Friday, 2 December 2011

How to listen to... Depeche Mode

You listen to Violator, obviously.  But for those of you who want extended advice, I can ramble on for a few paragraphs.  The funny thing about Depeche Mode is that in their native UK, they are viewed quite differently to the rest of the world.  In the UK, those of us of a certain age can remember when they were teenage, plinky plonky, fey, synth pop merchants.  Darwin would not have rated their chances of longevity much more than their peers, the Haircut 100s and Kajagoogoos that also stalked the earth at this time.  For all their goth-perv posturing since then they have never really shaken off that image with British critics, when they can be bothered to write about them in between the latest here today gone tomorrow cool haircut band they’ve identified.

But we must start at the start and four lads from Basildon debuted in 1981 with their album Speak & Spell.  Really only of interest to fans of camp electro pop (“You’re such a pretty boy, P-R-E-double T-Y”).  Beyond New Life, Dreaming of Me and the borderline annoying, Just Can’t Get Enough there isn’t much to interest the ears 30 years later.

But soon after, the big change occurred.  Principal songwriter Vince Clarke left (to later turn up in Yazoo and notching the camp levels higher with Erasure) and songs would now need to be written by Martin Gore.  Martin’s only DM song up to this date was the subtly titled instrumental, Big Muff.  Things didn’t look great for the band and a future of doing 80s Christmas reunion tours with Kim Wilde and ABC may have beckoned if they were aware of such things in 1982.  Which would clearly be impossible.

The great change actually happened quite slowly as second album, A Broken Frame, turned down the camp levels slightly and upped the melancholia levels a touch.   But it wasn’t much of step forward from the previous album in truth.

The template gradually shifted more on 1983's Construction Time Again, as the focus turned away from I love you but you don’t want me lyrics to more important things.  Those things being the world is actually a grim place, with Everything Counts being the standout.

Some Great Reward came out a year later and can be considered Construction Time Again’s older brother.  A brother who has now discovered pervy sex in Master and Servant, social awareness in People Are People (and possibly the worst lyric of all time - “people are people so why should it be, you and I should get along so aw-full-y”) and Blasphemous Rumours, where God gets a thorough ticking off.  Depeche Mode were improving with each album, but for the period of 1981-85 the accurately titled The Singles 81-85 would serve your purposes.

That compilation is a good bookmark to the two Depeche Mode eras.  Black Celebration in 1986 was aptly titled.  It contains the theme for sociopaths everywhere in Fly on the Windscreen (funnily enough by favourite DM song), more perviness in Stripped and the first of their morally dubious songs to young girls, A Question of Time.  They were now a long way from Basildon.


1987's Music for the Masses continued in the same vein, although with a more commercial sheen. With Behind the Wheel, which wasn’t about driving, Stangelove and Little 15 continuing the themes.  It also contained Never Let Me Down Again, which everybody likes unless they’re weird.   America started to take note too.

And then we hit Violator.  All that is good about Depeche Mode is on this album.  Personal Jesus, Enjoy the Silence, World in My Eyes, Policy of Truth.  You would have heard those singles.  But the rest of the album was without any filler, with tracks such as Halo being seen as classics for most other bands.

Depeche Mode were now massive and also rather than making music about the dark side of humanity they were now living it with overdoses and breakdowns.  Not a great time for them, but still, there is a common conception that the best music is made in times of stress.  And so, rather than duplicating Violator, the band heads in to rockier (guitar-y and mentally) territory with Songs of Faith and Devotion.  Things are getting darker, but none the worse for this with songs such as I Feel You and Walking in My Shoes.  The band may be have been preoccupied with other things, but they don’t forget to include tunes. 

They may have been on a high plateau musically, but their own personal circumstances were not so great. The time between SOFAD and 1997's Ultra was spent brushing with oblivion and pulling back from it again.  Ultra is like a combination of Violator and SOFAD, except not as good.  It’s better than most of their early 1980s stuff, but they were coming down the other side now. Their following album, Exciter, is like Ultra, but again not as good. A trend was emerging.

But in 2005 with Playing the Angel, they’re back.  Well, for the first half of the album anyway.  Songs like Precious, John the Revelator and The Sinner in Me stand up to any of their previous work.   And so we get to their last album, 2009's Sounds of the Universe.  It has a few moments but we’re treading musical water really.  Still, any new Depeche Mode album is welcome in my house.

From Hilary Duff to Rammstein, Depeche Mode’s influence can be found across music.  The snobbish critics may be a bit sniffy about their merits, but put it like this, when I’ve bored people with talking about music and before they eventually walk off, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Depeche Mode.  And if you don’t, you probably need to have a quiet word with yourself.