Devotional Tour ticket stub
The following article originally appeared in the 18th September, 1993 issue of New Musical Express. It is the first of a two-part Behind-The-Scenes look at Depeche Mode on tour in Hungary during the European leg of the Devotional Tour. Words by Gavin Martin.
After years of stadium success, cracks are starting to appear in the fabric of the DEPECHE MODE organisation as band members fail to communicate with one another, preferring instead to battle with their own personal Jesuses. GAVIN MARTIN joins the faithful, and despite being fed the party line that it’s all wine and roses, sees something very rotten in the state of Depeche. Photos by ANTON CORBIJN.
"You can fulfil/Your wildest ambitions/And I’m sure you will/Lose your inhibitions/So open yourself for me/Risk your health for me/If you want my love/If you want my love."
Some lines from "Judas", a Martin Gore song, one which David Gahan doesn’t sing, on the "Songs Of Faith And Devotion" album.
DAVID GAHAN is breathless, metaphorically bouncing off the walls, leaping from the couch to illustrate his points. His voice is worn away to a raw husky rasp. Still on that adrenalin-surging, post-showtime high, he has just come offstage after a performance in front of a 25,000 crowd at a football stadium in Budapest, Hungary.
On the table before him there’s an inhaler to soothe his throat. His assistant/ helper/handmaiden/protector – press officer, dressing room designer, promotional person and bodyguard – are close at hand. This is the interview. A quick meeting, 20 minutes, much of it pseudo superstar babble, cut short when someone taps me on the shoulder and calls it to a halt.
The tap on the shoulder is an unnerving detail, redolent of the polite but firm signal that ends a visit to a sick relative in hospital.
By that time David has said so much – much more than Martin Gore had to say in an interview lasting three times as long that afternoon – it’s hard to believe the chat has been so brief. It has also been such a sad charade, it’s hard to believe it has been allowed to happen at all.
Gahan’s own private dressing room has been transformed into a darkened coven. Candles burn on table tops, on flight cases and other surfaces provided by his makeshift road furniture. Loud music blasts from his hi-fi. Jasmine incense sticks are burned to give the atmosphere he desires. Behind him there’s a red carpet, hung against the wall, the final touch in this full rock’n’roll Parnassian set up. Such are the trappings that befit a Cool Icon, a man playing, or trying to play, the role of A Rock God.
David Gahan has all the trappings, and a few of the problems, of a Rock God. His "problems" have become Depeche Mode’s dirty little secret – everybody in the camp knows about them but no-one mentions them. Gahan talks about them in vague terms. He means to get things sorted out, he says. But everyone knows a rock’n’roll tour isn’t really the place to start sorting things out.
He doesn’t look or sound like a well man. His skin is sickly grey in the half light, his eyes sunk into bluish sockets. Beneath his vest, tattoos embellish his biceps and torso, but the inside of his long skinny arms are all bruised and scratched. Later someone tells me they are scratch marks inflicted by rabid fans who tore their idol apart when he launched himself at them from a stage in Germany.
Depeche Mode have survived, they’ve worked hard, and in previous interviews they’ve alluded to how they like to play hard too. In a recent interview Gahan denied that he has ever had a drug dependency, adding quickly that he did, at one time, drink too much. His press officer asked the writer not to bring up the drug subject again.
The only time the drug subject surfaces during our chat is when David mentions it. He goes off the record once, but it has nothing to do with drugs. He asks me not to print some information. "If you do I’ll have to kill you," he says, not too convincingly.
DAVE GAHAN wasn’t cut out for a cosy life in the new town of Basildon, the cradle of the ’80s Thatcherite revolution. A clean suburb with a nasty underside, Basildon was confirmed as south east England’s still-surviving Tory stronghold at the last election, almost a decade after David made his escape. Early interviews and the Depeche Mode debut single "New Life" placed Dave and his cohorts in a modernist context, a new type of group for a new era, appropriately rising from a planner’s dream town.
The effortless rise and rise of Depeche has masked complexities beneath the surface. All the world sees is fame of humungous proportions. The internal struggles, the turmoil played out in their songs, the lavish hedonistic conceit that has grown around them all goes largely unprodded.
People think of Depeche as clean middle class boys. Though he was studying design at college when the band formed, David was from the rough side of town and he was an emotional yoyo as a teenager. Traumatised by his broken home background, he turned to crime and was in several scrapes with the authorities before Depeche provided an escape.
D. A. Pennebaker’s Depeche Mode documentary movie 101 gives a glimpse into how fame affects a young man like David Gahan. Made in 1989, Pennebaker’s movie captures Depeche at the point where cult following has become mass phenomenon, focussing on a status-sealing show at the 70,000 capacity Pasadena Rosebowl Stadium. Ostensibly 101 is about the band’s huge stateside following and lucre-crazed nature of The Bigtime Rock Event (their toytown capitalist satire "Everything Counts" provides the recurring keynote). But Pennebaker is an acutely sussed documentarist and when he zeroes in on David Gahan, the footage used is very revealing.
Two scenes stick in the mind. In a hotel room in the middle of the tour, David graphically illustrates a fight he’s had a few nights previously with a taxi driver.
"Letting out all that built up energy and tension like you do onstage – it’s not enough, you’ve still got more," he explains to the interviewer. "That was definitely a release. I was looking for a fight for a good few days."
At the main event, his wife and baby child are in attendance, flown out especially for the Rosebowl triumph. David seems to carry it all off easily, orchestrating the chanting crowd onstage, playing the doting daddy offstage. But when he comes to the end of the show he’s ravaged.
"I was thinking about the whole thing during the gig, everyone. I couldn’t stop crying, y’know?" he says, falling into the arms of a Depeche crew member. Just as he seems to be about to break down the camera pulls away.
Gahan tried to make a go of it. In 1987 he was enjoying his 19th Top 20 hit, but he told an interviewer he was still looking for his long-lost father. "Maybe when I have a family of my own it will stop me thinking about my dad." He tried to settle down into a marriage with his local girl bride, Joanne, who was running the group’s fanclub. He tried to do what friends call "the Essex thing". But he was leading a schizophrenic life, joining in the wild hedonistic pursuits of his colleagues on tour while trying to keep a home life going. Inevitably he eventually split with his wife and kid. Then he fell under the influence of, and fell in love with, Teresa Conway.
Conway is the fresh-faced blond publicist featured in 101. Later she worked with Jane’s Addiction. By the time she married Gahan, last year, she’d become a thin-faced brunette. 1992 was also the year when David had to bury the estranged father he’d never really got to know, and as he did so he was stung by the realisation that the same sort of relationship was beginning to develop between him and his own son. To top it all, arguments with the band raged during the making of "Songs Of Faith And Devotion" in Spain. None of the others even attended his wedding to Teresa. But the story was he’d come through it all – hardened, matured, a man.
Spend some time around the Depeche camp, see David’s forlorn little expressions, hear his thinly veiled cries for help; the opposite seems to be the case. Gahan is treated with something bordering on mild contempt by at least one of his colleagues. "Did he meet you in his harem then?" sneers keyboard and business operative Andy Fletcher when we get back to the hotel after the interview.
Gahan is like a lost child. He is fronting an outfit which – give or take Martin Gore’s dalliance with bondage gear and leather skirts – isn’t noted for its extrovert image. What’s more, he’s trying to cater for a phenomenal, monstrous following. That’s the thing – Depeche have become bigger than anyone every imagined. In Hungary they have become a neo religious cult, inspired by the dark mystery and chilling invocations that run through their most memorable music.
Blonde-haired Chico Marx look-alike Martin Gore – bank clerk turned black arts investigator, choirboy come existentialist, geek as svengali – writes the Mode meditations on lust and sin and death and envy. But it is Gahan who sells them, who sings them, who is at the cutting edge where band meets fan. How do you deal with that? David’s solution seems to become the new Peter Pan of Pop.
The Jane’s Addiction song "Wings" is playing on his ghetto blaster. He lowers the volume but, when asked how the show went, he keeps talking about "Wings" anyway, on his feet, arms aloft, playing out some fantasy in his mind.
"Now with "Wings" that’s just actually how it is, that’s the song. I was just sitting listening to that before you came in and… I saw this band at their last gig in Irvine Meadows in California, me and my wife, we were both there and… This f---ing song was just like it was tonight, it just BLEWMEAWAY!
"It was just like everybody could have wings for one night. That’s the greatest feeling and this is possibly my all time greatest song for everything. Everybody has wings. You just have to fly," he says.
By everyone’s estimation, even the partisan Depeche crew, the gig David has just played was a lukewarm affair, a chill Eastern European response compared to the hot blooded Latin reception of their Spanish shows the week before. Gahan never really gave the impression of being at the match. Sure, stadium gigs are a hard place to communicate with the audience but it wasn’t that. His performance was disconnected, flailing helplessly as he tried to brandish and capture a spurious sense of bigness.
If he said "thank you" and howled into the mic once he must have done it a thousand times. I like Depeche Mode music. With their most recent LPs, I think they’ve sculpted something exceptional in English pop, but seeing the show, I wish I’d stayed home with the records. Gahan was worse than remote, he was truly wrapped up in his own world. No amount of design, stage projection or help from the back-up singers or FX could mask it.
BACK IN the dressing room Jane’s Addiction play on. I ask David, who was running with the Basildon punk contingent when he joined Depeche, what he thinks about when he’s onstage.
"The people and the energy and the f---ing feeling, the feeling, the feeling that’s there now for the first time. And that’s… y’know I’ve never felt that before. I don’t think so, not really. Maybe a couple of times in places like The Rosebowl, maybe some gigs but not like tonight.
"Tonight I felt like shit. I felt like I’ve got a f---ed-up voice. I’m just borrowing time. But you go on there and you see all these people and they’re all waiting all day and you can just smell ’em. So you just gotta f---ing go for it. And when you touch them it’s just incredible, they’ll kill you. They tried to a couple of times."
Somewhere during the previous week David looked at the audience. He saw this great heaving mass of arms and faces as he went to the lip of the stage. He stood mesmerised by the colours, the energy, the sound of adulation, he went closer and peered into the whirlpool. Then we went too far, wobbled and fell in.
His voice is hardly there at all as he recounts the adventure. He gets back on his feet, teetering on the brink of an imaginary precipice.
"The true story is in Mannheim I just went too far, too far to the front of the stage. I could hear it. You f---ing idiot you’ve gone too far! I just knew I wasn’t going to go back. So that was the first time. I thought, f--- it I may as well fly into them, they’re going to pick me up. So I just went for it and got one of the biggest charges I ever got in my f---ing life, getting back onstage. They just tear you apart. They want something… like everybody f---ing does I suppose."
If there’s one thing Gahan’s performance shows, it’s that he knows people want something. He seems to want something too, he seems to want them to take him, to swallow him up, to complete or obliterate the spiritual tragedy played out in his band’s songs. So he does the 360 degree spins, the Christ-like martyr poses, the bravura put your hands together spell, the pouting, the preening, the odd bit of crotch grabbing. It’s what’s expected.
Conscious, perhaps, that he’s not the prime creative force in the band, David must feel that he’s somehow at the centre of this Mode thing – onstage and off. As he’s talking, the backstage party is in full swing outside. Somehow he must make it his concern too so he asks a flunky.
"How’s things out there? Has everyone got what they want, everybody happy?"
Yes, someone reassures him, everybody’s happy.
DAVID HAD appeared backstage briefly before the show, slapping colleagues on the back, sipping tequila, like a good chap ready to go over the top, to take on the multitude. "Okey cokey," he said, all vim and vigour. But he looked woozy, glazed, a benign softness settled over his face as he posed with the lucky young prizewinners of an MTV competition. They’d all been invited to spend the last week of the European tour on the road with Depeche Mode. Twenty of them flying on the band’s charter jet, seeing the sights, seeing the shows. Nonetheless the winners were a bit perturbed when Margaret, the promotional person, took David and his glazed grin away so soon.
Margaret had assured the MTV teens there’d be lots more time to meet and greet with the band. That seemed unlikely. Relating to the teen market may be vital to keep a pop phenomenon buoyant and refreshed, but Depeche have spent long years in the glossy girl/teen mags, now it was becoming a chore. Earlier in the week, Mick the press officer had phoned to ask Gahan would he give him a lip print for a feature in a teen publication. "How many times do you want to hear the F word used in this conversation?" was his response.
However, somebody in the Depeche Mode camp obviously does like young girls. After the show in Hungary there was a whole retinue of them, fresh faced pubescents, some unable to speak more than a few words of English, clad in stockings and suspenders. Eagerly lined up to enter the hallowed portals behind the scenes at a rock’n’roll event.
The Tour programme stresses the comparison between the Depeche Mode 1993 Roadshow and a military campaign. It’s a point well taken considering the phalanx of crew, advisors and strategians that they, and indeed any late 20th century stadium rock show, employs. No doubt these young girls have their place in that comparison, especially in Hungary. Hungary is itself on the border of a full-scale real life warzone in Yugoslavia. As a result, it has a refugee population close to a million. Two by-products of this influx are growing social tension and the biggest porn centre in Eastern Europe. There are people here – men, women, kids – running from unspeakable horrors. In a country with 30% inflation they do what they can to get by. A basketball hall at the back of the stadium provides the makeshift staging post for the Depeche tour team. Black cloth walls have been erected between tour management and catering, between the band’s play area and the eating area. After the show beer, wine and tequila flow, sumptuous platters are laid on. There’s music blasting and all these pretty young girls and even a few lads milling around. It could be a school disco or even one of those emergency centres set up across the border, a place the whole community gathers to rally round from incoming threats. It could be something almost comical in its innocence, the girls dressed up like that, sitting round watching the band playing table football. Or it could be something unbearably sleazy, the beginning of a dive into debauchery.
I mean how did these girls get here, who rounded them up?
You soon realise that some of them must be the girls you’ve read about in previous Depeche Mode interviews. The girls who are always there for the band and crew when they need to be entertained. A tonic for the troops. There’s a girl from France who is following them all across Europe, she met them during the last tour in Paris and now is provided with passes and tickets everywhere she goes. The food and drink provided here after the show makes it cheaper and easier for her to stay on the tour. There’s a young girl from Germany with a T shirt that says "F--- school, f--- work, f--- this, f--- that, f--- you, f--- me…" F--- everything, basically.
And then there are the lads. The lads, like many others in Hungary, have hit on the late ’80s Depeche look – slicked back hair, white jeans and leather jackets as their uniform. To the visitor from Britain they were reminiscent of moonstomping skinhead boot boys. There was something uniform, totalitarian about the way they joined together holding hands aloft in triumphant glory, or slamming the air with their fist during "Behind The Wheel". They really did seem to be a law unto themselves, an example of the way Depeche have grown, become something that the band can no longer hope or want to control.
What do these young Hungarian men get out of Depeche Mode? It’s hard to know; their actions backstage only add to the puzzle. There they were, gathered round while Martin Gore, Alan Wilder and Andrew Fletcher played table football. Fletcher is known as the Depeche money man but he hates to be called a manager. Just say he looks after the business side of things, journalists are told. What’s the difference? You may well ask. It’s not hard to get the feeling that Fletcher is fed up being thought of as a backroom type while David Gahan gets all the glory.
Inevitably and somewhat poignantly Fletcher, the least glamourous of the Mode men, is the object of the Hungarian boys’ affections. There he is, head down studiously going for goal, herbal "Yoga" tea to hand, unaware that behind him the lads have unfurled a banner emblazoned with the legend "Andy Is God – GIVE ME PLEASURE LITTLE FLETCHER". Fletcher gets his goal easily – Martin Gore has collapsed in hysterics with the unfurling of the banner.
MARTIN GORE had talked about being on tour with Depeche Mode earlier in the afternoon. Gore was hunched over a table in the lobby of the Depeche hotel, an architectural nightmare, like it had been brought to Budapest straight from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Gore had a tour anorak pulled over his head, furtively reading recent press reports, hiding from the fans, the so called Depeches who were on 24 hour vigil outside his hotel. He couldn’t understand it; he’d been all round Europe but had never encountered anything like The Depeches, Hungary’s very own youth cult who took their style, slogans and rationale from his band. He balked at the suggestion that this had ever been the band’s intention. "I’ve never heard of anything more ridiculous," he spluttered. "If you’re going to start a movement and base it on a band, you should at least get a better name for it."
The road to Hungary began in April when Depeche Mode sat in London’s Ministry of Sound Club and were satellite linked to fans round the world. Lots of intense young girls and boys, vetted prior to transmission, waited in line to ask solemn questions about the meaning of Mode, the philosophy in their songs, the gravity of their music. In Germany one young man was so overcome with the idea of speaking to his idols that the pressure built up all day until, when it came time to ask his question, he fainted.
There had been other mishaps too, places where the campaign had faltered. In America, Depeche’s affluent unofficial but computer-linked fan club somehow got hold of an early numbered copy of the "Songs Of Faith And Devotion" album, far in advance of its official release. Tapes of the album were being exchanged, advertised through the computer network. Reviews were being swopped onscreen between the fans. It was a big deal, like someone had got hold of a top secret military strategy. The Depeche battle plan for the next two years was out in the open before the Mode machine had even put it into operation. A full investigation was ordered into how the leak had occurred; record company employees cowered. But no culprit was found, there was no court martial.
Still the Devotional tour rolled out across the continent. Gahan out front while his three cohorts provided the group’s impressive diseased, decadent sound on a raised podium far above him. Together with their arty porn back projections – marching girls with the horned heads of mythical beasts, close-ups of breasts and navels – Depeche wooed the big stadium crowds.
Always, wherever they went, there went parties, girls, the pleasures of the flesh, the fruits of the world laid at their feet. On the afternoon before the show, as he sipped his coke, Gore (or Mister Iscariot as the writer of "Judas" calls himself on the hotel register) was being approached by fans asking for autographs, offering drinks, trying to recommend the best after hours entertainment Budapest had to offer.
"For me, it always seems that I’m stepping out of real life into a film," reflected Gore in his funny little lisping voice.
"From the moment you start on the first day of the tour until you get home it just seems you’re living in a total fantasy land."
How do you deal with that?
"Personally I just accept it, try to have as much fun as I can in fantasy land and then come back down to earth at the end of it."
Sounds like you can do anything you want, if it’s fantasy land.
"Yeah, pretty much."
Are there any dangers in that?
"I’m sure there are."
The interview with Gore provided slim pickings for the quote hungry. His answers weren’t evasive exactly, though they did seem circumspect. I had not seen Gahan when I spoke to Gore, hadn’t witnessed the frankly disturbing state the singer was in. Naturally, like any songwriter, Gore denied that his "Songs Of Faith And Devotion" were written for any one person or about any particular subject. But later Gahan would seize on them, saying the songs on the new record related directly to him.
That gave them a creepy quality – was he singing the songs of penitence, punishment, persecution and turmoil or were they singing him, providing him with a pit to fall into? Was he following the well-beaten paths of rock tragedians, playing out a fantasy for the band and the fans alike?
Gore described the aforementioned "Judas", with its sepulchral tone and its creepy vision of real love tied to a willingness to risk death, as "an arrogant love song". He said the Aids reference gave the song counterweight, balanced it against the many nice love songs he’d written. "Judas" has a lure and an abiding fascination common to Depeche’s strongest material, a sense of danger and foreboding ripples beneath its surface. Gore didn’t argue with that.
"I can never work out if I’m just being realistic or if I’m a total hypochondriac. That probably comes through in the music. Maybe it’s not real danger at all and I’m an eternal pessimist but sometimes I think it’s based on reality."
Martin Gore gets touchy when it’s suggested, but he definitely is a strange boy and that has been a vital factor in defining the Depeche’s perverse pop appeal. Though he was never a Christian, Gore went to church as a teenager because "there was nothing else to do in Basildon on a Sunday night" and he had a fascination with belief and religion. A fascination which has subsequently been played out in many of his songs.
Much has been made of the fact that Gore moved to Berlin in the mid-’80s and started to wear a leather skirt onstage and in photographs. He’s well weary of the subject.
"It’s only in England. Nobody mentions it anywhere else. It’s like an English hang-up. Why is it that whenever there’s a fancy dress party in Britain, every man goes dressed as a woman? I did it because I didn’t want the macho image, it’s no big deal."
Pushed to the writing forefront when Vince Clarke departed the band (ostensibly because he didn’t want to be in a pop band but more likely, says Gore, because he couldn’t stand to be part of a democracy) Gore’s songs have propelled Depeche Mode, making them the archetypal English ideas band. Although he’s embarrassed now by the group’s first two albums ("Speak And Spell" and "A Broken Frame") he thinks that they have become their most influential records on the subsequent development of Britpop and even the American house scene. Hailed as pioneers of Detroit dance, the group made a trip to that city in 1988 but they didn’t like it and aren’t keen to go back.
Depeche albums have slyly tackled weighty concepts, gathering force and authority all the while. With "Construction Time Again", Gore posited a nouveau socialist manifesto; "Music For The Masses" dabbled in totalitarian imagery; "Violator" was deadly in its simplicity, deep in its grandeur – consummate electro blues – and "Devotion" uses gospel fire to fuel its lost pilgrim pleas. With the "Black Celebration" album in 1988, the one-time cheery electro poppers successfully moved in on the constituency of goth; songs of dominance and subservience, a little gloom and doom and the black arts ranked high in its appeal.
Last time Gore spoke to the NME he said he was reading a lot of black magic books but had not "come to any conclusions". Ask him about it now and he deals with the question the way Aleister Crowley fanatic Jimmy Page would.
"(Long pause…) this stuff always sounds really bad in print so… I think I’m more aware now of some spiritual things and I do believe in good and evil. Other than that if you delve into it in print it sounds naff."
"Condemnation", the new single, sounds like a dialogue with God, a wracked judgement day confession.
"That’s roughly what it’s about. I’ve always said you demystify songs if you say they are about a specific incident, it makes it sound so bland."
What frightens you?
"I think death for some strange reason. Death in general, specifically my own death, that’s why I’m a total hypochondriac. I can’t work out if it’s normal to be a hypochondriac. I think it’s normal for men to be hypochondriacs.
"Every now and then on tour I have these panic attacks where I think my heart is beating too fast, my pulse seems strange in my arms and I think I’d better get a doctor, I think I’m going to die at any moment. Then I talk to all the men on the road with us and they all have them, all my male friends at home have them too.
"The funny thing is it’s virtually all men that have them, women don’t seem to have them at all. Men must have massive egos and are always worried about dying whereas women just get on with life."
IF GORE gets panic attacks on tour, what must it be like for Gahan? While Martin is somewhere up near the stage roof, having done his bit at the songwriting stage, David is out front carrying the weight.
Back in his dressing room, ranting about what sounds like the best show since Moses did his turn in the Red Sea, Gahan still seems to be out on his own.
"Well that’s pretty much what it looked like for a while, but now it’s not like that. I think it was like that for a long while, yeah, when we’ve played live. It was never a problem in the band – it was just my job. I wanted something very different this time – I wanted to feel like I was playing with people. And I wanted that from day one with the record and pushed really hard for it, and I think that’s why, in lots of ways, we achieved things like "I Feel You". We’d never really rocked that hard, y’know? Without me bullying everybody to hell it wouldn’t have happened.
"I bullied Alan into drumming because I said I want live drums. Fletcher thought I’d gone crazy, he said ‘Dave’s gone crazy, he wants drums, next thing he’ll want backing singers’. And I did. Martin’s songs are like… ‘Condemnation’ and stuff and straightaway you know you have to do them in a gospel way.
"Martin was writing beautiful songs and sending them to me. I was getting them and every one was like a f---ing jigsaw puzzle at the time."
There must be certain songs that you’ve sang that you feel closer to than others.
"With this album I felt that every single song on the album, even the songs that Martin sang, were the best things he could have done for me at the time. As a friend to a friend – he kind of helped me to heal a lot of my personal problems and he wasn’t even trying. When you’ve been in a band for 13 years together it’s four weird energies, and I think now with Depeche Mode we really can do anything."
You were saying that Martin’s songs helped your personal problems, had you considered music as a healing force before?
"My attitude has changed, my whole life has changed really. There’s certain things that maybe didn’t used to be so important to me and they’re now very, very important."
"It doesn’t matter, I don’t think I really need to name anything but I think I’m getting things in the right order now. Finally starting…" He laughs…
"There’s just a few things I’ve still got to get right. I feel really good about… I love going onstage and playing. I hate all the rest of the shit – doing tours, doing interviews, all this kind of shit to be quite honest. But I do love that couple of hours I get to go out there and do whatever I f---ing like basically."
Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only. Photo of Dave Gahan by Anton Corbijn. Photo of Martin Gore by Stefan de Batselier. Reproduced without permission.
Part two of a two-part Behind-The-Scenes look at Depeche Mode on tour in Hungary during the European leg of the Devotional Tour. Originally published in the 25th September, 1993 issue of New Musical Express.
Return to the manor of the Rock Gods! In the second instalment of the touring madness that is DEPECHE MODE’s Hungarian foray, GAVIN MARTIN gets that inking feeling while DAVID GAHAN gets the needle down at the tattoo parlour, returns to "scary" Basildon, opens up to his audience, and considers the future of the Mode. And that’s before the live sex party in London gets swinging…
DEPECHE MODE are gathered back at their hotel bar – base camp for their three days in Hungary. They’ve played their game of table football, watched by the girls and boys backstage, after the gig. Now it’s time to fuel up with some more juice before hitting the town – a grubby little disco bar in a backwater of Budapest.
Andy Fletcher has thrown caution, and Yoga tea, to the wind and is taking his chances with a sizeable draught of lager. The last time Fletcher was interviewed by the NME the journalist started out by asking if he drank a lot on the road. The press officer was livid: sat behind the journalist, he started signalling to Fletcher to terminate the interview. The subsequent feature was given as the reason why the band refused to meet NME for many months.
They had finally decided to talk to the paper earlier this year, but when we ran a vintage 1985 Depeche Mode feature in our Rock Of Ages series they thought we were "taking the piss" and the whole thing was put back again. A touchy lot, pop stars.
Martin Gore is staving off one of his panic attacks by blagging a Nurofen off a girl from his record company. Soon he’ll be off charging round the bar, playing piggyback fights until he falls off his carrier’s back. The tequila slammer-fuelled horseplay was always heading that way, building up to a peak.
"Is it always like this?" gasps the serious young Hungarian girl when Gore fell over.
"I’m bleeding, I’m bleeding," screamed Gore still lying on his back.
Concerned faces peered down at the little blond stick-man. Then he leapt up with a cheeky grin on his face. He wasn’t bleeding at all, and he was ready for another tequila slammer. And so the romp continued.
David Gahan made a brief appearance before retiring early. Unlike the others, he had early-morning video-shoot duties to perform. Gahan sat at a table where someone was discussing the concept of Political Correctness. "What’s that?" he asked. The PC ideal was duly explained to him. "Hmmm, sounds really boring," said The Thin One before sloping off to his lair.
Alan Wilder is described by some as the Keith Richards of the band, meaning he sculpts the sound of their records with producer Flood, fills out the Depeche canvas, gives vital tension, drama and atmosphere to Martin Gore’s potentially morbid ditties. These days, ten years ahead of schedule, he is also taking on the appearance of the latter-day Sir Keef. Wilder by name, Wilder by nature – knocking back double tequila shots and his face is becoming a well-worn road map of rock’n’roll excess.
Judith, the serious young Hungarian girl, had got short shrift when she approached Alan Wilder earlier with an enquiry about his band, and she’d taken an instant dislike to him. Judith was the only person that spoke English among her group of friends. She’d been able to get into the band’s hotel because she’d been working at their show, voluntarily handing out AIDS awareness leaflets in a tent pitched at the back of the stadium.
She wasn’t interested in the band the way the other little girls with stockings and suspenders and "F--- me" T-shirts were, but Judith wanted to talk to Depeche because she’d invested a lot of time in their music. She and her friends had hired out a big civic hall in Budapest once every month for almost six years. Drawing between 1500 and 2000 fans each month, this was the biggest Depeche convention in Budapest, though there were smaller ones held in smaller venues every week. Depeche nights had become the rallying point for Judith and her friends during their teenage years, providing food, drink, Depeche chat, Depeche stories, Depeche records.
It was a phenomenon that had outlasted even the Russian empire collapse of the late ’80s. Now as those momentous changes were still having their effect, Judith and her friends were more conscious than ever that Hungary was at a crossroads. They watched events unfold across the border in Yugoslavia with considerable trepidation. They knew about the refugee problem, the camps outside of Budapest packed with people on the run from the war.
"It won’t happen here," I was told later by the young Hungarian outside the hotel, "we’re good people, we don’t want a war." You had to hope they were right, but it was only 50 years ago, during the Nazi occupation, that the local Jewish population were drowned in the Danube, the river that runs through Budapest. Dominated by the Nazis, then the Russians, Hungary was a country where it must have been hard to hold on to – or even to find – something to believe in. Things were moving again in this part of the world, heading in a dangerous direction, and for these young people the future wasn’t clear. Maybe that’s why they still held their Depeche devotion dear.
It was a hard thing to explain, a hard thing to understand what Depeche Mode meant here, Judith explained, but it was something special, something that the band’s followers elsewhere might be surprised by. The Depeche club was now something that had become bigger than the band, lots of kids with problems, dysfunctional kids, kids with backgrounds not unlike David Gahan’s, in fact, from delinquent backgrounds and broken homes had come together at these nights. Depeche Mode was the common link that had provided a spur – helping the kids discover themselves, to forge their own identity and develop relationships with like-minded souls.
WHY DID Depeche Mode, out of all the bands who made music during the ’80s, mean so much to these young Hungarians? Obviously their imagery and sound was immediately recognisable as European, breaking with the Anglo-American pop hegemony. But it was more than that. Judith said that Martin Gore’s songs discussed things that often go unspoken, problems and fears that are usually hidden away. She said she’d always cherish the times at the club and the friends she’d made there, that Depeche Mode meant something much more to her than a pop band.
Judith started to feel embarrassed. Her boyfriend kept goading her to go and ask some serious questions of Martin or Andy. But neither of them seemed to be in any mood to talk in great depth at this time of the night. So she bided her time and watched them.
She reckoned that Fletch was the nicest, the most approachable. She thought that Martin Gore wasn’t being his natural self, that he was putting on a rock-star tour-madness act because it was what was expected of him. She was repelled by Alan Wilder, he looked dreadful and she didn’t think it was right the way he was messing round with the young girls at the bar. When he left the hotel for more tequila at the disco club, a group of Hungarian fans clambered outside at the window. Wilder staggered up towards them. "Go on, f--- off!" he said. "Get away from the f---ing window."
And then there was David Gahan.
The Depeche club were worried about David. They knew he had problems, you didn’t need to see him up close for too long to see that. They’d read about them in interviews, and they thought that Martin Gore had tried to help him with the songs he’d written for the new LP – they heard them as gifts from a friend, prayers for help and forgiveness. But David still didn’t look well. They hoped that he would get better, they didn’t want him to be a martyr for their religion.
Back at the hotel at 5am, after a few hours at Dull Disco, there was still a tribe of Depeches camped at the door. The girls were all dressed in black sackcloth, some carrying posters and some carrying scrapbooks of Depeche trivia. One kid, a gypsy crustie type had matted hair, rings of dirt round her face and the words "punk forever" on her baseball boots. Some of the boys brandished home-made Depeche passes, favouring an archive colour group shot from 1987 bound up in card and sticky tape. They wanted me to bring David Gahan down to see them. All they wanted was a hello. They’d been waiting there all day – couldn’t I just tap on his door and ask? Surely he couldn’t refuse, they reasoned.
Why Depeche Mode, I wondered, what’s the big thing with them? They told me that it’s all to do with the sadness, that Depeche Mode music doesn’t ignore sadness, that it puts sadness at its centre and recognises that sadness is the most common experience in the world, something everyone can relate to.
It wasn’t a cheery note on which to say goodnight and it probably wasn’t what David Gahan, 20 floors above and three hours away from his video shoot, wanted to hear.
BACK IN his dressing room earlier the previous evening, Gahan considered what he’d be doing if he wasn’t the object of the kids’ affections, if he wasn’t a singer.
"I’d be a mass murderer or something like that," he laughs. "That’s not really true. Y’know what? Even when I was a little kid… I swear when I was a little kid I used to walk to school and try and miss every crack in the pavement. I know everybody’s done this but my thing was I was just going to do something and all this school crap could f--- off. Because I hated school, from day one I wanted to get out of there, y’know, I really hated it. So I just knew I was going to do something else.
"Compared to my other mates I didn’t fit in very well with any kind of… I moved around a lot, put it that way. I had a lot of mates, a lot of people I could go to hang out with that I could pick for different sorts of moods. Violent ones, druggy ones, just girls."
You had a criminal record before you put out a record…
"Don’t bring that up again, I have enough trouble trying to get in and out of places as it is."
When you jumped into the audience last week, did you know no fear?
"That’s the whole point. I learned that in Mannheim when I accidentally did it. I thought, if I’m going to do it, I’m really going to do it, I’m going to do it as if I’m diving off the top board at Basildon at 16 at Oswald Park swimming pool. Me and my mate Jay used to dive off the top, get up enough courage to dive off that top board. You just go, YES! Somebody’s going to pick you up, they can rip you apart but they eventually will put you back up.
"You feel it, it’s scary, it’s a weird thing with all these hands, a million hands all over you, pulling you, and you see faces and suddenly you see someone like one of our security guards and they’re like, ‘Dave, we got you’. They ripped my shirt off, it was really funny. If they’d done it tonight there was no way I’d have got out, no way. I’m not that strong."
How do you feel about your audience? You must have mixed feelings.
"I hate the ones that try to be cool – we’re going to have a good time but stand back. That English thing, y’know. I think in general they’ve been right with us all the way. It gets a little bit more every time, little steps."
Do you wonder how you’ll relate to a new, younger generation of Depeche fans?
"The only way I think about that is because I have a son. And I feel although I don’t really have any responsi… My son is with my ex-wife. Anyway… so anyway, but I still feel responsibility of the fact that I would want him to be… to see everything, to experience things, to make up his own mind. I think that’s something I’ve learned through touring around with Depeche Mode because I had f--- all education at school, apart from that I could paint. Everything else was just boring."
You said earlier that you don’t like interviews.
"It’s not so much that. I like talking to people, it’s what it gets turned into. You try to be open with people and just talk and sometimes you might go a little bit off because maybe you’re trying to feel in a different mood to what you just felt. I can’t really explain that."
You were talking about your divorce in interviews earlier this year. Doesn’t it annoy you that you have to do that? Surely it’s nobody’s business.
"Now I feel like that – and if you ask me any questions about that, I’d have to say that, and I know you’d respect that. I obviously had to talk about some stuff so I think it helped me a lot, in some way… I hope it didn’t hurt Joanne."
You didn’t get much education, but you’ve become a pop star. Do you have to learn how to do that?
"Yeah, you do. I’m getting really good at it now (laughs). No, the best thing about it for me now is I know we’ve made a really brilliant record, I feel really proud of it. I think "Violator" was the first step to what "Songs Of Faith And Devotion" achieved, the band starting to work together a lot more to get some emotion from things that maybe weren’t there when, say, Martin just wrote the songs. Alan and I would work very hard to just build things, we’re really into atmospheres and stuff.
"It’s not just, Martin writes a song and that’s it. I mean he loves Neil Young and I love Neil Young too, but… I’m not putting Martin down in any way… it’s just that after he’s written it he thinks he’s done what he has to do."
Do you share the writing credit?
"Naw… It’s just Martin."
Doesn’t that annoy you? I couldn’t imagine many people wanting to listen to a Gore song before it’s been through the Mode machine.
"Umm, I sort of felt with this album that it was a little bit unfair. Not because Martin didn’t write all the songs. He wrote the songs and they’re brilliant songs and… umm. Y’know, everything came from him, but everybody else also worked really hard to really put some real emotion down. Alan would stay there forever, basically. I was just trying to feel much more than I’d ever felt about words and melodies and highs and lows."
Had you felt disaffected in the past?
"I felt… I just kicked myself in the arse and said, ‘What do you really wanna do, what are you really like? Pick, y’know? What do you want? Do you want the big fancy house in the country with loads of cars or do you wanna go somewhere and just live with people and just hang out and stuff like that?’
"That’s me now, y’know? Now I’ve got enough space to really get into music, not thinking about that kind of stuff, like, ahh, ‘I wonder if I can, like, buy a car’ or something. What would I want to think about shit like that any more for?"
Is being on tour still a helter-skelter experience for you, emotional highs followed by depressing lows?
"Totally, yeah. I mean, you’re lucky you’re here, really. I might have just been saying, ‘Tell him I don’t want to f---ing do it, tell him I’m ill’. I’m really high from the f---ing gig, y’know, it’s… When it’s like that…
"I won’t even sleep tonight. I’ve got to get up and go and do some… I’ve got to go off with (Anton) Corbijn into the f---ing woods and do the ‘Condemnation’ bit. But, really, I have fun with doing that. It’s just the eight o’clock morning, you gotta get over it."
You say you changed everything about yourself. The first thing people say is you changed the way you look. Is it more than that?
"I don’t think I even… It’s funny, you know, ’cos I know my hair got long, stuff like that, but I’ve always had beards, played around with beards and stuff ever since, like, I could ever grow one to be quite honest.
"And then I just… it was just like I said, I put my brain into a lot of different things, like I went out and I went to clubs and I started listening to music again. And I started seeing bands and getting into a band and following them around and getting into that feeling. Bands like Jane’s (Addiction), that was mainly due to my wife, because she was working for ’em. Instead of me doing the gig, I would just be able to go to the gig and hang out. It was great, really."
Was that like following The Clash round when you were a kid?
"Yeah, it was the same sort of thing, but it was the Damned with me. I didn’t get The Clash until I was a little older, on account of my education (laughs)."
When did you first get a tattoo?
"When I was 14 at Southend seafront, by a man called Clive. He’d a tattoo round his neck – ‘cut here’, with all the dots. He was like a sort of sailor guy, perfect. That one there…"
He shows me one of the old-style, rough-and-ready designs.
"A collector’s item? Yeah they love it now, the people that work on me now, when they see this, it’s like, ‘Who done that?’ All these guys know each other, it’s a whole scene – in Amsterdam, f---ing Los Angeles, in London, in Japan it’s like they all know each other, it’s a real clan. Tattooists, they stick together. When they see this, they flip out – especially Bob, who done a lot of stuff on me, this guy called Bob Roberts from L.A."
What was the last thing you had done?
"The last I had done was two weeks before I left. I had to have the first bit done and then it had to heal a bit and then I had to go and have the rest done. But I had to get it done, we’d drawn it and everything and so…
"It was like my wings, really, for the tour (a massive pair etched on his back). It was, like, my weapon for the tour – if you can do this, you can do anything, y’know? If you can sit under the needle for ten hours, you can do anything, man."
It was sore, then?
"Pretty sore for a while. You forget how many times it’s nice to do that (he stretches), and you can’t for about two weeks. It really killed me. Then of course we went into rehearsals, it was funny. But I had to have it done, I had to do it. Charlie, Bob’s younger son, drew it on my back. He worked on it for ages. I have to go back, actually. He’s missed a few bits out."
When did you start grabbing your crotch onstage?
"Oh, I think that goes back a long way (laughs). I think I started doing that when I was about seven, grabbing my crotch. Now I’ve got the opportunity to do it in public. Remember what I said about being a mass murderer."
What other music do you listen to?
"I’m serious about Jane’s Addiction because I still feel they could have been quite possibly the greatest band in the world, but they blew it because of dope, or whatever, which is really sad."
Are you friendly with Perry Farrell?
"I don’t want to get into that stuff, that’s, like, private, your private life. I like Nick Cave, the Stones a lot, my mate makes compilations of all kinds of stuff – Lynyrd Skynyrd. Stuff like that I really like, the Mid-West boogie, the old biker rockers."
Do you ever go back to Basildon?
"Scary but, yes, I’ve been back a few times. In the last six years I’ve been back about three times. I get my mum to come to London. I’m like, ‘Mum, bring the flat round with you’. I just feel like I’m going to get arrested there or something. I walk out at the station and I’m like, ‘I want to go back, I want to go back’. I really do, it’s f---ing horrible.
"I walk past the taxi rank where I’ve been beaten up so many times or had a fight. The cab rank after the Mecca. F---ing hell, Basildon. It’s scary because you go back there and it’s exactly the same. It’s just a different generation. Very scary."
How long can Depeche Mode continue?
"(Groans) I knew you were going to ask that question. I think it’s up to us, really. It’s up to all of us to feel we want to do it, of course.
"You know, there’s no way I’d make another record with the band or… I know it’s the same with Alan, everyone’s the same, unless they really felt it was worth it. Because we’re still, you know… everyone’s… I know we can make another great record. But you just really got to want to do it. I think after this tour if we, y’know…
"It’s a long way to go yet, we don’t finish until July or August next year. After that, everybody is going to want to take a lot of time off. To do some… just to go and y’know… aah."
Have you ever been in a fist fight with anyone in the band?
"I actually haven’t, no. Fletch has had a fight with everyone but me. He’s never actually tried to hit me. But just lately I think he’s potentially been thinking about it."
David doesn’t get the next question, my diction or my accent has him foxed.
"Where the f--- are you from?" he screams.
London, say I.
"But where is that accent from?"
Ireland, say I.
"But it’s mixed with London now. It’s just like Blade Runner, isn’t it?"
"Soon there’s going to be another f---ing language everywhere. It’s getting hard to talk to people. What are they talking about?"
What do you like to do apart from music?
"I can’t wait to do the next thing, really. Aww, y’know, just… I’ve actually got lots and lots of friends now. I spend a lot of time with my friends. It’s something I’d forgot how to do, I think I sort of really isolated myself, not even intentionally but… over the years I had. Now I’ve made a lot of really, really good friends, good people. Mostly women, I may point out as well."
That’s cool, it’s not illegal yet.
"Totally cool, especially when they’re all really good-looking as well (Cue hysterical schoolboy laughter of desperation)."
It’s time to play that old game: I’ve-had-more-totty-than-you’ve-had-hot-dinners-before-you-were-even-born-kid.
David’s about to embark on the sort of spiel I haven’t heard since Weeper The One-Ball Wonder took us young ’uns round the campfire and told us about his sexual exploits nearly 20 years ago…
"I had an older sister that had a lot of really nice girlfriends. So I used to walk to school with a lot of nice girls. I was like the young little… the young little brother they all needed to explore, so I had a lot of fun, actually, in my youth (cue mad laugh)."
So you were used to it? It wasn’t really like winning the lottery when you became a pop star?
"Oh no. I learned pretty fast, I must say. I must boast."
You were cut out for this life.
"You might say that (more mad laughter) it’s up to you. I didn’t say it."
The tap on the shoulder is about to come. So it’s time for a chatty query. Seen any good movies recently?
"We haven’t really had the chance. There’s in-house movies, stuff like that we have in the hotel, but I can never work out how to use the f---ing machine. I just play movies and forget about it, plug in the guitar and the ghetto-blaster, forget about it."
THE NEXT day I’m in a taxi cab speeding towards central London with the Depeche Mode press officer. David Gahan is the cover star on a listings mag flagging the band’s show at Crystal Palace that weekend. The cover line reads: Crucifixion Or Resurrection: The Making Of A Rock God. The press officer asks me what I think of the feature. The piece plays to the Depeche myth, David as a Rock God, ranting about the gig he’s just played being extra special, everything is hunky dory.
It feeds the fans what they want to hear. I guess it serves the magazine’s purposes, I tell them, though I feel that it’s not the real Depeche story, that it’s a con job.
"It serves its purpose for us, too," decides the press officer.
Three days later, it’s early in the morning on August 1 at London’s Crystal Palace and The End Of The Depeche Mode European Tour Party is in full swing. After this they have a month off, then the campaign goes out to America. There’s vague talk that the tour may be 18 months long, but no one really believes it.
There’s a party within the party. In the middle of the floor, a leathery-faced security guy with shades and a walkie-talkie stands outside the door which provides the entry, up a spiral staircase, to the VIP free tequila and champagne bar. Only the band and their special guests are allowed in, so unlucky plebs like myself stand and wonder what’s going on up there.
Apparently what’s going on up there is LIVE SEX ACTS. Keen to protect their decadent image, Depeche have invited along performers – statuesque girls, suitably attired in conical bras, fishnet tights and no knickers. A bloke with a laminate describes the goings-on in the VIP bar as "very enjoyable".
I think about the allegations made about ritual ‘abuse’ inside a certain heavy metal band and wonder if this sort of thing is really on. Is it decadence on a par with the Weimar Republic and the rotting Roman Empire?
But there’s more than one way of looking at it. Certainly Martin Gore’s songs have an ambivalent attitude to matters of flesh and spirituality, to sin and salvation. The Irish girl beside me says she spends a lot of time at clubs in Paris where men and women perform sex acts. Far from being disgusting, she says, it’s a very beautiful, very artistic thing.
So who are we mere mortals to judge, down here without a laminate, while the gods indulge themselves above us?
Beer in hand, Martin Gore takes his chances with the plebs but when he tries to walk through the crowd he is assailed at every turn.
The feverish Depeche grapevine has been wheeling and dealing once again.
"Everybody I bump into seems to be a fan. I don’t know how they all got in here," he complains to the press officer. "Everybody I meet, it’s like, ‘Hey, do you remember me from Gothenburg?’"
David Gahan is nowhere to be seen. Someone tells me that they saw him last year in Spain during the recording of the band’s album and he looked "scary, painfully thin, like he was almost blue."
Earlier, downstairs in his dressing room, David held court for his relatives, even his ex-wife and kid son were there. When a friend who hadn’t seen Gahan for some years saw the singer he was shocked, "sad and angry" at the singer’s condition.
"Seeing him with his relatives was really weird," he said, "seeing him with his son – there seemed to be an invisible wall between them."
Gahan rushed across the room and grabbed his friend, clung to him with something close to desperation. He said they must get together, must talk. It seemed like he was anxious to make some link with the past but the next day Gahan would be back in the Mode machine, protected, cut off and his old friend wouldn’t be able to contact him.
As I’m about to leave, I bump into a Mode camp insider. What, I ask, are the chances of Gahan – whose speaking voice is still burned down to a husky whisper in between songs – making it through the tour?
"Who can say?" comes the reply. "We just have to wait and see what happens. David has to go through a lot of things, it’s something that no one, not even anyone else in the band can understand.
"No one can understand what it’s like to be a young man and you get all that money, all that fame. I’ve done everything I can to help. I think everybody has, it’s really up to David.
"This is something he must go through. It’s a hard job fronting a band like Depeche, but he must know that if it wasn’t for Martin there’d be no songs, if it wasn’t for Alan the records wouldn’t sound the way they do, and if it wasn’t for Fletch there probably wouldn’t be any money.
"I think it’s hard for David to accept that. I think he does a good job but he has a lot of problems. I think he’s looking for something really. I really think what he needs is love, he needs to be loved."
Rock Gods, eh?
Maybe they’re just like everybody else after all.
Reprinted WITHOUT PERMISSION for non-profit use only. Photos by Stefan de Batselier. Reproduced without permission.