I have two favourite albums of all time, and the answer I give depends on the question. The best of all time? I’ll probably say Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On. We can deal with that masterpiece another time. When people ask me my favourite, its an easy answer – Depeche Mode’s incredible LP Violator.
I grew up with 3 brothers, 2 of them older. As luck would have it, they have excellent taste in music, so I always had DM 12″s and cassettes lying around to listen to in the late 80s. These are in themselves the source of some truly incredible songs and remixes (and DM were real pioneers in this regard, the remix as a concept was in its infancy in the 1980s, and they fully embraced it). So I had a pretty solid grounding in their roots and evolution from the Vince Clarke-penned Speak & Spell, through to the start of the darker, more sexually deviant and religiously inclined M L Gore era. 101 is one of the great music documentaries, even while it barely speaks to the actual members of the band (pretty much the most you get is Alan Wilder talking us through the settings on a keyboard or Dave Gahan explaining that he needs steroids to sort his throat out after the rigours of touring), and the climactic scenes at the Pasadena Rose Bowl hammer home just how big Depeche Mode had become.
But Violator… Violator is something else altogether. For one thing, it hasn’t an ounce of fat on it. 9 songs. All superb. Now, of course, this is largely a product of the time – you had to be able to fit an album on 2 sides of a 12″ record. As a result, songs that would be landmarks for other bands such as Happiest Girl and Sea of Sin were relegated to the B-side of World In My Eyes. Violator is a prime example of why less is often more.
The best way for you to understand the record is to simply go and listen to it.Gore’s songwriting, Wilder’s arrangements, Gahan’s maturing vocals, the influence of Flood and Francois Kervorkian in the studio, and of course Fletch being wonderfully Fletch, all these things came together in perfect harmony to create this sublime record. But to run you through it what we have here is a band at the height of its powers, undergoing the final stages of a transformation from 80s synth pop to something more brooding and sinister, becoming closer in feeling to a rock band while still clearly an electronic act.
You probably wouldn’t have guessed this from the brilliant opener, World In My Eyes, or indeed the early parts of warped electronic waltz of the next track Sweetest Perfection (“when I need a drug in me, and it brings out the thug in me” gives a hint to the troubled path Gahan would take in subsequent years, culminating in him actually being pronounced dead from a drug overdose in 1996 before eventually recovering). But after the middle 8 the song takes a turn towards a more stadium friendly rock sound with huge drums powering the song to its climax.
And this is where it becomes clear that this was a different band to the one we thought we knew. A couple of harmonics plucked, then the primal stomp and bluesy guitar riff of Personal Jesus (according to Gahan the title comes from a quote from Elvis’s wife that he was her personal Jesus), arguably their most well known song. The cover by Johnny Cash became a classic in its own right, and many Christians were outraged. In actual fact, this was the lead single, out 6 months before the album came out, but anyway, I digress, and I’ve got a narrative to push about the LP, so on we plough. For those of you that DJ, may I highly recommend you seek out the Pump Mix, which extends its outro into a brilliant 8 minute dub. Funnily enough, the album version is probably my least favourite song on the LP, as is often the case with tracks you overplay before the actual album release (the exact same happened with One Caress from Songs of Faith & Devotion).
One of the quirks of Depeche Mode that I have always liked is their penchant for making videos for album tracks, and the fact that their videos tend to be, well, a bit weird, for a long time done in collaboration with Anton Corbijn. Halo is no exception. For a long time this was my favourite DM song. Exploring the relationship between love, infidelity, guilt and unhappiness, this one is a doozy. Don’t believe me? Have a listen, and enjoy the fantastically odd video.
Waiting For The Night is a lullaby to the beauty of darkness, hiding away from the troubles of the world in the embrace of night-time, hypnotic ARP 2600 arpeggios created by Alan Wilder and producer Flood from hours of trial and error on the unreliable analogue kit, leading us towards another seminal Depeche Mode moment, Enjoy The Silence.
There’s definitely a strong case for this being one of the best videos of all time, and the song won Best Single at the Brit Awards in 1991. Corbijn convinced an initially reluctant band to accept his proposal for the video by explaining that it represented “a man with everything in the world, just looking for a quiet place to sit”, a king with no kingdom. The song has been remixed countless times, but nothing has come close to the majestic grandeur of the original version, its dark electronic pop perfectly complemented by that distinctively twangy guitar riff (recorded with Gore’s trademark Gretsch). Funnily enough this was originally to be a slow, beatless ballad, and it was against some resistance from Gore that they ended at the final version.
Policy of Truth was another of the singles from Violator, and again a great example of the heights pop can hit when approached by people with something interesting to say, and a desire to say it in a musically interesting way. A simple track at heart, the opening features a riff which was arrived at by recording a single note on a guitar, sampling it, looping, adding vibrato and then replaying through a keyboard. This attention to detail runs through the track, seemingly so simple sonically, but actually the result of huge amounts of trial and error (in the hunt for a suitable lead sound they even end up recording flutes, thankfully the spirit of Rno Burgundy was kept off the final version).
Blue Dress follows, and is a typically “pervy” (Gore’s own word) devotional to the object of his desire, simply looking at the woman he desires getting dressed and feeling that it is what makes his world turn. Of course, this being Gore he manages to bring a respectable level of sleaze and guilt to the party, and thank goodness for that. Depeche Mode would not be what they are without his recurring motifs of sin & redemption, sex & love, guilt & shame, with ample nods to fetishism and erotica.
And the final track is possibly my favourite song of all time, Clean
A strange ascending and descending synth, and some sort of detached, arhythmic, indecipherable vocal sample lead towards a remarkably simple bass riff. “Clean. The cleanest I’ve been, an end to the tears and the inbetween years and the troubles I’ve seen”. 25 years hence, its tempting to ascribe this song to Gahan’s more widely known troubles with hard drugs, but at the time Gore had his own issues with alcohol. The song runs through his triumphant clean-ness, and how great that all is, but the whole thing is underpinned by the occasionally dropped, ominously effected “SOMETIMES”. I think anyone who has struggled with substances or alcohol can relate to this idea – I’m clean, sure, I had an awesome week, this is great, got so much done, I’m clean… sometimes. I mean, I’m clean apart from that massive session last Saturday, if we ignore that I’ve been clean all month. The video is another of Corbijn’s slightly off-the-wall album track films, and caused much amusement to the pre-teen Santero.
And there we have it. The songs stand as brilliant in their own right, as shown by the many different versions and covers that are out there. The album’s incredible sound is largely down to the efforts of Wilder (in my opinion they’ve never quite been the same since he left, more’s the pity), the producer Flood, and the mixing excellence of Francois K (the legendary DJ from Paradise Garage and Studio 54).
The album catapulted an already big Depeche Mode into a new realm. And the timing of the release was a lucky break for the band too – the Berlin Wall had just fallen, and they were one of the first major bands to tour Eastern Europe. This in itself carries some huge power for the people they played to, but their lyrical motifs and their style seemed to resonate strongly with the mindset in these countries. In Russia they celebrate Dave Day with a march (his birthday happens to coincide with Russia’s independence day). In Tallinn they have a bar devoted entirely to Depeche Mode and their memorabilia. Across the region, fans are obsessed in a way that is incredibly rare for bands to achieve, and in truth this is not unique to Eastern Europe, for whatever reason DM fans seem to be a peculiarly obsessive bunch. I, by sheer chance, stumbled across a brilliant film about the obsessive fans of DM. While at the Hayward Gallery I noticed that the stairs leading up to the 1st floor had Depeche Mode song titles on the faces of them, so went up, only to find an exhibition of fan artwork and a screening of The Posters Came From The Walls. Weirdly enough I’d been working that week on a remix of DM under an alias of mine, which came out as Little 15 – What You Have To Hide, funny old world eh?
And so there we have it, that’s my favourite album, and that’s why. I hope you enjoyed listening to the songs, watching the videos, reading my ramblings, and feel free to leave a comment below and share your thoughts about Depeche Mode and Violator.