Depeche Mode - Music for the Masses

Picture the scene.

You are fifteen, homework all done for the evening, and you are kicking back playing a game (Tai-Pan) on your ZX Spectrum. The game has finished loading and so you have removed the ear (or was it mic) wire, popped in a tape, and have started listening to the new Depeche Mode album you bought last week in London during half term. A track called “I Want You Now” comes on. Its all pervy breaths, ooo and ahhs, sexual grunts and groans. Your mum picks this moment to come into your bedroom to put up the net curtains she has just washed, and remains in the room for the duration of the song. “I want you now, tomorrow won’t do – reach out your hands, and except my love, we’ve waited for too long, enough is enough!”. Not many moments in life have ever been more embarrassing for me than this. I don’t talk to her while she is in the room. She doesn’t talk to me. We haven’t talked about it since either.

1987 was a good year for Vince Clarke. After a disastrous debut album, his new band Erasure finally started to get some success. Breakthrough single “Sometimes” shot up the charts, and the album, The Circus, started to get some sales as well, with crisp production from a master of electronics, Flood, someone who would later play a huge part in the history of Mute’s other main act. However, despite sharing the same principals, Depeche Mode’s latest album was far removed from the sound of Vince and Andy Bell.

Between Depeche Mode and Erasure existed a healthy rivalry, the remaining members staying on reasonable terms with their ex-song writer. Right through their career they often shared producers and engineers, early collaborator Gareth Jones working with Erasure at length. In the aftermath of Vince leaving back in 1981, insults were traded, but right through his career, in a variety of guises, Vince Clarke has always remained loyal to the record label that originally signed him. Indeed, very few acts have ever left Mute records. Back in the 1980’s, Alison Moyet was the only high profile act to jump ship.

This is some way must be attributed to Mute boss Daniel Miller, who seems to instil such loyalty in the people his works with. In the early days few Mute acts had a written contract, and the record deals were kept simple – to share the burden of the costs, and then to share the rewards of the profits. In the UK this 50/50 split and unique licensing deals abroad made bands like Depeche Mode very wealthy. His roster included acts like Nick Cave, Nitzer Ebb, and in later years Moby and Goldfrapp. But Daniel Miller was more than just a record company bigwig. On Depeche Mode’s first five albums, Miller acted as co-producer, assisting in the studio, providing access to his vast collection of keyboards, sythns and sequencers, slaving over the music, very much part of the production team.

However, tensions were high during the making of Black Celebration. Miller would agonise over every sound, sometimes to such an extent that his anal attentions would cause them to lose sight of the song itself. Whilst the results were worthy of such detail, it caused arguments and for their sixth album, a decision was made that Miller’s contribution would diminish. It was also felt time to break up the production team completely, and so Gareth Jones moved onto pastures new. Brought into the studio was Dave Bascombe, who had also worked with Erasure (and would do again in the future). Bascombe had worked with “Tears for Fears”, and was to be involved in their tortuous sessions on their “Seeds of Love” album. He also worked on Peter Gabriel's critically acclaimed album "So". A change of producer, and a change of location also – moving away from Hansa, and into studios in Paris.

From the demos presented to the band by Martin Gore, one track stood out for Alan Wilder. It is evident from the huge production of the opener, “Never Let Me Down Again”, that they were determined to go all out, throwing everything into the mix on this epic, towering piece of music. The song itself is very simple, the lyrics meaningless and actually pretty average, but the music is full of majestic glory – huge drums pound, pianos chime, orchestral stabs fill the air as Dave Gahan soars in possibly his finest vocal delivery to date. The song leaves you exhausted, and it is no wonder that it has become a firm live favourite, Dave Gahan himself choosing to include it in his set when touring his own solo album. For me, it is one of the greatest album openers of all time. Released as a single, the song sadly failed to do much business in the UK, but in Germany it sold in huge quantities. Included on the single releases is the simply brilliant “Split” mix, not actually a remix, but more an extended version of the song. It contains 10 minutes of complete, unadulterated musical joy, and is well worth seeking out.

For here, the song dips into the ballad “The Things You Said”. The production here is full of echo, sounding like it was sung in a vast hall, but is actually rather dull, in some ways a welcome break after the grandeur of the opening number. Then into “Strangelove”, in some ways quite a “Depeche Mode” by numbers song. All the qualifying factors – sexual lyrics, religious tones, jittering electronics and industrial rhythms are all present and correct, but somehow this song fails to blend together. The debut single, due to pressures of time the band were not satisfied with the mix, and for the album Daniel Miller was drafted in to mix together the best aspects of his “Blind” mix from the 12” and fashion a more cohesive version. It is a strong song, enormous fun, but far from their best. Next track “Sacred” is even farther, in some ways sounding like a parody, the lyrics drifting into innuendo territory, the annoying chorus repeated more times than necessary.

Side one closes with “Little Fifteen”, a charming song, very organic, with some excellent piano from Alan Wilder and a rich orchestral arrangement. Next track, “Behind the Wheel”, could not be more different. A thumping rhythm drives this song along, but it fails to ignite, merely plodding to its conclusion. Dave Bascombe has since complained that Depeche Mode were very restrictive of what he could and could not do, preventing him from even placing a hi-hat on this track, and it shows on a rather drab piece of music. Worse still was the single version, mixed by Shep Pettibone, it features possibly the fartiest sythn bass-line on record and is an absolute disgrace.

Next is “I Want You Know”, which we will speak of no more.

“To Have and To Hold” actually features twice on the CD and tape version, and shows very much the difference between Alan Wilder and Martin Gore. Wilder’s version is used on the main album, and is a dark, brooding piece, thundering drums and a variety of samples, from table tennis balls to the usual clatter of machines. Gore’s version, on the other hand, is based on his original demo - in waltz time this merrily skips along, the confessional lyric sounding a bit daft amid the music. Wilder’s version leads into the outstanding “Nothing”, a song packed with minor chords, choppy guitar, a song of much precision and very funky indeed.

The album closer is interesting, and for a number of years was used live as a introduction piece. “Pimpf” is highly unusual, a repeated piano line from Wilder slowly suffocated as the song builds, layer upon layer added – piano crashes, orchestral stabs, and the band singing a chorus sounding alarmingly at times like a welsh male voice choir. The silence when this track finishes is deafening, until the album ends with a hidden track, 30 seconds of sound around the song "Strangelove" bringing things to a close.

This release includes bonus tracks – an instrumental, “Agent Orange”, a lovely atmospheric piece of music of much merit; the alternative version of “To Have and to Hold”, the excellent “Aggro” mix of “Never Let Me Down Again” which takes the song in a whole new direction; and “Pleasure Little Treasure”, a light-weight piece of nonsense far removed from the mood of the rest of the album. It is not hard to see why it was not included in any other way.

Music for the Masses is a mixed bag. The production now does sound rather mushy, and often songs are lost in the echo and the limitations of the time. However, when it is good, it is awesome. Songs like “Never Let Me Down”, “Nothing” and “To Have and To Hold” are as good as anything they have recorded before or since. However, they were in danger of getting too overblown, of letting their use of the studio become to bloated. Their next studio album, considered by most critics to be their best, would address that problem.



out of 10

Last updated: 25/06/2018 00:46:16

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