Dave Gahan – circa 1990
“Precious and fragile things / Need special handling / My God, what have we done to you? / We always tried to share / The tenderest of care / Now look what we have put you through” – ‘Precious’ (Martin L. Gore)
Master. Jesus. God. Hate. Grabbing. Servant. Sin. Broken. Grace.
What do these words have in common? Are they excerpts from the personal diary of some self-flagellating sado-masochistic monk? No. They are key words from the lyrics of songs by the British band Depeche Mode. Obviously, they have some issues to work through…
A bit of musical history is needed to explain the origins of Depeche Mode. In the early 1970s glam rock is pioneered by British recording artists like David Bowie, Roxy Music and T-Rex. These boys are not averse to make-up, sequins and movie star posing mixed with the leather and chrome of rock ‘n’ roll. Coolly cerebral, they face the future with a flounce. In the mid-1970s, European acts like Kraftwerk also contemplate the future, devising music from icy synthesisers, electronic keyboards and industrial percussive noises. It’s a melding of humanity and robotics into sort of artistic androids.
By the turn of the 1980s, Great Britain has a swelling of recording artists styling themselves ‘new romantics’. They take the eye-liner and hair gel of glam to new extremes, sporting attire like pirates or the cast of a BBC costume drama. Virtually simultaneously, there are synth-pop bands. These outfits consider guitars and drums passé. Inspired by Kraftwerk, they are pale boys who take to the stage with rack-mounted keyboards, computers and enough cables and wiring to run a nuclear power plant. There is some overlap between the new romantics and the synth-pop projects. Acts like Ultravox, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, The Human League and Visage seem to have a foot in each camp, so to speak. It is here that Depeche Mode first surface.
Out of the ruins of fledgling acts like No Romance In China, The Plan, The French Look and Composition In Sound, Depeche Mode is formed in 1980. Their name is taken from a French fashion magazine and means something roughly like ‘fast fashion’. At the outset, the main force in the group is Vince Clarke (born 3 July 1960). At his side are Martin Gore (born 23 July 1961) and Andy Fletcher (born 8 July 1961). They are based in Basildon, Essex, ‘a working class suburb of London’. Vocalist Dave Gahan (born 9 May 1962) is added after he is heard in a pub singing David Bowie’s song ‘Heroes’.
At first, Andy Fletcher and Martin Gore are both guitarists; only Vince Clarke plays keyboards. However, in 1981 they choose to dispense with guitars and become an ‘all-electronic band’. This is at least partly motivated by practical concerns. ‘The group could go to gigs on the train, carrying their instruments under their arms, and plug into the P.A. [Public Address system] without [guitar] amplifiers’. A drum machine, a sort of sophisticated, programmable metronome, is used for percussion. So while Dave Gahan gyrates and poses out front, the other three lads, with furrowed brows, are bent over keyboards and various devices while also chanting back-up vocals.
Depeche Mode begin to make demo tapes, but these are ‘met with zero response’. ‘Futurist nights’ at the Bridge House pub in East London serve to introduce them to an entrepreneur known as Stevo. He includes their song ‘Photographic’ on a compilation album called ‘Some Bizarre’ (1981). Others on the disc include Blancmange, Soft Cell and The The. This brings Depeche Mode to the attention of Daniel Miller of Mute Records. Signing them to his label, Miller becomes the ‘group’s Svengali / record producer’ through the ‘80s.
With Vince Clarke as main songwriter and architect of the band’s direction, Depeche Mode release their first single, ‘Dreaming Of Me’ (UK no. 57), in early 1981. More successful is the follow-up, ‘New Life’ (UK no. 11). The song boasts a hyperactive computer sound with crashing drum pads as it prophesies “Complicating, circulating / New life, new life / Operating, generating / New life, new life.” The style of early Depeche Mode is fully formulated by the time of their third single, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ (UK no. 8, AUS no. 4). They are ‘bouncy, electrobabes’, bopping like ‘battery operated Monkees in a space age cartoon’. This poppy synthesiser song finds Dave Gahan (singing Vince Clarke’s words) claiming that “When I’m with you, baby / I go out of my head / And I just can’t get enough / I just can’t get enough / All the things you do to me / And everything you say / And I just can’t get enough / I just can’t get enough.” It’s not just catchy, it’s maddeningly addictive. Depeche Mode’s debut album, ‘Speak And Spell’ (1981) (UK no. 10, US no. 192, AUS no. 28), summarises the era.
Then Vince Clarke leaves the band. He goes on to form, first, Yazoo (or Yaz in the U.S.A.), then, Erasure. Arguably, these are duos (projects?) as worthwhile as Depeche Mode. His departure raises bigger questions for the Boys from Basildon: How will they survive without Clarke’s songs and influence? Many critics ‘write-off’ Depeche Mode at this point, believing the loss of Vince Clarke is an insurmountable obstacle.
In early 1982 Alan Wilder (born 1 June 1959) is brought in to handle additional keyboards and electronics, and Martin Gore steps up to become the songwriter in Depeche Mode.
The proving ground for the new arrangement is the album ‘A Broken Frame’ (1982) (UK no. 8, US no. 177). ‘See You’ (UK no. 6) is the first single penned by Martin Gore. The synthesisers fit together like blocks of Lego. “All I want to do is see you again / Is that too much to ask for?” sings Martin himself, before asserting “All I want to do is / See you / Don’t you know that it’s true?” His voice, slightly higher and sweeter than Dave’s, he sings the refrain “You can keep me at a distance / If you don’t trust my resistance / But I swear that it’s true.” They have ‘weathered the potentially calamitous departure of chief songwriter Vince Clarke’ and ‘contrived to remain very popular’. The singles ‘The Meaning Of Love’ (UK no. 12), ‘Leave In Silence’ (UK no. 18) and ‘Get The Balance Right’ (UK no. 13) follow.
The album ‘Construction Time Again’ (1983) (UK no. 6, US no. 201) features a darker sound. Industrial noises and throbbing bass are the order of the day on the song ‘Everything Counts’ (UK no. 6). While Dave Gahan sings the verses, Martin Gore handles (most of) the chorus: “(MG) The grabbing hands / Grab what they can / All for themselves / After all / (DG) It’s a competitive world / (MG) Everything counts in large amounts.”
‘Some Great Reward’ (1984) (UK no. 5, US no. 54), although ‘automatically filed under synthpop’, sees Depeche Mode burrowing deeper into weightier themes. ‘People Are People’ (UK no. 4, US no. 13, AUS no. 25) possesses a big, anthemic sound: “People are people / So why should it be / You and I should get along so awfully?” This rhetorical question, voiced by Dave, gets underscored when Martin’s angelic voice pleads “I can’t understand what makes a man hate another man so / Help me understand.” From those who love to hate, Depeche Mode swings to a different form of love in ‘Master And Servant’ (UK no. 9, US no. 87, AUS no. 89). Dave coquettishly sings “There’s a new game we like to play / The game with added reality / You get me down on my knees / We call it master and servant”. The vocals swap back and forth from the choir-boy like “It’s a lot like life” to the chocolate dark “Master and servant.”
The 1985 single ‘Shake The Disease’ (UK no. 18) is, allegedly, ‘an articulate song about inarticulacy’. In any case, in the opening line, Dave Gahan makes it clear that he is not going to get down on his knees, a change of attitude from ‘Master And Servant’.
‘Black Celebration’ (1986) (UK no. 4, US no. 90, AUS no. 69) is a comparatively unobtrusive album, though the title alone is a good guide to what was going on in the heads of the four members of Depeche Mode.
Like some mysterious priests, Depeche Mode offer up ‘Music For The Masses’ (1987) (UK no. 10, US no. 35, AUS no. 60). The appropriately titled ‘Strangelove’ (UK no. 16, US no. 76) is here. Dramatic synth chords and squeaks usher in the words, “Strangelove / That’s how my love goes,” before pausing to ask “Will you take this pain / I will give to you / Again and again / And will you return it?” Though it’s written by Martin Gore, he seems to have articulated Dave Gahan’s own manifesto in the lines “There will be times / When my crimes / Will seem almost unforgivable / I give in / To sin / Because you have to make this life liveable.” Is it any wonder that ‘Never Let Me Down’ (UK no. 22, US no. 63, AUS no. 82) enunciates the sentiment “I’m taking a ride with my best friend / I hope he never lets me down again”? The song also conjures up the sonic equivalent of the bold graphics of a Soviet era poster of the worker as hero.
As the 1980s wind down, the new romantics and synthpoppers are virtually extinct. Depeche Mode have outlived nearly all of their contemporaries and are in more robust commercial form than any other straggling survivors. They stay ahead by reinventing themselves, as Martin Gore discovers (or rediscovers) the guitar. Without totally abandoning their keyboards and digital devices, Depeche Mode infuse their new compositions with guitar textures. This sets the stage for their greatest album.
‘Violator’ (1990) (UK no. 2, US no. 7, AUS no. 42) is home to one of their best known tracks, ‘Personal Jesus’ (UK no. 13, US no. 28). The lyric seems simple enough as Dave Gahan offers a loved one his services as “Your own / Personal Jesus / Someone to hear your prayers / Someone who cares.” This is offset by a wobbly guitar lick from Martin Gore. By one account, the song is ‘more or less a religious plea about more or less Elvis [Presley], that more or less sounds like the group that produced it was from the back of a mythical derelict American beyond rather than straightforward earthbound Basildon’. Although Depeche Mode has previously toyed with Christian imagery, this is the most blatant usage of the Saviour himself. So what does Dave Gahan actually feel about religion? “When it comes to religion, it’s very confusing,” he claims, “and always has been for thousands of years and probably will be for thousands of years more. I don’t know what it is I believe in, but I know that I feel a sense of some kind of higher power for lack of better words”. The song, ‘Personal Jesus’, attracts cover versions from artists as different as Marilyn Manson and Johnny Cash. ‘Violator’ also contains the best song in the Depeche Mode catalogue, ‘Enjoy The Silence’ (UK no. 6, US no. 8, AUS no. 71). With breathy urgency, Dave sings “All I ever wanted / All I ever needed / Is here / In my arms / Words are very unnecessary / They can only do harm”. ‘For many Depeche Mode fans ‘Violator’ is the crowning glory of the boys’ black-leather period’.
‘I Feel You’ (UK no. 8, US no. 37, AUS no. 37) is the first single from ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ (1993) (UK no. 1, US no. 1, AUS no. 14). Arising from an unholy screech, comes an out-of-kilter guitar and the words “I feel you / The sun it shines / I feel you / Within my mind.” The song gathers pace with the pronouncement “This is the dawning of our love.” The panoramic ‘Walking In My Shoes’ (UK no. 14, US no. 69, AUS no. 74) is built on trudging piano chords. Dave Gahan wearily intones “Now I’m not looking for absolution / Forgiveness for the things I do / But before you come to any conclusions / Try walking in my shoes.” Perhaps Dave (via Martin’s lyrics) is trying to make a point?
In 1993 Dave Gahan suffers a non-fatal heart attack on stage in New Orleans. That’s only the beginning. In 1995, Dave Gahan slashes his wrists while talking to his mother on the telephone from Los Angeles. He survives this episode. Also in 1995, Alan Wilder resigns, reducing Depeche Mode to a trio. In 1996, in a Los Angeles hotel room, Dave Gahan has a drug overdose after combining heroin and cocaine in a ‘speedball’. The ‘hellraiser’ is pronounced clinically dead before being revived by paramedics. He denies this was a suicide attempt. “I’m painfully aware that was not what I was trying to do. All I was trying to do was disappear for a while, and that became a lost weekend.” [This is a reference to the motion picture ‘The Lost Weekend’ (1945) in which Ray Miland plays an alcoholic who goes on a destructive bender.] From this low point, Dave Gahan begins to get his act together until he is clean and sober.
When the three piece Depeche Mode returns, it is with the album ‘Ultra’ (1997) (UK no. 1, US no. 5, AUS no. 7) and the single ‘It’s No Good’ (UK no. 5, US no. 38, AUS no. 52). Radio-like modulations give way to long eerie notes as Dave Gahan sings “Don’t say you want me / Don’t say you need me / Don’t say you love me / It’s understood / Don’t say you’re happy / Out there without me / ‘Cos it’s no good.” Dave sings the song as if it is ‘about being in a tunnel and at the end you can see a white light, as if the song is not about a girl that you have all the time in the world to make yours, but about life itself, which you have to believe in or it drops out from underneath you’.
‘Dream On’ (UK no. 6, US no. 85) from ‘Exciter’ (2001) (UK no. 9, US no. 8, AUS no. 20) addresses the issue more explicitly. ‘Maybe Martin is passing on some kind of request to Dave, or himself, to be careful with the self-medication, the late nights, the long exhausting journey into self-loathing’. For the first time, it is an acoustic guitar riff Martin Gore uses as the foundation for a single: “Paying debt to karma / You party for a living / What you take won’t kill you / But careful what you’re giving [or maybe ‘given’?]”.
‘Suffer Well’ (UK no. 12) is written by vocalist Dave Gahan himself (and a couple of guys from outside the band). Over a sturdy electric guitar figure, Dave asks “Where were you when I fell from grace? / A frozen heart / An empty space.” He goes on to claim that “I just hang on / Suffer well / Sometimes it’s hard / It’s hard to tell.” This song comes from the album ‘Playing The Angel’ (2006) (UK no. 6, US no. 7, AUS no. 45), which also yields Martin Gore’s ‘Precious’ (UK no. 4, US no. 71). It wisely observes that “Things get damaged / Things get broken / I thought we’d manage / But words left unspoken / Left us so brittle / There was so little / Left to give”. Is this song also about Dave’s misadventures? Or is ‘this song…for his children’? “If God has a master plan / That only he understands / I hope it’s your eyes / He’s seeing through,” is the prayer before the guitar digs in.
Depeche Mode continue their musical journey with ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ (2009) (UK no. 2, US no. 3, AUS no. 32) and ‘Delta Machine’ (2013) (UK no. 2, US no. 6, AUS no. 16).
It’s difficult to draw conclusions about the material of Depeche Mode. Their songs seem to wilfully flirt with both the seamy, intoxicatingly dangerous side of life and a plethora of pseudo-religious imagery. Some of it may be derived from Dave Gahan’s private life but a lot of it remains inexplicable. Perhaps that’s part of the appeal. Listening to their songs over and over, searching for meaning, may be fruitless, or it may be enlightening, depending on the perceptions of the listener. Whatever the result, the music of Depeche Mode exerts a strong and fascinating allure. ‘Even when they positively glowed with brand new ambition and sweet driving youth, there was an insidious otherness about them, somewhere between shifty and charming, that suggested there was something powerful about this pop group. They wanted to make the listener a believer – in the group, in what the group believed in – with a kind of dark force that could make a catchy throwaway pop song almost religious in intensity’. ‘From shaky, synth pop beginnings, floppy-haired Depeche Mode defied their apparent disposability to become one of the world’s most popular and enduring electro-rock outfits’.
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 60
- ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 135
- ‘The Best of Depeche Mode Volume 1’ – Sleeve notes by Paul Morley (EMI/Mute Records) p. 3, 4, 6, 9
- ‘The History Of Rock’ by Mark Paytress (Parragon Books, 2011) p. 217
- prefixmag.com (25 March 2008)
- ‘The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ – ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (February 2004) p. 65
- washingtonpost.com (U.S. newspaper) (9 December 2005)
- contactmusic.com (29 March 2008), though Dave Gahan’s anti-suicide quote comments themselves are actually quoted from an interview he gave to ‘Hustler’ magazine.
- ‘DVD & Video Guide 2007’ by Mick Martin, Marsha Porter (Ballantine Books, 2006) p. 678
- wikipedia.org as at 31 December 2012, 1 January 2014
Song lyrics copyright EMI Publishing Ltd. / Assigned by Grabbing Hands Ltd. with the exceptions of ‘New Life’ and ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’ (both Musical Moments Ltd. / Sony Music Publishing); ‘I Feel You’ and ‘Walking In My Shoes’ (both EMI Music Publishing Ltd. / Assigned by Grabbing Hands Music Overseas Ltd); and ‘Suffer Well’ (JJSR Productions Inc. / Universal Music Publishing Ltd.)
Last revised 12 August 2014