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Q, 14th January 2005. Words: Dave Thompson. Pictures: Eric Watson / Uncredited.]

" Black Celebration twists from poignant, yearning ballads (A Question Of Lust may be Gore’s finest hour) to relentless bitterness (Here Is The House, A Question Of Time), until its grooves are transformed into a gala of melancholy, a celebration of emotional misery and uncertainty. "

Summary: The second of a three-part marathon band history in a Q Special Edition, this section covering the band's rising years from See You to Rose Bowl. While there are some very enthusiastic and perceptive comments, the article overall is the usual chronological plod through the back catalogue. A perfectly serviceable piece, but nothing you haven't seen before. [3573 words]

View pages:    cover    page 1    page 2    page 3    page 4    page 5    page 6

Try also:    "Just Can't Get Enough" [Uncut, May 2001]
    "A New Life" [Q, 14th January 2005]
                "Never Let Me Down Again" [Q, 14th January 2005]

    It is 1982 and Depeche Mode are stranded without their hit songwriter. Goodbye, then, to pure pop and hello to the sound of hammering anvils and uncompromising songs about guilt, lust and fear – plus one band member in a dress.

    It was all in the planning. “When we first had a hit with Depeche Mode, we were still living hand to mouth,” recalled Mute Records’ Daniel Miller. “But I’ve got a shopkeeper mentality. When a lot of money came in, I put it to one side thinking it wouldn’t last. I didn’t go out straight away and sign loads of bands. Besides, I ended up with two huge pop bands by default when Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode to form Yazoo, and after Yazoo came Erasure. But that was luck. After all, I didn’t ask Vince to leave Depeche Mode.”

    Neither did anybody else. But in 1982 Martin Gore prepared to shoulder the burden of becoming Depeche Mode’s principal songwriter. Although the transition now seems a stroke of genius, Gore was less sure of himself when he conceded, years later, “I think we should have been slightly more worried than we were. When your chief songwriter leaves, you should worry a bit.”

    Instead, the now three-piece Depeche Mode of Gore, Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher simply returned to the studio and set about recording their own response to those critics and former supporters who were now writing them off: the effervescent and perhaps wryly titled See You, in January 1982. One of the first songs Gore ever wrote, it was a singalong ballad which, while proving to be a major career watershed, was not that great a departure from anything the band had created before with Vince Clarke.

    See You, a UK Number 6 hit, managed to buy the band some time while Depeche Mode wrapped up the last of their promotional duties for the Speak & Spell debut album, including an introductory tour of the US in February which served as an apprenticeship for their newest recruit. Alan Wilder arrived in Depeche Mode from Daphne And The Tenderspots (responsible for the Disco Hell 45) via The Hitmen. He was immediately informed that he was there simply to make up the numbers. Wilder would not be permitted to write or help arrange songs and would not even be joining the band in the studio. He was also on a six-month trial, sufficient to see the band through a season of live work, but nothing more.

    It was a calculated decision. Although Wilder was an experienced musician and something of a dab hand in the recording studio, of all the challenges that faced Depeche Mode in the aftermath of Vince Clarke’s departure the need to prove that they could cut it without him was the most pressing. In their minds, this meant cutting it without anybody else at all. Only Miller and his own studio team of Eric Radcliffe and John Fryer were present as the trio set about making their second album, gathering up what Gore described as “a mishmash… of songs that were written over a very long period of time”, and which had been slowly introduced into the live set over the past six months. Perversely, its creators quickly dismissed the end result, 1982’s A Broken Frame album, as a mistake.

    “People were letting us drift,” Gahan complained. “There was a lack of enthusiasm.”

    In fact, A Broken Frame would help establish many of the foundations around which Depeche Mode’s next stage would develop. Initially, though, their musical aspirations seemed a little too obvious: be it the ghost of Bowie’s V2 Schneider in My Secret Garden or the album’s overall deployment of Giorgio Moroder-style sonic trickery.

    Even more restrictive was the group’s awareness that only the critics would be judging them on the extent of their adventurousness. As far as their still predominantly teenage fans were concerned, all A Broken Frame needed to do was continue business as before, which it did with the simple pop of A Photograph Of You and their next single, The Meaning Of Love, complete with sickly promo video.

    Even that, though, was to prove significant. Although Gahan insisted, “Martin can still write lightweight, poppy songs”, The Meaning Of Love was to be the last Depeche Mode single to mine these mawkish depths. Two hit singles sans Clarke confirmed that the band’s audience hadn’t simply drifted away. Now, Gahan continued, they wanted “to try something totally different, just to see if we can.” The group’s next single in August, Leave In Silence, was a slower, more melancholy track that eschewed the instant thrills of the group’s past hooks, and left even the singer admitting, “It wasn’t catchy. You had to hear it several times before it really began to make sense.”

    Still, it reached Number 18 on the UK chart, a fair return for a song that the press had dismissed as commercial near-suicide. The band also succeeded in creating a subtle response to the many critics who’d pegged them as “banal inno-paps” (as NME’s Paul Morley dubbed them) capable only of pumping out their “bland inoffensive pop music” (poet Attila The Stockbroker) forever more. Even Paul Weller, then preparing to return with The Style Council, was moved to insist, “I’ve heard more melody coming out of an arsehole,” while the hardly heavyweight Bananarama added their voice to the chorus of disapproval by dismissing Depeche Mode as “wimps”.

    The wimps remained unrepentant. Leave In Silence was not a one-off. “We want to get deeper into the album-oriented market,” Gahan said. “Bands like Echo And The Bunnymen and Simple Minds do well in both charts. We just want to produce a really fine album that will establish us as a major act.”

    The next step towards achieving that goal came with the announcement that Wilder had served his apprenticeship and was now officially joining their ranks as their most accomplished musician. The new line-up was committed to creating a darker, more sophisticated style, hinted at in their first single of 1983, Get The Balance Right. Peaking at Number 13, the song’s understated atmospherics had a subtle appeal, although Depeche Mode still sounded like a band in transition rather than the finished article. Even more important to their future, though, was a performance witnessed by Gore at the ICA just weeks before the single was released: Einsturzende Neubaten’s uncompromisingly titled Metal Concerto. To the uninitiated it was a “difficult” evening with a bank of amplifiers sending the sounds of a scrap metal yard richocheting around the walls. To Gore, though, “the power and the excitement of it was brilliant”. So brilliant that, even as he talked, he was wondering how to employ “the same ideas in the context of pop”.

    Gore found willing collaborators not only among his bandmates but also in Daniel Miller. The Mute boss had long been fascinated by the idea of eschewing conventional instrumentation. Miller later reflected that one of his own favourite memories of the ’80s was “…working with Depeche. They were great pop songwriters, but they were also into experimenting with new sounds. I sit at home with my synthesizers making great noises, but when you can put those experiments into the pop form that’s thrilling.”

    Gore’s first opportunity to put his new ideas into practice came in the spring of 1983, as Depeche Mode sequestered themselves at John Foxx’s Garden Studios in Spitalfields, London, to work on a new album that they had already christened Construction Time Again; a grippingly apposite title for a record whose principal goal was to merge echoes of Einsturzende Neubaten with the group’s pop sensibilities.

    The key to this experimentation was the Synclavier. For many of its exponents, the machine’s stunning range of pre-programmed sounds was sufficient, but Depeche Mode wanted to push beyond this. They travelled around the Garden’s largely derelict local neighbourhood where they taped normal – “found” – sounds, which could then be fed into the Synclavier. They manipulated these noises, largely consisting of clattering anvils, running water and wood being hammered against a corrugated iron fence, rendering them barely recognisable. “You can take the purest voice in the world,” Wilder explained, “and fool around with it digitally until it’s the most evil, monstrous sound. Or you can take a moose fart and make it beautiful.”

    Construction Time Again is very much the forgotten Depeche Mode album, a set that spawned another brace of hits – Everything Counts (in July) and Love In Itself (in September 1983) – while also confusing some fans with its harder-edged style and simplistic lyrics about global pollution, class warfare and corporate greed. Although Gore’s new songs were a direct and well-intentioned response to the poverty the 21-year-old had encountered during a recent visit to Thailand, as Wilder observed, “they were hardly deep”.

    The album also came packaged in a Brian Griffin sleeve that glorified the collective mentality of international socialism at a time when Thatcherism seemed to be crushing any such thoughts back home in the UK.

    From the outset, then, the imagery of Construction Time Again was both discomforting to some and misunderstood by others. It would be another two years before Paul Weller and Billy Bragg united a diverse mix of pop acts and launched the left-leaning Red Wedge movement. In 1983, Depeche Mode’s warnings of “grabbing hands [that] grab all they can” (Everything Counts) and the insistence that “all that we need [is] universal revolution” (And Then…) simply fell on deaf ears.

    Those who agreed with the message found it hard to take from a young synthesiser pop group clothed in M&S jumpers and dodgy leather jackets. [1] Meanwhile, the fact that Gore’s lyrics were becoming anything but nonsense confused many existing fans. “People don’t associate us with those sort of sentiments at all,” Gahan explained. Andy Fletcher, briefly breaking his usual silence, simply sighed, “We’ve still got a long way to go before people will be proud to have Depeche Mode albums in their collection.”

    Yet the time was drawing nearer. Time spent in Berlin, completing Construction Time Again at Hansa Studios, brought the band closer to the German industrial scene, both physically and emotionally. By March 1984. Depeche Mode’s next single, People Are People, it was impossible not to overlook the lyric, “People are people, so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully”, bobbing over the heavy-duty percussive rhythm. Almost.

[1] - Not entirely. At the other end of the spectrum, many left-wing music figures found it easy in the politically polarised climate of the time to read in a Socialist agenda where none really existed. As Martin later stated, the working theme for the album had been only the politics-transcending notion of "care". The left-wing band The Redskins may have hailed them as "comrades" on the release of the album; their lead singer cum NME journalist X Moore enthused, "There is nothing more beautiful than seeing attitudes change, seeing scabs turn militant". But Moore was to be disappointed: when he interviewed the band for some more detailed comments on their Socialist theories and new left-wing designs on the world at large, the band were completely at sea and could only answer in the wooliest of terms. Little wonder, then, that these so-called revolutionaries were still pootling round in M&S jumpers like the rest of us. [continue]

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