Vince Clarke is now one half of a star called Erasure.
He doesn’t like touring, dislikes doing videos and
avoids doing interviews. So what are the chances of
getting him to talk about his founding
early days with Depeche Mode…?
Andrew Darlington takes up the challenge…
HIGH MASS AT
This is High Mass for the godless.
Depeche Mode come back from 101 globe-straddling stadium-filling American nights with longer hair, louder guitars, and devotional imagery. Flesh, and devilry.
“I Feel You” is total art assault on the senses in broad Wagnerian gothic. Dave Gahan’s tattooed torso writhes and prostrates as his stark black-&-white Warhol video-frame multiples burn in arms-spread crucifixion, as Martin Gore in ludicrous leather shorts strikes heavy guitar-hero poses with a solid-bodied Eddie Cochran Gibson. On the album its nagging guitar repetition sounds to be a sample – rumoured to be lifted from U2, but live, Gore milks its minimal potential to maximum effect, while Alan Wilder hijacks a full Rock ‘n’ Roll drum-kit for the first time. The sound climbs in electronic layers building in dense emotive swatches as lush red and purple lighting lurids the voluptuousness and carnal religiosity of the flimsy libretto, and adoring hands extend in obsessive Southern Spiritual Revivalist exhortation, until Gahan ruptures the spell by hurling the mike-stand away, high wide and contemptuously… leaving charged video images of praying hands, a single candle, a cross.
Oddly, their second encore is “Everything Counts”, their early naïve anti-capitalist single from August 1983, the purity of its message sabotaged only slightly by Gahan’s elaborate striptease, throwing his T-shirt into the mass of predatory fan hands. But from such simple sperm morphed this information super-highway as powerful as a shot of ‘E’ injected directly into the pleasure centres of the grey lobes. From the start – with huge shadow figures looming behind Horror-Movie drapes (for “Higher Love”), then exploding into a split-level stage, Gahan cavorting and crotch-grabbing in front of nine fold-out video screens on which the three Kraftwerk-style keyboardists operate (“Policy Of Truth”), the visuals punch out the sound in exact balance. ‘I wanna see those hands’ are the first words directed at the masses. There are few to follow. But when the Speak & Spell Anton Corbijn co-ordinated crawl of fetishistic bird-headed figures start slo-moing across the screens from one to the next (for “Walk In My Shoes”) and the dense sheets of wrap-around sound envelops, they’re no longer necessary. It’s enough just to ‘reach out and touch faith.’
Gore takes three vocals, clear high and surprisingly strong, but Gahan works the dramatics. The sound enriched by the gospel infusion of Samantha Smith and Hildia Campbell through “Behind The Wheel”, “Condemnation” and “Personal Jesus”. “Stripped” loops a sampled rusty car-exhaust thrum while framing a huge navel on all videos and the two tall film screens above. Each stomach systematically graffiti’d as the number gains momentum. And then “In Your Room” with nude figures entwined like a high-gloss safe-sex ice cream ad.
Depeche Mode can at times seem like fleshy devilment, torment and ecstasy, sound and sensuality, pomp and pretension. And stupid fun. A black celebration for the Masses. A High Mass for the godless.
‘SPEAKING & SPELLING…’
I remember talking to ABC. They’d started out in Sheffield as an electro-pop trio called Vice Versa. And Martin Fry wistfully recalls how they’d sat around watching the early Depeche Mode appearances on ‘Top Of The Pops’, with those little synth keyboards and those big turning Revox spools. And they were thinking ‘That shoulda been us…’ When Depeche Mode began, Tubeway Army, with Gary Numan’s deep JG Ballard-William Burroughs imagery had already set the controls, despite rapidly devolving into cartoon-futurism. There was Ultravox with its chart-style spin-off Visage, and their more art-credible ex-vocalist John Foxx. Bill Nelson was ‘dreaming in colour’ post-Be-Bop Deluxe. While, freed up by new sonic possibilities Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and Clock DVA were pushing the boundaries further. Until the still-pristine mobile intelligent unit that was Soft Cell moved from sub-cult to ‘Top Of The Pops’ virtually overnight. Now, decades later, all that remains of that once-vibrant scene – aside from Depeche and Erasure, Pet Shop Boys and Human League, are ripples of occasional retro-futurists.
Born Vincent John Martin 3 July 1960, Vince Clarke has been an active component of probably more name chart bands than just about anyone else. Depeche Mode. Yazoo. Assembly. Until becoming one-half of the star called Erasure. Born in South Woodford, London, before his family shifted to concrete new town Basildon, it’s been written that Vince was a professional musician virtually since leaving school.
Yet there were evolutionary stages. As early as the late-seventies, Vince and school-friend Andy Fletcher were a short-lived No Romance In China. By 1980 he’d teamed with Robert Marlow and Martin Gore to form French Look. There was a further unit – the two-guitars-and-synth Composition Of Sound trio with Gore and Fletcher. Vince was vocalist, until Dave Gahan joined – to become Depeche Mode, lifting the name ‘Fast Fashion’ from a French style magazine. At the end of the year, playing East London ‘Futurist’ nights at the ‘Bridge House’ they were head-hunted by Stevo, who took their “Photographic” – ‘I take pictures, photographic pictures, bright lights, dark room’, and put it on his ‘Some Bizzare Album’ (January 1981, BZ1) in a one-off deal, alongside Soft Cell, Blancmange and The The. It was a beginning.
In fact, we’re both correct. It’s true Human League had been around for a while, as a kind of underground cult phenomena. But both bands achieved their first hit singles within months of each other – Human League’s “The Sound Of The Crowd” reaching no.12 (30 May 1981) and Depeche Mode’s “New Life” following it to no.11 (8 August 1981). The first time both bands reached mainstream audiences. So weren’t there ever occasions when they got to meet Human League backstage at ‘Top Of The Pops’ or anything? ‘No. I did go up to see them at the Marquee once’ Vince recalls. ‘But there was a huge queue all wrapped way around Soho. And we couldn’t get in. It’s a big disappointment not to see them ever live’.
Then they were supporting Fad Gadget when they catch Daniel Miller’s attention. And record the first Depeche single proper at Miller’s Blackwing Studios – “Dreaming Of Me” c/w “Ice Machine” (Mute 13, February 1981). Again, there’s a distinctively Pop-catchy Vince synth figure, with imagistic lyrics about ‘light switch, man switch’ and ‘filming and screening, I picture the scene’, sweetened with an ooh-la-la chorus and softy-whispered voice-over in the fade. Although it charts no higher than no.57, it establishes their presence. And pacts the long-term bond with the Indie Mute label. So when it’s followed by the optimistically-titled “New Life” c/w “Shout” (Mute 14, May 1981, with an extended twelve-inch version), again made up of two Vince songs, it takes things above-ground. As it peaks at no.11 the group debuts on ‘Top Of The Pops’ – on 5 June, the clip, salvaged onto BBC4’s ‘Synth Britannia’, shows an absurdly youthful four-piece, a boyish gyrating coiffed Gahan, and Vince dressed-down in shoddy leather jacket. At the flick of a switch – it says, life’s better.
The third, and final single to be written by Vince – “Just Can’t Get Enough” c/w “Any Second Now” (Mute 16, September, with an extended ‘Schizo Mix’ on the twelve-inch), sets its rhythm tourniquet-tight, and ditches trendy cut-up lyrics in favour of straight boy-girl romance – ‘we slip and slide as we fall in love’, part innovation and part magic it climbs even higher, into the Top Ten to no.8. The official promo-video with two decorous New Romantic girls sipping cocktails, is the only Depeche Mode video to feature Vince. While the first single was only featured on the American reshuffle, the two subsequent singles open and close their ‘Speak And Spell’ (Mute STUMM5, October 1981) album – joined by a rerecorded “Photographic” and a Martin Gore vocal mix of the instrumental “Any Second Now” B-side. Critically well-received – ‘like Gary (Numan) at his best, but better’ (Sunie in ‘Record Mirror’), it sells its way to no.10 on the album chart.
Until Vince left the Mode because of his studio-addict aversion to touring. ‘I don’t like touring. That’s not untrue. I mean… at that time, I was a lot younger. When you’re young your ego is somewhere UP THERE, especially if you have a hit single like that, y’know? I was terribly obnoxious. As we all were, I think. So things weren’t going to work out’. As with Pink Floyd – an unlikely comparison maybe, but they start out with Syd Barrett as their primary writer, but enjoy a second higher-profile career with Roger Waters, Depeche Mode’s first successes were built around Vince Clarke’s songs. Once he left, it was Martin Gore who assumed the main song-writing role, taking them in darker directions. While Alan Wilder replaces Clarke in the line-up for their first American tour – he can be seen in TV clips promoting “Just Can’t Get Enough”, and he stays.
Yet there’s a clear continuity in Vince’s work from his first hit with Depeche Mode, clear up to ‘I Say, I Say, I Say’ (May 1994, produced by that same Martyn Ware). He’s remained true to that shining image of electricity. ‘Mmmmm’ he concedes ‘we’ve been very lucky. Very fortunate, y’know.’
But while it’s true that Vince stayed true to his early keyboards, Depeche has kept pace with evolving technology. To ludicrously over-extend an already tenuous comparison, Pink Floyd also started out as a playfully earnest Indie group, and grew into stadium monsters. Rock ‘n’ Roll, derived from Blues and R&B, is essentially an American music. Its roots deep in black America. Electronic music, by contrast, comes from Europe. From the European avant garde classical tradition of Karlhienz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, filtered through Can, Kraftwerk, Faust. Guitars are organic. Keyboards cerebral. What Depeche Mode did… what Depeche Mode do, is give a form of electro-based music an angst-content. A soul, often a tortured soul. A bleak existential soul, but a soul nonetheless. Listen to Johnny Cash doing “Personal Jesus”. If the original is atheistically mocking, reflecting US tele-evangelists, the Man in Black takes the exact-same words, the same melody, and invests it with genuine belief. When he reaches out to touch faith, he means it.
‘THE SINGLES ’81-‘85’
De-construction time again.
Just what WAS modern music’s most important moment – Abba winning Eurovision? The Pistols trashing Grundy? Both have been used as base incidents for learned dissertations – but try this one for size, the crucial shift occurred when the first synth/Revox Pop band appeared on ‘Top Of The Pops’. Depeche Mode? I mean – since the invention of Elvis Presley and on down through the Shadows/Beatles into Punk, the orthodox visual icon of Pop culture is a two guitars-plus-drumkit triad. Two and a half decades passed during which that silhouette remained virtually constant. Punk supposedly reset the clock to year zero, clearing away the accumulated debris of the past. Until overnight it was all wiped clean by a gleaming new vision of cheap Casio’s/Rolands + those big Revox spools reel-to-reeling in the background. Now kids play imaginary keyboards at their bedroom mirrors like once they posed pretend phallic guitars.
Technical Musician’s magazines still write of the problems of ‘humanising’ electronics, while the ‘New Musical Express’ dates the advent of Depeche Mode’s REAL credibility from circa the addition of a bit of trendy metal-bashing on “People Are People”, or the comic-book simple political slogans of “Everything Counts”. But they’re both off-target. Before Depeche Mode electronic music still zeroxed Kraftwerk’s cybernetic imagery – through the Bowie conduit into Numan, or it was techno-flash multiple-keyboard Rick Wakeman-Keith Emersons. Honourable mention has to go to Giorgio Morodor’s orgasmic Disco-synths and perhaps to Eno’s non-muso role with early Roxy – but it was Mode’s not-inconsiderable achievement to get Mr. Moog’s bleeps and fizzes into the glossy fan-mags. That’s where the REAL humanising happened.
By 1982 they’d broken the frame by ditching – or being ditched by, Vince Clarke, the token boffin-figure, thereby leaving the visual presentation even purer and the hits even bigger – “See You” up to no.6, then “Leave In Silence” and “Get The Balance Right”. There are thirteen hits presented chronologically on their first Greatest Hits compilation – ‘The Singles ’81-‘85’ (October 1985, Mute). There would be more on their eventful trek from well-scrubbed synth act singing snappy tunes about industry and sadomasochism to multinational global statesmen of electro-pop, surviving internal wrangles and Gahan’s attempted suicide with heroin o/d, but there-in lies their true significance. Kids eyeballing £69 Casio’s in Boots Music Dept. knew it could be THAT easy to become a chart-band like Depeche Mode. That’s no mean achievement, and could just constitute modern music’s most crucial shift.
Read and discuss…
‘SOUNDS OF THE UNIVERSE’
Unfortunately low on the scale of memorable tunes, ‘Exciter’ (2001) was perhaps a misnomer, while ‘Playing The Angel’ (2005) was predictable Depeche Mode-by-numbers. So that, by the time “Just Can’t Get Enough” was getting itself revamped into a hit for girl-group the Saturdays (in aid of that year’s Comic Relief), Depeche were being written off as ‘electro veterans’. Then they issued their twelfth album ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ (Mute, April 2009), back in matt black. Taking their dark electro-synth rhythms embedded in a template of growling goth angst, alienation, despair and spiritual emptiness, paced to the pompous end of pomp, and taking it all into space, splicing the gloomy bloodletting with bloopy, ethereal is-there-anyone-out-there? atmospherics.
Lyrical profundity? ‘Who do you think I am – fucking Wordsworth?’ snipes Gahan in their ‘101’ road movie.