Monday, March 25, 2013

Behind the Wheel by Depeche Mode

Last night I finished watching the documentary Depeche Mode: The Dark Progression which focuses, after maybe half an hour of set-up and historical context, on the four-album arc of Black Celebration through Songs of Faith and Devotion; about a decade straddling the mid-80s to the mid-90s, and clearly Depeche Mode's zenith in terms of commercial success and influence.

I got this--a little bit by surprise--by Netflix, and I had been simultaneously listening to a bunch of bootleg remixes by a guy named Naweed Wahla (you can hear most of them on youtube.)  At the same time a brand new album is due out tomorrow, I think, and they're kicking off a tour to support it (coming to North America in August, and starting with my hometown!)  The DVD was actually quite good, even though it was an "unauthorized" one--footage of interviews with producers, biographers, and other artists who toured with them were all included (Gareth Jones, David Bascombe, Jonathan Miller, Andy McClusky, Gary Numan, Thomas Dolby, and a few others.)  One thing Gareth Jones mentioned is that he thought the album Some Great Reward was transitional--from his perspective (and it was the middle of three that he produced) it was clearly in between Construction Time Again and Black Celebration in terms of what the band was doing technically with sampling and whatnot.  However, it occurs to me that every Depeche Mode album is transitional.  Depeche Mode's enduring popularity and importance is, at least partly, based on the fact that they don't retread the same ground over and over again.  They vary their approach subtly--enough to keep their fanbase usually--but they vary it nonetheless.  They're always evolving.

To be honest with y'all, my favorite DM is about the time that I discovered them; in the late 80s.  Although I was familiar with the song "People Are People" and actually liked it a lot, I didn't follow up from that to pay attention to who sang it, or get any more material of theirs.  In about 1988 or so, I ended up with a copy of Music for the Masses and I was reading Dracula for the first time at the same time--so while I read, I listened to DM.  That right there was a perfect match.  I quickly fell in love with the darker sound of Depeche Mode, and as I delved into their back catalog, I liked best the two albums that were closest to Masses in time.  Speak And Spell hardly counted; it might as well have been a different band altogether (and in many ways, it was.)  A Broken Frame had Martin Gore just barely starting to stretch his wings musically, while still trying to imitate (sometimes) the successful pattern of Vince Clark.  Construction Time Again had Gore doing much more of his own thing, but it still felt unrefined and in need of maturation to get to where it needed to be.  But with the triad of albums, Some Great Reward, Black Celebration and Music For the Masses, Depeche Mode had fully "flowered" as a dark sounding, musically mature group, with some real artistic chops, who's albums were much more than simply the sum of all the songs on them.  To be honest with you, I even got a bit pretentious about their artistic merits myself.  A failing to which I'm still not completely immune.

Depeche Mode had, up to that point, been quite productive, but after taking a relatively lengthy break, they came out with their most successful album to date in 1990, right in the middle of my senior year in high school (lead single "Personal Jesus" had been out in the late summer or fall, and "Enjoy the Silence" came out right near the beginning of the year, if I remember correctly.)  When the full album came out, I actually didn't like it much.  To me, the somewhat hoaky sounding "Pleasure, Little Treasure" had been the direction that the entire album followed.  It eventually grew on me--helped no doubt by the fact that "Enjoy the Silence" is probably their best song ever--as well as some really cool b-sides and later remixes--but it took literally years to do so, and I still don't like it as much as I do Masses.  The subsequent Songs of Faith and Devotion was more of what I didn't like about Violator--except fused with gospel and grunge and all kinds of other influences that I didn't like even more.  Then Alan Wilder left the band, and the era of "classic line-up" Depeche Mode came to an end.  The band continued, of course, but greatly diminished, as Alan Wilder's role as the technical innovator and only "true" musician in the band had to be filled by a rotating line-up of producers who lacked the consistency of vision and talent that Alan brought.

Although I don't like Construction Time Again on the front end or Violator and Songs of Faith And Devotion on the back end as much as I do the three albums sandwiched in between them, I do see the six albums that were made with the "classic line-up" of Alan Wilder, Martin Gore, Andrew Fletcher and Dave Gahan as the most iconic and emblematic of Depeche Mode's entire storied career, and I don't think that I'm alone in that view.  Because Depeche Mode stands so alone, and casts such a long shadow over everybody else in the entire electronic music biz even today, I didn't have a lot of Depeche Mode on my phone, so I actually hadn't listened to them much recently, and I was keenly feeling the void.  Deciding to put the classic line-up CDs in my car and go through them in successsion one after another, lingering as long on one album as I want, I've been feeling the love once again for my first and greatest love in electronic music once again.

Another curious aside; because of Depeche Mode's status, influence and popularity, as well as now long they've been around, and because technology nowadays makes this relatively easy, bootleg remixes on youtube (and elsewhere) are very common.  Here's one for one of my favorite songs from Masses, "Behind the Wheel."

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