Spin volume 6 number 4 July 1990
Pop a la Mode
by Marisa Fox

Depeche Mode may not look dangerous. They certainly don't' sound dangerous. Fact is, They're not dangerous. But watch out for their fans.

The last time Depeche Mode came to the US they caused a riot. A real riot--bottles thrown, windows shaken, lots of pressing, pushing and punching. Some 20,000 fans, many of them teenaged girls, had gathered at the warehouse in Los Angeles for an in-store appearance. Some had waited for days. Fearing for the safety of the group, security guards disbanded the affair after a scant 45 minutes.

The crowd went wild; a few had to be taken to the hospital with minor injuries. Kelly Jaffray's mom got jabbed in the ribs, so she punched some guy in the jaw. Depeche super-fan Kelly, 15, was herself safe in the VIP section of the store. "the band all know me and they let me in without any hassles." she boasts. It's true too. In fact, when Depeche's Andy Fletcher spotted Kelly, he gasped, "we can't go anywhere without you." "He was just joking," Kelly says. "I mean they respect me because I don't invade their space all the time. I'm not a groupie or anything. Like, I wouldn't just sleep with them or anything. Or like, they couldn't force me to take drugs, you know. But then, they wouldn't. I know them and respect them and they respect me."

In many ways Kelly is a typical valley girl. A teenager with blue eyes and softly waved blond hair, she loves to shop on Melrose and Hollywood. She buys Quick Silver and other neon surf clothes, wears Ug boots without socks, cruises with the guys cranking KROQ on the car stereo. She says things like "Oh my gosh," she's getting a BMW for her Sweet Sixteen and she'd never get into a car without a box of Depeche Mode tapes. Kelly can't quite get through a day without listening to Depeche Mode. Her obsession has been going strong for years; it started with a single and a concert ticket. Now, 325 albums later, Kelly is one of their biggest collectors in the US, possibly the world. Her life revolves around Depeche Mode -- she goes on trips to New York just to shop for Depeche paraphernalia. This year she's hoping to go to London to get even more colored vinyl, rare remixes, posters and books. Kelly would go to any length for her fix. "If I had to I might sacrifice my life for the sake of he group," she says, sighing.

Kelly's mom understands. "when I was Kelly's age I was into the Stones and drag racing. These kids aren't as rowdy as we were, and that's good. That's why I encourage it. It's a healthier habit than hanging out at the Jack in the Box and getting mixed up in a drive-by, [shooting], or taking drugs and drinking." Her mom may have bopped along to "Satisfaction," but Kelly grooves to "Shake the Disease." Instead of the raunchy twang of Keith Richard's guitar, Kelly gets off on punchy rhythms programmed on synthesizers and drum machines.

Kelly was 13 when she first managed to catch a glimpse of her idols, backstage at the MTV Music Awards. "I was determined to meet them so I asked this guy who was an Aerosmith roadie to please help me. And he gave me a pass and I couldn't believe it. There they were," she says. "I first met their sound man, this guy names Darrel, and then I hung out with Alan Wilder. I was holding this old program from one of their shows and Martin Gore just came over and grabbed it and we started talking like we were friends."

Kelly could go on for hours, about the time she almost had dinner with them, the time she was up at KROQ with them, about the record company bigwigs she's met at their parties, about the 90 DM buttons she wore on her jacket for a special party, about some girl she saw leaving her hotel, all smiles and skirt half-unzipped.

"It's strange that we appeal to so many young kids but these aren't our only fans," says Andy Fletcher. "We have quite a lot who are older and who have been with us since the very start, for almost 10 years." Back in the early 80's, at the dawn of British synth-pop, Depeche Mode was more or less an underground act. As groups like Duran Duran and Human League blasted through MTV and Top 40 radio, Depeche Mode remained a faceless enigma. They were reluctant to have their picture on albums or magazines. They preferred to let their songs speak for themselves. Fronted then by Vince Clarke (who left early on to form Yaz, then Erasure), Depeche Mode were for suburban teens (Andy, Martin, Dave Gahan as lead singer and later Alan Wilder) devoted to a then-experimental instrument--the synthesizer.

"To us, it was the punk instrument," explains the group's songwriter Martin Gore. "It was an instant, do-it-yourself kind of tool. And because it was still new, its potential seemed limitless." The music was a reaction to the 70's mega-rock legacy-- big names, big jam sessions, big egos. "We found it a bit impersonal," says Andy. "We don't think you have to be a great musician to be allowed to play and get a message out. I guess that's what punk was all about, getting rid of the ego and getting right down to it without having to be a session guitarist. We certainly didn't' know anything about playing music when we first started. In fact, our only true musician is Alan Wilder."

"Their music just hits kids right between the eyes," explains KROQ DJ Richard Blade, who largely broke Depeche Mode on the west coast. "They can relate to Martin's songs because he doesn't' write about love the way, say Richard Marx does, who comes up with 'I love you, I lost you, I'm sad.' Martin is about angst, about teenage love when it feels like the end of the world. You're so self-conscious that when somebody looks at you the wrong way, it can be devastating."

To Kelly, for instance, "Strangelove" has become almost a kind of mantra. "It talks about all the strange feeling s you go through, you know? Lines like 'Strange highs and strange lows, will you give it to me? I will take the pain. ' And their new song, "Clean," is about getting out of that pain ad changing your routine. I just went through something like that with this guy. He was false to me, kind of like in "Policy of Truth."

"It's real existential music," says Ken Patronis, a 28-year-old fan who works as a biostatisticain at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Ken bought Speak & Spell at a time when he was also buying Bauhaus, early New Order and early Cure. But those bands have either parted ways or let him down. "I don't really listen to the Cure anymore and New Order's doing music for 'America's Most Wanted.' That kind of says it all. But with Depeche Mode, I know that I'll probably like whatever they put out. I guess I'm more prone to understand a song about feeling socially detached than your average Joe Blow. The band doesn't' hit you over the head with this macho stance that so many pop bands have."

Which may be one reason Depeche were originally lumped in with openly gay groups like Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Pet Shop Boys. It's a characterization that bothers the band. "I've never understood this misconception about us being homoerotic," says Andy, looking as straight as they come, in jeans, sweater and businesslike hornrimmed glasses. "What about all those American heavy metal bands that wear tight leather, all this makeup and teased out hair? How come that's not considered gay? Maybe it's not our look, it's our lyrics. Are they too sensitive for the American male? You can't be sensitive and straight at the same time?"

"There's a great tenderness and sadness to our music sometimes, and I know this is going to sound like a stereotype, but gays in general seem to be more open and receptive to these types of lyrics," Martin says. In fact, when the band first started out, a considerable portion of their fans were drawn from the gay club scene. This is no longer the case, as, in many ways, the band has come out of the closet, shedding more and more of their mystery with each new album.

Which is partly why they've become so accessible to pop listeners. In fact, they've even made their first appearances on mainstream stations like New York's Power 95, where they were accused of being "tacky" by old-time fans. But for better or worse, pop is Depeche's place.

"We're trying to bring credibility back to the medium," says Martin Gore, tousled blond hair falling over his eyes. "Most pop songs just don't' reflect the way it really is. You can't be happy all the time. Throughout our career, I've tried to write good serious songs as well as escapist songs. I know we get accused a lot of being depressive, but our songs also have a certain get-on-with-it attitude. If life is bad, there's always something to give you solace."

This summer when Depeche Mode hits the road on their Violator tour, fans will flock from city to city, swapping bootlegs, trading shirts and singing along to DM anthems like "Blasphemous Rumours" ("I think that God must have a sick sense of humor/ And when I die I expect to find him laughing"). Some fans swear these concerts are powerful enough to affect natural phenomena. Richard Blade recalls their Music for the Masses appearance at the Hollywood Rosebowl Arena with a sense of amazement.

"They were doing 'Blasphemous Rumours' when suddenly it began to thunder and rain. Do you know how rare that is in the middle of LA in July? And then the band followed that up with 'Sacred' and the rain stopped. It was really weird."

Depeche seem to inspire that sort of thinking in lots of people. Take Tommy, a 17-year-old who drives a delivery truck part-time for a mattress wholesaler on Long Island. He likes to drink beer, smoke pot, hang out with his pals in the darkest corner of the A&P parking lot, leaning against his car cranking the latest teenage tunage Sure they play Aerosmith, John Cougar Mellencamp and Bon Jovi. But Tommy and his friends also get off on Depeche Mode. Tom loves Depeche. When he learned they were in New York recently, he headed for their hotel, where he hoped to catch a glimpse of his heroes. "Hey, I'm straight, man, don't get me wrong," he says. "I didn't want to sleep with them. Just talk with them, you know?" Or take Danny, a 20-year-old DJ called "The Brat," and a self-avowed diehard fan whose devotion to Depeche's music is reflected in his work. He recently crafted a landmark 56-minute-long Depeche Mode dance mix. "their music goes with everything. You can always blend on of their songs into a mega-mix, no problem."

"I first got into them when 'Master and Servant' came out, perhaps not so much for the sexually provocative tone of the song but for it's ahead-of-its-time techno dance groove. I'm not a big house fan, but I do like industrial dance music, and to me, they really lead the way." The new LP Violator is to Danny another example of the way his favorite band dabble in new tricks. The album is more experimental than previous efforts, featuring songs that segue seamlessly into one another without clear breaks.

Depeche's commitment to experimentation extends to supporting similarly inclined groups. They're taking label-mates Nitzer Ebb with them on this summer tour, a harder edged less accessible electro-pop combo that's bound to appeal to someone like Danny. It probably won't go down as well with the 10-year-old fan who also likes New Kids on the Block. "I don't quite understand what a 10-year-old kid gets out of Depeche," says Danny, "but, hey, they have every right to come to the concerts, too. Just stick them in a soundproof section by themselves."

Like their early synth peers, Depeche realized they had to create something to transcend the potentially mind-numbing prospect of watching four guys sway gently behind their machines. They got Dave Gahan to sing and serve as what Andy Fletcher calls a "humanist conductor." Still, the band joke about never sweating on-stage.

"Well I'm not sure all rock bands sweat, anyway. Unless the music is totally rocking, the guitarist usually just stands there, too," Andy says. And Martin joins in to defend his bandmate. "I mean, how interesting can it be to watch someone like Chuck Berry still doing the duck walk after twenty or thirty years? But for his fans, I guess that's their fascination. Our show is just different from anybody else's"

Unlike other techno-pop acts, Depeche shows are marked by lively interplay between the band and the fans. "We don't try to manipulate our audiences the way more weirdo pseudo-intellectual, electronic bands like Psychic TV do, not that I find them that way, but that's their thing. Ours is more of a warm straight forward atmosphere," Andy says. It does seem fairly ridiculous to think of these guys, once dubbed "synth-wimps," as devious manipulators. Sure, they play around with so-called sacrilegious themes, and Martin enjoys flashing bondage bracelets and the like, but they're not what you would call dangerous. Though many of their fans come from America's great angst-ridden loners, Depeche are neither cut from the Duran Duran glam mold nor do they participate in the sneaky sublimation of Throbbing Gristle. To Danny, Depeche Mode is more accessible than your average industrial act, and they're more intelligent than your average pop band. "They're very clever with their lyrics, and being a cynical person. I can relate to their songs." Particular lines stick in his head, like "Things like this make me sick - but in a case like this I'll get away with it," about the trials of being in love.

"Look, we don't have any easy answers for anybody," says Martin, "I write from my own personal experiences, how someone else wants to interpret them is fine with me. I keep my meanings open-ended because and reaction to a song is a valid one."

So what are his songs really about? Martin drops subtle hints. "I have a top ten list of topics," he says, with a mischievous smile. "These include: relationships, domination, lust, love, good, evil, inscest, sin, religion, immorality." For example, last summer's hit "Personal Jesus" is based on Pricilla Presley's idolatry of her King in her book Elvis & Me.

"It's a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care. It's about how Elvis was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships; how everybody's heart is like a god in some way. We play these god-like parts for people but no one is perfect, and that's not a very balanced view of someone is it?"

Because of the ambiguous nature of many of their lyrics, wildly different interpretations of some of the songs are possible. But that's part of the fun, as well as the point. To Kelly, for instance, "Blasphemous Rumours," once deemed blasphemous in its own right and nearly banned from the BBC, was written as a response to Martin's sister's suicide. " I believe he was real down on believing in any justice in the world and just hated God for taking away his sister," she says. But Martins' version is rather different.

"I was going to church a lot at the time, not because I believed in it, but because there was nothing else to do on a Sunday," he says. "I found the service very hard to take seriously. The whole setup is quite handy but I'm not sure that's what God intended. Particularly a part of the service called the prayer list, when the preacher rattles off the names of those sick and about to die. The person at the top of the list was guaranteed to die, but still everyone went right ahead thanking God for carrying out his will. It just seemed so strange to me, so ridiculous and so removed from real experiences."

Everyone, however seems to be in agreement concerning the new album, Violator. "I think it's really an awesome record," Kelly says, "this one's really gonna land them over the top," echoes Richard Blade. "There's a lot of beauty on it, with songs like 'Sweetest Perfection' of the tenderness of 'World in My eyes,' They definitely have matured in sound and their attitude is much more positive. But there's this soft, bittersweet quality still that touches a nerve with listeners."

For the record, the album shipped gold, and outsold anything Madonna or Prince ever put out on the UK. This summer will also land them in the biggest possible venues - from New Jersey's Giants Stadium to Oakland's Carrier Dome. The Warehouse record signing has made them a bit leery of their fans here, but they haven't' recoiled in horror. The next day, the band tried to clear things up on the air in Los Angeles, and they're in the midst of putting out an exclusive pressing of rare interviews as well as previously unreleased material for all the fans who couldn't get into the store. "Daniel Miler is pressing 25,000 copies and they'll go to anyone in the area who sends in a stamped self-addressed envelope to KROQ from the LA area," Blade says, "That shows how devoted the band is to their fans and that's why their fans stick with them. They always go that extra mile for them."