

 

Depeche Mode photo 2

 

Depeche Mode official website

Dave Gahan official website

Martin Gore official website

Andy Fletcher (Wikipedia)

Alan Wilder (Wikipedia)

Depeche Mode on Mute

Depeche Mode news, catalogue, discography, lyrics,
tour info, tv shows, books, fanzine, history, discussion, chat, audio, video

Depmod.com – “largest online Depeche Mode discography”

Home: A Depeche Mode website

Modefan: latest news and information

Depeche Mode: an online Biography

The (Al)Most Complete Depeche Mode Cover Versions

Depeche Mode Global Fan Group (Facebook)

Depeche Mode Books

“DM AC – Depeche Mode” by Anton Corbijn (Taschen 2021)

Depeche Mode biography (AllMusic)

Austin Fisher grew up in the Woking area and moved to New Zealand when he was 33. He is now much, much older than that. He wears two anoraks; an insurance one and a pop music one. He can suck the life out of any room if you let him ramble on about either subject. If you’ve literally got nothing better to do and/or you like Depeche Mode, you can follow him on Twitter @austinfishernz

TopperPost #963

4 Comments

  1. Dave Ross
    Jun 22, 2021

    Perfect selection and will finally get me delving deeper than the two best ofs and Songs of Faith and Devotion that I own. So many highlights in this piece. Gore’s voice. Home would make my top 10. Gahan’s stage performance. I saw them live about 10 years ago now and you’re right it’s an experience everyone should enjoy at some point. Strangely I’m not a fan of “Personal Jesus” probably its ubiquity on UK radio like it’s the only song they ever made. I love “People Are People” though. Lot’s for me to explore after this. Can’t wait……

    • Austin
      Jun 22, 2021

      Thanks Dave – as you can imagine, I had a few rewrites before settling on my list. Home and Dangerous could have easily been there in place of One Caress and In Your Memory.
      If you haven’t given Violator a listen yet, I’d recommend starting there and working back towards Music for the Masses and Black Celebration and then hop forward to Ultra. Over time you could give the remixes 81:11 compilation a go too.

  2. David Lewis
    Jun 24, 2021

    One of the notable things is that they were a true electronica band. Not a lot of guitar or bass guitar.
    Also Martin Gore’s voice. There’s this baritone vocal that comes out of 80s to early 90s British male vocals. From George Michael through to Gary Kemp, the Thompson Twins through to Depeche Mode. There are exceptions of course – Paul Young, Phil Collins, Boy George (all great voices. This is comparative not competitive).
    Thoroughly enjoyed this. Thanks

  3. Austin
    Jun 24, 2021

    Thanks! Know what you mean re guitars – they moved away from pure electronica in the late 80s and by the time they got to 1993 there were basically a stadium rock band. I prefer them when they’re a bit more synthy.

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