Published Jun 01, 2003Embarrassing haircuts, gender-bending lyrics and an unabashed dependence on pre-recorded tape have never made it cool to like Depeche Mode at least not for long. Yet these Anglo synth-popsters have been at it longer than any of their contemporaries, outlasting early 80s new wave to late 80s alternative, ultimately standing in a class of their own. They've never claimed to be as influential as Kraftwerk or Stockhausen, but neither of those progenitors have ever made electronic music sound as sexy as Depeche Mode. And for all of their inventiveness with sampling, their appeal transcends technophile trainspotters. Among the many tribute albums, the most unorthodox props range from Johnny Cash's cover of "Personal Jesus" and George Michael's unreleased rendition of "A Question of Lust." Not bad for a bank-teller, an insurance clerk and an art-school scenester with no serious musical aspirations, let alone a proper record contract. This month sees lead vocalist Dave Gahan breaking away from the Depeche fold with a self-written solo effort, Paper Monsters, and chief songwriter Martin L. Gore's second album of cover songs, Counterfeit2. When asked to reflect on Depeche Mode's quarter-century legacy, Gore grimly replies, "you want to get real boring?" (He hangs up shortly after.) But as a nearly religious fan since 1987 (exactly half my life), I beg to differ. With Depeche Mode, everything counts in large amounts the music, the money and the madness.
1977 to 1979
In Basildon, Essex, a working-class "new town" outside of London, Vince Clarke and Andrew Fletcher are friends in a church-based, scout-type organization called the Boys Brigade. The pair form No Romance in China in 1977. Clarke, who had previously been in a gospel act, plays guitar and sings, and the admittedly non-musical Fletcher takes to bass. They perform a few pubs and stick mostly to covers of 50s pop, but become much more experimental after seeing two influential bands: the Cure, and Norman and the Worms. The latter features guitarist Martin L. Gore. Seeing Gore bring a Moog onstage inspires Clarke to pick one up for himself. He invites Gore to join him and Fletcher as a trio, Composition of Sound.
The band rehearse in the storage room of a church, which doubles as a popular jam-spot for various amateurs around Basildon. Clarke spots ex-punk art student Dave Gahan singing at a session and recruits him into Composition, less for his vocals than his good looks. Gahan also has a lot of friends, sparking hope the band might win an audience. Gahan persuades them to form an all-synth line-up and rename themselves Depeche Mode, the title of a French fashion magazine meaning "hurry up fashion." Their foray into London's futurist/new romantic underground is swift, but they're initially rejected by every indie label in the country (including their future home, Mute Records) until scenester DJ Stevo solicits a track, "Photographic," for his Some Bizarre Album, putting DM in the same company as Soft Cell, Blancmange and the The. The cult success of the comp has everyone from major label reps to shady business tycoons stalking the band. In one case, a Rasta offers to take Depeche Mode to Nigeria, dress them up in Doctor Who outfits and have them introduce electro-reggae to Africa. One night backstage, they meet Daniel Miller, the Deutsche-phile producer responsible for the Normal's futurist anthem "Warm Leatherette" and owner of Mute. He proposes to release "Dreaming of Me" with a 50/50 sharing of the costs and no binding agreement to the label. They agree with nothing more than a handshake.
With Miller at the mixing desk, the still-teenaged Mode refine their brash, electro tendencies from Some Bizarre to create a melodic, synth-pop signature. "Dreaming of Me" barely cracks the UK Top 100, but the relationship with Mute is rewarding enough for the band to continue recording. "New Life" prompts Gore and Fletcher to quit their day-jobs and Gahan to leave college. A few months later, the punchy "Just Can't Get Enough" turns DM into a UK boy band sensation. But the superficial rigor of lip-synching TV performances, autograph and photo sessions, and an overall emphasis on haircuts over the music, loses its appeal for Clarke. He decides to leave the band shortly before the release of Speak and Spell. On the verge of signing an American deal with Sire, the DM camp keeps the news to themselves until the end of the year. They put an ad in the classifieds of Melody Maker reading: "Name Band, Require Synthesizer Player, Must Be Under 21." Alan Wilder, aka Alan Normal, a classically-trained musician with a history of playing in various post-punk bands (including the Hitmen with Juno Reactor's Ben Watkins), is among the interviewees. He lies about his age and admits to not knowing much about Depeche Mode, but his ability to learn the songs perfectly by ear earns him a six-month trial-gig as their replacement keyboardist. His "alright looks" don't hurt either.
Turing North America and Europe is a fun ride until recording sessions begin for the aptly titled A Broken Frame. The band inform Wilder that he's "not needed" in the studio; he's welcome to watch, but not play any of the instruments. The founding members are still bitter about Clarke's ill-timed departure and feel a need to prove they can do it without him especially when he finds greater success with Alison Moyet under Yazoo. Martin Gore takes to songwriting like an angst-ridden teen to poetry. His lyrics are sincere and introspective, but awkwardly phrased. The melodies are at best moody, and at worst, confused. The mediocre reception of A Broken Frame is followed by an official recognition of Wilder as a full-time member. He makes his first songwriting contribution to DM's post-Clarke repertoire, "Get the Balance Right."
The last leg of the Broken Frame tour takes Depeche Mode to Thailand. Gore is particularly scarred by the sights of extreme poverty and teenage prostitution. During the flight home, he begins scribbling down song ideas for Construction Time Again, comes up with lyrical critiques of capitalism's "grabbing hands" and calls for a redistribution of the world's wealth through a "universal revolution" of "caring." The band's political awakening is matched by a technological one their initiation into sampling. Engineer Gareth Jones sends the boys to an East London scrap yard where they spend weeks hammering, scratching and blowing on any piece of debris they find. Fletcher is active in these experiments, but it's increasingly clear that his keyboard playing is outmatched by Wilder. Fletcher takes up their business affairs and becomes an unofficial manager. He's also a confidant and mouthpiece for the ever-shy Gore; the pair create a silent faction within Depeche Mode that operates to this day. A need for a bigger mixing studio takes them to Berlin; the foursome are deeply attracted to the city's decadent liberalism, but it's Gore who breaks up with his Christian fundamentalist fiancé, falls in love with a local woman and lives there for the next three years.
Depeche Mode's social concerns become more sexual, as Gore enjoys a belated adolescence in Berlin and partying in the city's 24-hour club scene becomes a way of life. He occasionally insists on being interviewed while lying down in the street, adding that "collapsing is enjoyable." Fascinated with bondage and androgyny, he builds a new wardrobe of skirts, chains and other fetish gear. The rest of Mode are less adventurous in their style, but they readily trade their geeky, thin ties and suits for leather, lipstick and peroxide dye. Their makeover aims to be outrageous but is pretty much de rigeur in an English pop scene queerified by Culture Club, Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Where Mode stand out though is in the eccentricity of their sound. Some Great Reward draws attention to the body hissing, spitting and spanking on "Master and Servant" and jolted respirations on "Blasphemous Rumours." The experiments have less to do with sampling technology than with conveying Gore's view of intimacy and desire in an ultimately boring world. He makes a concerted decision to sing "Somebody" in the nude. With Wilder's piano as his only accompaniment, the production is testimony to the songwriter's popular reputation for streaking as well as the band's lesser-known talents for carrying a song unplugged.
The sexed-up singles on Some Great Reward draw controversy in Britain, but it's the liberal call to tolerance on "People Are People" that strikes a chord with race-conscious North Americans. While rock journalists had previously written them off as talent-less "synth-wimps," a new generation of disaffected American teens identify with Depeche's non-comformist angst. Americans are brought up to speed with the best-of Catching Up With Depeche Mode. They're also compelled to sign their first record contract with Mute a single sheet of paper after learning that Mute owner Daniel Miller's weight problem may actually kill him. Gahan marries his long-time girlfriend and decides to put domestic life first. He looks down on the rest of the band as immature brats whenever they're out drinking or clubbing, preferring his new hobbies, fishing and sports cars. The plan to settle down might have worked except for one flaw: Gahan is never home enough to execute it.
Black Celebration is the final, dark chapter of Depeche Mode's Berlin trilogy European existentialist brooding with a thin layer of optimism. Recorded every day non-stop over a four-month period, the process breeds a great deal of tension, claustrophobia and consequently, a great deal of spliff smoking. At one point, Gore freaks out and disappears for a few days, turning up in a rural area 150 km north of Hamburg. Gahan and Gore realise their potential, singing together in multiple harmonies, while Wilder does away with all synth presets, carving sounds from car engines, ping pong balls and moose farts. His curiosity for abstract sounds results in a solo EP, 1+2, as Recoil.
The title of Mode's seventh album, Music For the Masses, is supposed to be ironic. Sleeve photos red, phallic speakers in deserted surroundings only emphasise the band's conviction that no one is listening, and to some extent, they are justified. Like Black Celebration, MFTM is a majestic but hitless affair. However, as grunge and hip-hop would confirm a few years later, the underground is always bigger than the mainstream; when the band embarks on their Concert For The Masses tour, it's a stadium-size affair. As always, Wilder, Fletcher and Gore play synths live to a pre-recorded tape, but no one seems to care. It's Gahan's pelvic thrusts, dervish-like spinning and exhortative "whoas" that have the crowd screaming like he's a white Prince. As the most physically active member onstage, roadies frequently have to carry him back to his dressing room and resuscitate him with fluids. A little bit of coke never hurts either.
1988 to 1989
The band invites veteran documentarian D.A. Pennebaker to tag along on a second run of the Masses tour. Half the film crew rolls with Mode while the other half follows a small group of New York club kids bussing all the way to Pasadena, California, to catch Depeche on their now-legendary Rose Bowl gig. The film, 101, captures the band's energetic performances as well as the machinations behind a modern rock concert: the technicians, the accountant, the merch stand, the press, etc.
There's nothing to suggest that Gahan is sleeping with his female fans or that band tensions can get hot enough to have Wilder and Fletcher close to blows just before an encore in Toronto a few days before the Pasadena gig.
They remain jovial enough to get all coked-up for cricket matches with tour support, OMD. After raking in more than a million for the Rose Bowl gig alone, Depeche Mode is now its own cultural industry. Mode albums are outsold by t-shirts and outplayed by bootleg tapes and DJ-friendly 12-inches. This prolific period finds Wilder releasing another Recoil album, Hydrology, and Gore on his first solo outing with Counterfeit, a lo-fi set of obscure pop covers. Meanwhile, Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn films Strange, a 30-minute collection of DM videos shot entirely in a grainy, black and white à la the French new wave. It heralds their first "serious" look, turning Corbijn into Depeche Mode's art director and unofficial fifth member.
At a glam-metal nightclub, G'N R front-man Axl Rose gushes on about being their biggest fan and even offers to sing "Somebody" on the spot. When they learn that Rose shot a pig at a friend's barbeque party later that night, they immediately release a statement: "as strict vegetarians, the band are appalled by Rose's behaviour and do not wish to associate themselves with anyone who goes around shooting pigs for fun." Their arrival for an autograph session in L.A. sparks 15,000 dark-clothed fans to riot in the streets outside a record store. A more inspired black celebration takes place in Detroit, where the band are hailed as heroes by the city's still-indigenous techno scene. Kevin Saunderson declares "Get the Balance Right" as the world's first techno record, while Derrick May escorts the band to his gigs at the Music Institute where they're mobbed by a mostly African-American audience an indicator that Depeche's fandom is neither exclusively white nor suburban. Though the band admits to not being big fans of newer dance music, its sonic influence inevitably filters onto Violator. With Flood and Francois K. on the mix, the Mode masterpiece is sculpted with less programming and samples, more analogue pulses and in-studio jamming, and an overall aesthetic of clarity and restraint. Unfortunately, the latter can't be said for band members' personal lives. Gahan is constantly on the phone, getting drunk and personal with DM's American publicist, Theresa Conroy, while Fletcher is falling into a deep depression triggered by the loss of his sister to cancer. He checks in at the Priory a celebrity rehab retreat, and finds the Cure's Lol Tolhurst there for similar reasons. At other times, the fashionable availability of ecstasy has everyone's energies swinging to the other extreme and turns the World Violation tour into a seven month-long party with Gore in charge of ensuring that everyone is "on one." The E'ed up vibe behind the scenes hasn't yet disrupted the band's performances. With Corbijn's films on two screens, the quartet play extended sets and deliver some songs unplugged. It's interesting to note that U2 are in the audience when it comes time for Achtung Baby, they employ Corbijn and Flood; the stage set and program for U2's Zoo TV is arguably a hyperbolic version of World Violation.
1991 to 1992
Following their greatest success, the band disappears. Wilder, Fletcher and Gore retreat to London and a domestic life. Fletcher and Gore continue to meet up and party, but they only see Wilder during a recording session for the Until The End of The World soundtrack. Wilder keeps musically active with production work for Nitzer Ebb and a poppier Recoil album, Bloodlines, with vocal contributions from Curve's Toni Halliday, Diamanda Galas and a fledgling ambient-house DJ named Moby. Fletcher feeds his managerial interests by opening up a wine-bar, Gascogne, and Gore finds out that he's black. Or rather, that his father is. His mother gives him the news a month before his birthday in 1992. "It wasn't like a big Oprah thing," he reflects. "It was more of a wow, my dad could be John Lee Hooker!' Unfortunately, he wasn't." Instead, the curly-headed Englishman learns that he is a spitting image of his biological, African-American father, save complexion and hair colour. Meanwhile, Gahan leaves his wife (a relationship that he's had longer than his time in Depeche) migrates to Los Angeles and with the encouragement of new mate Conroy, metamorphoses into an grungified antithesis of his synth-pop self: long hair, a devilish goatee, nipple-piercings, a scrotum ring and too many tattoos (including one that reads, "TCTTM-FG" Teresa Conway To The Mother-Fucker Gahan). The rest of Mode barely recognise him when they meet to plan the next album. Americanised and self-righteous, Gahan demands they get a drummer so they can rock out like his new favourite band, Jane's Addiction; arguments ensue. Wilder volunteers to play drums and Gore delivers a set of demos that are closer to gospel-blues and tinged with Sufi-like themes of mystical love. A villa-cum-studio is rented so that the band can live and work together, but neither transpires. Unhappy with the direction that his songs are taking, Gore spends the sessions drunk, playing video-games; Fletcher relapses into his obsessive-compulsive disorder and returns to London; and Gahan isolates himself in his bedroom. He shoots smack, makes feedback noises with a guitar and rediscovers his first love, painting. The business of music-making falls mostly on Wilder and Flood, with occasional input from the others, the fruits of which are the distortion-heavy, spiritually cathartic Songs of Faith and Devotion.
1993 to 1994
Corbijn's staging of the 14 month-long Devotional tour is his most elaborate: 11 screen projections, chains hanging from the backdrop and three keyboardists on risers at least ten feet above Gahan. Gore doubles on guitar, Wilder on drums, and two gospel singers, while Gahan indulges his Dionysian persona, masturbating to the crowd's maenadic satisfactions. The spectacle is even bigger at the backstage parties: porn-themed VIP areas, groupies chosen by the roadies, and plenty of stimulants. The band hires a psychiatrist, but he jumps ship before the European leg of the tour is over; the other employee, an official drug dealer, stays on. The full-tilt insanity is probably not much different from previous tours, except this time none of the members are partying together, let alone interacting with each other outside of their two hours onstage. Gahan, whom everyone now calls "the cunt," keeps his vigour up with a daily routine three hours of circuit-training and yoga but heroin is speeding the deterioration of both his voice and skin. He collapses onstage in Budapest, suffers a heart attack backstage in New Orleans, gets arrested after a hotel scuffle in Quebec and breaks his ribs during an embarrassing attempt at stage diving in Mannheim. The rest of the band never engage Gahan on his destructiveness, mostly because they have their own problems. Gore, who's drinking at least two bottles of wine every night because he's convinced he won't remember any of the songs if he's sober, suffers from panic attacks and eventually a seizure. Wilder is hospitalised with kidney stones and Fletcher quits the tour after a nervous breakdown. Wilder teaches all of his parts to Daryl Bamonte (a party-hungry roadie who's been in the DM camp since the Basildon days) and the band finishes the remaining three months of the tour with ultra-hedonists Primal Scream on board. Gahan spends more time debauching with them than his own bandmates and by the end of the jaunt, he weighs less than a hundred pounds. When it's all over he says he hates singing Depeche Mode songs and wants to form a rock'n'roll band. He just keeps shooting up instead.
1995 to 1996
Wilder divorces his wife and hooks up with Hepzibah Sessa, a violinist in Miranda Sex Garden whom he began seeing while her band was a supporting act on the Devotional tour. He calls a meeting with Fletcher and Gore in June 1995 and announces his decision to quit. An official statement cites "a consistent imbalance in the distribution of the workload" (a probable reference to the fact that he's earning the same as Fletcher), a lack of respect for his input (a critique aimed mostly at Gore), and the extent to which internal relations have become "intolerable." His only way of informing Gahan is by fax. He does not respond. Separated from Conroy and barred from visiting his son, Gahan is a paranoid junkie, painting on the walls, staring at the Weather channel for hours and rarely leaving his house without a gun in his hand. He overdoses in August 1995 and briefly goes sober after six weeks in an Arizona clinic, but relapses after he returns and finds his home burglarised. He puts the house up for sale, checks in at the Sunset Marquis hotel with a girlfriend, shoots up, drinks a bottle of wine and takes some Valium. He calls his mother and asks her to hold on while he goes to the bathroom and slashes his wrists with a two-inch razor. The next morning, he ends up in a psychiatric ward and is notified that he's broken a local law against suicide. He's advised by the staff to try cutting his veins vertically, rather than horizontally, next time if he wants to be successful.
Back in England, Gore and Fletcher start work on Ultra with Bomb the Bass's Tim Simenon as producer and his team of musicians filling Wilder's shoes. Gore is constantly in the studio, emphatic on keeping the tracks beat-oriented and electronic. By the time six tracks are done, a couple of phone conversations with Gahan are enough to coax him to record some vocals, but only on the stipulation that it's in a studio in the United States. The band hires out Electric Ladyland in New York and though Gahan is punctual and committed, his voice is destroyed from abuse and he's often unable to stand in front of the mic for more than an hour. The band send Gahan back to L.A. to seek a vocal coach and clean up. He checks back into the Marquis on May 27, 1996, and with his dealer by his side he shoots up a coke and heroin speedball. The concoction is called Red Rum murder spelled backwards. Cardiac arrest follows and Gahan is clinically dead for six minutes. When he wakes up, he's handcuffed to a police officer reading his rights. He's booked for drug possession and spends a few nights in a county jail. When the news hits the rest of DM, Gore frets that Ultra is going to be a solo record. Gahan returns to New York and gets clean a judge threatens to take his green card if he doesn't.
Despite remix support from Richie Hawtin and DJ Shadow, Ultra makes Depeche Mode strangely irrelevant in the year of electronica. The disc is boring and dispassionate. Gahan's rock god invincibility is deconstructed in his mournful confessions: "Is there something you need from me/Are you having your fun/I never agreed to be/Your holy one/Whatever I've done/I've been staring down the barrel of a gun." The guys perform club gigs in Los Angeles and London with just a handful of songs, but are too shell-shocked to tour.
An uncertain future makes for a perfect time to cash in. Retro staple "Just Can't Get Enough" soundtracks a Gap ad. The half-decent Tribute to the Masses boasts covers by the Cure, Smashing Pumpkins, Gus Gus and other mostly non-electronic acts partially selected by the band. The Singles 86-98 follows with two new tracks, as does its DVD equivalent, The Videos, and a refashioning of Catching Up as The Singles 81-85. With back-up singers, a keyboardist, drummer and live computer operator, the Basildon three take their greatest hits on the road. Mode heads (including Prof. Stephen Hawking) represent in droves, but find the band looking timid, unmotivated and unsure of what they're supposed to do up there. Gahan is drugless and vocally confident, but he rarely pulls out the old moves and the still-present effects of withdrawal have him drenched with sweat at the end of every show.
2000 to 2002
Gahan settles in New York and marries a woman he met in detox; Gore moves move to California while Fletcher stays in London. The geographical distance makes them less active but more energised and tolerant during the Exciter sessions. Partly written in Vancouver, Gore's new songs contemplate the perennial mysteries of love (as obsession, humility, addiction, care, etc.). LFO's Mark Bell lends his square-wave touch to the album, generating most of the sounds on laptop. The producer also has Gahan singing his vocals into Protools on a daily basis to make him feel like he's "living" with the lyrics a psychological technique tried and tested with Björk. The results find Gahan bold yet angelic and in top form. With no new haircuts to model, the band look healthy, rejuvenated and actually playing together on the subsequent tour. They're genuinely excited about music and life in general, but as Corbijn documents on the One Night in Paris DVD, Depeche Mode have come full circle and become the aging rock stars they once rebelled against. Gore is Keith Richards' to Gahan's Jagger-esque posing. But offstage, the axe-handling songwriter is very much in tune with 21st century music. A big admirer of glitch, Gore takes up DJing as a second job.
Fletcher establishes his own label, Toast Hawaii, which presently features only one act on its roster, the androgynous electro-duo Client. (Toast Hawaii is also the name Fletcher used for a recording of lounge-y tracks from the mid-80s, on which he sang with the rest of Mode as his back-up band. There's a possibility that this cassette-only session may resurface as a bootleg MP3.) Gore has just dropped another cover album, Counterfeit2, a soulful, IDM-wise tribute to Blind Willie Johnson, Nick Cave and Kurt Weill among others. Gahan is finally releasing his much-anticipated album, Paper Monsters, a collaboration with Knox Chandler (who did the strings on Exciter) and Sigur Rós producer [whatshisname] that for the first time, features Mode's main-man mouthing his own lyrics and actively involved in the instrumentation. It's an autobiographical affair full of junkie tales ("Bottle Living"), redemptive pleas ("A Little Piece") and relationship blues ("I Need You"). Paper Monsters has its moments of live-band spontaneity and growling hunger, but Gahan is limited when it comes to his tonal range and vocabulary. Gore is melodically much more savvy, but his voice on Counterfeit2 is comparatively frail. The pair's strengths clearly balance their weaknesses, but whether they can regroup for another Depeche Mode project remains a question. On his press tour, Gahan has repeatedly stated that unless its going to be mutual collaboration, there is no point; the B-side "Closer" is actually a track written and then rejected for Ultra. He's also admitted his regrets for Wilder's departure, adding that Gore should call him up and apologise. Though there hasn't been a Recoil release since 1999, Wilder has kept the project active with its ever-eclectic list of guest players. His arrangements are dark and cinematic, but devoid of his former band-mates' distinctive personalities. Although there was talk of Wilder contributing some piano to Paper Monsters, a reunion of the core line-up seems unlikely given the combination of egos. Besides, there's no need to reunite for Mode classics, when both Gahan and Gore are playing some of them in their live sets. But given that there's been a construction time again for every broken frame, it's likely there's still more to come.