The former Basildon boys have come a long way since their inception in 1980, selling over 100 million records and still selling out stadiums worldwide more than 30 years into their career.
DEPECHE MODE fans remain as devoted today as they ever were.
DM parties are held all over the world to allow fans to meet and celebrate during the lean years between albums and tours; lifelong friendships have been formed along the way, and even marriages founded on a shared love of the Mode. For some, DM is a way of life. But are the band still worthy of such adoration?
In their glory years DM released a string of classic albums from the groundbreaking ‘Black Celebration’ (1986), the US-conquering ‘Music For The Masses’ (1987) to their biggest selling album ‘Violator’ (1990) and culminating in their dark masterpiece, ‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’ (1993).
The strained relationships and personal problems within the band at this time – particularly for the latter albums – have been well documented, but it was arguably this creative tension that produced some of the band’s finest work. Martin Gore’s superlative songwriting combined with Alan Wilder’s arrangements resulted in a sweetest perfection of sorts – but it was not to last. Following the rock ‘n’ roll excesses of the now infamous ‘Devotional’ tour, Alan Wilder parted company with the band in 1995.
At DM’s Teenage Cancer Trust show at the Royal Albert Hall in 2010, when Alan walked out on stage to join Martin Gore for a surprise rendition of ‘Somebody’, it brought the house down.
For that one elated moment, it seemed just possible that a reunion would occur, but sadly it was not be. During his recent Q&A sessions at the screenings of ‘A Strange Hour In Budapest’, Wilder has finally put years of speculation to rest by categorically stating: “I am not going back to DEPECHE MODE!”
It seems like a missed opportunity; for many would argue that DM haven’t been the same since Wilder left. His distinctively dark soundscapes and near-obsessive ear for detail, which characterised the classic DM albums, are now sadly lacking from DM’s output. Even Dave Gahan himself has admitted in a recent interview with Slovakian website TopStar: “When Alan was in the band, what he brought to the band and what he gave musically was immense knowledge and helped us as a band to grow musically and discover new ways of making music, structuring music, layering and landscaping music”. Dave continues: “Alan was vital to the sound of DEPECHE MODE right up to the moment he left”.
However, to put DM’s recent lack of form purely down to Wilder’s absence is perhaps too simplistic. In 1997, the band regrouped from its partial implosion and the near demise of its lead singer to create ‘Ultra’. For this record, Tim Simenon took over production duties. This proved to be a shrewd move, as Simenon’s studio expertise, combined with a clutch of fine songs by Gore and some beautiful vocals by a fragile Dave Gahan resulted in a fine album.
But it was around the turn of the century that, for many, DEPECHE MODE lost their mojo artistically speaking and their three subsequent albums have been a case of diminishing returns. Some would blame the choice of producers, namely Mark Bell for ‘Exciter’ and Ben Hillier for both ‘Playing The Angel’ and ‘Sounds Of The Universe’, for not fully understanding the DM sound. Some would say the band are missing the creative tension of the Gore / Wilder partnership. Others would argue that Martin Gore’s songs simply aren’t as good as they used to be.
But what if DEPECHE MODE had only made one album this century?
Here at TEC, we are celebrating the return of Basildon’s most famous sons by revisiting those three post-millennium DM albums and uncovering their hidden gems. We asked some contributors and friends of TEC to choose their favourite DM song of the 21st century for inclusion on a fantasy album, ‘Exciting The Angel Of The Universe’ perhaps?
The album tracklist is below, together with each contributor’s reasons for their choice. This is a fine collection of songs, and it shows that 21st century DM can still produce moments of magic. But together do they make a great DEPECHE MODE album? See what you think…
I Feel Loved (Danny Tenaglia’s Labour Of Love Edit) (2001) – chosen by Jer White, The Electricity Club and Pansentient League
When I first heard ‘Exciter’, I felt the album name totally misrepresented the contents: this record did not excite me at all. But the Danny Tenaglia mix of ‘I Feel Loved’ was something else. A full-on dance floor funk number, this was a true 12 inch club mix that came across like a battle-of-the-bands between DEPECHE MODE and NEW ORDER. Note that I’m talking about the superior 8 minute version, not the 11 minute version from the ‘Remixes 81>04’ album!
I think ‘Oh Well’ is the best track DM have done in the last 12 years… but it never made the final tracklisting of ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ which proves the band aren’t necessarily the best judges of their own music. Interestingly, this was the first Gore/Gahan song collaboration and although their parts were written separately, it showed that DEPECHE MODE could still be exciting. It threw in some creative tension between band members and resulted in a spark that has been seriously lacking since Alan Wilder left.
For me it was a no-brainer, I chose ‘Freelove’ within a few seconds of hearing the question. It was a return to classic DEPECHE MODE, ie Martin’s songwriting was on form, amazing given the writer’s block preceding ‘Exciter’! It seemed effortless, and not some desperate attempt to be au currant. The synths sounded both vintage and futuristic, which is the Holy Grail we are all searching for, isn’t it?
The classic ‘Construction Time Again’/’Some Great Reward’ industrial DM era was a time where sampling promised much that sadly only DEPECHE MODE (maybe Wilder) brought forward. ‘John The Revelator’ briefly takes us back, starting with a disjointed mixture of synthetic analogue and sampled metallic noises, which quickly coagulate into form, immediately smacking of these promising times. What follows is a driving, almost threatening, bass line, with four-on-the-floor and Dave Gahan running on all cylinders… It’s a track that shows Depeche’s loss of Wilder isn’t a death blow, just damaging.
I chose ‘A Pain That I’m Used To’ because lyrically it typifies Martin’s songs… pain and suffering but always tinged with hope. Musically it grabs me by the throat with its raucous intro before settling into a groove that just makes me want to move my body. Brave, hard, in-your-face and once a soundtrack to a very difficult period of my life…
The track that really stands out from me in recent years is ‘Kingdom’. OK, it’s not strictly DM as it’s a Dave Gahan solo track, but it’s a phenomenal piece of music! So it’s still there; they’ve still got it! But as far as DM goes, ‘The Dead Of Night’ was one of the standout tracks on the ‘Exciter’ album in my opinion with its nice dark sleazy electronics, along with ‘Dream On’; not much to say about it apart from it’s the best of a bad bunch!
Purely on a musical level, ‘Peace’ to me is perfect synth stuff!! The analogue bass sequence and arpeggio’s made me wanna turn it up to 11 when I heard this first! Great use of the ‘Blakes 7’ style pad too!! Depeche at their best in my humble opinion. From ‘SOTU’, ‘Fragile Tension’ has also got to have a mention. Great use of a rocky sounding guitar and synths together and a Dave Gahan’s vocals are superb and a little bit Brandon Flowers in places! Inspirational stuff from the boys!
Have gone for Trentemøller’s mix of ‘Wrong’ , primarily because it does what all good remixes should, it keeps the key elements of the original, but adds new parts which not only enhance the track, but also stays to true to the sound/concept of the band. Trentemøller works his magic here on DM and the 6 minutes and 55 seconds zip by…brilliant stuff!
‘Precious’ has all the essential ingredients of a DM classic of yesteryear: wicked synth sounds, a smidge of guitar, poignant, pointed verses and emotional choruses you can sing with your hands in the air; the latter is something particularly missing from ‘SOTU’. Live, it’s become a bit of a plodder with many people saying they’re tired of it, but as a centrepiece of an album and a single it stands very firmly and proudly on its own two feet.
‘Nothing’s Impossible’ is possibly (certainly in my mind) the best of the Dave Gahan co-penned DM tracks. Although hindered by (on the CD at least) some dodgy over-compressed mastering, and despite the depth of Gahan’s lyrics never being a match for Martin Gore’s, it manages to generate some of the atmosphere of hopeful despair that for me, the best DM tracks always contain. And the production and arrangement are as good as anything they’ve ever done.
Unlike many Mode fans, I have a great appreciation for ‘Exciter’. What it lacks, however, is compelling songwriting with a couple of solid. Standout as a peacock amongst turkeys is ‘I Am You’. It is complete with Gore Bingo Winners – chains, S&M references, pain, dark love affairs, destruction. It stands out from the over-egged treacle-pudding production and plodding predictability which dogs the Mode’s later work.
More of a rework than a remix, Alan Wilder Remix of ‘In Chains’ offers a fascinating insight into what DEPECHE MODE might sound like today were he still on board. Wilder explained that he liked the original, but felt that it was “an idea that had not been fully realised”. His reworked version bears all the hallmark Wilder sounds, with a long brooding intro and a backdrop of eerie distortion, beautifully highlighting Dave’s vocal for the first verse before a pounding bassline kicks in at around 3.5 minutes. Wonderful!
An ‘Exciting The Angel Of The Universe’ playlist has been compiled on Spotify which can be listened to here:
The new as-yet-untitled DEPECHE MODE album is expected to be released in March 2013 by Columbia Records. Please check www.depechemode.com for official news and updates
Text by Steve Gray
5th January 2013, updated 5th January 2015