1/03/2007

 

Album Review: Depeche Mode - Best Of Vol.1

...or the shocking true story of a DM addict.

I’ve loved - or more accurately, have been addicted to - this band for nearly twenty-five years. If there were meetings for such things, my introduction would likely start out like this: “Hi, my name is Patrick and I’m a Depeche-Mode-a-holic.” I’ve been obsessing over these Basildon Boys since nearly the dawn of Depeche - 1981 to be exact, when I heard them on a K-Tel collection titled “The Beat.” This tremendously influential cassette held a magic new wave blend of things like A Flock of Seagulls, the Go-Go's, Bow Wow Wow, Duran Duran, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and of course Depeche Mode whose "Dreaming of Me" (sadly, not included here on the Best of Vol.1) marked the band’s US debut, as well as my first taste of the stuff. I was instantly enthralled by the sound, which was so coldly synthetic and precise, but somehow warm like a chewy piece of bubblegum. The electronics were tinny and the voice was slightly detached, the lyrics abstract and futuristic: I loved it.

My next hit of Depeche Mode was administered to my system via MTV in the form of their 1984 video hit “People are People.” This was the band’s first big mainstream success in the USA, and there were thousands like me across the nation, young, moody and vulnerable, and suddenly elated by this massive Mode fix. “People are People” was unlike any record before it, its sampled clanks and clamors, its cascading whirligigs of metal sounds so brilliantly arranged like a clever, pop-art collage. It’s “why can’t we all just get along” message may have been a bit hokey, but at the time it seemed deep and life-affirming. The accompanying video was Middle America’s first glimpse of the band. Here were some fairly ordinary blokes in a record-pressing plant wandering about and watching big machines moving to the beat and pressing up records of the very song we were hearing – main singer Dave Gahan, synthmen Fletch and Alan Wilder. But who was this fair creature in the leather skirt and chains with the huge blonde brillo-pad hairdo and the swipe of thick black eyeliner? Who was this otherworldly girly-boy with the wonky-teeth and the melty croon? It was none other than Martin Lee Gore, whose look had an instantaneous effect on fashion, causing moody, disaffected girls (and boys) everywhere (but especially California) to buy stock in fishnets, kinky leather, bleach, and eye makeup.

The band camped up this image even more with the follow-up single and video “Master and Servant” (a peppy ode to S&M), and the accompanying album Some Great Reward began a stint in my walkman that lasted the entire summer of 1984 and beyond. I was in California for the majority of that summer, and Depeche Mode was a force you could practically feel in the air, the sound drifting from car windows, record shops, and nightclubs or roller rinks. Some Great Reward was their finest moment to date, taking earlier audio experiments in surprising and chaotic new directions. Lyrically, it was an album that lit up my teen angst like a flame lights a candle. “Somebody” taught me about love, “Master and Servant” taught me about sex, and “Blasphemous Rumors” made me question the concepts of God and religion.

At Tower Records in San Jose I bought the entire DM back catalog up to that point and began the descent into the throes of addiction, sinking deeper and deeper into Depeche world. 1981’s debut Speak and Spell was different than the other records, more poppy, something we can now attribute to the musical presence and songwriting dominance of Vince Clarke. There was something a little kinky bubbling under the surface of this sterile “New Romantic” synthpop. To this day, I think songs like “Boys Say Go” and “What’s Your Name” were my own personal introduction to homoerotic flirtatiousness. The album is represented on The Best Of Vol.1 by the classic “New Life” and “Just Can’t Get Enough”, a song that would eventually become one of the band’s defining tunes and still fills dance floors 25 years later.

In the photos on the inner sleeve of their second album A Broken Frame the boys look a wee bit serious, lost in deep thought. Suitably, the dark clouds which appear in the sky on the sleeve image actually do hang over the music itself as well. Fame-shy Vince Clarke had suddenly departed, taking with him a few new tunes (“Only You”) that were written for Depeche but ended up being recorded by Yazoo, his subsequent synthpop act with Alison Moyet. Seemingly unrattled by his absence, Martin Gore picked up the proverbial pen and Depeche Mode’s next single “See You” became their biggest hit yet in the UK. “See You” is as catchy and pop-oriented as anything on Speak & Spell, but like the rest of A Broken Frame, it has a subtle darkness, a muffle in the production, that gives it an odd, deeply olde and European vibe, like a noir Abba echoing through hushed, Alpine hills. The band itself considers this album to be among their worst, frequently dissing it in interviews over the years, dismissing it as drab and dismal. However, hardcore fans realize that the dark textures of album tracks like “Shouldn’t Have Done That” and “Sun and the Rainfall” created a template that the band would follow to this day, and that would heavily influence every slightly depressed synthesizer geek from Berlin to Boise, including me.

Alan Wilder showed up in time to record 1983’s Construction Time Again, and he apparently brought some Einsturzende Neubauten records with him. With this album, and its hit “Everything Counts”, Depeche Mode took the harsh clamour of the German Industrial scene they were so fond of at the time, and softened it, creating an entirely new sound in the process. According to legend, the band and their Mute Records label honcho Daniel Miller hit the streets with a primitive digital sampler, recording every junkyard clank, factory whistle, and metal-pipe-meets-spoon sound they could muster, creating a fresh, experimental framework for Martin to hang his increasingly gloomy, but continuously addictive songs. I absorbed these early Depeche Mode albums deep into my bloodstream, returning to them again and again over the years to get another dose of their naïve creativity and cold emotion. As I write this, “My Secret Garden” from A Broken Frame is my ringtone.

1985’s dryly titled Catching Up With Depeche Mode was the US counterpart to the international compilation The Singles 81-85. It was a fantastic collection and included the new single “Shake the Disease”, one of my all-time favorite DM tunes, accompanied by an effective video which had the band looking rather ill and still makes me nauseous with it’s sideways camera tricks. Although it was probably less than a year, at the time it seemed like an eternity for us Depeche Mode junkies before 1986’s Black Celebration saw the light of day. Oddly, this is the only album in their catalog that is unrepresented on The Best Of, Vol. 1 (What? No “Question of Time?” OR “Question of Lust” Blasphemy!) However, true fans recognize it as a quietly intense masterpiece, cathedral-like and full haunted open spaces as well as dense and doomy sonic epics like “Stripped” or “Fly on the Windscreen.”

The 1987 smash “Strangelove” was a straightforward dance track and hinted at a crisper, bolder sound. It was released well in advance of its accompanying album, but nothing could have prepared the devoted for the massive Depeche Mode narcotic overdose that is Music For The Masses. The album opens with the grandiose and dramatic choir and orchestra swells of “Never Let Me Down Again”, a single that sent shockwaves through Depeche world by featuring an actual guitar riff(!), a motif that was entirely new for the band at the time, but that it would expand upon over the years. Music For The Masses became the band’s biggest international hit to date, and Depechemania hit a peak with a huge world tour including sold-out show at the Pasedena Rose Bowl, documented in the band’s next project, the D.A. Pennebaker live film and double album titled 101.

I nearly wore out my VHS copy of 101,which not only featured an excellent live show, but also fascinatingly documented a contest sponsored by an LA radio station in which the winning fans would follow the band around on a bus during the last part of the tour, with their antics being filmed for the actual movie itself. In a way, it was a predecessor to reality TV, pre-dating MTV’s Real World by several years. I loved the movie, and I could so relate the lucky winning fans, who were made up of a couple of slightly gothy gay boys and their bitchy fag hags, a couple California princesses, and a game jock or two. This mix was pretty much a cross section of the band’s fan base at that point. It’s too fun to watch as this dramatically overdressed posse of DM fans drunkenly terrorizes astonished “regular folks” in middle-of-nowhere hotels and gas stations across the US. I was bitter with jealously, wanting so badly to be part of this DM in-crowd. I watched 101 not long ago and these fans that were once, to me, the ultimate in cool, now seemed hopelessly geeky.

“Personal Jesus” arrived in the brand new “CD single” format in late 1989, right around the time I landed my first record store job. That song sounded absolutely revelatory and amazing on the store’s massive stereo system, cranked up to full volume after the store was closed. With a bevy of diverse remixes and a running time of nearly 45 minutes, that single seemed like a full album, and my boss and I played it constantly. I remember going insane listening to my boss sing along with the words all wrong (“Reach out and touch face…”) Spring 1990’s rather dark and foreboding Violator became Depeche Mode’s biggest international hit, zooming to number one on charts from Anchorage to Zaire and sold millions.

“Enjoy the Silence” followed suit, accompanied by a breathtakingly gorgeous Anton Corbijn video. This was to be their biggest US hit single to date, and deservedly so – its blend of cold electro and emotional warmth was classic DM and brought on board a whole new generation of admirers. It’s the song the band will probably be remembered best for, with Martin Gore hitting the highest heights of his songwriting ability. The song remains a favorite and has been reissued and remixed more than any other track in the band’s extensive discography.

Another sold-out international tour was followed by a few years off. Martin released the cover record Counterfeit, Alan made a Recoil album, Fletch counted the money and Dave began a classic descent on the downward spiral of rock-star drug drama. Grunge had hit big, and influenced nearly every corner of the music industry. Not even DM was immune to its cultural impact. 1993’s “I Feel You” was filled with insane layers guitar riffs and feedback – the sound was big and mighty. It was quite a shock for fans, but a pleasant one – the sound may have been touched by grunge, but the underlying pulse and sentiment of the lyric was classic Depeche. Even more shocking was the video which revealed a pale, skin and bones Dave Gahan, all tattooed up with shoulder length hair and smeared with eyeliner.

Songs of Faith and Devotion followed and again landed the band atop the album charts around the globe. Sonically, it’s everything-AND-the-kitchen-sink approach resulted in a gigantic and mucky production. Layers and layers of sound and effects come together to create a rather claustrophobic wall of sound. “Walking in My Shoes” was the next bombastic single, saved from the overproduction heap by a sinewy electro bass line and a great Gore-ian lyric (the usual themes: guilt and redemption.)

This wave of success found the band in full-on party mode for the following Devotional tour. These previously clean teens (at least in the public eye) were suddenly interested in good old fashioned rock-n-roll excess: cocaine and groupies, sweaty shirtless photoshoots in LA, spontaneous hotel lounge piano bar performances. I saw the band in Seattle midwat though this tour and gasped as a skeletal Dave Gahan rasped his way through the show, his infamous stage energy replaced by a zombie-like shuffle and an overused Jesus Christ pose. This tour was such a doozy for the band that afterwards Alan quit the band for good, Martin went immediately into rehab, and a heroin-addicted Dave had paranoid Weather Channel marathons and nearly succeeded in offing himself with a razorblade in a sleazy motel while talking to his mum on the phone. In 1996, after several more ugly and rather public overdoses, he decided to kick, and has been healthy and sober since.

A rather weary 3-piece Depeche Mode made their way back into the studio and the first taste of the new album Ultra was the less-than thrilling “Barrel of a Gun” – with it’s over the top rock vibe and confessional lyric it’s a throwback to Songs of Faith and Devotion rather than the usual step forward DM had always taken – mercifully, they chose to leave it off The Best Of Vol. 1. Faring better was the 2nd single “It’s No Good” which also broke no new creative molds but was a solid club track with a pulsing bassline and a wacky video. The boys seemed tired and chose not to tour behind Ultra, choosing instead to hit the California sun and rejuvenate. DM finished the nineties with some singles collections and a sell-out world tour which found the boys refreshed and on their best behavior.

The sublime acoustic guitar and candlelit drama of “Dream On” was the first taste of 2001’s Exciter album, and with it’s shuffling break beat and spacious production it hinted at a new musical direction. However it turned out to be the highlight on an album that even the band themselves now admit was a bit disappointing. It’s not a bad record by any standard, just kind of boring. For a band who built a career out of dramatically experimenting with the format of pop music and influencing new genres of music, Exciter was simply not up to par. It seemed underproduced and underwhelming.

However, the accompanying tour proved they were back in the swing of things live-wise. I saw them play in Summer 2002 at the George in George, and DM came onstage with a huge, gorgeous sunset happening behind them and played a magnificent set that had the whole hillside full of fans dancing and singing along. Thanks to my friend Misty, we were able to sneak into one of the exclusive box seats that was occupied by some semi-famous Seattle band (I can never remember exactly who). They weren’t so into DM and were leaving so Misty asked if we could take their spot and we were served free food and drinks in our overstuffed armchairs with perfect views of the show. Highlight: Martin Gore’s disco ball suit.

“Precious” was the first hint of 2005’s Playing the Angel album and it was such a marvelous return to form that it made all us old DM fanatics swoon like we were teenagers again. Written for Gore’s children whilst in the middle of a messy divorce, the song’s tender melody and heartbreaking sentiment is met with one of Dave’s finest and most subtle vocal performances. Like the rest of Playing the Angel, it sees DM returning to their old experimental ways but maintains a certain warm familiarity as well. The album was released to rave critical reviews and is considered by many fans to be their best since Some Great Reward (1984), an album it shares some sonic similarities with: the high energy level, the bang and clank of samples, the depth and strength of Martin’s songs and Dave’s voice.

Best of all was “Suffer Well”, the albums 2nd single which was the first Depeche Mode single ever written by Dave Gahan. Dave’s 2004 solo LP Paper Tigers had revealed for the first time that he had a few songs up his sleeve, but nothing on that album hit the ironic heights of “Suffer Well”, an excellent upbeat tune with a endlessly catchy guitar riff, sonically fresh electronics, and a lovely backing vocal from Martin. It’s already one of my all-time favorite DM singles and makes me excited to see how great the next album will be with two excellent songwriters now involved. The Best Of Vol.1 includes the obligatory “new track”, which in this case is “Martyr”, a track that was recorded during the Playing the Angel sessions, but was left off the album due to “not fitting in.” It’s nothing terribly new for the band, but it’s a solid, catchy track and fits in well on this best-of collection.

Although I’ve certainly heard the tracks that make up this collection a zillion times each, and even though I already own said tracks in varying formats, I still delight in The Best Of Vol. 1 each time I give it a spin. It really does represent the toppermost hits of a band which helped define my life, as well as the lives of thousands of other fanatics and casual admirers around the globe. Like The Beatles’ 1 collection from several years ago, we already know the songs up and down, but it’s the new context that lends pleasure to hearing them again. My own selection of the “best” DM tracks might have been a little different, but overall there is no reason to bitch. Plus, it comes with a DVD featuring the videos for all included tracks and a cool documentary about the band. If you are a seasoned veteran DM junkie like myself, of if you’re just dabbling in the stuff for the first time, The Best Of Vol. 1 will surely get you off.

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Comments:
bupohvep
 
i don´t write english very well and don´t read good too, but your coments about this band that love us was very intresting for me. thak a lot.
 
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