Depeche Mode - 101
It’s ironic that Depeche Mode should choose to call their 1987 album “Music for the Masses”. Whilst enjoyed moderate success, particularly in Europe, the music they were producing was hardly the stuff to be universally popular or get the milkman whistling. Indeed, the title was considered within the group themselves to be a wry joke. Upon presenting the demos for Black Celebration, the American record label moaned that there wasn’t a single; that there wasn’t a “popular” song on the album that they could sell to the public. Therefore, when Martin Gore presented material for their sixth studio album, the title was definitely tongue in cheek.
However, promoting the album, Depeche Mode travelled the globe, packing out first arenas, and then stadiums. They stormed across America, on a huge tour that saw them play to over a million people. The culmination of this tour was a sell out concert at the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, which saw them perform in front of a crowd of 68,000.
Sensing the scale of what they were undertaking, Depeche Mode made the decision to document the tour. For this, they hired film director DA Pennebaker, a skilled documentary maker, famous for his biopic of Bob Dylan, “Don’t Look Back". The budget for the project was small, but Pennebaker chose a wholly original approach, taking a fan eye view of the band. Therefore, the resulting film is less about the band themselves (their history is barely touched upon), but more about what it means to be on the road in a successful band, and also what it means to be a fan of such a band.
No aspect of life on the road is left unfilmed, concert footage often taking a back-seat. Instead, we see the band back-stage, road managers barking instructions into walkie talkies, and the band on endless radio and magazine promotions. To be honest, it makes life on the road seem rather tedious at times, but makes interesting viewing. At the time, quite a lot of the mechanics of touring were rather a mystery. Similar films, such as Duran Duran’s “Sing Blue Silver”, focussed mostly on the glamour and the adoration, presenting the band as “pop stars”. However, what the film 101 presents is four, very ordinary lads. A telling moment comes when Dave Gahan confesses to the camera how he sometimes feels he was a happier man when stacking shelves in a supermarket in Basildon. It is an honest moment, and you believe him, something you would never do if it came out of the mouth of Simon Le Bon or John Taylor.
Another innovation of the film is how it acts almost as a precursor to reality television. The film also documents a bus-full of fans, and their journey across America to the Rose Bowl concert. At times, they are annoying, but this adds much to the story of the concert. These are not fawning fans, there to scream, but real people, whose passion and characteristics really come across on screen. These are not stereotypical Depeche Mode fans, but a varied bunch of American teenagers, thrown together, on an adventure. It is an interesting diversion to the excerpts of the band, which does not always work, but provides a welcome variation. Whilst the band often sit bored in dressing rooms, these teenagers, also on the road, have fun, enjoying what to them is the trip of a lifetime. The light and shade between these two experiences really shows on the screen.
But what of the album itself. Well, if a band releases a film such as this, a concert album is almost inevitable. However, as live albums go, "101" isn't really all that good. The dynamics of the sound do not come across that well, resulting in a flat, muted affair. The songs themselves on the whole sound great, but there is nothing here that really captures the excitement of seeing Depeche Mode live. Also, the album is really invaded by the noise of the crowd. Part of the experience of a live album is the fact you can sometimes hear the audience, but on this recording it is too obtrusive, and does at times distract from the music itself.
So what works? Well, it goes without saying that the highlight is "Never Let Me Down Again", which sounds awesome, a crashing wave of music that stands head and shoulders among the other offerings. "Everything Counts" also sounds great; you can see why this was chosen as the single for this album. The crowd's reaction at the end, repeating the song over and over, is a pretty special moment.
Opening piece "Pimpf" goes nicely into "Behind the Wheel", which starts the album well. The rest of the side one though is pretty flat. "Strangelove" is spoilt by Dave Gahan's vocal as he strains, almost shouting the words, also on "Sacred". "Something to Do" just sounds plain daft. "Blasphemous Rumours" and "Stripped" on the other hand sound pretty good, "Stripped" in particular incorporating part of the "Highland" 12" mix into the track. The two Martin Gore songs at the end though are rather boring, if you were there, you would probably go off and get a beer. At home, they are best just skipped.
Side two opens reasonably with "Black Celebration", and a fine version of "Shake the Disease". "Nothing" sounds excellent, a real highlight of the album, Martin Gore's live guitar really adding to an already inspiring song. A revelation is "Pleasure, Little Treasure", previously a throwaway b-side that was actually pretty naff. Here though, it is transformed in an excellent pop song.
One thing that does again spoil things is Gahan himself. His additional yelps and cries and shouts to the crowd are pretty useless at time. During the film 101, he discusses with his stage manager what he should shout as an introduction, opting for "Good Evening Pasadena". However, as he shouts it his voice cracks, rather spoiling the effect. Sitting in your living room, the various shouts of "oh yeah!" and "thhannk you!" just sound annoying.
1989 was a good year to be a Depeche Mode fan. For a moment, they seemed to be all conquering, a mighty band that did things on their own terms. Whilst not embraced by all in the way U2 have been throughout their career, for a while, they truly were among the biggest bands on the planet. 101, whilst missing the mark, is a good document of that era.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:13:50