Entertainment

Just can't get enough

Synth-pop pioneers Depeche Mode stay plugged in.

Synth-pop pioneers Depeche Mode stay plugged in

Synth-pop band Depeche Mode. From left, Andy "Fletch" Fletcher, Dave Gahan and Martin Gore. (EMI Music Canada)

Growing up in the southeast of England, Andy "Fletch" Fletcher  didn’t aspire to be in a synth-pop group. In 1977, he formed a rock band called No Romance in China with his friend, Vince Clarke.

A la Mode: Interpreting Personal Jesus

When band member Martin Gore wrote the killer track Personal Jesus (off 1990’s Violator ) he was thinking of Priscilla Presley’s relationship with her famous husband.

Gore has said, "It's about how Elvis was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships." The song became a massive hit, combining an especially doleful Gahan vocal, hypnotic electronic rhythms and a twang guitar riff. Although rooted in synth-pop, the tune has produced a number of high-profile interpretations.

Johnny Cash (2002) 

Cash’s cover comes from American Recordings IV: The Man Comes Around, which also featured the country legend’s sombre reading of Trent Reznor’s Hurt. Cash’s haunting take on Gore’s song is similarly stripped down, with that fragile voice accompanied only by some bluesy acoustic guitar and honky-tonk piano.

Marilyn Manson (2004) 

The goth/glam rocker owes a serious debt to Depeche Mode, but this version is almost too faithful. With heaps of metal-influenced guitars and industrial noise gurgling in the background, Manson’s reading is more frenetic and overwrought – yet still seems kind of superfluous.

Richard Cheese (2005)

Cheese works the same terrain as Mike "Wonderwall" Flowers, creating over-the-top lounge versions of  "alt-rock" classics. He gives this anthem the swinging Rat Pack treatment by juxtaposing the original’s angst-ridden lyrics with the crooner’s irreverence.

Dixie Hummingbirds (2006) 

The legendary gospel group creates a joyful noise with this jaunty cover, while taking a few liberties with the lyrics (like adding the exhortation "Jesus is best, put Him to the test").

Hilary Duff (2008) 

Duff’s song Reach Out is essentially a Personal Jesus cover. She samples virtually all of the instrumentation from the original and then layers new, lifeless lyrics on top. The line "Reach out and touch faith" becomes "Reach out and touch me," thereby reducing a nuanced song about seeking salvation to a lame dance track about bumping and grinding.

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"Punk was the big thing when we were 15, 16," Fletcher recalls. "But after punk, an electronic movement came – early Human League and Kraftwerk were very hip. And it was Vince who wanted us to go in that different direction. I was a bit upset, really, because I was a bass guitarist. And I was told I had to buy a synthesizer. I had never played one before." 

It turned out to be a great investment: Fletcher’s grudging acceptance of Clarke’s decree would eventually lead to fame, wealth and more synthesizers than he ever imagined. Within a couple of years, the two musicians – along with fellow Essex residents Dave Gahan and Martin Gore – became Depeche Mode.

Clarke left the band in 1981, but Fletcher, Gahan and Gore continue to thrive. Having just released their twelfth studio album, Sounds of the Universe, and set to embark on a whopping 31-country tour, the trio resides in the higher reaches of the pop stratosphere. Dark lyrics, eminently hummable melodies, shimmering electronica mixed with dollops of rock guitar – it’s a potent formula that the band has parlayed into a career of almost unprecedented commercial staying power, with total album sales of over 100 million.

Depeche Mode is especially popular among the worldwide academy of the Angst-Ridden and the Overly Sensitive, a sizeable constituency that has embraced their sleek songs about damaged relationships, despair and obsession. Of Depeche Mode’s 1980s musical brethren, only U2, The Police and Metallica can compare when it comes to putting bums in stadium seats.

"I think enduring in general is more difficult these days, so we’re very lucky," says Fletcher. "We really stuck to our guns with electronic music, especially during the early ’80s." That first wave of synth-pop was often trashed by technophobic rock critics who couldn’t see beyond the traditional guitar-bass-drums format. "It was a bit of a battle, I have to say. Music journalists used to hate us. It was a struggle. We’d do PR things and virtually every interview would be terrible. They’d ask us, ‘Why do you make this sort of music?’ and things like that. It was good to battle through it. In some ways, they were quite enjoyable, those interviews that felt more like debates."

Thus battle-hardened, the band spent the Reagan-Thatcher years gaining critical respect and intense fan devotion. Fluffy early hits like Just Can’t Get Enough ("When I’m with you baby/I go out of my head/And I just can’t get enough/I just can’t get enough") gave way to more ominous subject matter, as chief songwriter Martin Gore conjured nihilistic visions of sex (Master and Servant) and religion (Blasphemous Rumours). Things also got darker sonically, with industrial snippets thrown into the mix (including the actual sound of clanging anvils, a noise presumably intended to convey the ennui of the automated age).

Depeche Mode’s 1990 album Violator offered up more foreboding tales of fixation and misery, including Enjoy the Silence, Policy of Truth and Personal Jesus. The record was a massive breakthrough in the U.S. – going to number 7 on the charts – and remains their aesthetic peak.

Depeche Mode works within the mainstream without appearing to do so. Make no mistake: this is a corporate rock entity that has created some of the most addictive hooks in pop history. But they haven’t dominated the charts much in recent years, they don’t do the awards show circuit and they don’t espouse any high-profile causes a la Bono. The band maintains a certain alt-rock cred by avoiding the celebrity spotlight and continuing to be such downers lyrically. Depeche Mode appear to make few concessions to the marketplace, pulling off the rather tricky feat of seeming less successful than they really are. They’re like a cult band, except this cult band appeals to millions of people.

"I think the fans think [Depeche Mode is] their little secret," reasons Fletcher. "And their little secret sometimes plays massive concerts. It’s a bit like the Grateful Dead in some bizarre way, with the scene they had. The beauty of our situation at the moment is we’ve got fans from different generations now and we’re still appealing to younger kids as well. We’ve gained fans in each decade."

(EMI Music Canada)

Those fans probably won’t be surprised by anything on the new album. (As Fletcher notes, "Dave’s voice is very distinctive and so are Martin’s songs. So there’s only a certain amount we can do to change the sound.") Sounds of the Universe sticks to the DM formula, with typically morose lyrics ("I could corrupt you / It would be ugly") and the usual gorgeous sonic sheen. Production duties are handled here by Ben Hillier (past clients: Doves, Blur, Elbow), who incorporates retro-futuristic space-age bleeps and vintage 1980s synthesizers into the mix.

Despite its predictability, the album coughs up a couple of new Depeche Mode classics, including the lead single, Wrong. (The song’s video, a nightmare vision in which an out-of-control car winds a destructive path, has created significant buzz.) Gahan is in excellent vocal form on this catchy, almost chant-like track; it’s perfect for the stadium fist-pumping that’s bound to occur at Depeche Mode shows this summer.

Heading back on the road, Fletcher seems mildly amazed that the band is closing in on its 30th anniversary. "We’re in a happy part of our career. We had some desperate days in the late ’80s and early ’90s," he says, referring to Gahan’s much-publicized drug travails. "I don’t know how we survived, really. Certainly, Dave was lucky to survive. We just did survive. In some ways, the band was the only thing that we had going. The fact that the band existed certainly helped Dave." 

Depeche Mode often get shout-outs from the metal, techno and dance-rock acts they’ve influenced; their reputation as pioneering knob-twiddlers is secure. So shouldn’t these guys be, er, a bit happier? "We take our music pretty seriously, but as people, we’re quite light-hearted. We’re always joking around and that’s what you see at press conferences," says Fletcher. "I think that’s a good thing, when people see a lighter side. Life’s not that bad. It’s pretty bad, but not that bad."

Sounds of the Universe is released in Canada on April 21. Depeche Mode plays in Toronto on July 24 and Montreal on July 25.

Greig Dymond writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.

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