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NME, 17th February 1990. Words: Stuart Maconie. Pictures: A J Barratt.]

" As the ’80s wheezed and panted to a mildly geriatric end... charts full of ageing divorcee rock, rankly insincere charity records and a series of ghastly novelty House records, the awkward, outré charm of Depeche Mode became all the more appealing. Not in the least because they believe that a dance record needn’t be a formularised and repetitive dribble, nor need a pop song be a mush of platitudes. "

Summary: A fascinating piece which manages to remain lively and fluid while being considerably in-depth, giving a resume of the band's development and the popular view of them before running into an interview with Alan and Martin. The author has an almost poetic enthusiasm for the band which carries the piece along beautifully, and his gentle manner has the rare gift of opening up Martin, who gives some of his most revealing comments here. Delightful. [3208 words]

View pages:    cover    page 1    page 2

Try also:    "Aces High" [Zig Zag, August 1985]
    "Depeche Mode Hip It Up And Start Again" [Melody Maker, 10th March 1990]
                "Strangers" Introduction [1990]

    From Basildon to bondage, Vince Clarke to “Violator”, Depeche Mode are now one of Britain’s strongest and most enduring pop phenomena. Stuart Maconie talks to Martin “Kafka” Gore and Alan “New Boy” Wilder about a career of being misunderstood, and how it’s good to be dark. Mode mugshot by A J Barratt.

    What are the ingredients of pop success? What are the components that go together to turn the heads of the boys and girls. You’d think by now we’d have a pretty good idea, wouldn’t you?

    A cheery disposition, perhaps? A Fotolove view of romance? A cute haircut, a pert bum, all your own teeth? How about sex, death, alienation, violence, blasphemy, corruption, submission, domination and lies? How about a band who aren’t sure whether they want to be T-Rex, Nitzer Ebb or Dion And The Belmonts? From Smash Hits to sonic terrorism, from Basildon to bondage, the most anonymously brilliant singles band of the last decade proved that it is possible to go pop platinum without going soft in the head, to be little girls’ darlings without being a big girl’s blouse. How about Depeche Mode?

    Martin Gore, a misunderstood individual if ever there was one, takes a genteel sip of Guinness and peers at me from beneath the peak of a goofily outsize baseball cap. He is smiling broadly.

    “Perhaps we should have described ourselves as a rock group. Maybe if we’d done that people might have taken us a bit more seriously. But we aren’t. We are a pop group and proud of it. The only songs I can write are pop songs, no matter how dark and pervy some people might find them.”

    I am, unashamedly, a big Depeche Mode fan although it took me some time to realise this. Now I’m quite brazen about it. After years of regarding them as those amiable if hardly momentous synth-poppers from the home counties, the moment of epiphany came one bleak afternoon round at my then-girlfriend’s boring brother-in-law’s, a man whose tastes in music at their wildest and most unhinged ran to some Rush albums and “The Dark Side Of The Moon”.

    Fearing the holiday snaps at any second I was quite pleased when he moved toward the hi-fi to play his latest acquisition, the just-released Depeche Mode singles album. As the tracks rolled by, every one a hit, every one a miniature crash course in how to “do” pop properly and every one different from the ingenuous but accomplished Casiotone juvenile of “Dreaming Of Me” to the opaque gothic extravagance of “Shake The Disease” the truth became apparent. It was only when you heard their career in this way, compressed into nuggets of excellence and strung together like pearls the truth hit you: Depeche Mode were one of the greatest exponents of the pop single on the planet. [1]

    Depeche Mode were born in Basildon, Essex on the cusp of the ‘70s and ‘80s, a glorious time ripe with possibilities. The pop world was still ruffled and breathless from the advent of punk. Like a prim spinster fallen into the hands of some Don Juan, pop had been both outraged, seduced and excited by this invasion of colour and anarchy. Out of this liberating atmosphere, and further galvanised by the increasing cheapness and availability of synth technology (a paper round could get you the kind of sounds that Keith Emerson paid through the nose for) Depeche emerged blinking into the light of stardom.

    Their first two hits, “Dreaming Of Me” and “New Life” established them as teen heart-throbs and peddlers of an irresistibly bright, effervescent wipe-clean technopop, bubblegum with brains. Both were written by head honcho Vince Clarke, an odd cove who left the group when he became disenchanted with the notion of stardom, unhappy with the superficiality of fame (bear this in mind when you next see him running through some cheesy three note ditty on Wogan in stack heels and a fluorescent lilac suit made of tinsel).

    Depeche Mode, meanwhile, got better and better. With Gore established as songwriter and new recruit Alan Wilder an asset thanks to his skills as a musician / producer / arranger, the band evolved into one of our stronger pop phenomena. Populist weirdos, a band loved equally by both earnest students wrestling with Camus and their kid sisters… and everyone else, from Essex beerboys to my girlfriend’s enervating brother in law.

    Steeped in pop values they nevertheless retained a healthy curiosity towards outside events, toward the remix, electronic developments and the Teuton percussiveness of Neubaten and Test Dept. The result was a music equally at home in the Berlin garret or the Barnsley youth club: catchy, menacing, seamless and brooding. This was the Nick Cave you could dance to. This was why I’d always wanted to talk to them. Chance would be a fine thing.

    Depeche Mode do not like being interviewed. Consequently they go out of their way to avoid it – and they can afford to. Whilst not in the Michael Jackson bracket (indeed, they seem deliberately at pains to play down their popularity, gleefully pointing out any career worst chart placings) they are a very successful operation. It’s possible that some of the teen contingent who wet their pants in 1981 have defected to Erasure or deserted pop for nappies and building societies, but the band is still sustained by a sizeable hard core of devotees, both here and worldwide whose enthusiasm leads to sell-out tours and chart success. They are pop stars, alright.

    In Germany they are still the little darlings (a little to their chagrin) of kiddie pop TV, in America they are a prosperous cult along the lines of The Cure and New Order. In Britain they are good old Depeche Mode, leather-skirted disco oddballs that the whole family can enjoy. Who don’t like being interviewed.

    In the end they do give their consent to their first music press interview in three years, partly because they have been assured that I really do like them and partly because they have a record to promote, of which more later. Even so, the set-up is a tad unconventional. I am to meet Alan Wilder at the Mute offices and Martin Gore a week and a half later in a North London pub. The ostensible reason for this is Gore’s New Year break in the States, compounded to the fact that he returned to a flat bereft of central heating and Martin “didn’t want to do the interview till it was fixed. I just knew the mood would have been too depressing.”

    Holidays over and boilers overhauled, I got to talk to Depeche Mode, or half of them at least – that half that represents the band’s musical engine room – about sin, subversion and Simon Bates.

    “Violator”, the new Depeche Mode album, is their first original collection since ’87’s “Music For The Masses”. For a new decade the group have gone for a new sound and a new approach, though diehard fans will not be disappointed. Depeche Mode still deal in giant edifices of sound, bleak architectural constructions and sparkling melodic jewellery. They are still the most lovable of schizophrenics, eternally uncertain whether they want to be Franz Kafka, Steve Martland or Hot Chocolate.

    As the ’80s wheezed and panted to a mildly geriatric end (one bunch of Roses doesn’t mean everything in the garden is lovely), charts full of ageing divorcee rock, rankly insincere charity records and a series of ghastly novelty House records, the awkward, outré charm of Depeche Mode became all the more appealing. Not in the least because they believe that a dance record needn’t be a formularised and repetitive dribble, nor need a pop song be a mush of platitudes.

    After ten years at it, they are still making bold, exciting (can I even get away with challenging?) pop records that don’t rot your teeth. And after ten years of sidelong glances and being called perverts, they still have the chutzpah to call a record “Violator” with an almost straight face.

    Martin: “We called it ‘Violator’ as a joke. We wanted to come up with the most extreme, ridiculously Heavy Metal title that we could. I’ll be surprised if people will get the joke. However, when we called an album ‘Music For The Masses’, we were accused of being patronising and arrogant. In fact it was a joke on the uncommerciality of it. It was anything but music for the masses!”

    Alan: “There’s much more humour than we’re given credit for. Perhaps it’s just that ours, or particularly Martin’s is a little specialised.”

    You’re claiming that “Violator” represents something of a departure for you. In what way?

    Alan: “Usually we begin the making of a record by having extensive pre-production meetings where we decide what the record will actually sound like, then go into a programming studio. This time we decided to keep all pre-production to a minimum. We were beginning to have a problem with boredom in that we all felt we’d reached a certain level of achievement in doing things in a certain way.”

    Martin: “Over the last five years I think we’d perfected a formula: my demos, a month in a programming studio, etc, etc. We decided that our first record of the ’90s ought to be different. We knew it was bound to still be Depeche Mode because my writing style is so characteristic and inherent to the songs.”

    “Violator” is most certainly a Depeche Mode record and it’s also perhaps the first great pop album of the new year / decade. Are the boys happy?

[1] - This quote appears in the Steve Malins biography which, just to keep things in perspective, also quotes another (contemporary) review of the album: "A savage indictment of the British record-buying public, who've shelled out for this naff tat". It's as Andy said to a US interviewer in 1988: "Pop music is always hated at its time and always appreciated later on, and hopefully that'll be our legacy." [continue]

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