Saturday 31st July 1993, 3pm… I was not feeling very good.
A 5 hour minibus ride with no toilets from Shrewsbury, with the M25 in its usual fine form. The beginnings of Glandular Fever, a couple of very ill advised beers & a very run down athletics stadium all contributed somewhat. And first up onstage were those goth behomoths the Sisters of Mercy…
Dusk. Sun relenting. Stage empty bar a drumkit, 3 raised synths & one lone microphone stage front. Crowd nervously agitated thanks to said sun & the obligatory alcohol, and the main attraction have not been seen in England in over a year. Lights Dim, crowd in ecstasy… a lone bedraggled, bearded, waistcoated man wanders not completely securely to the microphone & says not a word, just raises his arms to the sky in almost a Jesus-esque pose to the followers below. The strains of “Higher Love” starts behind him… the crowd & this one man are bonded together for the next 2 hours… Depeche Mode are home.
To be honest, ever since the “Music for the Masses” tour started in 1987, until the end of the “Devotional” tour in 1994, pretty much every gig Depeche Mode played was similar to this. To get to this stage had taken a long time in the making.
We have all heard & know Depeche Mode. The 4 boys from Basildon, for whom Vince Clarke was once a member, who have somehow survived since 1980 etc etc. But this is not a history lesson on them, this is my own personal thoughts & reasons why I have adored this band since 1989. And whose music still gets me emotional to this day. (‘See You’ is doing just that right to me now even as I write this!)
In 1989, my friend Louisa was looking after a bunch of French foreign exchanged students, who insisted on playing “101” (Depeche Mode’s live album of the Masses tour) everywhere. She fell in love with it, and recommended I listen to it. I had only heard of “Just Can’t Get Enough” & ‘Everything Counts’ beforehand, obviously in studio form. But when I heard them live, the crowd reaction, the way they performed it, Dave Gahan’s live voice was totally stunning. The album was the only thing I played for the next 6 months. Literally. I knew every word of every song.
They released a video accompanying the album, culminating in the last gig at the Pasadena Rose Bowl… it was at this moment I was hooked. The video showed in full “Never Let Me Down Again”. A great song, with a number of endings depending on the mood of the band. On this occasion they played a lengthy outro, where Gahan managed to get the entire crowd arm waving in unison with him as the guys behind him played. 67,000 people. It was a ‘wow’ moment, how could this band & this guy get a crowd reaction like that??? They did the same with “Everything Counts”, Gahan’s face a joy as he lowered the band’s sound to let the crowd sing. I wanted to be part of this. To experience it, to sing with them, sing with the crowd.
Natural progression was to buy their entire back catalogue, from “Speak & Spell” through to the current latest one “Music for the Masses”. But where could we see them live? We got into them at the end of a tour, not prior to a new release! The only thing to do was to join the Mode fanclub & wait!
You have to remember that in 1989, Depeche Mode were a very big name in the US & in Europe especially Germany, but still growing in the UK. A flyer came out. Mode were performing at an event in Dortmund called ‘Peter’s Pop Show’, with such acts as Roxette, Richard Marx, Taylor Dayne & Milli Vanilli!! Mode only played/mimed new song “Enjoy the Silence”, but the crowd were wild, mental! Our eyes were glued to them, mesmerised to what they were doing & the audience around us. (Later that night back in the hotel in Cologne, us & the coach group got very very drunk with the Goombay Dance Band, but that’s another story)!
“Enjoy the Silence” was the first song off “Violator”, released in 1990, which was seen by most as their masterpiece. On the subsequent tour, we again saw them in Dortmund, & various other cities abroad, and back home in London & Birmingham. Every gig was the same in passion, intensity, showmanship, energy. We couldn’t get enough of it.
Gahan’s ability to hold an audience was only part of the reason why I loved this band. But my god what a job he did. Note perfect in every song, dancing around & twirling like a lunatic, (granted his stage chat could be better!), but remember this guy was the only attention for the crowd in those days. He had 3 guys behind him playing synths only. Biased yes, but why has he never been mentioned in the ‘best frontmen’ lists???
Prior to “Playing the Angel” Martin Gore wrote every song after Vince Clarke left the band. But slowly, as the albums grew, so did his songwriting ability. His songs started to have religious or sexual themes, sometimes a combination of both, with moody, dark, deep, passionate music to accompany it. (Never more so as on “Songs of Faith & Devotion”). These tunes, with Gahan’s almost passionate & pleading voice singing them, was again a huge part of the attraction. As were the 2 ballads that Gore started to include on each album, sung by himself, which were a complete contrast to the rest of the album but still fitted in.
The 3rd & final reason for me, and I’ve realised its only something I’ve recently noticed. Alan Wilder joined the band in 1981 after Clarke left, and left himself after the “Songs of Faith & Devotion” tour. As well as being one of the 2 main synth players (Andy Fletcher basically does nothing bless him), Wilder started to arrange the songs not only on tour but in the studio. He would turn a ballad into a pop classic (“Enjoy the Silence” was meant to be a ballad until Wilder suggested speeding it up), & he was the brains behind Mode starting to play the drums (himself) & the guitar (Gore) on stage. (Personally I wasn’t the biggest fan of this. It meant the songs were heavier, but something was missing from the live version.)
For me, “Songs of Faith & Devotion” was the last great Mode Album. Yes, they have had good singles since then (“Dream On”, “Precious”, “I Feel Loved”), but something has been missing since that album. It’s one of 2 things I think. Firstly, this was an album made by a band on the very edge. Literally. No one was speaking. Gahan on Heroin. Fletcher having a breakdown. Gore having seizures. Wilder just fed up. But these issues come across in the album. It’s dirty, it’s very dark, Gahan’s voice is desperate & pleading, the gospel singers, it just draws you in to how seedy the band was. You can’t help feeling seedy & in need of a shower after listening to it!!! Secondly, Wilder left soon afterwards, and that, for me is why the subsequent albums have not been quite as good. His arrangement skills (plus the fact the band is clean, & I never think a band writes better when clean!) left as well, and while the good songs are there, the chance to be great songs has been missed.
Two more songs to listen to, for you to see why I love this band:-
“In Your Room” from “Songs of Faith & Devotion” (this has just come on the iPod, I’m at work & I’m in tears, THAT’S the power of this tune).
“Somebody” – Teenage Cancer Gig 2010. I found this about 6 months ago, Mode played 3 songs for the gig, and on “Somebody” (A Martin Gore ballad), the piano was played by Alan Wilder, who returned to play just this one song. Just listen to the crowd reaction. It’s a beautiful song anyway, but my god I was in floods seeing this again.
Music often has me in floods of tears. Often at work. Often when I least expect it. That’s why it’s in my Soul. Nothing else gets me like this… ever.
As someone once sagely put – Music is Everything.