2001-05-07 BBC London, London, UK
This is a two hour documentary put together by Gary Crowley and Tony Wood of BBC London (ex-BBC London Live). The interviews took place some time before mid-March 2001. Gary Crowley's interview with the band was also used for the EPK, see 2001-03-13 Electronic Press Kit, Mute Records. The documentary covers the past and present of the band and combines interview snippets from former and current band members, as well as significant people in the history of the band.
The file was sent over by Tony Wood for Depechemode.com.
A transcript of this documentary was spread in BONG magazine issues 48-50 (see below).
- Duration: 56:30
You’re listening to London Live 94.9 – I’m Gary Crowley and this is the Depeche Mode story.
Over the next 2 hours we’ll be celebrating the phenomenal rise and rise of one of the UK’s most important and influential outfits.
As the punk era gradually faded in early 1980 and the excitement surrounding electronic pioneers such as Kraftwerk escalated, Gary Numan and Spandau Ballet were forging two completely different musical directions. Whilst Numan and indeed David Bowie explored and championed the electronic scene, Spandau were leading the New Romantics. At the same time, the Pretenders made Brass In Pocket the first number one of the new decade.
Watching and absorbing from afar were three teenagers from Basildon, Essex. Unemployed Vince Clarke, Andrew Fletcher, an administrator for a life insurance company, and Martin Gore, a bank worker in the city, formed a guitar-based band by the name of Composition Of Sound. As was the trend of the time, Composition was not their sole project – all three of them were active with other bands around the time. Martin had the added advantage of being the owner of a synthesiser.
Andy Fletcher recalls how he, Martin and Vince knew each other, and how they became converts to synths: “I was actually at school with Martin and Vince was quite involved in the church, this was from the age of about 11 or 12. We used to regularly go to church and there was a whole group of young people sort of praising the Lord basically. So I knew Vince from that and Martin from school but we all lived about 300 or 400 yards from each other. We started off as a conventional band. I was playing bass, Vince was playing guitar but Martin did have a synth, which even to this day, I think is a bit weird because he’s actually a really good guitarist and he still isn’t a good keyboard player but then he made me get a synth as well. At the time, punk had sort of ended and new wave had come and gone and there was this new scene, with early Human League, Kraftwerk, Visage and Steve Strange and this new romantic thing and people were really getting into synthesisers. But I think the main reason why it suddenly became popular at that time was because previous to that, to buy a synthesiser it was very, very expensive – the Rick Wakeman style synthesiser. But what happened in about 1980/81 you could buy a monophonic synthesiser for about £150. You didn’t even need an amplifier, cause all you did was stick it into a PA system, so it was really easy. We used to carry them around in suitcases to gigs.”
But the band was still a 3-piece, with Vince on vocals – a role he was never completely comfortable with. The man who would become the fourth member and voice of the band was Dave Gahan, an art college student who had been through his fair share of part time jobs.
Vince is in no doubt why the band took Dave on: “Dave Gahan was the local fashion accessory of Basildon. He was the New Romantic. He was rumoured to have attended the club Blitz in London, so it was all very glamorous. So, we decided to get him in as a front man because he was flamboyant and extrovert and very, very confident. So, we auditioned him.”
Modest as ever, Dave himself insists the band were destined for glory the moment he came on board: “I always felt like I was a big star in my own right, right from the beginning to be quite honest… if ever there was two men and a dog there in the pub.”
A couple of weeks after joining Composition Of Sound, Dave spotted a French magazine by the name of Depeche Mode, and the band adopted the tag. With Vince writing the material, they continued to gig extensively. London Live’s Robert Elms, a major player in the Spandau movement of the time, was witness to one of the first Depeche live performances – in the strangest of locations. “This place was above a greengrocers or dry cleaners or something. It really was. It was a room 8ft by 10ft with about 10 people in with silly haircuts and baggy trousers. I thought there can’t be a band playing here. We went in and then these four, frighteningly young boys, I mean I was young, I was only 18 or 19 and these looked like my little brother. These were skinny school kids basically standing around some ten bob keyboards. They started to play and I thought this is really good, they are going to be really terrible, cause that’s what you hoped, it was like going to see the opposition football team and they started to play and they weren’t terrible.”
Whilst Martin and Fletch carried on with their day jobs in the city, Vince and Dave spent their time trying to get record companies interested in their exploits.
In the autumn of 1980, armed with a demo tape, they turned up at Rough Trade in West London and had their first meeting, albeit brief, with the man who would later turn out to be their mentor – the founder of Mute Records, Daniel Miller: “I was at the Rough Trade shop and the late Scott Piering, who became very well known as a radio promoter and a very important part of the independent music industry said ‘Daniel you might be interested in these guys’. There was these horrible, spotty little new romantics, and I hated new romantics with a vengeance at the time, and I had some problem with the printing of the Fad Gadget sleeve and just looked at them and thought I don’t need to listen to this stuff now and went off to whatever it was. Then about, it must have been within weeks or maximum a couple of months, Fad Gadget was playing at the Bridge House in Canning Town and Terry Murphy, the guy who booked the Bridge House, had booked Depeche Mode to support. Now I didn’t know… the two things hadn’t clicked in my mind at all, but anyway that’s the connection with Fad Gadget, that’s when I first saw Depeche at the Bridge House in Canning Town.”
After arranging to see Depeche for a second mind-blowing time, Miller was convinced of their pedigree, and decided he wanted to work with them: “I went backstage and said ‘let’s put out a single’ and they said ‘OK then, alright’. That was it. There was some kind of conversation, with me saying ‘you could be a pretty big pop band, what you’re doing is fantastic, it’s really new but it’s still pop. We’ve never had a pop hit. But I really believe in what you do. Let’s put out a single and see how it goes. I don’t want to tie you down to anything more than that because I don’t know what I can do.’ That was it really, it was as simple as that.” 
But the appeal was mutual – the band would soon be the subject of major labels seeking their signatures , but Vince Clarke and the boys had already decided that Mute was where they wanted to be: “I don’t know, we just felt that we wanted to make a record, we didn’t want to get involved in a big record company and Mute Records at the time was incredibly credible. It had Fad Gadget, there was the Normal, Silicon Teens and all the kinds of records we were listening to.”
Daniel Miller and Depeche Mode hit the studio to record the track “Dreaming Of Me”, and in the same session produced “Photographic” which became the band’s contribution to the legendary Some Bizzare futurist album. But this new level of success didn’t go straight to their heads. Martin and Fletch decided to continue with their day jobs, coming into the studio when they could get away from the office.
Daniel Miller recalls: “Because Fletch and Martin were still working, Vince, me and Dave were there, Vince learnt really fast about technology and I knew a bit more about it when we started cause I’d been doing it a bit longer. He picked it up really fast and he started to lay down the tracks and I was helping him with the sounds and then Fletch and Mart would come in with a take-away from their city jobs. Martin would go down and play the machine saying ‘oh no, do I have to go in the studio, oh alright then’. Martin was obviously very musical. You could get him in the studio for five minutes and he would play something that would bring a track alive, even if it wasn’t the lead line. I remember, he had a Chinese take-away in one hand and he was playing the synth with the other hand, just wanting to eat his meal really and not wanting to do anything.”
“Dreaming Of Me” was released as their first single on 20th February 1981, peaking at number 57 in the UK charts. It gave both Miller and the band a firm base on which to carve out a plan for a second single. That record turned out to be the massive “New Life”, which shifted half a million copies and climbed to just outside the top ten. The single also gave them that coveted first appearance on Top Of The Pops!
The success of “New Life” convinced Fletch and Martin to make Depeche Mode their full time occupation, and they promptly resigned from their jobs in the city. The prolonged spell in the charts of “New Life” meant that despite them having already recorded the follow up single, they had to wait almost four months before they could release it. During the stop-gap, the New Musical Express decided to put Depeche Mode on their front cover.  Vince Clarke’s noted absence from the interview indicated what was soon to come from the band’s songwriter. But why did he not take part?
“Basically, the whole thing went to my head and suddenly everybody, me included, assumed that the reason things were going well was because of our own great talent and I’m not sure why I stopped doing interviews, I think because I got fed up with what everyone else was saying. Well everybody had a right to put their oar in, I suppose I got jealous with everyone else putting their oar in.” 
On 7th September, the band released their third single – the unforgettable “Just Can’t Get Enough”, which gave them their highest chart position so far. Peaking at number 8, they’d broken into the top ten for the first time.
Vince Clarke: “Everything happened for us very, very quickly. We had these massive egos by that time and you know sitting inside the van was intolerable for all of us. We were all intolerable to each other. We were all pretty young, it just went to our heads.”
Ironically, Vince had had enough, and announced that he was leaving the band. Shock waves went through the music press. But Dave, Martin & Fletch had no doubt in their mind that they wanted to continue.
Andy Fletcher: “I’ve known Vince since the age of 5. He’s been one of my best friends and again it was like ‘I’m leaving the band’ – ‘OK then fair enough’. It wasn’t a big thing. Then Vince said ‘I’m going to leave but I’m going to do the tour’. It was very amenable. ‘I’m going to continue to write songs for you’. It was all very nice. We should have been really worried. But we weren’t.”
Vince played his last gig with Depeche Mode on 16th November 1981, the same month that Mute released the band’s debut album, “Speak And Spell”. On the whole, the record was well received by the critics, and it went on to reach number 10 in the UK album charts.
But now Vince had left, there was the small matter to be resolved of who would start writing the band’s material. Martin Gore took up the reigns as chief songwriter – a discipline he was not unfamiliar with. Having written songs since the age of 13, the band were confident of his ability and would soon be proven justified in their belief.
With no intention of finding a permanent replacement for Vince, the band did however need a deputy to perform live work for a forthcoming American tour that had been booked for January 1982.
Fletch remembers the recruitment process: “We put an advert in Melody Maker. Electronic group needs new keyboard player. Daniel sort of vetted them and the funniest thing, they had to be under 21.”
Up stepped West London boy Alan Wilder, who made it onto Miller’s shortlist.
Andy Fletcher: “Well, Daniel met the people first, then we had an audition at Blackwing. It was down to about five people, heaven knows the ones Daniel booted out. The funny thing is, Alan lied about his age. He was over 21 but he was easily the best. There were some real Depeche Mode fans there but Alan is a really great classically trained musician and we went ‘what you have to do, you play this little one… ‘de de de’ but the hardest thing, you have to sing this as well’. We were going ‘what, that’s amazing, in two seconds he’s done that!’. It was really funny. We put him on about £50 a week, plus expenses. He came to New York – I remember, it was so funny. He had a little jacket on and a woolly scarf and I think New York was minus 40 degrees.”
But even after becoming the successful candidate, Alan remembers that in those early days, trying to fit in with the band was not an easy task: “It was difficult to integrate myself because we came from different backgrounds and I sensed there was quite a tension there as Vince had just left at such a crucial time for the group. I think they felt quite nervous about bringing in a new person at that stage. They also felt they had something to prove to Vince and to the press. Nobody thought the group would be able to carry on having lost their chief songwriter. So initially, they employed me as a sort of part-time member. Someone who could appear on the TV shows, who could go on tour, play the parts live, all this sort of thing. But they didn’t really want to be seen as bringing in some musician to take over and take control, so I didn’t partake in any of the studio sessions for another nine months after that.”
With Alan recruited as their live session player, Martin, Fletch and Dave returned to the studio, as a 3-some, to record their first single without Vince Clarke. “See You” was the end product, and it gave them their highest chart placing so far, peaking at number 6.
In between touring, the band, still as a three part set up, released “Meaning Of Love” and locked horns with Vince Clarke’s new outfit Yazoo, which saw him team up with Alison Moyet on release of the classic “Only You”. Vince’s song reached number 2 in the charts whilst “Meaning Of Love” was perched at number 12. The twist behind it hall was that Depeche had rejected “Only You” when Vince offered it to them following his departure from the band.
In the summer of ’82 the three band members recorded their second album, “A Broken Frame”, whilst Alan continued to be frustrated that he wasn’t allowed to contribute in the studio. Some protagonists claimed the band were still trying to prove a point to Vince that they could carry on without him. Whilst the band are defiant that wasn’t the case, Fletch agrees the album was an unusual experience: “It was a bit of a weird album that, because a lot of songs Martin had written when he was 14 or 15, like ‘See You’ which he’d written when he was 15, ‘Photograph Of You’ and ‘Meaning Of Love’ he’d written when he was very young. Already they were starting to get a more darker side, so it was a bit of a weird album. You had half pure pop and half really odd. I suppose it was an album of getting to grips with Vince not being there. But it had some good tunes in it.”
Whilst the album made the top 10, the studio trio decided that Alan should now become a full time member of Mode… and by the end of ’82, they were back to being a foursome again.
The enigmatic “Everything Counts” – taken from the next album, “Construction Time Again”. The band brought on board engineer and experimentalist Gareth Jones and together with Daniel Miller, charted new territory in technological advances.
Daniel Miller: “We were all very keen on pushing technology, the electronic music side, and the sounds, as far as we could, and trying to be original and create our own sound for Depeche Mode, rather than just sound like lots of other groups. Because we started to work with sampling around that time, it was just coming to the fore and because they’d been listening to bands like Test Department and more experimental things, we pulled all those elements together and tried to keep it in a pop format but using very interesting context sounds, textures and things like that. I think it succeeded and it’s a very good experimental pop album.”
Importantly, as Fletch explains, the entire Depeche unit took the project to Germany to produce the final cut on the album: “We mixed that album in Berlin and this was the start of Depeche Mode branching out of Britain. We’d grown up in Essex, hardly an of us had ever been out of Essex or London for a long time, so going to all these new places was so interesting for us, especially Berlin in those days. The studio overlooked the wall, guards with binoculars watching us, we were playing the music on this big patio and it was a really good feeling… you were on the edge. All these weird people. People talked about Martin’s clothes and how we were dressed in those days, living and recording in Berlin did have a big impression because there were so many weird and interesting people there.”
After the release of the album, the band set off on tour again. Before long they were playing to crowds of 10,000 people around venues in Europe. The signs were beginning to show that Depeche Mode were building a firm and committed fan base.
Martin Gore: “The fans are… what’s the word… most of our fans are crazy. They’re so dedicated, they’ll go out on day one and buy the records. We often suffer because of that, we do have such a huge fan base, so the record obviously just drops after that but they are fanatical.”
The bonus that came with touring was that the Depeche Mode phenomenon in America was really beginning to gain momentum. By early 1985, the band were playing to sell-out crowds there almost every night. Fletch believes that Depeche bridged a gap in the music scene over in the states: “America had missed punk. Not in New York and LA, but generally, American radio and American youth had missed punk, and didn’t really have the new wave or anything like that. So basically, in the early ’80s, they were still listening to Chicago, REO Speedwagon, that sort of progressive yuk. What happened is the kids started desperately looking around for something. They started to buy UK imports, of which we were one of the bands. Then these college radio stations went on to start playing alternative music, because we were different to what they had been forced to listen to up until then. So all this started in 1985 and we were one of the main groups caught up in it. Now, bands like Limp Bizkit cite us as their influences. Although we don’t sound anything like them, when they were growing up we were one of the only alternative bands around.”
KROQ is one of the most influential radio stations in America and subscribed to the Depeche revolution. Based in Southern California, their emphatic support gave the band serious credibility and headway in the US. One of KROQ’s main presenters was Richard Blade. He believes that Depeche Mode’s appeal in the states was their unique blend of Kraftwerk-like melodies, and Martin’s unmistakeable lyrics – a combination finely exemplified in “A Broken Frame”, that struck a chord with thousands of Americans: “From their second album onwards, people started to wake up to them and then with their third album it was just all over. Suddenly the phones at KROQ were going absolutely nuts, people were saying ‘we love this band’ and unlike Duran Duran who were happening at the same time and Spandau Ballet, it wasn’t ‘oh my God I love Martin Kemp’ or ‘oh my God I love John Taylor’ this was ‘oh my God, I love the music of Depeche Mode’.”
In some unlikely places, Depeche Mode were experiencing similar escalation in their popularity. Radio presenter Yegor Shishkovski was one of the first DJ’s in Russia to play Western music – he’s adamant that the band had already started building a firm following there after their first two albums. In explaining just how big they are in Russia, Yegor is happy to stick his neck out: “I will risk and say that Depeche Mode is the biggest band in Russia since the Beatles. I can’t think of anyone bigger than they are, not only a band but I can’t think of any artists.”
…Following the positive experiences gained from working in Germany, the band decided to record their fourth album there as well. “Some Great Reward” reached number 5 in the UK charts, and produced the catchy singles “People Are People” and “Master And Servant”, whilst also serving up the controversial “Blasphemous Rumours”. Martin’s fascination of leather-clad fashion and the band’s lack of direction concerning their image around the time of the album didn’t do them any favours. Looking back, Alan confesses they were damaging times: “I never was comfortable with Martin dressing up in girls’ clothing and the rest of the group would often comment and try to dissuade him but I think the more we might do that the more belligerent he would become about it. He had his mind set. All of us were naïve about image, none of us knew which direction we should be taking or how we should be looking, what press we should be doing. There were pressures from different angles to do different things and inevitably we would argue about it and have differences of opinion. So there was never a clear focus about what we should or shouldn’t be doing. We weren’t particularly great at doing interviews, we would contradict each other in the press and we weren’t particularly good at appearing on TV – we didn’t have the confidence to carry off an unusual look. So we kind of looked a bit stupid and I don’t think we really lived it all down, we haven’t really been forgiven for it.”
In October ’85, Mute Records released “The Singles 81-85” – a collection of Mode’s singles to date. After “Some Great Reward”, the band were uncertain of the direction in which to take their next album. Frustration began to surface within the group, leading to arguments and tension. Daniel Miller suggested their next album should be recorded in one continuous session, stretched over four months. Despite a spell in Berlin, he recalls the mood remaining uptight: “There was a bit of tension. We were trying to figure out the new balance of how we were going to work in the studio. Alan, who was a very good musician and loved working in the studio and experimenting with sounds, was taking quite a big part in the recording of the record, how the record was sounding and the way it worked. Martin would do a demo, which would suggest a lot of ideas, sometimes very specific, sometimes abstract. Then once we got in the studio we would develop those ideas. As time went on, Alan was becoming more and more influential in how those ideas were developed. It was the most difficult album I worked on.”
Inevitably, that dark vibe transferred onto the tracks that appeared on what is still regarded as one of their finest albums – “Black Celebration”. As Fletch remembers: “We had “Some Great Reward” out before and it was quite a commercial album and it did quite commercially well. With us, you’d expect us to follow it… but we followed it with a darker album. When people ask how have you kept your fans – ’cause constantly over the years we’ve completely surprised them, the reason they rush and buy a record is because they’re always thinking what are they going to do next? Which is a good thing. So, it is particularly one of my favourite albums, I think it has got one of the best collections of songs that Martin has ever written on there. The diversity of all the different styles, I think it is a really good album.”
Whilst the band were in danger of being tagged doom and gloom merchants, “Black Celebration” fared extremely well in terms of sales, and reached number 3 in the UK album charts. For a record that had created so much anxiety within the band, the final result connected more than ever with their fan base. They embarked on their biggest tour to date – stepping up one more level en route to stadium filling glory and recalled by Alan Wilder: “We went on a tour that just seemed to take off, particularly in America. It seemed to be where we stepped up a gear and went from playing smallish club venues through to quite big arenas. So, things moved very rapidly from that point onwards.”
Away from the music, Dave Gahan had got married. Fletch and his girlfriend Grainne moved into a new flat in London, Alan lived a secretive and almost reclusive existence with girlfriend Jeri, also in London, whilst Martin had decided to come home to England after a few years in Germany. By the time Martin had come up with a fresh set of demos for a new album, Daniel Miller had decided he was too busy running Mute to get involved with any production work. The album also saw Fletch take more of a back seat with musical contributions, and instead became the band’s representative in their business concerns.
Meanwhile, Depeche employed a new producer, Dave Bascombe, and in 1987 started work on “Music For The Masses”. Given the success of “Black Celebration”, was there an air of optimism for the new project? Alan Wilder: “I don’t think we ever really could foresee what was happening with any of our records. We didn’t know what would come from them. Martin and Fletch were always very pessimistic about what we were doing, saying, “we won’t be able to do it we’re doomed” that kind of thing. We would just put it out there, see what happened, go on tour and hoped that we’d do well.”
Bascombe is hasty to expose the album’s shortcomings, and with hindsight, his nature probably meant that “Music For The Masses” was the closest album that came to being self-produced.
Peaking at number 10, the album gave way to three more single releases, the most successful of those being “Strangelove” – the other 2 failed to breach the top 20. By now, Dave Gahan had become a father to his son Jack. But success at home was being eclipsed by what was happening elsewhere, especially in the US, where Depeche were about to take an even bigger step up the ladder. A gruelling tour began in October 1987, culminating with their 101st concert at the Pasadena Rose Bowl in front of 70,000 fans. As Alan explains, the logistics and scale of the event gave the group a sense of caution: “I remember being very apprehensive about it, worrying about all the different aspects of the show. The fact that on the entire tour we used one PA system but for this one special gig we were going to use something completely different. We had to hire in all kinds of extra lights and different people to do this that and the other. It was just a logistic exercise that we weren’t really prepared for. I think everyone has said the same thing – we weren’t able to enjoy the moment because we were just worrying about it too much. Nobody really enjoyed the gig and we didn’t play particularly well that night. It’s only really when you look back and it’s being captured on film and the sound has been tarted up a bit, that you realise what a big, special moment it was for us as a group. We should have just taken the time to enjoy it a bit more.”
Daniel Miller: “First of all, the sheer scale of it, 70,000 people… I’d never been to any concert before with 70,000 people. Secondly, it wasn’t just 70,000 people watching the concert it was 70,000 people participating in the concert, really responding. Everybody there was a fan, it wasn’t “let’s go and have a look at this, see what it’s like”, there was 70,000 Depeche Mode fans there.”
OMD were the support act on the American tour. Their vocalist and songwriter Andy McCluskey paid tribute to the way Depeche had conquered the US market: “They had built themselves up into this huge monstrous touring machine, particularly in America, with this massive, what they call, alternative following in America. You could sell a million and still be alternative in America. Here we were being paid 5000 dollars a night to support them, which didn’t even cover our costs. Playing sold out arenas and stadiums. A band that had started, because they heard our first single. We had to swallow our pride a bit on that one. But, I look at it and say “they stuck to their guns and they delivered to an American audience something that the American audience wanted.”
One year after the release of “101” as a live double album, they consolidated their success by recruiting a new producer, Flood, and crafting a set that not only turned out to be the best selling album of their career, but also brought much satisfaction to the band.
Fletch explains: “We had these great songs but the single we wanted to release was “Personal Jesus”. What we always try and do is think what is the best track. We were thinking why are we releasing this track and it’s going to be a disaster. We’re going to get in lots of trouble. We put it out six months before the album and it was still in the American charts when we released the next single. It’s the biggest selling 12 inch in Warner Brothers history. That’s more than Madonna or anyone like that. It’s a phenomenal thing. Then we’ve got “Enjoy The Silence” as well. That’s one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had in Depeche Mode. When we were in Denmark and we had this ballad called “Enjoy The Silence” and we just decided to speed it up and then Martin put this riff in and within an hour, we knew we had a massive hit record. We asked Martin to give us demos in their most basic form and “Enjoy The Silence” was very basic and it occurred to me that it could work brilliantly as an up tempo dance track. The others were a bit dubious but after a little persuasion they said “Why don’t you and Flood put something together that you think will be appropriate for this track and we’ll go away and then come back and play it to us when you’re ready.” That’s what we did with several tracks on that album.”
The atmosphere in the studio during the recording of “Violator” was upbeat, despite bouts of tension throughout some of the early sessions in Milan. As Alan Wilder recalls, Fletch was having a particularly bad time of things: “He sort of developed this depression which the rest of us became aware of gradually during some of that recording period so we sent him home to get better, to get some help and advice. That kind of helped things in a way, because it meant we didn’t have this distraction of somebody that was somewhere else, having a problem.”
The “Violator” album was a mammoth success and on the whole extremely well received, although a small campaigning lobby criticised the band’s choice for the album, claiming it incited distasteful thoughts. Over in the states, KROQ’s Richard Blade remembers, the new album was an important and much awaited release – and the fans weren’t to be disappointed: “ “Violator”, I think, was a breakthrough in the States because it really had a pop feel and it wasn’t because Depeche Mode sold out, I think it was because everyone else brought in. Depeche Mode didn’t change, they were always evolving. You listen to every Depeche Mode album and each one is a step ahead of the next. I think with “Violator”, what happened was, America was ready for Depeche Mode, they were ready for “Policy Of Truth” and “Enjoy The Silence”. Absolutely brilliant crafted songs.”
The artwork and stage design for the “World Violation Tour” was undertaken by London based visual artist Anton Corbijn. They’d worked with Anton in the past – his first assignment had been to shoot the video for “A Question Of Time” back in 1986. Allowing Anton a free rein on all aspects of their image, he set about trying to update and eradicate the persona the band had projected from their early days as naïve teenagers. Andy recalls: “You look at our whole career, you start from the beginning and start to move through it, it all starts to come together round about “Black Celebration”. During “Black Celebration” was when we first started to work with Anton Corbijn and before that as you can see from all our early videos and all our early photos, we didn’t really have a control or have much on the visual side. We weren’t happy, it was our fault you know. But from when Anton came in and took control over all our visuals and with our music getting better as well, it all seemed to come together.”
Anton Corbijn: “This sounds very austere as they say on the continent, but I don’t think there was so much of a Depeche Mode package before I got involved. There was nothing to grab on to. Of course, the music was there but I’m talking about the package. There wasn’t really that. I think the music and visual became one when I got involved.”
Enjoy the concluding part of a two-hour documentary “The Story of Depeche Mode” first broadcast on May 7th at 3.00pm on London Radio Live 94.9, which was produced by Tony Wood and narrated by Gary Crowley, both fans of the band for many years. Those of you with Internet access can hear the documentary in its entirety on the website www.depechemode.com. So the story continues…
…After “Violator”, the band decided to have a year apart, in which time both Fletch and Martin became fathers, and Alan pursued his solo project, Recoil, by releasing an album titled “Bloodline” – a collection of collaborations with various vocalists, including Moby. Dave Gahan had elected to leave London and moved to LA. When they all met up to start recording the next album, changes in the lead singer were apparent…
Fletch recalls: “During ‘Violator’, he was absolutely fine, he had his short hair. Then we didn’t see him after the ‘Violator’ tour for about a year or so. When he came to Spain at the beginning of recording ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ he had long hair, saying we should become a grunge band, and disappearing into his bedroom for about four days at a time. So it was a real change.”
“We needed to push the boundaries a bit and try and do something completely different with ‘Violator’. I’m sure sub-consciously there was pressure there to repeat that success, and the obvious thing to do would have been to make a very similar record. None of us really wanted to do that. I think, between Flood, myself and Dave we all felt that we wanted to make it as different as we could, and surprise people with it,” explains Alan Wilder.
Daniel Miller recalls the tension during the recording sessions: “It was a very difficult album to make. Dave was very much off in his own world. Alan felt that he wanted to get on with the album, and he didn’t really need anybody else around to do it. The tension in the band was pretty bad – they weren’t really talking to each other. I remember, they started off in Spain; they rented a house in Madrid and built a studio. Flood was producing again. I remember going out there a couple of weeks after they started and just walking into the house and there was such a bad vibe.”
Dave’s much publicised drug addiction was visibly affecting his health. Anton Corbijn was becoming aware of the frontman’s problems: “I didn’t realise how deep this state was that he was in. But I remember getting a call from Michael Stipe saying ‘I’ve seen Dave and I think he needs help, you just need to give him a call’. I think some other people were shocked and thought it was just Dave going through a phase.”
Despite this, and Fletch suffering a second bout of depression and being forced to return to England, the album does get completed, and gives them their first UK number 1. As with “Black Celebration”, the darkness and turmoil within the band was reflected in the sound of the record. With four successful singles to come from the album, Depeche launched the “Devotional Tour”. The cracks were starting to show.
Alan Wilder: “It obviously did put a lot of strain on the band, and probably more than any previous tour, simply because it was twice as long. Anyone that has been on tour knows it’s an endurance test and even though you can have great fun on the road it becomes this great endurance test to see if you can get to the end, it seems to take forever.”
Daniel Miller: “Dave was obviously heavily on drugs at the time, throughout the tour. The band weren’t talking to each other. You’d have Martin and Fletch going to the gig in one car, Alan would go to the gig in another car and Dave would go in another car. Dave didn’t really speak to the other members of the band. The only times he saw the other members of the band were when they were on stage. The moment he got off stage, he went into his dressing room with his candles and everything, Alan went into his dressing room… it was a very, very unhappy situation. Fletch was finding it very difficult, he was having personal problems. I was extremely worried. When it came to a decision about doing a second American tour I tried to put my foot down and said ‘I don’t think you should do this, you should absolutely not do the second half of this tour’.”
So against Daniel’s advice, and Fletch’s wishes, Depeche DID go ahead with a second tour of America. Alan explains the main motivation behind the decision: “I think if one is truthful, it was financial. There weren’t many other reasons that I could think of why we’d want to do it, except that we did play a few territories that we wouldn’t normally have gone to, like South America. But I think, if you weigh everything up, the sensible decision would have been, we don’t need to do this, let’s just stop.”
At the end of the tour, Martin married his partner Suzanne and Dave disappeared back to the States. But the experience of recording “Songs Of Faith And Devotion”, and the subsequent tour had put so much stress on the band that something had to give. The last man in was the next to go. Alan announced his departure in May 1995: “I think my decision to leave the band came during the making of that album. I can remember one or two occasions during the recording that stick vividly in my mind, particularly those first sessions where I thought ‘this is just not enjoyable, this is the last time I want to be in this situation’.”
Defiant as before, when Vince left, Fletch explains that Alan’s decision to leave was not going to cripple Depeche Mode: “We just had a meeting – Martin, me and Alan, and he just announced it. I personally think he felt that there wasn’t going to be another Depeche Mode album, and he thought he’d get his bit in first, and of course considering the state Dave was in at the time, at any point we could have got a phone call saying he was dead.”
Dave’s situation was still deteriorating. He came through an attempted suicide. DJ Richard Blade heard first hand that Dave had tried to take his own life: “I had a phone call from the paramedic and he called me and said ‘you might want to know this, we’ve just admitted Dave Gahan for multiple lacerations’. I was recording his phone call and then I asked what his name was and he said he wasn’t allowed to give it and that officially he wasn’t allowed to be making the call, he was a medical personnel and those records are privileged. So I never revealed his name and never played that call but thank goodness I recorded it because I went on the air and I announced it and I said ‘I think Dave Gahan has tried to commit suicide’.”
As Depeche fans the world over watched with worried eyes over the slide of Dave Gahan, there would be more upheaval to come. Dave suffered a cardiac arrest following an overdose, in which he died for two minutes. Although recovering, Dave as charged for being under the influence of controlled substances – an event which Daniel Miller believes finally convinced Dave it was time to get clean: “The best thing that happened to Dave was his arrest. They forced him to go into rehab and told him that if he didn’t come out clean, he’d be chucked out of America. I think his love for America and his desire to be able to work there and live there, plus he suddenly realised the impact everything was having on the band, I think helped him through that.”
All of this was going off at the same time the band were working on their next project. Miller had suggested a Greatest Hits compilation, and proposed they write a couple of new tracks to contribute towards it.  They’d recruited Bomb The Bass’s Tim Simenon as their new producer, and after promising studio sessions, Miller’s plan was eventually sidelined. Fifteen painstaking months later, “Ultra” was completed. “Barrel Of A Gun” was to be the first single release – certain critics were quick to allege that Martin had written it for, and about, Dave Gahan.
Daniel Miller: “Nobody thought they were going to make it through that album. Even I, for the first time, wasn’t sure if they were going to make it. I felt there was a really good chance, but I started having my doubts because of what was going on. I think the fact that they did was a shock to everybody who was close to the band, and to the media, who were watching with interest.”
Sensibly, the band decided not to tour the album. Dave was well on his way to recovery, and after “Ultra” sold three million copies worldwide, it was time to revisit Miller’s suggestion of another compilation. “The Singles 86-98” was launched in October 1998, supported by a successful five-month tour.
Which brings us to Depeche’s latest album – “Exciter”. Recorded in Santa Barbara, New York City and London, “Exciter” finds Depeche Mode content, and happy with each other – and it shows in the fresh feel of the record.
Martin: “I think we’ve always made weird pop, and I think it’s a great example of that. I don’t think it fits into a defined musical category, but we never have, so that’s not a particular worry. I just like being able to make music that’s different, and if it’s successful as well, then that’s good.”
The band brought in Mark Bell as the album’s producer – a man who has previously worked with many other artists, including Björk. But had writing new material got more difficult for Martin over the years? Martin explains: “I think it does get harder because your quality control goes up. You know there’s a certain standard that you’ve got to achieve each time. We’ve got such a history behind us now and we can’t let ourselves down. We have to make sure that what we release is worthwhile, otherwise there’s just no point.”
Editor of Time Out magazine and London Live presenter, Lee Davies, although a self-confessed Depeche Mode fan, says this eagerly anticipated follow up to “Ultra” is already receiving positive reviews amongst the music press: “I think critically the new album seems to be quite well received. I think partly because they seem to have been through the mill again – having lost Alan Wilder – I think the critics are quite up for giving them a bit of an easy ride on this album. Having said that, the album isn’t bad, and I think it actually surprises people because it seems quite assured musically. “Ultra” was in a way quite a mess, it was quite full on, it didn’t quite know where it was going.  With this album, very interestingly, it does sound like a mixture of all the sounds they’ve done in the past, yet it manages to stay contemporary. I think that critics have reacted very well to that.”
“When The Body Speaks” is one of the many highlights from the new album, “Exciter”. The band are extremely proud of their new collection of songs as Martin Gore and David Gahan explain. “Exciter” is a blend of Martin’s unusual songwriting approach together with their constant need to re-invent themselves.
Martin: “I think most of my songs are about relationships in some form or other, but not in a bland way. There’s always a twist to the songs, and there’s always some kind of suffering. They’re not just out-and-out pop songs.”
Dave: “I’m very proud of the work that I’ve contributed to this record, and I want people to hear it. I’ve really enjoyed singing on this album too, and I’ve enjoyed it more because I’m in a good place, I feel really content. Yes, I want it to sell millions of copies, I’d love to pick up a Grammy next year, and get an MTV award. I’d like to pick up a Brit award – I’d be lying if I said I didn’t – but if it doesn’t happen, c’est la vie… we’ve made a great record and we’re going to go out and tour. I know our fans are really loyal and they’ll be coming to see us. There’s not much else you can really ask for. I’m doing what I want to do in my life.”
With Anton Corbijn on board again to design the stage sets and visuals, Depeche will soon be unleashed on the “Exciter Tour”. No doubt the fans will be out in their droves to catch a glimpse of the Basildon boys again when they play here in London in October – and for those who haven’t seen the Mode in concert, it’s fully recommended.
So the long journey from Basildon minnows to stadium giants, although rocky at times, has been an enjoyable one. From that first meeting with Daniel Miller, through the departures of Vince Clarke and then Alan Wilder, Depeche Mode have often had to take knocks on the chin, but have never really fallen down or had to brush themselves off. And even when the odds were stacked against them, their unique chemistry pulled them through. Ever modest and down to earth, Depeche have been surprised at times by their popularity and success. Whilst those around them are not surprised at all.
“Exciter” will be Depeche Mode’s 10th studio album. And after a career spanning more than 20 years, selling over 50 million albums worldwide, the Depeche Mode legacy is one of this country’s proudest and most successful products.
- In this interview Daniel Miller reminisces about those early days from the vantage point of 1993.
- Apparently when Martin came in to work on the morning after the Top Of The Pops performance had been broadcast, his colleagues gave him a standing ovation!
- That's this article.
- Vince is perhaps letting bygones be bygones here, but the fact of the matter is that an interview with the Daily Star's Rick Sky went very badly, the resulting article claiming (wrongly) that Vince had said that "ugly guys can't make it in this business". The media circus surrounding a successful band had been troubling Vince, and for some time after this he refused to conduct interviews, presumably for fear of the same thing happening.
- This idea had in fact been simmering at least as far back as 1994. Part of the reason behind the video to In Your Room consisting of flashbacks to earlier videos is that the track would be the final one on any "Greatest Hits" compilation. Apparently Mute went as far as producing promotional posters for the album before it was put on hold.
- It might seem strange to include such a lukewarm album review in this otherwise positive and supportive article. But while many fans have a special place for Ultra, comparatively few would reject Lee Davies' comments. A review from the time, albeit with some undeserved harshness, goes into more detail.