Spirits In The Forest: Depeche Mode’s Complex Fan Culture (Clash feature, 2019)

Anton Corbijn‘s new film about Depeche Mode fans, Spirits In The Forest, is released in cinemas for one night only on Thursday November 21.

Ahead of its release I wrote a feature for Clash anticipating Corbijn’s film through two previous films – D.A. Pennebaker‘s seminal road movie 101 and the never-officially-released Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode, directed by Nick Abrahams and Jeremy Deller – as well as my own personal experiences of being a fan of this enduring Mute group.

Read the Clash feature here. Read my review of Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode here.

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence for Clash

2K – ***k The Millennium (Blast First single, 1997)

2K '***k The Millennium' 12" artwork

blast first / mute records | 12″/cd bffp146t / bffp146cdk | 29/09/1997

‘What Time Is Love?’, ‘3AM Eternal’, ‘Last Train To Trancentral’ – all songs synonymous in my memory with my first love affair with music generally and dance music specifically. The late eighties, and the ensuing dance-tinged early nineties were a great time for an electronically-minded boy to be getting into music, and The KLF played a major role in piquing my curiosity. Later, at university I managed to track down original 12″ versions of the re-released ‘What Time Is Love?’ and ‘3AM’ and, in my first and only attempt at DJing, managed to beat-mix the two tracks perfectly using the campus radio station’s decks and cross-fader. Good times.

On the back of the three classic singles above, I bought The White Room, and was hugely disappointed; the straightahead dance tracks were nowhere to be seen, and the whole album hung together disjointedly. The anarchistic / artistic events that followed, the dead sheep and thrash-metal with crutches and rifles version of ‘3AM’ at the Brit Awards, the Tami Wynette version of ‘Justified And Ancient’, the whole Justified Ancients of Mu-Mu faux-cult thing generally; all of this left me thinking The KLF a little silly, and it altered my affections toward the triumverate of singles above.

Nevertheless, by 1997, my addiction for buying all things Mute and a renewed interest in the ‘mythology’ I suppose you’d call of it of The KLF, I was really excited by the prospect of this single. Adopting the moniker 2K, Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond reunited specifically for one single on Blast First, following the inclusion of ‘What Time Is Love?’ on the Jeremy Deller-compiled Acid Brass album.

With the combining together of the music I loved as a teenager and my favorite record label, I was pretty excited about this single. I remember vividly the day I bought this. I also bought the second volume of Nick Cave‘s King Ink lyrics collection, and it was during a period where futures were being decided and graduate placements were being applied for. There was a rising level of noise around the coming new millennium and the unifying celebrations that would be had that year, the Millennium Bug was being lauded as the end of modern civilisation, and this single aimed to tap into that excitement. And just like most of those supposedly exciting things, none of which lived up to their hype, neither does the 2K single.

The central ‘point’, if indeed there is one, of ‘***k The Millennium’ is the line ‘F**k the millennium / We want it now‘, which is meaningless and also fundamentally impossible to achieve. The duo also take the opportunity – chortle, chortle – to open the track with a shouted ‘1997 – what the f**k’s going on?‘, referencing the album from a decade before with which the ‘controversy’ that often circled Cauty / Drummond (and which now seems childish) began.

At almost 14 minutes, ‘***k The Millenium’ is an in-joke taken too far, combining pointless sloganeering and the same form of pompous spoken word passages that ruined the rocked-up version of ‘America : What Time Is Love?’. The only redeeming feature of this song is the usage of a section of acid-house burbling from the original, rare as hen’s teeth, ‘What Time Is Love?’; but when placed alongside shouted nonsense, horns and repeated expletives one has to ask: what’s the point? Far better to track down that original classic than indulge this disappointing nail in the Koffin.

Alongside a single edit, and a radio-friendly swearing-free version thereof, there’s an alternative version of the Williams Fairey Brass Band‘s take on ‘What Time Is Love?’. With so much rear-view mirror action going on, one is left with the inescapable notion that this was a parting shot from a duo who were looking back fondly on their achievements from yesterday, themselves wondering where the ideas went and what the point of this single actually was. (The 12″ includes a Pan Sonic remix of the Acid Brass track which is probably worth owning; I still don’t know whether I’ve got it or not.)

Track listing:

12″:
A. 2K – ***k The Millennium
B1. Acid Brass – What Time Is Love? (Version K)
B2. Acid Brass – What Time Is Love? (Version P – Royal Oak Mix by Pan Sonic)

cd:
1. ***k The Millennium
2. Acid Brass – What Time Is Love? (Version K)
3. ***k The Millennium (Radio Edit)
4. ***k The Millennium (Censored Radio Edit)

First published 2008; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Jeremy Deller & Nicholas Abrahams – Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode / The Posters Came From The Walls (Mute Film, 2007 – unreleased)

Jeremy Deller & Nick Abrahams 'Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode' artwork

‘I love Martin’s hair.’ – a tweet posted during the live stream of Depeche Mode’s tour announcement, Paris 23 October 2012

With a new Depeche Mode album and mega-tour just around the corner, and with fans evidently getting excited on social media sites like Twitter, it feels like an appropriate moment to write about Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller and director Nicholas Abrahams‘ film, Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode. The film, also known as The Posters Came From The Walls, was commissioned by Mute MD Daniel Miller and focusses its lens on the fans of the band, rather than acting as a strict biography of the group.

When I first saw clips of Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode on the BBC documentary about Deller in 2012, I was prepared to think of the film as ridiculing devoted fans of the band; people I’ve spoken to over the past year or so, generally hard-core followers of the band, have all told me that the film is universally disliked by most fans as it casually mocks what for many people is a huge obsession. Whilst there are a couple of segments that feel a little too devoted, such as German couple Claudia and Ronny dressing their young son in home-made costumes from Depeche Mode videos like ‘Enjoy The Silence’ or Muscovites Ruslan, Marta, Margo and Elena delivering awful versions of DM songs complete with home-made videos, Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode is in reality a very sympathetic and sensitive portrait that shows just how much a band can influence, help and shape peoples’ lives.

Throughout interviews with fans in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Bucharest, California, New York, Berlin, Iran and Canada, Depeche Mode emerge as a band that appealed to people who just didn’t fit in. Alex, a fan from Bucharest, explains that in the early Nineties the long-haired guys were into metal, the ugly guys were into folk, and the sensitive, clean-shaven, good-looking guys who wanted to know about the best clothes and fragrances were all into Depeche Mode; Orlando, a young fan from California dancing in the car park of the Pasadena Rose Bowl where the band played the 101 concert before he was even born, explains how Depeche Mode’s music helped him through the darkest days of his teenage years, saying ‘Martin Gore’s lyrics speak for me’; a Russian pirate TV performance sees a fan grabbing the microphone and stating that ‘it’s music for the lonely’; celebrity fan and self-confessed outsider nerd Trent Reznor says that for him Depeche Mode played ‘music for someone who felt like they didn’t fit in’; Andy, an Iranian fan now living in Canada explains that if you were caught listening to, or dressing like, Depeche Mode in Iran you would be beaten by authorities, and that for many in Iran Depeche Mode represented an outlet from an oppressive society. Even Marta, with her dreadful but heartfelt singing over Depeche Mode’s own songs, nails the message home when she says that the band’s music helped her to find her friends.

If seeing obsessed Russian fans dressing like members of the band on ‘Dave Day’ – 9th May, Russia’s Military Day and Dave Gahan‘s birthday – seems a bit too much, English fans will probably never appreciate how important Depeche Mode’s music was to people whose democratic rights were managed entirely by the state. Albert, a hairy-backed melancholy chap with a huge tattoo of Gahan from his shoulders to his waist, explains that for many Russians, ‘this new music coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union so I see it as having been the music of freedom.’ For Alex, the well-groomed fan from Bucharest, Depeche Mode’s music was synonymous with freedom, with Violator arriving just three months after the bloody fall of Ceaucescu and becoming the music of a generation of young people whose cultural exposures had been dictated to them before. A trio of East Berliners speak about the seismic impact Depeche had in the East when they played the Free German Youth Concert in 1988. In contrast, Peter Burton from Basildon explains that even now Depeche Mode aren’t well known in the town they came from whilst offering a pretty colourless picture of the Essex new town back in the late Seventies.

Taking the ‘back home they just don’t get it’ notion frequently attached to Depeche Mode one major step forward, the emphatic Francisca explains that Martin Gore‘s lyrics have a natural sense of tragedy and despair, something that she feels is central to Russian fans’ adoption of the band. She then goes on to brusquely tell the translator that English fans couldn’t understand or appreciate the lyrics in the same way as a Russian could. I perhaps don’t fully appreciate what she describes as the ‘transcendent nature’ of the Russian psyche, but I’ve read enough translations of Chekhov, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn in my time to see more or less where she’s coming from.

One of the most powerful stories comes from Mark, filmed at Hammersmith Bridge, under which he would sleep as a homeless resident of London. Mark’s story perhaps punctures a large hole in Francisca’s logic about English fans – here is an individual who spent most of his homeless years listening to 101, scraping together enough cash to buy a ticket to see one of the band’s watershed concert at Crystal Palace on the Songs Of Faith And Devotion tour and drawing so much inspiration from the powerful feeling of togetherness that he experienced at the show to get himself off the streets.

Two things aren’t featured in the film – first and foremost, the band themselves. They’re clearly a current that runs through the documentary, their music runs through the film throughout and their images are plain as day on posters, t-shirts, sketches and all manner of personal tributes in the bedrooms of the profiled fans, but there’s no interview footage here. Their absence makes the enthusiasm of the fans all the more powerful in many senses. The other thing that’s missing are the fans who collect each and every format of every record the band have released, from every country they’re released in. By focussing on the impact of Depeche’s live shows, it highlights the powerful way that concerts – or even fans dancing to concert footage in nightclubs – can bring people together, reminding me of something I once heard about fans being more interested in going to Depeche concerts to sing along rather than hear the band play.

Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode has never been officially released, though it is screened occasionally. The precise reason why Mute have never issued it remains something of a mystery to Deller and Abrahams, though I have heard a rumour that despite the band liking it, there was some pressure behind the scenes to prevent it from being released. The pair even compiled a whole series of extra interviews with artists who were influenced by Depeche Mode, including techno pioneers Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, the idea being that these would appear as bonus features on a DVD release. It remains a real shame, almost a tragedy of Russian proportions, that such a vivid and affectionate overview of what this band means to many people won’t get seen or appreciated by more fans, many of whom will find reflections of their own reasons for being attracted to the band mirrored in the stories here.

DVDr review copy and signed photograph. Thanks to Nicholas Abrahams.

Thanks to Jeremy and Nick for the DVD copy of the film for this review.

First published 2013; edited 2014.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence