Reconstruction Time: Building The New Depeche Mode/ Crushing The Wheels Of Industry
Melody Maker, 7th January, 1984
by Lynden Barber
So you think DEPECHE MODE are spineless poppets without an original thought in their heads? Think again. Lynden Barber invades Germany and discovers a band beating the system.
Pictures by Tom Sheehan
SPARKLERS. That's how German audiences display affection and appreciation. Sparklers, plus the odd lone klaxon crying out like a wolf with a peg on its nose.
To their most confirmed enemies, the piercing specks of light whizzing around like Tinkerbells in this metal barn must be an enduringly appropriate symbol of the group up on the stage.
Depeche Mode, remember, are supposed to play pretty music. Lightweight, harmless, mildly attractive, maybe, but fragile, decorous and twee. At least, that's how the theory goes.
But then theories can always be proven wrong.
While the company blandsmiths perfect their corporate grip on the nation's pop pulse and the public's taste slithers slug-like towards a suidgy, marshmallow centre, some have been busy figuring how best to achieve a state of dissidence without sacrificing popular appeal.
It might be a hard balancing act, but in 1983 Depeche Mode managed the trick. A craftily awkward and deceptively spiky presence in the charts, they learned that kissing wasn't clever or even interesting when you'd been doing it for at least a couple of years without progressing to anything more daring. Taking stock of the overwhelming move towards a middle-of-the-road consensus (are some people afraid to admit they're not especially moved or stimulated by the pleasantries of Culture Club?) they found themselves moving steadily in the opposite direction.
Of course, their music has hardly become raucous or truculently rebellious, but if you think the Mode of "New Life" is the same Mode as "Love In Itself" then you obviously haven't been paying attention.
According to the chorus of the latter, love is now "not enough in itself", and their third LP (from which the song was taken as a single), "Construction Time Again", confirms. There isn't a single love song here, not a word of romance or personal heartache. The fabric is stitched with the thread of socialism and liberal concern - a most unfashionable position to take up in this age of conspicuous egotism.
As for the music, it's synthpop still, but fattened and given strength.
This isn't a party, it's a whole lot more.
WATCHING the group at Hammersmith Odeon a few weeks ago and more recently in Cologne and Dusseldorf, it struck me just how tawdry most other synth-pop groups seem in comparison to the sure-fingered touch of Depeche.
Their pop glistens with modernity to such an extreme, futuristic degree that sometimes it seems difficult to credit that this is actually a popular chart group on stage. This is pop that is rooted in the present, not some retrogressive notion of what 'perfect pop' should sound like.
Perhaps some of you aren't convinced. Like me you've watched them on "Top Of The Pops" on countless occasions and been, at most, moved to twitch the odd toe while complaining that they looked like a collection of plain youngsters pressing buttons; school students dressed in pullovers that seem just that little bit too neat and nice. In which case you need to see them live. When their synths mutate into a pulsing dance beat and Dave Gahan leaps across the stage as if he's determined to topple over into the orchestra pit, Depeche Mode ignite, their pop springing alive with an ebullient sense of energy. Depeche can be muscular - visceral even.
Not that things have always been that way.
"We've always been concerned, like the records sounded a bit weak, but in the studio when we actually made them they sounded quite powerful."
Andy Fletcher is quite aware of some of their past problems. He and Alan Wilder (the only non-Basildonian in the group - the replacement for Vince Clarke) are facing the reporter across the breakfast table the night after 6,000 people of both sexes and a variety of ages have gone bananas at one of their performances.
"When we were going out playing live," continues Fletcher, "we were quite powerful, but when we actually tried to reproduce it on record it just sounded really weak and horrible. On the last album we really tried to toughen up the sound."
Do people have the wrong idea about Depeche Mode?
"I've noticed that from just walking around the streets. Like where I live, in Basildon, I get quite a lot of abuse. A lot of people still think we're like teeny wimps. Wimps on synths."
"But I think that's our fault," admits Wilder, "it's nobody else's fault but our own that people have got that impression, because it's obviously the way we put ourselves across. You can't blame people for summing you up wrong because it's down to you to get the right impression."
Wilder is being surprisingly candid. Perhaps as a relative 'newcomer' (though his stay with the group now exceeds that of Vince) he can place them in perspective more astutely.
Whatever, Fletcher agrees: "We suffered a lot from the beginning, because we didn't really know what we were doing. If somebody took a picture of us we smiled: we hadn't had any training. When we met the public and that we acted like we would normally" (one MM staff members recalls that the first time he met the group they were playing hide-and-seek!). We came across to a lot of people as sickly and really bad. It wasn't anything that was planned or anything."
What kind of abuse did they receive?
"The whole catalogue really. Just walking along, people from cars, in pubs, going through the town centre."
But that's Basildon for you, observes Wilder.
"Yeah, it's very like what we call a 'Span Town' - spanners, beer, boys. I s'pose it's because we've always lived there - they've seen so much of us that they've turned against us. If we go elsewhere we actually get praised by some people. I think it's a good contrast, because we don't like the pop star thing, we try to play it all down. It's good getting a bit of abuse, it brings you down to earth."
What was that sentence?
"We actually get praised by some people." Fletcher seems genuinely warmed by the idea that people could actually want to come and praise them. Yet paradoxically their popularity was achieved so early in their career that they virtually take it for granted. I've never seen a group look so cool and casual in the dressing room before a large gig; walking out of the room and onto the stage in front of 6,000 they look so unruffled it's as if they are wandering down the corridor to look for the lavatory. I wonder if they feel anaesthetized on stage.
"I mean it is an exciting feeling being on stage and playing, obviously, it gets you going," says Wilder, "but you are right, personally, I do kind of shut myself off and go into a shell and go through the motions. And enjoy it, but don't quite feel the whole thing."
"The reason it seems so casual," adds Fletcher, "is we just expect to go down well. The time I've been with the band I don't think we've ever gone down badly. You expect that reaction and it is like going through the motions."
So. They are going through the motions. At least sometimes. Fortunately this 'live performance' is filled with much button pushing. It doesn't matter. Part of the appeal of Depeche Mode is their mechanical insistence - the mathematical certainty of their beat.
BACKSTAGE, after their Cologne show Depeche Mode are feeding the fans. Autographs, chit-chat, strained smiles, all are gratefully gobbled.
"Hi, Andy!" shouts a wan blond with spectacles: everyone looks up and stares as if an old friend has just walked into the room. The fan wants to know if Andy has heard of "Ze Ze". Andy hasn't. Don't you mean 'The The?' asks someone. "That's right, Ze Ze", grins the gangly fan, unaware of why sniggers are lighting up across the room.
Martin Gore has the right idea. Mode's chief composer, he is sitting in the corner knocking out the opening to Echo And The Bunnyman's "Rescue" on acoustic 12-string guitar. Gore has been playing guitar for nine years - he only began to play the synth when he was 18 or 19. His song-writing is done on the guitar, mostly. He is a Jonathan Richman and Iggy Pop fan.
This isn't the most obvious thing people expect to hear backstage after a Depeche Mode gig, even if he does use the instrument briefly on stage. Mode mentor and (if you will forgive the alliteration) Mute master Daniel Miller is mooching around with a video camera recording the extraneous goings on and minor diversions.
Also here are Mark and Suzie. They have come all the way from England to Germany just to see the Cologne and Dusseldorf gigs. Mark has a Young Americans hairstyle. Suzie is very quiet.
This is rock-'n'-roll-but-not-really. The autograph rituals, for sure, but it's not only in their eschewal of the traditional rock instrumentation that Mode elbow old stereotypes sideways. There is not a hint of dope to be smelt, not a sniff of cocaine to be snorted during the three days I spent with the group. No hours spent preening in front of the mirror (though Dave sports a mightily impressive flat-top barnet). The group leave the hotel early to get to their soundcheck, hit the stage bang on schedule at 9 o'clock. Some people I know probably object to all this. But then some people I know think real men don't eat quiche.
Bands who say they need drugs to get through the boredom of a tour are talking crap, says Graham (sic). "I think a lot of that went on in the Seventies, at that time that was what bands were expected to be like - totally out of it all the time. Now bands are generally a lot younger. The average age of a group in the Seventies was about 35, now it's probably about 21."
DEPECHE Mode are currently riding a wave of popularity in Germany, having sold 200,000 copies of "Construction Time Again" and packed out concert halls without ever having had a single in their Top Twenty - a situation that would be unthinkable in the singles-dominated market of Britain.
"The sound we've come up with recently is slightly reminiscent of some of the earlier German electronic groups, like DAF, possibly," observes Wilder. This may explain some of the local enthusiasm. Where would Mode be without Kraftwerk?
As if to confirm the Teutonic twist, as soon as the group's tour-bus arrives in the industrial city of Dusseldorf, Martin Gore rushes off to the HQ of local indie label Ata Tak to complete his collection of the label's releases (which include Der Plan, Pyrolator and die Doraus).
Asked them why they mixed "Construction" in Berlin's Hansa Studios (check the small print on "The Idiot" and "Low") and they'll tell you it was simply because of the mixing desk there. And ask them why Alan Wilder bashes a piece of corrugated metal on stage during the song "Pipeline", and the answers will be less than totally straightforward, slightly defensive, as if they're about to be attcked for ripping off German metal-drummers Einsturzende Neubauten.
"Actually, when we decided about that we hadn't really cottoned on to all those (mteal beating) bands, but since it came into fruition all those bands have popped up as well, so I suppose it looks like we're climbing on some sort of bandwagon," says Wilder. "We just thought it would suit the song."
But Fletcher is a little more open about their relationship to the 'movement'.
"I think we all like the idea. When we actually made the album we did go on a sound-hunting expedition. We went down Brick Lane and just hit everything and then recorded it and took it back to the studio and then put it into the keyboard. That's how we made the track 'Pipeline'. We was like smashing corrugated iron and old cars. The vocals were recorded in a railway arch in Shoreditch - you've got the train three-quarters of the way through and the aeroplane up above. It's really interesting doing that."
Whether their adoption of a symbol of a worker-hero, hammer poised above head, for their album sleeve is directly influenced by the similar Stakhanovite actions of the like of Neubauten is, maybe, interesting but ultimately irrelevant. Gahan tells me that they chose the symbol of The Worker simply because they felt it was a powerful image. And as an echo of the sleeve of their second LP, "A Broken Frame", which depicts a peasant at work in cornfields, it is perfect - the hammer and the sickle. But though they describe themselves as "socialists with a small 's'," or perhaps because of it, they can be misinterpreted.
"We knew the tie between the hammer and the sickle on the two albums, obviously, but I don't think that was a thing we were trying to put across," says Gahan. He relates a story about the group turning up at a Belgian TV studio and being asked to stand on top of a giant haystack while behind them peasants stood with hammers and sickles and Russian flags flapped about insolently. They walked off the set until the flags were taken down.
But the choice of imagery is far from accidental - the symbol of 'The Worker', the traditional property of the Left, is a reflection of the political concerns taken up by Mode on "Construction" - ecology, nuclear war, multi-national power, famine, and the ideas of politics and socialism in themselves ("All of these insurmountable tasks that lay before me" - and that from "Love In Itself", a hit record!).
"We're not trying to change anything," says Gore, who wrote the lyrics to most of the songs (Wilder contributing the remaining two). "I don't think our music's going to change anything at all; we're just trying to make people think a little bit."
"Before," states Gahan, "they've been used to Depeche Mode with clever tunes and a lot of earlier stuff was very throwaway lyrics, whereas with this they can hum along to a tune, be sitting in their bedroom, look at the lyric sheet and maybe they might actually agree with some of the subjects. I mean none of the subjects are really heavy, ramming it down people's throats. Someone mentioned Heaven 17 to me the other day but some of their lyrics are more aggressive - 'Crushed by The Wheels Of Industry'."
It's tempting to read too much into this apparently sudden turn towards politics - to expect revelations of some Damascus-style conversion to The Cause - yet Mode's attitudes seem essentially low-key, perhaps even a little naive. "Let's take the whole of the world/The mountains and the sand/Let all the boys and the girls shape it in their hands", Gahan sings in "And Then ..." Would it were so simple.
"None of us are really into it heavily," says Gore, "none of us belong to any parties. I don't think there's one of us that's interested even slightly in politics."
Gahan adds: "None of us have studied politics or anything like that. Oh, Andy's got an 'A' level. Ha, ha! Andy's probably more interested than anyone else, but none of us are really serious about politics."
ACCORDING to Andy Fletcher, they have always had socialist sympathies - it's just that this is the first opportunity they've had to air them. The lyrics on the first album were by Vince Clarke, who "doesn't really care about lyrics at all", and many of Gore's words on "Frame" were written when he was only 16 or 17, which is "why they seem like bland love songs". Like Jim Kerr, much of Gore's writing since then had been influenced by his experiences of travelling around the world.
But why such reticence on the subject, having dedicated a whole album to social issues? Andy Fletcher comes nearest to explaining their position when he says: "We've got to be careful that we don't become hypocrites. It's very easy to write about such subjects as famine, but then people just turn around and say 'You're hypocrites!' - I mean we do earn quite a bit of money. I think we're too selfish to give all our money away although that's what we should do."
In the wider context of politics, the symbol of The Worker is no longer a potent one - in many ways it serves as an embarrassing reminder of the image of the Left as nostalgic and backward-looking, based on some mythical, idealised vision of the past.
If the Left is to capture the popular imagination, it clearly must find new, exciting images and approaches, learn how to vault into the video age, play personality politics. But Depeche Mode are not 'the Left'. They are a pop group. As such, they are not trying to attract votes, merely win some attention, and hopefully a sympathetic response.
In the context of contemporary pop, The Worker does represent a powerful image, not least because it disrupts the apolitical complicity and glossy surface of the industry.
But it can only do this for a moment, and not much more. Popular music has a remarkable capacity for trivialising serious subject matter, for reducing even the most threatening images and stances to the common denominator of entertainment - sharp content weathered into blunt style. Surely the punk experience has shown us how easily left-wing politics is incorporated into 'rock mythology', made subservient to it.
Still, even if Depeche Mode are not deeply committed to their lyrical concerns, there is at least a robust sense of sincerity behind their feelings. Depeche Mode are an individual and increasingly abrasive pop group at a time when the anodyne reigns supreme.
Long may their pop-with-plugs spark.
Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only.