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CAN'T GET ENOUGH
[Uncut, May 2001. Words: Stephen Dalton. Pictures: Anton Corbijn / Redferns.]
" "Everything turns into myth," sighs Martin Gore. "It never was an orgy, it wasn't completely out of control all the time. We wouldn't have survived if it really had taken on the epic proportions that everybody speaks about..." Really? That's a shame. "That also gives me a get-out," laughs Martin. "
Summary: Fully detailed juggernaut of a band history, with contributions from all the band members, Alan Wilder and Daniel Miller. Despite its length, the article is accurate and does not drift or lose pace, and the author keeps a balanced view of the Devotional-era excesses and their aftermath. A discography at the end reviews the albums more reservedly than usual. This is the best article for someone wanting a thorough grounding in the band's history, short of buying a book. A masterpiece. [14384 words]
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Dave Gahan can't breathe. He can also hear nothing. Which is a little odd because there are 50,000 Depeche Mode fans just yards away, screaming for him to drag himself back onstage for an encore. His bandmates are beckoning him back, but Dave is pinned to the spot with chest pains. His senses are swimming. His legs begin to buckle.
It's October 8, 1993, in New Orleans. Band relations are already at breaking point on the Mode's longest, wildest and most self-destructive tour ever. Everyone is either stoned, wired or suicidally depressed. Nobody's talking to Dave, though they call him four-letter names behind his back. The singer is now emaciated, a ragged totem pole of tattoos and self-inflicted scars. On stage tonight, he has swaggered and hip-thrusted like Michael Hutchence's junkie-god soul brother. Can he possibly get any more rock 'n' roll than that?
Well, sure. How about dying at the climax of a show after a drug-induced heart attack? Cool? But damn, here come the paramedics. And now Gahan is being stretchered off, too wasted to notice, too fucked to care. As he's loaded into the ambulance, he hers his fellow Mode members hesitantly spark up their improvised encore. It's a cheery tune called "Death's Door". Grimly appropriate. Dave starts to laugh.
"Death was the furthest thing from my mind, to be honest," recalls Gahan today. "I was in so much denial about what was really going on."
By the time he collapses in New Orleans, Dave Gahan has been punishing himself with heroin and cocaine, liquor and dope, Ecstasy and agony, guilt and sin for almost a decade. In deference to the minor cardiac arrest he has just suffered, he will be allowed one day off. And then he will start all over again on his headlong rush towards death or glory.
January 2001, the surviving trio at the heart of Depeche Mode are gathered at a west London studio. Five or six years ago, this in itself would have been a miracle. The fact that Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy 'Fletch' Fletcher are joking and vibing and grooving on their new album, Exciter, is more amazing still considering how their last two records destroyed their friendships, split the band and almost killed them.
Also present is the album's producer Mark Bell, of LFO and Bjork fame, finally consummating the Mode's long but often strained relationship with left-field electronica. In the past, they've been aligned with techno, industrial, house, goth, punk and synth-pop. Fashions fade, labels recycle. From stridently uncool outsiders to self-made survivors, Depeche Mode have outlasted them all.
Fletch, the Mode's non-musician and emotional anchor, blasts the album through the studio speakers in its near-complete entirety. Forget the journalistic hyperbole which greets major new releases - Exciter sounds majestic, full-bodied and diverse. It hangs together like modern architecture, a sumptuous amalgam of sleek technology with organic textures. Gahan's vocals are his most tender and expressive yet, especially on a brace of cooing techno-folk lullabies. This is either their most Depeche Mode album yet, or their least.
Uncut are here to discover how the Mode came to make Exciter, their first real post-drugs and post-trauma album. Because this is a saga of epic insecurity and chemical insanity: a farcical soap opera every bit as dark and druggy as the Stones at their Seventies peak, or as jaw-droppingly debauched as Led Zeppelin in their planet-shagging prime. And yet it features three men who, on first impressions, seem more at home browsing around garden centres than snorting, shagging and shooting up. Because this is the story of how three or four of the most introverted, vulnerable, unlikely pop stars in history conquered the rock universe.
And it all comes back to Basildon. To school days and teenage cliques and the bruising brutality of growing up strange in a strange town. You can take the boys out of Essex, but you can't quite take Basildon out of the boys. Because Depeche Mode are the original new-town neurotics. This genteel, semi-rural community where they all grew up began life as an urban-planned overspill Utopia, but by the late Seventies its concrete walkways and brutalist precincts began to take on Clockwork Orange overtones.
"It was a job for a house," recalls Fletch, whose family moved to Basildon from Nottingham. Lanky and laconic, the 39-year-old has an easy, diplomatic demeanour and an accent smoothed into classless Estuary English, the lingua franca of the music business. As he chats about football and his small community restaurant in north London, Fletch could easily be a slightly rakish accountant or a market stallholder made good. Hard to imagine him as the Mode's chief depressive and flashpoint for group friction, but still waters run deep.
"If you could get a job, you could get a house," Fletch continues. "But in the Seventies it started to go wrong - the town expanded quickly, there were no jobs left. When I was growing up we had fields, football, cricket, countryside - but then it all went wrong economically. It's now a huge town with not many jobs, and young people with nothing to do."
Martin Gore, also 39, initially seems more wary than his schoolyard friend Fletch. Our first encounter feels rather like a job interview, with Gore the nervy candidate for a junior clerical position. But he is quick to laugh at himself, scrupulously polite and forthcoming. Later during a follow-up phone chat which overruns by half an hour, he will apologise profusely for being called away to take his wife to the gym. Not many millionaire pop stars are this civil.
"I really hated Basildon," nods the elfin songwriter in his wistful, Ron Manager accent - ah yes, leather boys in the park, cock rings for goalposts. "I wanted to get out as quickly as I could. I think being in a band was an escape. There was very little to do. It's one of those places where you go drinking because that's your only option. I hear it's a pretty horrible place these days."
The threat of violence was ever-present during Gore's teens. "When I was about 17 or 18, me and my friend were walking back from a party in Laindon, which is close to Basildon," he says, "and we heard this running behind us. We didn't think anything of it, but suddenly we were surrounded by six guys saying, 'Which one of you called my mate a fucking wanker?' One of those, you know? So then they started punching and kicking us...they weren't fun times. Dave used to get beaten up all the time for dressing out of the norm."
Born in Epping in 1962, Dave Gahan's ingrained Essex vowels are still discernible beneath his lightly Americanised, David St Hubbins twang. Gahan's clearly running on some kind of tightly wound internal motor, even in his off-duty rock star clobber of sober suit and sensible haircut. There remains something of a Jack-The-Lad about Gahan, the teenage tearaway who once terrorised Basildon, spraypainting walls and stealing cars.
"I just wanted attention," he shrugs. "I put my mum through a rough time, in and out of juvenile court. It was petty crap - driving and taking away, criminal damage, theft. My mum did the best she could if the law would show up. I remember one time when this police car pulled up outside. She said, 'Is it for you?' and I said 'Yes.' I distinctly remember her saying, 'David's been in all night.' But I'd written my name on a wall in paint!"
Gahan ended up in weekend custody at a sub-Borstal 'attendance centre' in Romford. "It was a real pain in the arse. You had to work - I remember doing boxing, stuff like that. You had to have your hair cut. It was every weekend, so you were deprived of your weekend, and it seemed like forever. I was told very clearly that my next thing was detention centre. To be honest, music saved me."
The founding members of Depeche Mode all grew up in working class religiously-inclined families. Gore and Gahan were both raised by their stepfathers, only meeting their biological fathers later in life. They were weaned on glam rock and soul. David Bowie and Gary Glitter, Sparks and Kraftwerk. But when punk hit Basildon, it changed everything. Thanks to newly cheap synthesisers, working class teenagers with limited musical ability could suddenly make arty, avant garde pop.
"All these early Eighties bands were working class kids," nods Fletch. "We came out of a time where prog rock musicians were completely the opposite, public schoolboys. Punk came along when we were 16 and it all changed - working class kids, coming out of art colleges all over the country, wanting to make music."
Punk was a revelation to Gahan, too. He had been a soulboy, blagging his way into clubs, experimenting with sex and drugs - mainly amphetamines, but an early flirtation with heroin, too. Then he joined the Damned fan club and began attending Clash, 999 and X-Ray Specs gigs at Chancellor Hall in Chelmsford.
"Seeing The Clash just made me think, 'I can do that'," Dave nods. "I've always been a bit of an exhibitionist and when I was really young the aunts would come round and I would entertain my mum by doing my best Mick Jagger or Gary Glitter impression across the room, make everybody laugh. I wasn't really good at anything else, but I saw that it really got a reaction."
Inevitably, Gahan fancied himself as a punk frontman. "I rehearsed a couple of times with a few bands," he says. "There was one that my friend Tony Burgess played drums in, he didn't actually have a drum kit, he played biscuit tins. Never played a gig, just rehearsing after school. They were called The Vermin. They were very famous in that one area of Basildon. In our own minds we were going to be the next Sex Pistols."
When instant rock fame failed to materialise, Dave enrolled at art college. But he was still "humping gear" and occasionally singing for a friend's New Wave band, The French Look. The group shared its keyboard player, Martin Gore, with Composition Of Sound, featuring Andy Fletcher on bass and Vince Clarke on guitar and vocals. Fletch now recalls the trio sounding like a "dodgy Cure". Like their immediate contemporaries in U2, the unlikely link between these three shy, studious lads was religion.
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