Depeche Mode - Music for the Masses (Collectors CD/SACD & DVD)
Please see here for the original review of "Music for the Masses".
It is true to say that Depeche Mode were never really appreciated in their homeland. In America, at the release of “Music for the Masses”, their reputation went through the roof, culminating in an epic tour. Championed by alternative and college radio, people turned out in the hundreds of thousands to see them play. In the UK though, this album did similar business to its predecessors, the singles performing (in comparison to their chart position in other countries) quite poorly.
Why is this? Well, part of the problem in the UK (and the flipside, the success in other countries) is the residual memory in the public’s eye of the band. Early on, they very much took the Smash Hits route, and were constantly seen slavered in make-up peering moodily out of the magazine page. This was not necessarily the bands fault, just the result of an over zealous plugger who was keen to get them on every single Saturday Morning kids show and teen mag. They also went through their leather, nipples and fetishist stage, which thankfully they grew out of quite quickly. All this aside though, I will never understand how “Never Let Me Down Again” wasn’t a massive hit in the UK. It puzzled me at the time, even with all the other preoccupations my 16 year old mind had then. It is an incredible piece of music, in my opinion one of the finest album openers of all time, and sounds simply mind-blowing on this remastered album.
First things first - the packaging for this release is exquisite. "Music for the Masses" has always had my favourite art design for all of their albums - I love the concept of the loud-speaker, and the photos showing it displayed in different enviromental settings is inspired. The artwork is used to maximum effect here, and both the sleeve and booklet are a joy.
I think it is a fair comment to say that this album has aged. Although not as bad as it is on “Black Celebration”, the sound at times is a little mushy, with a slight hiss prevalent particularly on the quieter tracks (“The Things You Said” is a good example). The good news though is that the remastering has gone some way to address this – it is evident that this release has certainly been cleaned up, and has never sounded better.
“Strangelove”, for example, sounds wonderful. The snap of the rhythm and the drum track is tight and incredibly funky, but on here it sounds almost modern, less like “Word Up” by Cameo and just sounding stronger. “Nothing” as well, though still quite minimal, is noticeably improved, as is “Pimpf”. This is less evident on “Never Let Me Down Again”, although this track does sound strangely different. I must have listened to this song easily over a thousand times in my life, but in this new form I noticed sounds that I had never heard before.
Another real stand-out is “To Have and To Hold”. A dark, oppressive piece of music, it is mixed to perfection here, slab-like drums pounding and Gahan’s vocal effortless and ominous. True, the poorer songs still sound poor - “The Things You Said” in particularly is still boring how ever you cut it. This mix is a real achievement and a testament to the effort Mute are putting into these releases.
The 5.1 / DTS Mix
I am sure it will come as no surprise to hear me say that the DTS mix of "Never Let Me Down Again" is nothing short of phenomenal. It needs to be played loud to be fully appreciated, shaking out of the speakers to make an already ludicrious piece of music even more sensational. It is almost as if every single musical instrument known to man is thrown together and somehow sounds great. Awesome stuff.
"Strangelove" and "Nothing" are also highlights, particularly the latter, which does appear as if it has received a bit more attention. It feels remixed to my ears, as if other work has taken place to enhance the sound of the track. "Pimpf" as well sounds wonderful, a mighty piece of music that really benefits from being mixed in DTS.
"Behind the Wheel" though is a bit of a letdown. I must admit that if for some strange reason I had been put in charge of this project, I would have remixed the crap out of it, sounds flying out of the speakers left right and centre, making a total botch of it. On this track though, they have maybe been a little to restrained, and things stay very central in the mix. Sure, the cars whizz about at the end, but the hubcap at the start barely spins! This is a small criticism though of an excellent mix.
Again, we have some of the b-sides. The difference on this release to Violator is that the bonus tracks from the original release have also been mixed in DTS/5.1. The "Aggro" mix of "Never Let Me Down" again is wonderful, sounding absolutely brilliant in this format, as does "Agent Orange" - a charming instrumental, moody and atmospheric, it sounds as if whoever mixed it enjoyed the experience and put much work into it.
"Route 66" is Ok, mostly a throwaway piece of nonsense but mixed in with "Behind the Wheel" which makes it a little more interesting. "Sonata No.14" shows Wilder's skills at the piano and is very nice as well.
Depeche Mode 1987/1989 (Sometimes You Do Need Some New Jokes)
I have to confess that I am a big fan of archive telly. My wife, bless her, was (and still is) a big Duran Duran fan in her youth and has whole episodes of Swap Shop, Jim’ll Fix It and Pebble Mill on video from when Le Bon and the boys made an appearance, and I love these. One of my biggest hopes for these films was to see clips from such shows, and happily, this short film comes up trumps, with a Top of the Pops performance of “Behind the Wheel”. With the smoke machine belching out a thick fog, the audience politely bobbing about and clapping, Depeche basically look a little bit drunk, Fletch and Wilder stabbing aimlessing at their keyboards making no attempt to look like its switched on. Marvellous stuff.
This short film is great, and about 37 minutes in length packs in a lot. All members of the band are interviewed, Wilder in particular having some interesting things to say. As you see him sat there you do ask yourself the question, “what do you do all day?”, but he looks happy and contented and still manages to look pretty cool. A telling point comes when Gahan is talking about the track “Little 15” and praises Wilder’s skills as a pianist, saying that it was “something we didn’t really appreciate at the time”. I am sure when he sees it Wilder will smile, murmur “you don’t say”, and toss another log on the fire.
Dave Bascombe, as producer, is also interviewed at length, and his contributions are most welcome as they shed a lot of light on the making of the album. Daniel Miller has some interesting stuff to say, as do various members of the road crew and American record company bosses. Martyn Atkins talks about the excellent and intelligent sleeve design, probably the best artwork of their career. The film also talks at length about the “For The Masses” tour, showing a fair few clips from “101”. Few things look sillier than a fan fainting after being touched by a member of Depeche Mode, particularly as its Fletch who causes the swoon.
As a Depeche Mode fan, I find the clip of the whole Rosebowl, people swinging their arms like a field of corn strangely emotional. The sight is staggering, people stretching as far as the eye can see, all in unison in time with the music. I don’t know why this affects me this way – I did nothing to get them to that place, other than buy and appreciate their records in this country, but upon viewing it, I just think “that’s the band I love”. It is certainly quite a sight.
There are a few noticeable omissions. It would have been nice to have heard from Pennebaker, the director of 101, and some of the kids who made up the travelling circus also in the film, but their inclusion on the “101” DVD makes up for this I suppose. I would also have liked to have heard from some of their peers, some of the other artists around at the time, especially those who supported them at the Rosebowl. These niggles aside though, this is an excellent film, well researched and well put together.
Music for the Masses is an important album for Depeche Mode in all sorts of ways. I can understand why Mute have chosen this as one of the lead album in the re-issues. Although one or two of the tracks are less than great, this meticulous package is excellent. If you have never experienced it, I whole heartedly recommend you give it a go.