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

Depeche Mode – The Singles 81 – 85 (Mute compilation, 1985)

Depeche Mode ‘The Singles 81 – 85’ original artwork.

The Singles 81 – 85 was Depeche Mode‘s first UK compilation album, gathering together all their singles up to that point in sequential order, tacking on the new tracks ‘It’s Called A Heart’ and ‘Shake The Disease’, the latter of which has become something of a live staple for the band and a firm favourite among fans. Both tracks were released as singles to support the compilation.

The Singles 81 – 85 was also the first of a sporadic series of artist compilations issued by Mute, the catalogue codes for these albums ditching the familiar STUMM tag in favour of MUTEL. The idea was to cheekily reference the K-Tel budget collections of yesteryear but most people didn’t get Mute’s in-joke. The track list on the reverse reflected each track’s success in the singles charts rather than being in the order they were released in, a strategy Mute used again on the first Inspiral Carpets collection ten years later.

Even if you’re familiar with the Depeche Mode journey from Basildon synth-pop boyband to the stadium-conquering electronic rock act they became toward the end of the Eighties, listening to the singles in order, the band’s rapid progression still feels remarkable. There are just two years between the trio of Vince Clarke-penned singles and the ambitious recording techniques and early sample experiments that birthed songs like ‘Love In Itself’.

While you could argue that the band simply benefited from having access to some seriously cutting-edge technology and talented, forward-looking producers in Gareth Jones and Daniel Miller, that would fully ignore the huge leaps forward in terms of arrangements and Martin Gore‘s songwriting.

Gore’s lyrical development from ‘See You’ (a cutesy, endearing single penned as a teenager) to the harrowing introspection of ‘Shake The Disease’ showed a dizzying level of maturity in the briefest of timeframes. ‘Somebody’ (excluded from the LP edition, presumably because of space) remains Gore’s most powerful, fragile ballad, his tender lyrics interspersed with darker considerations and ruminations; elsewhere, tracks like ‘Everything Counts’, ‘People Are People’ and ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ were casually and effortlessly cynical, the latter getting the band into hot water with the Church of England given its pondering about the existence of a cruel God.

The Singles 81 – 85 was re-released in 1998 with a different sleeve to tie in with the the branding of the follow-up singles collection, the LP edition restoring ‘The Meaning Of Love’ and ‘Somebody’ to the collection and making it a double, rather than single, album. That new version tacked on the extended Schizo Mix of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and the version of ‘Photographic’ from the Some Bizarre compilation. The newer version might look more modern, but for me I still prefer the slightly garish and simplistic T+CP sleeve from the 1985 edition. Mute also released a three CD boxset containing both compilations in 2001.

Depeche Mode ‘The Singles 81 – 85’ reissue artwork.

Over in the US, Sire had released a compilation of Depeche Mode tracks the year before called People Are People, while a compilation using more or less the same sleeve as the UK Singles 81 – 85 album was issued in 1985 as Catching Up With Depeche Mode, featuring a totally different tracklisting. That edition also included the old photos of the band from the gatefold sleeve of the UK LP (something the UK CD didn’t include) and in among those are some lovely, candid – but too small – photos from the formative years the original band members spent at Southend Tech.

Personal recollections

The Singles 81 – 85 has a special place in my memory for a couple of reasons.

I first came upon the CD in my local library in Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer of 1992, right at the start of my exploration of the Mute back catalogue. Up to this point my only interest in Depeche Mode was with the early Vince Clarke years. I hated Depeche Mode at that point, detested ‘Personal Jesus’ and the band’s image, resplendent on the folder of a girl in my English class called Sarah.

If it wasn’t for the Documentary Evidence brochure that fell out of my 12″ copy of Erasure‘s ‘Chorus’ the year before, I may never have bothered borrowing The Singles 81 – 85 from the library. Given how much I detested the band, finding out through that pamphlet that Vince had been a member of Depeche Mode in their early years made me groan, as all of a sudden I felt obliged to listen to a band that I had decided I didn’t like. Looking back, it’s no surprise to me that I started my collecting of Vince’s other music with a copy of Yazoo‘s Upstairs At Eric’s, bought on cassette from my local Woolworths, instead.

So The Singles 81 – 85 represented my first real exposure to the music of Depeche Mode and for a while I’d deliberately only play the Vince Clarke singles; I couldn’t bring myself to put on the other tracks. When I eventually did, I wanted to be cynical (I initially sneered in agreement with the self-deprecating display of journo quotes included in the sleeve against each song), but I more or less instantly fell in love with those songs and kickstarting the process of building up a collection of Depeche Mode albums that meant, by the time of Songs Of Faith And Devotion the following year, I considered myself a fan. My bedroom walls were quickly adorned with posters bought from Athena of the band circa the Violator era – something of an irony given how much I’d loathed the similar images on Sarah’s folder.

The other reason I have fond memories of this compilation is because of a girl. In 1992 I was a shy, unconfident 15-year old besotted with a girl called Katie that I couldn’t even talk to, let alone ask out.

I was listening to The Singles 81 – 85 in my dad’s favourite armchair one evening during the two week hire of the CD and Katie walked past my lounge window with another girl I knew from school. Katie lived way out of town, so her appearance outside my window was sort of strange. I don’t think it was intentional, as I don’t think she knew where I lived, but that didn’t stop me thinking that it was. For days after, I resented myself for not rushing outside as she walked past to say hello and talk to her.

From that moment, I began to latch onto Martin Gore’s lyrics to help me understand myself to some degree. Through his introspective words I was able to accept that it was perfectly okay to be the quiet kid at school, and from then on I found inspiration in his lyrics whenever it felt like events or people (or just my own thoughts) were conspiring against me.

First published 2013; edited and re-posted 2019.

With thanks to David McElroy.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Mute 4.0: VCMG – Ssss (Mute Artists album, 2012)

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As part of Mute‘s fortieth ‘anti-versary’, the label is making available very special limited edition vinyl versions of selected releases from their four decades of releasing and curating incredible music. To celebrate this element of Mute 4.0, we’re re-posting reviews of those special albums from the depths of the Documentary Evidence archives. Full details on the releases can be found here.

Ssss is the minimal techno album collaboration devised by Depeche Mode‘s Martin L. Gore with original Depeche songwriter Vince Clarke, arriving over thirty years since the pair last worked together.

Vince was, at that time, one of the founding members of Depeche Mode who, in 1981, released Speak & Spell, one of that defining year’s great synthpop albums. Clarke’s departure from the band left Gore in charge of songwriting duties, a role that would allow him to move the band into far darker territory toward the dark electro-rock they are purveyors of today, while Vince has produced – with Alison Moyet as Yazoo and Andy Bell as Erasure – some of the best pop music of the last thirty years.

The idea of Clarke and Gore working together again seemed remote until Vince started mentioning their collaboration on Twitter. That project stemmed from Clarke listening to a lot of minimal techno – which itself seems remote until you consider the remixes of other artists Vince has submitted recently – and asking Gore if he’d like to work with him on a project in that style; he wanted it to be something casual, with no deadlines and no major expectations. Gore himself is a fan of the genre, as anyone who has heard his DJ mixes or heard the tracks he selects to be played just before Depeche Mode take the stage at one of their huge arena shows (always a strange thing to hear barely-there techno over the speakers at somewhere like the O2). Vince went out to his Twitter fanbase and asked what they should call the project and whilst I don’t know if the moniker VCMG was a tweeter’s suggestion, it nevertheless fits the project perfectly (personally, I liked my suggestion of calling themselves Speak & Spell in reference to the last time they worked together, but I’m not bitter).

Ssss was produced by Gore and Clarke and mixed by California’s Timothy Wilkes who goes under the moniker Überzone / Q. Wilkes’s involvement – and Stefan ‘Pole’ Betke’s mastering – adds a certain credibility to what could be seen as two long-in-the-tooth veterans dabbling in a genre that neither have a particular pedigree in.

Opener ‘Lowly’ starts with some chords that feel like they were borrowed from ‘Enjoy The Silence’ or ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ before a dark energy takes over, all buzzing, clamouring synths, solid beats and crunchy percussion. Some nice synth pads heighten the bleak, almost symphonic mood while some very Kraftwerkian pulses and squalls pop up in the background. ‘Lowly’ feels like one of the few tracks on Ssss where Gore slips into the pensive negativity that often creeps into his songwriting. ‘Windup Robot’ starts as one of the strongest tracks here, a shiny, sleek bass-heavy monster although it would have benefited from a touch of 303-style madness somewhere along the way.

‘Bendy Bass’, as its name suggests, has a bendy bass sound, crisp beats and some spinning, elastic synth sounds. The droning synths and wonky, hollow lead riff may be a bit overbearing for this to work on the dancefloor, but it’s engaging enough. The second half introduces a partial riff which reminds me of one of the 12″ remixes of Erasure’s ‘Chains Of Love’. ‘Recycle’ has a slowed-down, subtle sensuality to it, a throbbing bass sound and some neat synths that sound like Kraftwerk’s vision of what pure of electricity might sound like. The vaguely orchestral stabs and the dramatic section at the centre are a bit unnecessary, but ‘Recycle’ is nevertheless one of Ssss‘s best moments. Closing track ‘Flux’ features some nice, emotional riffs that wouldn’t go amiss on some of Depeche Mode’s more poignant moments, offset by percolating synths and hissing percussion.

As a purely ‘listening’ album, Ssss is not a disappointment; whether it would work in a Richie Hawtin club set is debatable, but as a collaboration between two electronic music stalwarts it is interesting and engaging stuff, and there’s no denying the quality of the synth design at work here. At times you do long for a more song-based collaboration, a chance to hear how Clarke would have wrapped his synths around Gore’s mournful lyrics, a Depeche Mode that never was, but that was clearly never the premise here (particularly as Gore is hardly the most prolific lyricist in the world). Nevertheless, there is a distinct sense of two musicians challenging each other by operating outside of their comfort zone, with very fine results indeed.

For Mute 4.0, Ssss is being reissued as an orange double LP edition.

First posted 2012; edited 2018.

MUTE4.0_V3

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 6. Depeche Mode ‘Spirit’

“Not an album to listen to if you are remotely worried about the state of the world right now… The kind of album that is necessary for shining a light on our basest traits and for encouraging us to think differently all over again; in that sense, for the first time in a long time, Depeche Mode have judged this just right.”
– Clash

Honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to get excited about Depeche Mode‘s Spirit album. Partly it was because it was billed as being political, and I’m not an outwardly political person and nor do I especially gravitate toward albums with obvious political content. I was asked by Clash to write a piece explaining that Depeche Mode had always been political on some level, which seemed like utter nonsense until I started writing it. That piece can be found here; I won’t rehash it again but it’s a piece of mature analysis that I am particularly proud of.

‘Where’s The Revolution?’ did nothing for me when it was released, and I didn’t hold out much hope for the album. Being political had become trendy, with bands using music as a platform to make a political point, and I couldn’t get on board with it at all. But spending time with the album to write a review, also for Clash, unlocked something that I hadn’t especially expected to find.

My earliest drafts for the review were uniformly negative. I couldn’t reconcile lyrics about impoverished members of society with a band whose members variously live in Manhattan apartments and Californian mansions; it somehow seemed hypocritical on a very obvious level. But as I spent time time with Spirit I began to hear parallels with a very different album – Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On – and a certain similarity of poise began to emerge, especially in Martin Gore‘s lyrics for ‘Fail’ at the very end of the album.

Spirit did much to allow me to reconcile issues that I didn’t even know I harboured toward Depeche Mode, a band that have been part of my life since my teens. Consequently, I’m convinced that when, in decades to come, writers like me are asked to assess Depeche Mode’s legacy, Spirit will stand out as the band’s surprising yet defining late period statement.

Listen to Spirithere.

My review for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Depeche Mode – The O2 Arena, London 22.11.2017 – photos by Andy Sturmey

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(c) 2017 Andy Sturmey for Documentary Evidence & This Is Not Retro

People Are People – The Politics Of Depeche Mode (Clash feature, 2017)

“If ‘Where’s The RevolutIon?’ is any sort of bellwether of what Spirit will sound like, it suggests that Depeche Mode are ready to stop dealing in vagueness, the cryptic and the shrouded, and instead feel inclined to go for a more direct approach to the message they’re trying to get across.”

Clash, 2017

Ahead of the release of the new Depeche Mode album Spirit, I wrote a feature for Clash that explores the political messages within first single ‘Where’s The Revolution?’.

As a rule, I try to steer clear of politics if I can help it, but in the last twelve months that’s been pretty hard to do. And rightly so; to say we live in interesting times is a huge understatenent, and if there’s ever been a time to take notice of politics, amid the chaos and uncertainty in the wake of the votes against the status quo represented by Brexit and Donald Trump, now is most definitely that time.

Even so, this was a piece that I felt ill-equipped to write, until I got started. The piece was written in the second week of a fortnight spent working in the US, initially on the East Coast, then in the Mid-West, then from the East Coast ahead of returning to the UK, and maybe a sense of proximity to what’s going on over there allowed the piece to come together slightly easier. That and taking the opportunity to trawl back through the entire Depeche Mode catalogue in a bid to see whether the political dimension the band were showcasing with new single ‘Where’s The Revolution?’ was really that new after all.

My feature for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Gwen Stefani – Wonderful World (Interscope, 2006)

Gwen Stefani 'The Sweet Escape' CD artwork

The Sweet Escape album | Interscope | 2006

Mute alumni Martin Gore and Richard Hawley appeared on this upbeat closer to Gwen Stefani’s The Sweet Escape, both adding their guitar talents to a song which sounds suspiciously like Stefani trying to cover Depeche Mode‘s ‘Enjoy The Silence’ via Black’s song of the same name. Hawley and Gore’s contributions are quiet and not exactly distinctive: Hawley seems to offer ruminative slide guitar wheras Gore’s playing seems to be the kind of simple but devastating melodies he’s made his own. Unfortunately, they’re both just drowned out by the garish high energy pop of this Linda Perry-penned tune.

First posted 2013; re-posted 2014.

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence