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“Depeche Mode 101” (1988) dir D.A. Pennebaker BBC iPlayer

Last night saw BBC4 broadcast the Depeche Mode road movie “101”, reminding everyone that they are an unacknowledged colossus of UK music history, and caused me to reflect on the strange phenomenon that is DM. 

Saturday 20th February 2010 saw Depeche Mode prove to a sold out O2 Arena why they must be the most under rated Band in British musical history.

Thirty years on they are still producing relevant music, which sits equally with their enormously formidable back catalogue.

Were they from any other nation they would be lauded to the rafters. But I’m glad they aren’t. They are the wonderful secret of around 100,000 hard-core fans across the country, and that’s just how we like it if the truth be told.

What is it about them? Well that’s a toughie as to the uninitiated it’s a complete mystery and to the fans it’s so obvious that you can’t even explain it at all. Weird but true. A footy analogy comes in useful here; you’ll just have to go with me on this one.

Mode remind me in the way they are regarded by others, of George Graham’s Championship side of 1991 as no one denies their class but are hard to pigeon hole. Were Graham’s teams dirty and lucky, or skilful and clean? Many would say the former but the stats show Arsenal had the least yellow cards and NOT ONE player served suspension. Perception. Also that side scored the most and conceded the least and only had one loss, at Chelsea when Hillier and Thomas had to fill in at centre back.

The point? Depeche Mode sold more records in the USA between 1987 and 1994 than any other British band bar none.

In addition they filled Pasadena Rose Bowl with 80,000 fans for the 101 live album, wonderfully filmed by legendary director D.A. Pennebaker, and in the Eastern Bloc they still have to play stadia as demand for tickets is absolutely phenomenal making them the hottest ticket of the year.

But in the UK they are widely reviled by the music press and this perception passes onto the mainstream media where the band are all but ignored.

Playing the Angel (2006) and 2009’s Sounds of the Universe, both Top Ten in the US and the later peaked at Number 3 got scanty reviews despite whole columns for bands you will never hear of again.

Even though 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion outsold every other British band worldwide, they were never even mentioned in the music press let alone nominated for any awards. This album topped the US Album Charts, something as rare as hens’ teeth for a British Band.

I think the reason is that they defy genre labelling, which the music press love in their lazy, narrow-minded way. If your face doesn’t fit with the NME then forget it.

The Band started their career as an out and out bubblegum pop band with catchy hits aimed at the teeny girl market such as See You and Just Can’t Get Enough (which is my ringtone, much to the shame of certain people; “How gay!”) and were constantly featured in Smash Hits and Jackie, David Gahan having the fresh faced pop pin up look.

The driving force behind Mode at this time was none other than Vince Clarke but the more teeny Mode Mania and screaming girlies abounded, the less Clarke liked it and bailed out after one album to form Yazoo and the pop success story that is Erasure.

Martin L. Gore then took over the creative reins and we began to see a more reflective and political bent to the music with Everything Counts, Get the Balance Right and People Are People, still poppy but in a more grown up way.

The decisive moment in the history of Depeche Mode came in 1983 when Alan Wilder, a well-respected music techno wizard, was added to the line up. He was able to musically interpret Gore’s sonic vision and this culminated in the transition from pop to an all-together more dark and edgy sound that produced “Black Celebration”.

The media reaction was nothing but astonishing.

“Whether the members of Depeche Mode are actually dead or alive has baffled the music profession for years”. Gary Bushell, the Sun.

“I’ve heard more melody coming out my arsehole.” Paul Weller.

“Football Hooligans as sensitive wimps”. Melody Maker.

“What do you expect from a lame bunch of dickheads.” Time Out.

Extraordinary stuff.

Perhaps the key lies in the sound of 15-year-old looking David Gahan singing about sex, SandM, politics and death.

It is an extremely thought proving album and one where Wilder and Gore really hit it off to blend a dark, kinky but musically uplifting experience for the listener.

The fans, now growing adults, loved it bought it by the bucket load catapulting Depeche Mode to commercial success both in terms of record sales and a mass live following, many who have stuck with the band for life. The critics scratched their heads and wondered.

No one could have predicted what happened next as Mode cracked America in a massive way with the US top 5 offering “Music For the Masses” with acute observations of the human condition and the fantasies that we all have, articulated in a way we would never dare.

1990’s “Violator” confirmed the Bands genius with US number 2 single “Enjoy the Silence” and the amazing “Personal Jesus”.

For me the zenith is “Songs of Faith and Devotion” every track says something and challenges you to really think on a higher plane. Death, religion, sex and relationships being the main themes. (I’m applying for pseuds corner as we speak).

But the intense nature of the music allied to a monumental tour schedule took a heavy toll as both Gore and Gahan became serial abusers of substances, each other and their families. Martin was on two bottles of wine a show and David developed a serious heroin problem, which resulted in a brush with the grim reaper and by 1995 a major suicide attempt.

The shows were something else and blood chillingly intense for everyone taking part, real spine tingling moments.

Wilder had seen enough and called it a day in 1995 leaving the whole future of the band up in the air as Gore, shorn of his interpreter couldn’t see how they could carry on. Gahan, on his own admission was a nightmare to work with due to the need to score and could never be relied on in the studio to contribute anything. The SOFAD sessions took nearly a year because of this and as Wilder was the only one who seemed to have any control over the front man, Gore felt it was now mission impossible.

Fletch, bless him, must be the luckiest man in the business, as no one knows what he actually does, least of all him.

But Gahan turned it all around and by 1997 was ready to rumble again. With Flood and Lanois at the controls, Gore had the men to make his visions reality and Ultra is one their best, and above all optimistic works as articulated in Clean and the peerless Home. 

Gahan and Gore had finally found peace with each other and most importantly, with themselves.

The Band felt strong enough to attempt a short tour in 1998, which was a bright, and fun experience in contrast to what had gone before, everyone including the audience a bit older and wiser. It was a dance and grin type of show and brilliant for it.

2001 was disappointing both record wise and with the live show. Going through the motions one felt. I put it down to David holding something back to protect himself, which is totally understandable.

Thus, I was a little circumspect going on the Road with Mode last time (2006). We are gluttons for punishment as each tour sees back-to-back gigs and a lot of travelling “Behind the Wheel” (sorry).

But Playing the Angel was a tour de force in every sense. Back to the intense best, but without the scary SOFAD drugs stuff where you felt it was all rather darkly out of control.

For myself Depeche Mode and all the surrounding issues seem to run together in a rather bathartic way. If you can’t laugh you’d go mad. I’ve been in some dark places during tours; non-more so than at the O2 on that Saturday in 2010 when I honestly thought I’d pushed it way beyond my stupid over optimistic boundaries. But a week in the Royal London pulled things back in my favour.

We made it. 2006 felt like an ending. It wasn’t. There is a God and he is Professor Neurology at the Royal London Hospital.

What a gig. You have to ask yourself how on earth Depeche Mode can produce such a stunning show. How they still have the hunger, desire and energy. But they do.

What other Band has reached such heights and maintained them over such an immense period of time, blending relevance to write fresh challenging songs, which sell around the world, whilst remaining grounded having learnt the hard way from bitter experience? 

BBC4’ broadcast of 101 may just explain it.

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About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.

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