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A Question Of Lust: Depeche Mode's Black Celebration Revisited
John Freeman , March 4th, 2011 07:02

John Freeman looks back at the album which saw Martin Gore find his voice against a backdrop of inter-band tension.

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According to his family, Martin Gore was a shy, introverted child. But that was then. By his mid-twenties, he had taken to wearing rubber fetish gear and singing 'A Question Of Lust' (containing the couplet "My weaknesses / You know each and every one") to hundreds of thousands of people with his band Depeche Mode. It's always the quiet ones...

Artistically, Gore had come a long way by 1986. Black Celebration is a fine and kinky record that signaled a transition in Depeche Mode's career; they became darker, sonically more adventurous and sweetly subversive. "If you call yourself a pop band," remarked Gore at the time, "you can get away with a lot more." It was the record on which Gore's burgeoning writing skills thrust him deeper into the epicentre of an already successful group. He provided lead vocals on (an unprecedented) four tracks, including the angst-infected 'World Full Of Nothing' and the fabulous dirge of 'A Question Of Lust'. But more than that, Black Celebration was perhaps a turning point for the band in the UK. While America seemed to already 'get' Depeche Mode (they succeeded as a new-wave pop band who could also fit snugly next to REM on a college radio playlist), they still possessed the whiff of 'guilty pleasure' in their home country. Black Celebration winkled a legion of Mode fans out of the closet.

Five years earlier, Depeche Mode had lost their principal songwriter, Vince Clarke. As one of Britain's most prolific hit-makers, Clarke's were big shoes to fill – he already had written the synth-pop classics 'New Life' and 'Just Can't Get Enough' for the Mode, and would go on to further success with Yazoo, The Assembly and Erasure. Gore stepped up to take the main writing duties and if, perhaps, it took him a couple of albums to truly find a groove, Black Celebration was the point that the Basildon quartet became very, very interesting.

Martin Gore was undergoing an intense period of personal change in 1985-86. He had moved to Berlin, and enjoyed the freedom and creativity of the art scene. He experimented in fashion – with a particular penchant for women's clothes – and was intrigued by sex clubs and the S&M scene. He could be wildly foppish - claiming to be inspired by "Camus, Kafka and Brecht" - but was rooted in the mind-numbing nature of the everyday struggle. He was keen that Black Celebration was not seen as a self-indulgent, depressive record - the title track itself being a call to rejoice the end of another humdrum day.

And it is not to say that Gore hadn't been pivotal to the evolution of Depeche Mode during the intervening years that followed Clarke's departure. Both 1983's Construction Time Again and the following year's Some Great Reward generated more hits and strengthened their fanbase in Europe and America. However, even the big singles suffered from clunky sixth-form poetry (see 'People Are People' and 'Everything Counts') or mildly embarrassing displays of sexuality, as on the clumsy S&M metaphors of 'Master And Servant'. While Gore's writing, coupled with keyboardist Alan Wilder's increasing influence, had taken the band away from their fluffy electro-pop beginnings, there was still an ungainliness about the Depeche Mode sound.

Black Celebration saw Depeche Mode step out of their 'gangly teenager' phase, even though the album was created in an extremely difficult period for the band. By late 1985, the newly-married Dave Gahan was sober and judgmental of Gore's hedonistic Berlin lifestyle. The stop-gap single 'It's Called A Heart' had been a weak offering and the band were unsure of their next musical step. When record company suits began to vet Gore's embryonic new material, he "freaked out" and disappeared for a week, holing up with an old school exchange friend in rural northern Germany, complaining that "the business did my head right in." Gahan would later state that if Depeche Mode were ever to have split up "it would have been at the end of 1985."

The method of recording Black Celebration also shoveled on extra pressure. The album was produced by Mute's Daniel Miller and Gareth Jones (who had worked with the band on previous albums) and recorded at London's Westside studios and at Hansa in Berlin. Miller - inspired by German film director Werner Herzog's idea of 'living the art' - suggested recording in one continuous session spanning four months, with no days off. While this undoubtedly added to the intense, claustrophobic feel to the songs, it left Jones emotionally shattered – "I'd never do anything like that again," he would later remark. Also, Alan Wilder was becoming progressively more proficient as the 'studio techno-bod' and began to muscle in on the role previously taken by Miller and Jones. Four months, no break, toes being trodden on – sounds like one long party.

The lead single for Black Celebration was 'Stripped'. It's an ominous and intriguing pop song – the lines "You're breathing in fumes / I taste when we kiss" exude the opaque carnality typical of Gore's lyrical style at that time. Sonically, 'Stripped' relies on the heavy use of samples to generate its metallic jaggedness – the song starts with a sample of the ignition from Gahan's Porsche, while the backbone of the track is the splutter of an idling motorbike.

Wilder's all-consuming and often tortuous quest for samples did create the Bladerunner-meets-techno vibe on the superb 'Fly On The Windscreen - Final'. While Gahan intones that "Death is everywhere," the song squelches, burps and bleeps like a Synclavier set to apocalyptic mode. Sampling guru DJ Shadow quotes Black Celebration as one of his favourite ever albums, claiming the band gave him his "interest in synth music." Depeche Mode's influence on electronic dance music is, perhaps, hugely underrated.

Arguably the best song on Black Celebration is the track that relies least on studio alchemy. 'A Question Of Lust' sees Martin Gore's growing lyrical confidence explore the covert paranoia of sexual relationships. Over a distinctly conventional melody, Gore reveals his vulnerabilities - "I need to drink / More than you seem to think / Before I'm anyone's." It's a beautifully constructed song – Melody Maker called it the band's "greatest moment."

Indeed, lyrically, Gore seemed at his best when exploring the more desperate elements of relationships and the tension between sex, trust and love. He claimed that "70 per cent of my songs are about sex," and the assertion seems to hold for Black Celebration, be it the promise of one last shag before obliteration on 'Fly On The Windscreen - Final' or the hopelessness of "She doesn't trust him / But he will do" on the deceptively corrupt 'World Full Of Nothing'. However, Gore struggled when his words veered away love and lust. The soap-boxing on 'New Dress' - which rallies against the nation's obsession with Princess Diana's latest fashion statement, set amid a backdrop of shocking news headlines ("Girl, 13, attacked with knife") – was delivered with the subtlety of a sonic boom.

The final single from _Black Celebration was 'A Question Of Time'. It is a fairly standard Depeche dance chugger (although apparently about a predatory male trying to corrupt a minor) and is more notable for its promotional video. It was the first time the band had worked with Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn (who had previously thought they were "sissies" and only agreed to the project because it allowed him to film in America). Corbijn would go onto produce many of Depeche Mode's promo videos, including those for 'Personal Jesus' and the iconic 'Enjoy The Silence'.

Black Celebration elevated Depeche Mode to arena-tour status in the UK, while cementing their popularity in America (where they partied their way through a 29-date tour). It also began the trio of career-defining albums including 1987's Music For The Masses and the crossover, stadium-filler Violator (1990). This run of form perhaps captures the band's musical zenith, before their subsequent output became bogged-down and fractured by Dave Gahan's spiraling drug use. Martin Gore was central to this period of creative highs – the quiet, introspective boy had developed into a brutally honest and sonically expansive musician.

Tim Russell
Mar 6, 2011 6:42am

Seen them live a few times but they were never better than on the Black Celebration tour, though that maybe because it was the first concert I'd ever been to so I was doubly excited. Not the same now they're messing about with guitars & real drums!

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claybo
Mar 9, 2011 12:12am

nice article, makes me want to revisit my second fave album by my first fave band. Cheers. Nice to see the Mode getting a love on this site.

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Ken Dodd
Mar 9, 2011 12:34pm

Loves this Record!!!

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pimpf
Mar 9, 2011 3:15pm

I think the verdict on Some Great Reward is a little harsh. yes the two most obvious tracks had their naivety and were a little clunky, but there are moments on that album which segue right into Black Celebration, and certainly the sampling bricolage originated in Construction Time Again's Neubauten-alike musique concrete experiments. BC was a record in which technology began to facilitate ideas which DM had been brewing for the last two albums, and Gore's songwriting is definitely at its strongest, lyrically, but certainly from SGR Lie To Me is the perfect bridge between the DDR-romance of Construction Time and the Camus-influenced dystopic lust of BC.

Also, whilst gore was pivotal, at that time the influences of Miller, Jones and Wilder can not be underestimated. Anyone who has heard Gore's demos or seen the documentaries will realise that he relied heavily on these three to make his often barely recognisable first versions into the final tracks they became.

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hans
Mar 9, 2011 7:44pm

In reply to pimpf:

Can you elaborate on the camus influenced comment ?

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pimpf
Mar 9, 2011 10:40pm

In reply to hans:

in regard to BC or 'Lie to me' sitting between BC and CTA?

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hans
Mar 10, 2011 11:34am

In reply to hans:

I just want to know more about how you see the connection between camus and bc ?

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Apop
Mar 23, 2011 7:58pm

Great article. I've been a rather rabid fan for far too many years now (i say "far too many" 'cos it just means I'm getting OLD!) and I had no idea there was such tumult during this period.

I agree with Mr. Freeman's sentiment, this is the album where they found their legs. And tho they would go on to more efficient and polished songs, this album, I believe, has the most character.

Some of the songs feel a bit more raw than those on the subsequent albums, but to me that makes them more endearing.

And 'Dressed in Black' is a wonderful and silly ('silly' in the best way) tribute to young lust. It hit me like a brick at 13, and I still smile like a youngster every time I hear it.

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Spacemoth
Jul 8, 2013 12:40am

It's always intriguing to revisit earlier albums by some of your favourite artists if only to see whether or not they have really improved with age and/or stood the test of time .... Black Celebration is one of those that has always given me a few headaches.... chiefly because at the time I thought it was a brave but essentially flawed album - much like its two immediate predecessors, Construction Time Again (1983) and Some Great Reward (1984).

I suppose BC can be looked at as the concluding part of this particular trilogy whereby the band had more or less refined the widescreen and increasingly darker sound they were aiming for. As with those two, there are a fair few weak links present here: chiefly the tracks "Sometimes" (far too short and lyrically slight to be of any consequence), the rather perfunctory "Here Is The House" and the clangorously iffy socio-commentary of "New Dress". Even now I skip these three tracks because they just don't engage with me on any level whatsoever ... On the other hand, when you have two utter gems (both Gore-sung) as "Question Of Lust" and "It Doesn't Matter Two" (that's Alan Wilder's obsession with Koyaanisqatsi-era Philip Glass [he would later further explore/pastiche this with Recoil's first two releases] manifesting itself for the first time on a DM record!) gracing the very strong [track 4 excepted] first half of this album, it more than compensates..... and not forgetting how damned mighty and cinematic "Stripped" sounds even now!

The only other problem I have with the [sound of the] album is the tinny mix..... there is too much treble and not enough bass in the way the whole thing was mastered. Listening to it with headphones there is this confusing melee of conflicting sounds and noises that just seem to be ricocheting around from channel to channel which nevertheless end up being lost in the general flatness of the production.... They rectified this oversight, however, with their next album Music For The Masses, with Dave Bascombe making a pretty good job of doing justice to the increasingly sophisticated arrangements.

Funnily enough, my preferred version of BC - one which I actually put on C90 tape way back then! - dispenses with the aforementioned 3 weak links and instead includes the wonderfully moody and downbeat "But Not Tonight", plus the stunningly atmospheric instrumental "Christmas Island". The running order would be as follows:

1) Black Celebration
2) Fly On The Windscreen - Final
3) A Question of Lust
4) Christmas Island
5) It Doesn't Matter Two

6) A Question Of Time
7) Stripped
8) World Full Of Nothing
9) Dressed In Black
10) But Not Tonight

That would in my opinion make it the first flawless DM album!!! (Well, until the arrival of "Violator", of course)

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