Monday 1 February 2021

DEPECHE MODE: Songs Of Faith And Devotion


(#475: 3 April 1993, 1 week)


Track listing: I Feel You/Walking In My Shoes/Condemnation/Mercy In You/Judas/In Your Room/Get Right With Me (incorporating “Interval #4 – [My Kingdom Comes]”)/Rush/One Caress/Higher Love


Basildon was one of eight “New Towns” created in south-east England in the late 1940s, as a result of lobbying by Billericay Urban District Council and Essex County Council, who were concerned about the haphazard nature of the town as it then stood and its relative absence of amenities. The Basildon Development Corporation was formed in February 1949 to help redevelop the area, and full advantage was taken of various government grants designed to entice industries to the town – these would eventually include the Ford Motor Company, GEC/Marconi, Yardley perfumes and Gordon’s Gin.


Hence there was an optimism about the new rise of Basildon; here was a place where the ghosts of World War II and Victorian tropes could be superseded by a brighter and more promising future. It was not specifically designed with a post-war urban population overspill in mind (the town incorporated several old village communities, chiefly Pitsea, Laindon and Vange), but because it was so easy to commute to the City from the town, it ultimately presented itself as, effectively, a London suburb.


The town remained very much working-class in essence, albeit with an aspirational bent. Politically, Basildon became a bellwether constituency (though not until the eighties – the town did not return a Conservative MP in 1979); whichever party won a seat there (two seats since 2010 – Basildon and Billericay, and South Basildon and East Thurrock) usually indicated who would win the election. It is generally regarded as a Conservative stronghold, although Basildon has never uncategorically been Tory; the Left vote has been traditionally split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Nevertheless, the myth of the “Essex man” arose from popular perceptions of Basildon.


Depeche Mode, the town’s most famous musical group, perhaps characterise the binary nature of Basildon most readily. They did not grow up as reticent aesthetes. Singer David Gahan was a career petty criminal who would probably have ended up inside had it not been for the band. He was a devotee of punk and particularly of that least fashionable of punk bands, Sham 69 (from Hersham in Surrey, a place which Basildon might have resembled had its affairs not been put into order – all woodland, golf courses and industrial estates with some council houses thrown in). In contrast, Martin Gore (the son of an African-American G.I.; he was raised by a stepfather (and his biological mother) in Dagenham and did not meet his biological father until he became an adult (until the age of thirteen Gore had been led to believe that his stepfather was his actual father – when he encountered his real father, he did so in the American South). Both Gore and Andy Fletcher went through teenage phases of being born-again Christians.


Following various attempts at punk and post-punk bands, the key members of Depeche Mode coalesced in an electropop band named Composition Of Sound. Formed by Gore, Fletcher and Vince Clarke, Gahan (who had previously based his stage persona on that of Dave Vanian of the Damned, as he would arguably do again in the future) was invited to be their lead singer. Composition Of Sound evolved into Depeche Mode (French for “fast fashion”) and it is not fantastical to think of the band as a pocket encaspulation of all that was still perceived, in 1980, to be exciting, new and futuristic about their hometown. The change of name was influenced by the name of a French magazine (Dépêche mode – “Fashion News” or “Fashion Weekly”).


Their first recording was for the compilation Some Bizzare Album, assembled by Stephen Pearce (a.k.a. “Stevo”), the head of the Some Bizzare record label, as a showcase for what he considered futurist pop music. Several other contributors were soon to become famous; Soft Cell, Blancmange and The The were among their number. Depeche Mode’s contribution was the Vince Clarke song “Photographic,” entirely typical of its lively but concerned age; breathless in its rush and harmonically subtly foreboding (with strange electronic howls which would persist right into “I Feel You”) – it sounds like a disguised punk song (which was probably its aim), as much Sham 69 in its way as it was John Foxx’s Ultravox!


The band then signed to Daniel Miller’s Mute label – they were keen fans of Fad Gadget in particular (which thematically makes a lot of sense when one considers Gore’s later lyrical concerns) – and released an introductory single, “Dreaming Of Me,” engaging if primitive narcissist electropop (there is a clear OMD influence) which Gahan delivers with a last-night-at-the-Roxy snarl. The single sold only modestly but did get them noticed.


Their follow-up “New Life” was far more confident and embracing of the future which Basildon had promised in the days of their parents, and only narrowly missed the top ten. “Just Can’t Get Enough,” which succeeded “New Life,” got them into the top ten and continued the perspective of Vince Clarke’s Depeche Mode (Clarke was quickly deemed the band’s chief songwriter) as enthusiastic descendants of Maidstone’s Chicory Tip, specifically the Chicory Tip who worked with Giorgio Moroder and Peter Bellotte – to hear 1973’s “Good Grief Christina” is essentially witnessing Depeche Mode in embryo. Wearing tuxedos and blowing toy trumpets on Top Of The Pops, they looked about twelve years old. And yet, the twelve-inch “Schizo Mix” took the song only as a starting point prior to setting out on an extended, minor-key Kraftwerkian journey which left it very far away indeed from a cheeky synthpop singalong. More sinister features were evidently in play.


Their first album, Speak & Spell, was largely daft and very entertaining – an essential light balance with OMD’s contemporaneous epic Architecture And Morality – but is not free of threat; its second track, “I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead,” for instance, explores bitonality, and the album reworking of “Photographic” is far more shadowy and layered (even though it does lose the melodic top line of its chorus). Gore contributes two songs (one an instrumental) and sings lead on a Vince Clarke song, but the band’s future is not impossible to perceive.


Somewhere around this time, Clarke began not to enjoy things – the new “pop star” thing apparently got to him - and abruptly quit the group (only to end up becoming a bigger pop star as half of Yazoo and, ultimately, half of Erasure). Gore was swiftly promoted to main songwriter and the practically-minded Alan Wilder was recruited as the band’s effective new musical director. For a time, the new approach worked; their first Gore-helmed single, “See You” (which subtly utilises the call sign of insurance company Commercial Union – “C.U.” -as an instrumental motif), was a bigger hit than its three predecessors – and such an innocent-sounding song, too, which in different ages could have been written by Fats Waller and sung by Adam Faith, complete with an unbridled lyrical naïveté worthy of Gilbert O’Sullivan (“People are basically the same”). “The Meaning Of Love,” released the same week as ABC’s “The Look Of Love,” was an immaculate addition to the greatest singles chart of all time, especially its Beatles-recalling added sixth coda.


But then dismay and dissatisfaction crept in, as they did with New Pop generally as 1982 wore on (and perhaps wore itself out), and their second album, A Broken Frame, was overall a gloomy, autumnal affair, musically phenomenal in places but essentially unpalatable to their teenage fans, who promptly found Duran Duran and Wham! to be much easier work. Nonetheless, they were slowly gaining adherents of a different kind and character, and opening themselves up to new influences which did not easily lend themselves to ballooning carnivals on peak-time television. They heard Neubauten and SPK – and arguably more Fad Gadget than either – and modestly incorporated those tropes into their third album, Construction Time Again. The latter’s lead single, “Everything Counts,” a denunciation of thoughtless capitalism, proved their biggest-selling record thus far, and the album as a whole does yield an eventual hope from the ashes of its predecessor’s despair.


So, the pattern of their albums had hitherto taken the form of naivety, disillusion and compromise. Their fourth, Some Great Reward, took on what one might term “extremist redemption”; if, as 1984 pop had elsewhere suggested, sex and horror were the new gods, Gore dealt with both quite candidly and, to some, uncomfortably. The singles are excellent – “People Are People,” angry electro (Freeez’s “I.O.U.” wanting its debt paid) which became an LBGTQ+ anthem in the late eighties, put them in our top five for the first time, “Master And Servant” was allegedly much danced-to by Freddie Mercury, and the double-sided “Blasphemous Rumours” and “Somebody” were as close as Gore had allowed to become autobiographical (there’s nothing like a born-again Christian to be sceptical about other born-again Christians), but the album as a whole is quite hard and not terribly rewarding work.


Gore then settled in Berlin, and 1986’s Black Celebration, despite its further S&M explorations, is actually as naïve and open to newness as Speak & Spell had been (“A Question Of Lust” is the band’s great torch ballad, a potential number one for Marc Almond if he still wants one). The cycle repeated itself; 1987’s Music For The Masses did comparatively modest business in the UK, but also initiated their growing American popularity as people beyond the antennae of candy-coloured early-eighties MTV. “Never Let Me Down Again” was slo-mo hard rock by anybody’s standards, and the extended mix of “Behind The Wheel,” which bookends the song with a straight reading of “Route 66,” did their new American profile no harm.


It was unquestionably the case that Gore’s Depeche Mode had paid very close attention to the more leftfield artists who went on to fill the Some Bizzare roster in the mid-eighties, particularly Coil, Swans, Neubauten and the various Foetus manifestations of JG Thirlwell, adopting and adapting their outlook and approach for a wider audience. They also won the approval of said wider audience who didn’t feel liberated by Reaganrock and urgently needed to kick back; there is no doubt, for example, that Trent Reznor was taking notes, as indeed (albeit from a completely different perspective) were various musicians in Chicago and Detroit. Hence, while Music For The Masses was, to a degree, yawned at in Britain, it was eagerly lapped up abroad; again, it cast a degree of reflective scepticism upon the promises made by Black Celebration.


1990’s Violator was the international breakthrough, and once more represented acceptance of the new norm (or abnorm). Place the record next to New Order’s Technique from the previous year, and the two parallel paths appeared to have converged.


But Songs Of Faith And Devotion, announced the author some 1800 words into this piece, returned to the question of extremist redemption – and thus the cycle had repeated itself. Most observers at the time compared it to Achtung Baby, and producer Flood bestows the record with a similar, murky monochromatic picture. The album’s circumstances, however, were hellish. To record it, the band had rented a villa in Madrid. With no natural break from each other, tensions ran high. It also did not help that Gahan, sporting long hair and an impish beard on the sleeve (remarkably akin to mid-eighties Dave Vanian), and hanging out with the likes of Jane’s Addiction, was at that point in the throes of heroin addiction. The sleeve pictures resemble hell in lucid monochrome.


Yet, just as many argue that it was the inter-band member tensions which heightened the quality of The White Album, so it is the case that Songs was the strongest and most assured of their (to that time) eight studio albums. I well remember listening with Laura to the Annie Nightingale Sunday evening request show on Radio 1 when she announced the “comeback single” by Depeche Mode. We were almost knocked off the bed by the exploding, abstract white noise of the introduction, which soon evolved into knock-your-balls-out hard rock of quite enviable extremism (live drums and guitars run through compressors) and gave us the dirtiest of futurist blues which “Personal Jesus” had prophesised. The unstable guitar tonalities served notice that they had been listening to Loveless. It was extraordinary, this “I Feel You,” and the remainder of the album, which it commences, is scarcely less than that.


Look at the track listing and you might be observing a set of new songs by the band’s Mute labelmate Nick Cave. There is no question that born-again Christian Gore is seeking payback as well as salvation. “Walking In My Shoes,” co-sung by Gore and Gahan (as “Sunshine Of Your Love” had been shared out a generation before), is tremendous and crashing – it is as if we are examining the interior of Michael Hutchence’s mind – with a slow but decisive piano/drums undercurrent which reminds us that we undervalue the importance of Tears For Fears at our peril.


“Condemnation” is one of two explicit attempts at gospel – “Get Right With Me,” complete with gospel choir, is the other – and in both Gahan’s throat understandably sounds shot, as though he is dying to be damned. “Mercy In You” and “Rush” are the closest Achtung Baby simulacras here; the latter is exciting and propulsive, while the former bleeds into the Irish pipes and synthesised strings of “Judas” – the latter stages of side one are comparative to watching a great big grey cube slowly turning itself around.


“In Your Room” is spectacular in its neon-lit desolation, with its descending Escalator Over The Hill/”It’s Again” chromatism. “One Caress” sets Gore’s vocal against Wil Malone’s characteristically stentorian strings. The closing “Higher Love” sees Gahan – and therefore, by extension, also Gore – finally deliver himself from wretched near-non-existence and approach something resembling salvation. Gary Numan remarked that the album was, to him, a game-changer, since it demanded that he, a habitual non-believer, began believing (in) things, and once again I am compelled to upend the Victorian carriage of received opinion and proclaim that Songs Of Faith And Devotion is uncompromisingly on the side of life. By this time, Depeche Mode were global stars, on a par with, and possibly exceeding, the band which initially inspired its members. It was as if they had looked at their new town, and saw no reason why it couldn’t be upgraded to a planet.