Wednesday, 25 March 2009

I don't know what I'm doing...

In anticipation of the release of The Damned United later this week - joint book and movie review to follow - and foreign football fans' asking "Derby Who?", here's a brief funny lifted from the BBC's "Alas Smith and Jones" show from 1986.

I's like to insert some witty remark about how things change. Alas, most of them are still as close to the non-league as they were then, save for Burnley.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Depeche Mode Week - Day 7: Sound of Final Orders

Made it. Shan't be trying this again methinks.

Anyways, the end of this week has bought us to the here and now, just in time for new album Sounds of the Universe, out April 19/20th. Based on the rumours and what bits I've heard, it stands to be their best since 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion. First single Wrong is one unsettling mindfuck of a record. At first listen, it's a bit "hmmmm", with an apparent lack of dynamics. Just give it a couple of listens. Trust me.

As for the video? It just shows that Americans should join Europe and have their reverse gear next to them on the floor...

Monday, 23 March 2009

Depeche Mode week - Day 6: Walking in Clarke's shoes

In what has evidently been a very long week and thus a completely failed experiment, day 6 of this brief guide to Basildon's finest brings us closer to the bloke that scarpered - Vince Clarke.

Having knocked up the first LP Speak and Spell succesfully, Clarke decided Depeche wasn't for him. No animosity but it almost single-handedly had the music press wiping this new lot of the board straight off. We know that turned out to be a false move, but what happened to 'ol Vince? Well, if the name isn't familiar for whatever reason, then you do actually know.

First off, he tapped up a mate from Basildon by the name of Alison Moyet, a fairly streetwise lass that scared the crap out of the Depeche lads, all told. Taking the name Yazoo, (or Yaz to you American lot) Clarke kept the synths and went along with Moyet's belting voice for a few pop nuggets including Nobody's Diary, Only You and this catchy little gem:

Alas, this didn't last long. They parted ways, although it did allow Moyet to gain some respectable success as a solo artist. Have a dig, but I recommend this first off. Don't ask me about the video, I have no idea...

Back to Clarke, who had tinkered with the idea of a project whereby he teamed up with someone for one single then moved on for another. This brainstorm yielded Never Never under the banner of The Assembly with Feargal Sharkey, he of The Undertones teenage-kicking fame.

And that was it. Lord knows what his relationships were like in those days.

Then something happened. He met a lad called Andy Bell, a kind of cross between Alison Moyet and Jimmy Somerville. It worked, big style, and Erasure was born. Mind you, it wasn't instant. 1985's debut album Wonderland was pretty much a commmercial disaster and went quite unnoticed in a pop landscape that was overkill in new acts. It wasn't until the year after, when this baby's chorus hit the radios:

What followed was a string of uber-camp synthpop hits that lasted well into the 90s. Blue Savannah is widely regarded as one of the best pop songs ever:


Although, for my money, Drama! remains their high point:

Monday, 9 March 2009

Depeche Mode Day 5 - Cover well?

Yep, I know, I missed a day. Well, 4 days actually. I failed - but that's what you get for having a social life filled with "Watchmen", The FA Cup and ogling at Strippers at my mate's 30th.

So, where was I? Ah, yes - cover versions, helped along by The Saturdays recent foray. Quite a lot of them, in fact. A bit of research bequeathed an entire website that would probably yield a few thousand for me to look at. Sod that, obviously.

What's evident is the covers out there generally nod towards the influence Depeche have had towards rock and dance. The former is mostly represented by a goth crowd while the latter is pretty varied, but seems to consist of a lot of efficient Germans who approach their love of Depeche like they approcah their competitiveness in beating the Brits to the sunbeds in Kos. However, as I'm a bit of a headbanger, I'm probably only in a position to judge the effectiveness of the long-haired brigade's attempts. So with that, here's a critique inspired by Clint Eastwood:


Solid, no question. The song is recognisable, and so are the band, which is the best combination. I'm all up for a band doing something interesting with anyone else's song, as long as they don't compromise themselves or try to ape the original too much. Good job. And Christina Scabbia's well fit, innit.


Maybe not a total butchering, but it all sounds so pointless, expecially when you consider his impressive cover of Eurythmics' Sweet Dreams. It's Marilyn on auto-pilot and not trying, and his sickly egocentric voice doesn't fit the song. Or maybe the whole thing sounds bad when you consider Johnny Cash's far superior version.


Ouch. Proof positive why Rammstein were right to sing in their native German.

Here's a better example of the song covered far better by Shiny Toy Guns

Having a dig on Youtube or Spotify yields a few interesting results here and there, especially from the teens in their bedrooms - another reason to rue this otherwise useful method of communication. However if you want to spend the money, you'll be easily able to track down "For The Masses", a pretty respectable collection of covers from some credible names. It's worth it just for Locust's loungecore version of Master and Servant.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Depeche Mode Week - Day 4: The Albums


Violator, 1990

There was no excuse really. After a decade of slogging it out and making nothing but either steady or massive progress, there was no reason why they should have got this wrong. The material could have been ok, so-so, alright, and then they would have returned again. But with the maturity gained through regular touring and recording, coupled with a confident grasp of everything they had successfully used so far, the omens were great. It was also handy that a hugely popular electronic-based scene (rave) had given them more ideas for appropriate sounds. Violator was a magnificent achievement - crisp, clean and uplifting as well as dark, unsettling and pained. No more was this in evidence on the two big singles Personal Jesus and Enjoy the Silence. The balance between synths, stripped guitar licks, Gahan's vocals and Flood's production was as perfect as they had ever got, and ever did again. It's a cliche, but after Violator, everything did change and was never the same again.


Black Celebration, 1986

By the time Black Celebration was released, Depeche were established chart artists in the UK if not big-time pop stars. A Best-of album released in 1985 single-handedly stirred the "split" rumour pot, but the truth was Depeche were now used to doing things their way and writing what they wanted to, and were lucky to have an indie label in Mute who backed them up. Gore's experimenting with harsher industrial sounds and darker moods culminated in Black Celebration, an album that wavered from epic, gothic synthesized pop (A Question of Lust, Stripped) to chart-unfriendly stripped-down cabaret (It Doesn't Matter Two, Dressed in Black) Seeing them as original outcasts, the rest of the world got it, even if the UK did not. It's been cited as a major influence by Linkin Park, but don't let that put you off.

Songs of Faith and Devotion, 1993

They got there just in time. Before the band fell apart amidst the drugs, booze and mental breakdowns, they successfully convened to record a group of tracks that were almost prescient. Far more impassioned than ever before, songs such as I Feel You and In Your Room became grandiose examples of elctronic-based rock that tipped its hat to the Grunge school of emotion. Relying on heroin ever more, Gahan bears not just his soul but his very being into this album, suggesting that deep down, he knew he could fall apart at any time, something that is most evident in the pained gospel of Condemnation. It remains their most ambitious album to date.


Speak and Spell, 1981
They were one of many, but Depeche nailed down this synth-pop thing straight away with their debut, having barely entered their twenties. Catchy fare such as Just Can't Get Enough and New Life fit into the system well, but Photographic and Tora!Tora!Tora! hinted strongly at was what to come. Chief songwriter Vince Clarke got cold feet around the time of release and left to pursue a different approach, but that didn't stop the rest of them

Music For The Masses, 1987
Their worldwide profile was growing as was their confidence. It was no surprise that this opus was their most majestic yet, adding a controlled rock approach to their canon as well as a some applied orchestration. Yes, they had the solid and familiar likes of Behind the Wheel, but there were now tracks such as Strangelove and Nothing. It was prophetic too, as the accompanying tour was their biggest to date.


Construction Time Again, 1983
The use of synthesizers had added something interesting to Pop since the mid-70s, offering up some bizarre efforts along the way. While CTA was not the strangest of the period, It still raises an eyebrow today. Gore's pilfering of German industrial methods gave us original pop nuggets like Everything Counts and The Landscape is Changing. It also served up the quirky bassline of More Than A Party and the pacifist chanting of Pipeline. Ideas a-plenty, if not easy listening.


Exciter, 2001
Clean as a whistle and happy-as-larry by the time of Exciter's release, it's not surprising to suggest that a more apt title would have been Relaxer. It's clean digital approach was minmilistic and added weight to the argument that Depeche were just happy to be alive and to have survived the 90s. It's not a bad album, but when the strong tracks I Feel Loved and The Sweetest Condition sound out of place, you realise that they probably could have got away with more time writing the songs.


A Broken Frame, 1982
Regarded by the band as their worst album, their sophomore effort is now a good retrospective of a band starting again and having a go anyway. As much hit as miss, it gave us the dreamy instrumental Nothing to Fear at the very least.

Some Great Reward, 1984
More controlled than the previous effort, Gore was by now a confident songwriter with a better sense of how to apply his ideas. People are People and Master and Servant proved his knack for blending mechanics and a good pop hook. The sublime Blasphemous Rumours hinted at something more

Ultra, 1997
Stark and harrowed, this was proof that there was life in the now-grizzled dog, but only just. With the trendy moody trip-hop being used to good effect, the likes of Barrel of a Gun and Useless summed up the previous four years perfectly.

Playing the Angel, 2005
Unremarkable, but reassuring at the same time. This is just an example of Depeche doing what they're good at. Suffer Well, Precious, and Lilian are almost off the conveyor belt, but by this stage, that's as good as giving anything new and fresh.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Depeche Mode Day 3 - Just Couldn't Get Enough

Keith Richards. Jimmy Page. Nikki Sixx. Rock monoliths, the lot of them, with the common theme being that they were all one-man narcotic factories. Overdoses didn't stop them, and in the case of Motley Crue's Sixx, went home to overdose again after being released from the ER. Impressive, but let's be fair, twattish. Should such a pub conversation ever take place about these drugged-out rock Gods, the same names will always pop up. But not Dave Gahan's, mainly thanks to Depeche's outsider profile.

There was nothing special about Dave's drug use. It's more a case that it took a decade to get to it and then perfect immediately. The first ten years of Depeche featured regular, but restrained, casual drug use. It was only after 1990's landmark Violator album hit paydirt that it all hit the fan in many ways.

A quick recap: Following the Black Celebration tour, Depeche served up Music For the Masses in 1987, offering up a less claustrophobic affair that also widened their symphonic and rock scope. Only a bit, mind. It also resulted in a bigger world tour that saw them sell out California's Rosebowl Stadium, an event documented in their "101" live/album/vid/DVD/whatever, and something that no-one from Basildon had ever done before or ever will again. It was probably as good as it was going to get.

Except it didn't, because 1990 saw the release of the critically acclaimed Violator and a little incident in West Hollywood:

Insert "LA couldn't organise a signing in a record shop" joke here. Whether it was a riot is open to speculation, but it probably gave the Fuzz good practice for two years later. It also proves that Anericans can find 10 defferent ways of saying "Depeche".

So, Violator, then. Big album, big tour, bigger success. The only way to cope with all of this is to become a bona fide Rock Star, do lots of drugs or go a little bit nuts. Or all of the above if you fancy, with gallstones. It was probably bad luck that the everyman Rock Grunge scene kicked in just after, giving Gahan access to new tattoo ideas and a case-load of heroin. I blame it on the Janes Addiction PR girl becoming Gahan's second wife. What follows is a generalised transformation:




Granted, the latter photo doesn't give the impression of a heroin addict, but it's not the cherub from 1981 either. Either way, there are a couple of pix hidden here and there that give a better idea of Gahan's lifestyle at the time.

This makes 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion a painful listen looking back. A great record that leapt a huge distance from previous efforts, it was a quasi-goth-rock-gospel-techno beast with Gahan entering into full Rock God status.

In Your Room, (Songs of Faith and Devotion, 1993)

By spring 1996, Gahan had become a complete Junkie, had all contents of his house nicked during a second stint in rehab, slashed his wrists on at least two known occasions, and had one major overdose that was only avoided thorugh a Nikki Sixx-friendly "Kickstart My Heart". This may sound all very normal in the field of rock excess, but it just seems bizarre and surreal when you consider they happily managed without it for a decade previously. As for the rest of the band, Martin Gore drunk too much but found it easy to quit. Andy Fletcher feel into depression and missed four months of a tour for a pleasant stay in hospital, while Alan Wilder got the aforemetioned gallstones. He then quit the band shortly after. Well, wouldn't you?

I'll come back to this little history at the end. Album reviews tomorrow - Yay!

Monday, 2 March 2009

Depeche Mode Week - Day 2: Peroxide and Bondage

I've heard it said in the past that while the UK is focused on singles, the US market is more concerned with the full studio album. I have no idea why there should be a difference in mentality, but it seems true. The US will measure success over time on album sales, with singles as a pleasant addition. Perhaps us Brits just have a short attention span and can only focus on ooo, cool, new Wolverine Trailer! Brilliant.

So, where was I? Yup, The US market, which also gives a lot of oomph to the tours as well. Think of the big British groups that have had big US success. They normally are the ones that disappeared across the Atlantic for weeks on end and slogged it out. They don't appreciate people wandering over there and forcing a single down their throats without working for it, something you can get away with in the UK and only just in Europe. It's this thinking that explains Mode breaking the US a good seven years after Just Can't Get Enough.

OK, let's backtrack. It was all going fairly well in Blighty for Depeche. They survived after Vince Clarke's departure, roping in Alan Wilder to tour with them and eventually record as well. Martin Gore's songwriting improved over the next three albums, and the Top 10 got a few more hits. In addition, there was much experimental jiggery pokery with the advancing electonica thanks to a German industrial fetish, and a sudden cascade of Socialist jabber. A few examples while we're here:

See You, (A Broken Frame, 1982)

Aaaa, doesn't ickle Dave look cute in his little bow tie? Come back, leather bondage look, all is forgiven! Incidentally, It may be worth noting that wandering round Selfridges singing this doesn't result in the cashier drones spontaneously finding cool Moog sounds out their tills, and will more than likely result in your sharp upending through the front doors by a large man named Biff.

Everything Counts, (Construction Time Again, 1983)

In which Dave's voice breaks and they go to the beach via a really, really, really long flyover.

People are People, (Some Great Reward, 1984)

In stark contrast to the British Leyland factory, the sounds of machinery and drilling are backed up by people talking about how we should be nice and all that. Can't argue with the sentiment, but a bit too obvious even for me. Perhaps we should go for something more subtle from that album, like Master and Servant?

Ok, maybe not.

So that takes us to 1986, just after a quick "Best of" and a small break. It all culminated into the album "Black Celebration", or as it was cheekily referred to in the album's recent documentary, "The songs aren't good enough, there aren't any singles and it'll never get played on the radio".

Grossly unfair, but not surprising. Even considering Depeche's more quirky use of electronica than their peers, it still needed work on the listener's part. While the title track nodded towards the period's movie soundtracks from the likes of Tangerine Dream, the likes of It Doesn't Matter Two and Dressed in Black were stark, drum-less offerings of neoveau cabaret. As well as the magnificent Stripped (see later this week), we got A Question of Time, the boys first video with Anton Corbijn. More on him later:

Overall though, it felt like an album as a piece of art, as opposed to collections of songs like previous albums. It just all clicked, and remains a fantastic piece of work. Even with their fanbase, UK sales merely regarded it as a new Depeche album. On the continent and the US, though, it went further. Depeche's more punchy electro and lack of yacht-sinking stood them apart from their British new wave peers, and the alternative radio stations started to take notice. A lengthy US tour followed, and phase 2 started big style.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Depeche Mode Week - Day 1

This is a bit of an experiment, I'll be honest. Not so much writing about the mighty Mode, but managing to do it every day for a week. Still, worth a go.

Yes, Depeche Mode, a band who, depite their longetivity, still seem to exist outside of the mainstream. The biggest cult band ever? Possibly, depending on your viewpoint of the word "cult". The fact remains, despite 28 years of pulsing dark electronic pop, iconic videos and a herculian drug intake from vocalist Dave Gahan, they are still just an 80s Pop group to most of the general public, at least to those who have heard of them. Just can't get Enough, their first big hit from 1981, and just before they'd hit their twenties, is still the only track most people could hum, a fact exacerbated by idiot DJs at horrific 80s chain clubs like "Reflex" who remain oblivious to the fact that they had plenty of other Top 10 hits in that decade, let alone after. As a result, I wouldn't be surprised if some folk think of them as "One Hit Wonders".

To be fair, though, this is probably due to the quality of the song. In pop terms, it is a classic, and probably songwriter Vince Clarke's best. A hook, a chorus, a simple catchy melody, all done in a Casio-friendly format that fitted right into it's time. You can't really hold anything against it. However, you can say whatever you like about the ickle leather Village People look. Be my guest.

It's because of the song's inherent POP-ness that I welcomed the news that new chart fitties The Saturdays would cover it for Comic Relief. Ok, I couldn't slag the news off as it's for charriteeee, but I could have been left unhappy by the end result. In the end, I'm not, mainly because it would be quite the achievement for any chart act to cock it up. I've heard better versions, certainly, but this is a respectable turn, as are the ladies in the video, homina homina. It keeps the original vibe, sounds good, fun and helps a few needy folk at the same time. Ok, I'll raise my hands - I like The Saturdays anyway, but I still would not want them touching any of Mode's later material. Not without a full vamp-out anyway.

Next: Why Depeche Mode are better than U2. No, really.

Incidentally, if you're reading this on my Facebook note stream, go to the original Blogspot as videos don't transfer over, it appears. Rubbish.