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Depeche Mode

+ {Dave Gahan} + {Martin L. Gore} + {MG}

Who would’ve thought that a simplistic electro-pop/new romantic act would become one of the globe’s biggest and durable “rock” bands, but for three decades plus, DEPECHE MODE have weathered the storm, a storm that consisted of major splits, their lead man’s on/off heroin addiction and a lot more besides. Who could say when their peak period was, but most fans would site the mid-80s era from albums “Construction Time Again” to “Music For The Masses” via “Some Great Reward” and “Black Celebration”; hook-line hits just seemed to roll off the production line.
It all started way back in 1977, when Basildon (Essex) schoolboys Vince Clarke and Andy Fletcher formed No Romance In China. A handful of associated fly-by-night outfits came and went in quick succession, and finally, in March 1980, guitarist-turned-keyboard player Martin Gore (from The French Look) attached himself to the duo. Forsaking the name, Composition Of Sound, and recruiting singer Dave Gahan, the quartet predominantly switched to synths/keys, adopting the Gallic-addled DEPECHE MODE moniker – meaning “fast fashion” – along the way.
Immersing themselves in and around the emerging London “new romantic” scene, which spawned the likes of SPANDAU BALLET, The HUMAN LEAGUE, DURAN DURAN, et al, the group built up a tidy following while playing “futuristic” gigs/venues around the capital. Fledgling producer Stevo was first to sing their praises when he invited Gahan and Co to mingle with other like-minded combos (SOFT CELL, BLANCMANGE, THE THE, B-MOVIE, and others) on the seminal various artists LP, “Some Bizzare Album”. Easily one of the best tracks on the set, `Photographic’, DEPECHE MODE were consequently picked up by Daniel Miller’s Mute independent; a tour supporting label-mates FAD GADGET ensued.
While their debut single `Dreaming Of Me’ scraped the lower regions of the charts in early 1981, their follow-up, `New Life’, almost reached the Top 10 when appearances on BBC-TV’s Top Of The Pops secured escalating sales. Dominated by synths and drum machines, yet retaining a keen sense of melody, DEPECHE MODE initially took their cue from heroes KRAFTWERK and the “Kraut-rock” movement. As evidenced on their insanely catchy Top 10 breakthrough, `Just Can’t Get Enough’ (the first of 24 consecutive Top 30 hits), their lyrics weren’t quite as enigmatic as their Teutonic heroes, although the were to improve with time. The success of the single – which, no doubt, still gets played ten times a night around continental discos! – paved the way for their debut Top 10 album, SPEAK & SPELL (1981) {*6}. A promising collection of catchy, teeny-pop fare (with all but Martin Gore’s `Tora! Tora! Tora!’ and `Big Muff’ penned by Clarke), it alienated serious post-new wave/indie acolytes, while it was suffocated by fresh extended takes of `Photographic’ and `Just Can’t Get Enough’.
Chief composer Vince Clarke quit shortly afterwards, going on to pastures new with duos YAZOO (featuring ALISON MOYET), and then ERASURE (with Andy Bell); Martin L. Gore duly took up songwriting chores for the Top 10 follow-up album, A BROKEN FRAME (1982) {*6}. Bolstered by three major hits, `See You’ (their highest so far at No.6), `The Meaning Of Love’ and `Leave In Silence’, Miller veered the trio toward darker subject matter, albeit a tad facile; example `My Secret Garden’, `Monument’ and `Shouldn’t Have Done That’.
Shortly after the album’s release, electronics/arranger Alan Wilder (who’d helped out on tour with the group), was recruited full-time; his studio introduction coming on non-LP hit, `Get The Balance Right’.
Unlike its predecessor, and boosted by the audacious and spiky `Everything Counts’ jewel-in-the-crown, album number three CONSTRUCTION TIME AGAIN (1983) {*7} saw gothic Gahan’s vox summoning up as much portentous doom as he could muster; `Pipeline’, `Two Minute Warning’ and `More Than A Party’, taking their cues from German industrial players, EINSTURZENDE NEUBAUTEN. The opening salvo, `Love In Itself’, was the set’s only other hit.
While the `People Are People’ platter gave the band valuable exposure in America, their real breakthrough came by way of 1984’s UK Top 5 parent set, SOME GREAT REWARD {*8}. A Billboard Top 60 entry and also featuring the likes of the cynical `Blasphemous Rumours’ (coupled with the Gore-sung ballad `Somebody’ as a double-A-side UK breaker), and who could forget the sexual politics of `Master And Servant’ smash hit, the album was palpably darker, the music more satisfyingly varied.
Coming out on the back of a discography-defining collection, THE SINGLES 1981-1985 {*9}, a record which also contained their most recent Top 20 discs, `Shake The Disease’ and `It’s Called A Heart’, the Top 5 BLACK CELEBRATION (1986) {*8}, was deliberately detached; much of the material creeping along at a funereal pace. Previewed by another bleak episode/conflation of seedy politics in `Stripped’, and follow-on hits `A Question Of Lust’ and `A Question Of Time’, DEPECHE MODE proved to their dance-rock doubters that progress was within them; `World Full Of Nothing’ and the cinematic/GOBLIN-like title track addressed their disgust with global power.
MUSIC FOR THE MASSES (1987) {*8} continued their cathartic slam-dance approach and was the band’s biggest Stateside success to date, coming in as it did, at No.35. Combining the addition of beefy guitar licks – which they re-introduced on their previous set – plus weighty percussion and melodious keyboards, Gahan again translated the lyrics of Gore with drama and refined emotion. `Strangelove’, `Never Let Me Down Again’ and symbolic manoeuvre of `Behind The Wheel’, showed they’d lost none of their touch around the singles chart, while closing choral-to-symphony rocker, `Pimpf’, was truly inspiring.
Next to fellow stadium-fillers, U2 (they of “Rattle And Hum” fame), DEPECHE MODE were the biggest overseas attractions to hit the shores of the US. Around 70,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on June 18, 1988 were proof of that historic claim. With a string of consistently pulsating studio albums behind them, D.A. Pennebaker thought it timely to document the group via a live double-CD soundtrack set, 101 (1989) {*6}. Not at all overbearing, but for the screaming girlies intent on pinching the limelight from their boy-ish idols, video almost killed the radio star on this occasion, as the VHS screen version was preferred; `Everything Counts’ once again graced the charts.
More an artefact for the fan than something substantially profound, the accurately-titled “Counterfeit EP” (1989) was MARTIN L. GORE’s stop-gap covers record, consisting of Joe Crow’s `Compulsion’, TUXEDOMOON’s `In A Manner Of Speaking’, DURUTTI COLUMN’s `Smile In The Crowd’, The COMSAT ANGELS’ `Gone’, SPARKS’ `Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ and the traditional `Motherless Child’; include a B-side `Coming Back To You’ (from LEONARD COHEN), while DEPECHE MODE had already covered Bobby Troup’s `Route 66’ and The STOOGES’ `Dirt’ for B-sides.
1990’s transatlantic Top 10’er, VIOLATOR {*9}, was heralded as DEPECHE MODE’s greatest achievement so far, spawning two of their better singles in `Personal Jesus’ (later covered by JOHNNY CASH) and the uncharacteristically emotional `Enjoy The Silence’. Marked out by the gluey production of Flood, and not forgetting Wilder’s arrangements of Gore’s subtle songs, Gahan and Co deliver on all counts as `Policy Of Truth’ and `World In My Eyes’ – both Top 20 hits in Britain – ensured their status as one of Britain’s leading stadium rock acts.
Never the warmest sounding band, with SONGS OF FAITH AND DEVOTION (1993) {*7} their clinical sound was softened somewhat with a move towards more rock-centric territory. That’s not to say the music was soft, at least not on the single, `I Feel You’, highlighting a dirty great guitar riff grinding away relentlessly. Elsewhere, the album had something of a transcendent, redemptive quality about it on such powerful tracks as `Mercy In You’ and `One Caress’. Characterised by further hits, `Walking In My Shoes’, `Condemnation’ and `In Your Room’, the record gave the band their first No.1 (UK and US!), although some long-time fans were understandably miffed at the band’s new direction.
The mid-90s brought the most turbulent period in the band’s long career as Gahan reportedly attempted suicide (on 17th August 1995) amid his battle with drug addiction and domestic upheavals. Add to that the departure of Wilder (who went to work on solo project, RECOIL) and it seemed DEPECHE MODE had reached the end of the line. If nothing else, though, this band were doggedly determined to succeed, Gahan beating back his problems and enlisting BOMB THE BASS guru Tim Simenon to help create an enticingly different sound on 1997’s ULTRA {*6}. No doubt overjoyed that their heroes had been resurrected, the group’s staunch fanbase ensured the album would once again top the UK chart. `Barrel Of A Gun’, `It’s No Good’, `Home’ and `Useless’, all registered a UK chart placing, the former couple climbing as far as the Top 5. Updating their retrospective CV, double-CD THE SINGLES 86>98 (1998) {*9}, featured an exclusive Top 20 single, `Only When I Lose Myself’.
“Ultra” was also a blueprint of sorts for EXCITER (2001) {*6}; maverick production touches supplied this time around by LFO man, Mark Bell. By way of a triumvirate of Top 20 singles (`Dream On’, `I Feel Loved’ and `Freelove’), Gahan’s ongoing singing tuition reaped darkly alluring rewards, drawing the listener in to a late-night vigil of brooding acoustica and stained velour romance.
This singular atmosphere was carried over, to some extent, with 2003’s PAPER MONSTERS {*6}, DAVE GAHAN’s tentative solo debut. Unsurprisingly, much of the subject matter concerned the man’s not so distant descent into personal chaos, with the likes of `Hidden Houses’ making emotionally brave attempts to work through his experiences with a clear pen rather than burying it all in metaphor. Journeyman multi-instrumentalist, Knox Chandler, was Dave’s songwriting saviour; cathartic dirges coming through the deep `A Little Piece’, the bluesy `Bottle Living’ and the lush `Bitter Apple’.
MARTIN L. GORE, meanwhile, had actually beaten Dave’s release schedule by a few months, making his own full solo debut on COUNTERFEIT 2 (2003) {*6}. As his previous mini-set/EP suggested some 14 years previously, GORE tackled a range of material with more reverence than originality, while re-planting the seeds of his idols via eclectic renditions of:- `In My Time Of Dying’ (trad./LED ZEPPELIN), `Stardust’ (DAVID ESSEX), `I Cast A Lonesome Shadow’ (HANK THOMPSON), `In My Other World’ (JULEE CRUISE), `Loverman’ (NICK CAVE), `By This River’ (ENO & CLUSTER), `Oh My Love’ (JOHN LENNON & YOKO ONO), `Das Lied Vom Einsamen Madchen’ (Robert Gilbert), `Tiny Girls’ (IGGY POP & BOWIE) and `Candy Says’ (LOU REED).
Back on DEPECHE MODE business, REMIXES 81-04 (2004) , did exactly what it said on the tin, celebrating their pioneering work on twelve inch. The long-awaited Top 10 set, PLAYING THE ANGEL (2005) {*7}, meanwhile, continued the band’s latter day renaissance, taking full advantage of an 80s-amenable climate to create what was roundly acclaimed as their most authentic, claustrophobic album since their heyday. While the very THE THE/Matt Johnson-esque phrasing of `John The Revelator’ would’ve arguably made a fine lead single, the seasoned synth merchants went with the obvious `Precious’, which – along with `A Pain That I’m Used To’ and `Suffer Well’ – hit the UK Top 20.
Confident to leave his buddies in the proverbial backburner for a while, DAVE GAHAN got the writing bug again for his second solo venture, HOURGLASS (2007) {*6}. Augmented by Christian Eigner (also as songwriting collaborator) and Andrew Phillpot, there’s nothing really that extricates the listener from GAHAN’s first group, although the grooves between the NiN-like `21 Days’ and the ENO-esque follow-on piece, `Miracles’, are planets apart. Conjuring a few melodic hooks in `Kingdom’ (the single) and the crunchy `Use You’, GAHAN can’t help but be typecast.
Arranged to fit some sort of 4-year cycle, which proved to be prophetic in time, DEPECHE MODE put together studio album number twelve, SOUNDS OF THE UNIVERSE (2009) {*7}. As per usual competing with the current climes and with pretenders to their gothic, industrial-pop throne, Messrs Gahan, Gore and Fletcher again enlisted the techno-symphonic mastery of knob-twiddler, Ben Hillier. Sounding on the side of sonic somnambulism (at least in the opening minutes of the album’s best tune, `In Chains’), the compressed drum-machine and KRAFTWERK-like touches keep the set from suffocating under the intense pounding of beats; examples come no better than `Wrong’, `Hole To Feed’, `Fragile Tension’ and the almost anthemic, `Peace’.
GAHAN subsequently teamed up with production duo, Soulsavers, for their 4th album, `”The Light The Dead See” (2012), while both Hillier and Flood united resources for DEPECHE MODE’s next seductive outing, DELTA MACHINE (2013) {*7}. Not wanting to decry the iconoclastic DURAN DURAN, one track that sticks out is the almost clone-like `Heaven’ (the lead single), while there were more treats in DM’s sultry candy shop in `Slow’, `Angel’ and `Should Be Higher’. We awaited 2017 for obvious reasons.
Without a “counterfeit” in sight and straight from explorations encountered in his VCMG (`SSSS’) collaboration with VINCE CLARKE in 2012, MARTIN GORE’s tinkled with the ivories and tweeting of a few woofers was forthright in another solo outing as MG (2015) {*6}. Demanding attention from celluloid soundtrack musos, the spine-chilling JOHN CARPENTER-meets-GOBLIN set was techno minimalism at its most darkest. Sci-fi/horror film-makers should take note that Martin’s ominous `Swanning’, `Europa-Hymn’, `Islet’ and `Stealth’ are ready-made for a widescreen elevation, as are most of the crunching beats on the album.
The solo turn of DAVE GAHAN, albeit with Soulsavers (remixers Rich Machin and Ian Glover), came about later in the year by way of the Top 30, ANGELS & GHOSTS {*7}. Turning the clock back to the glory-hunting, gospel-tinged Britpop days with openers `Shine’ and `You Owe Me’, GAHAN beat out a tumbleweed, NICK CAVE connection that diverted from run-of-the-mill cut ‘n’ paste synths to full-blown desert sessions. Like its predecessor three years back, the calm, cinematic cohesion surround the singer through the strolling and hazy `The Last Time’, `Don’t Cry’ and the MORRICONE-esque `All Of This And Nothing’.
Largely inspired by the U.S. presidential elections that saw a multi-billionaire “underdog” take residence in the White House (lemming-mania Brexit was also the big issue), DEPECHE MODE had so much intensity and ire within their souls they chose to dispatch their SPIRIT (2017) {*7} tout suite. `Going Backwards’, `Where’s The Revolution’, `The Worst Crime’ and `Scum’, were first off Gore’s starting block to rail against the “misinformation” of “misguided leaders” in the day’s tsunami politics. Seasoned producer James Ford took the reins this time around on this transatlantic Top 5 album, a brave and thought-provoking record warning the world of impending doom and gloom if we don’t collectively stand up to fight the real perpetrators of hate crimes and “fake news”.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS / rev-up MCS Mar2013-Mar2017

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