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Just Can't Get Enough

Depeche Mode's Cult Is Stronger Than Ever--Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

By Ian Grey | Posted 7/4/2001

Here in the post-you-name-it world, where even the most paltry of media emissions can be deemed worthy of critical and/or popular re-evaluation, an abiding affection for Depeche Mode is still considered a little . . . shameful.

Despite moving tens of millions of units for more than 20 years, the Mode still gives off an inexplicable whiff of marginality pungent enough to fuel its detractors. Even to those over 21 who admit to liking Depeche Mode, the reasons for the band's deal-with-the-devil success and longevity remain mysterious. And yet, somebody is goosing the out-of-the-box sales of group's new album Exciter, and somebody also pushed its new track, "Dream On." onto Europe's teen-centric Top 10 singles charts.

But why is Depeche Mode still selling records? And why is DM fandom not something civilized adults can easily brag about in the year 2001?

This is, after all, a band whose music dotes repeatedly on depression, sexual politics/S&M ("Master and Servant"), mood-swing-prone deities ("Blasphemous Rumors"), sex as a mood-swing-prone-deity metaphor ("The Love Thieves"), and the healing properties of taciturn girls in black dresses. And so, it's common wisdom that the DM oeuvre functions solely as a disposable soundtrack to the more John Hughesian moments of adolescence. Once one attains maturity, it is assumed, one gladly abandons those mopey Modes for the reputedly more sophisticated likes of Radiohead or something. For even the most open-minded musical gourmand, DM is just a guilty-pleasure gambol down the Linn Drum back alleys of '80s nostalgia. But if this were the case, we'd also be hearing the likes of OMD, Heaven 17, and ABC clogging the Clear Channel airwaves. And we're not.

In order to come to grips with the weird case of Depeche Mode, one must consider three facts: That, despite some of the most graceless rhymes in recorded history ("People are people so why should it be/ you and I should get along so aw-ful-ly"), DM has accumulated a back catalog of unparalleled consistency. That DM has managed to accumulate an entire new audience to augment its graying original fan base. And that much of the Mode crowd--some straight, some gay, all melancholic-- use DM as a sort of therapeutic Judy Garland substitute.

From the beginning (1981's Speak & Spell), the band has been cognizant--though not entirely ruled by--Oscar Wilde's exhortation that "in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing." Rock people--especially American ones unfamiliar with the campy British music-hall tradition embodied by the Kinks, glitter rock, Placebo, etc.--like their messages straight. The Boss represents blue-collar problems; Aerosmith is all about the God-given right to get back in the saddle again.

Being both obsessed with cool mechanical surfaces and totally committed to a from-the-heart sentimentality worthy of the weepiest singer/songwriter, DM has always gone both ways. Simpy modernists from the start, the inaugural Mode fused the pre-MIDI analog bleep-pop of Kraftwerk with a Kurt Weill-esque melodic sense. Led by Vince Clarke ( now campy-queer mainman of the disposably terrific Erasure) and co-starring leather-clad boy tenor David Gahan and synthesists Martin Gore and Andrew Fletcher, Mode Version 1.0 was everything awful anyone ever said about new wave (or New Romantic, depending whom you ask). Moogs, Prophet 5s, and rhythm boxes clattered cloyingly in support of Clarke's sexually ambiguous twee pop, which nonetheless resulted in many a British hit. With the departure of Clarke before 1982's A Broken Frame and the addition of arrangement whiz kid Alan Wilder, Gore took over the majority of songwriting duties, tapping inner demons who have proved muses of ever-evolving melodic sophistication. Stateside fame hit in 1984 with the guilelessly egalitarian "People Are People."

But it was on 1986's Black Celebration that DM truly won the dark hearts of misfit youth in the Reagan/Thatcher era. Foremost on this overwrought masterpiece is the wondrous melodic delirium of "A Question of Lust." Over an electro-Phil Spector wall of sound, Gahan croons a gorgeous pervert's lullaby that escalates into a chorus of full-on torch diva-osity that Diana Ross would kill to croon in the smoky bathhouse of heaven. For subtle emphasis and counterpoint, Gore introduces echoed gunshot reports and a synth melody that would work fine as any nation's national anthem--that, or as a particularly up-with-people Broadway show tune.

The multiplatinum shit seriously hit the fan with Violator (1990) and Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993), wherein the lads discovered the proletarian power of power chords, real drums, and limited facial hair. While Violator is merely a terrific transitional recording, Songs of Faith is extraordinary. "I Feel You" centers a stripped-down blues riff that's both a parody of, and as effective as, anything any boogie band ever goosed through a Marshall stack. With its power chords, neo-Shaft wah-wah, and psychedelicized slide, the album is awash in stylized guitar. But another possible reason for its U.S. success is Gore's streamlining of his multiple-melody gothicisms. The band also proves scarily adept at assimilating and reinventing other genres: There's quasi-gospel ("Condemnation," with its trademark declaration, "I'll suffer with pride!"), glam-soul ("Mercy in You"), and cello-driven chamber pop ("One Caress"). Simply put, it's one of the most successfully ambitious records in pop history--but with this being DM, folks seldom give it credit.

The goth icons became so popular that they sold out stadiums in sunny Southern California, spawned a tour film (1990's Depeche Mode 101, directed by documentary legend DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus), and even inspired a backlash among fans of the industrial combo KMFDM, who insisted the acronym stood for "Kill Mother-Fucking Depeche Mode."

Meanwhile, DM toured compulsively. Gahan shot heroin and tried several times to kill himself. He eventually sobered up, and a new Mode (now minus Wilder) recorded its most balls-out--relatively speaking--effort, 1997's Ultra. And now we have the chill-out minimalist sheen of Exciter, with the band members playfully poking fun at themselves ("We're twilight's parasites/ with self-inflicted wounds") and even wearing denim on the inner sleeve. In one photo, at least.

Still, despite the band members' evolving aesthetic, their ability to elegantly absorb and even initiate trends--to say nothing of seriously influencing a new wave of tunefully morbid bands such as Smashing Pumpkins and Rammstein--the Mode gets no respect. Except maybe from a couple million of people like:

John (not his real name) is a 35-year-old stockbroker. A back room of his Charles Village co-op contains a daunting display of fanboy devotion. Hundreds of DM CDs, original vinyl, and remixes (by such epoch-spanning hip-centrics as Shep Pettibone, Butch Vig, Francois Kevorkian, and Kid 606) are alphabetically arranged on shelves for easy access in times of need. Shots of John backstage with the band and other assorted memorabilia clutter the walls. Besides DM, John exhibits no excessive interest in pop music.

Or Alaina Craig (her real name), an 18-year-old Baltimore bookkeeper who affects the visual trappings of goth. Her father, a fan of early Mode, gave her a copy of 1987's Music for the Masses when she was 13. "I relate to the lyrics," she says, adding, "But I'm sure that if the lyrics were different, the songs would still have the same effect on me."

In a perusal of links to 43 of the major goth clubs listed on the www.darklinks.com Web site, Depeche Mode was firmly lodged in the playlists of all of them. Down New Orleans way, DJ St. Timex presides over a weekly French Quarter club event called Mausoleum. She confirms that "Mode is one of the few bands that is consistently requested." Of the predominantly late-teen-to-twentysomething crowd that favors the band, she notes that "they're usually the quieter members of the scene, more introverted. Let's face it, most of DM's songs deal with the more painful interactions between people. Desire, betrayal, lust, loss, alienation. And you can dance to it."

And so, Depeche Mode has caught friendly tailwinds from the zeitgeist of several generations and benefited from a polymorphously perverse pose and appeal. Hitting its stride at the height of Reagan-era conformity, DM dressed in black and offered a new fashion in alternate identity. Like artists such as David Bowie, DM has made an ever-shifting musical identity a virtue. The band members are also expert channelers of camp, deliberately subverting assorted elements of "straight" culture via overstatement or artifice. It's a creative personal enactment, reinforcement, and celebration of difference that's helped maintain DM's immunity to the passing years.

The camp icon--whether Judy Garland, RuPaul, or Depeche Mode--allows fans to both focus on aspects of their own identity and to celebrate their intrinsic differences from others. Terri Senft, an instructor at New York University specializing in performance and gender studies, notes, "Many straight guys who are DM fans can learn--even if by musical proxy--the importance of dealing with difference in our culture. And any boy who has had the shit kicked out of him for wearing a brooch cause it's 'faggy' knows how important it is to respect difference in other people."

Along with its main drawing card--simply sublime pop--Depeche Mode lasts because it embodies the core elements of rock 'n' roll: the volcanic sexual agita of youth and the concurrent need to locate a viable identity (which may involve wearing black leather). The group serves as a conduit for desire to escape into a fevered weekend world, an essential release from the real-world week's measured tedium. And, perhaps most importantly, it represents the grace to accept the sometimes incomprehensible and even bizarre ways others may choose to enact their rock 'n' roll fantasies. And so, in its charmingly feckless way, Mode's first radio broadside, "People Are People," wasn't just a hit. It was a manifesto.

Depeche Mode performs at Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion on July 5.

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