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A Strange Love: Depeche Mode's Music For The Masses Revisited
John Freeman , October 25th, 2012 05:35

Twenty-five years after its release, John Freeman looks back at the career-defining, America-conquering album that saw the Essex quartet perfect their brand of "electronic metal"

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In the six-year time span between their debut single (1981’s ‘Dreaming Of Me’) and the release of a mighty sixth album, Music For The Masses, Depeche Mode went through a major artistic metamorphosis. Throughout this period I’d been a huge fan and part of the attraction was the ease with which I could relate to their transformation. In 1981, as an 11-year-old, I was still very much a child, eager to please all and sundry. I hadn’t worked out any of even the most basic fundamentals of who or what I wanted to be. Likewise, Depeche Mode’s early singles were bouncing, bippety-boppety synth-pop that possessed innocence and an almost childlike naivety.

By 1984, they’d released the ‘Master And Servant’ single, which nudged and winked a path towards S&M, but ensured the band looked faintly ridiculous clad in bondage gear on Top Of The Pops. I think of it as Depeche Mode’s awkward teenage phase and it coincided with me being 14 and beginning to become aware of my sexuality, but without any idea of how to express it. I’d met my very first girlfriend, but she would only let me kiss her if we played Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ in the background (which, in retrospect, was very wrong on an infinite number of levels) and with the lights turned off.

I was 17 in 1987, an age that lies on the cusp of adulthood. It was harder to blame my mistakes on youthful bluster and, looking back, was a stage at which I craved a sense of direction and purpose. Depeche Mode were a step ahead of me – 1986’s Black Celebration, a record I adored, had begun the process of redefining the band’s sound, but it was Music For The Masses - released in the September of 1987 - that delivered a suite of songs which cemented their burgeoning maturity and confidence. Depeche Mode had grown up. Unlike me, they’d left their gangly pubescence behind.

Music For The Masses was a defining release for Depeche Mode, and America in particular gorged on its charms. By the end of the album’s promotional tour, the four boys from Basildon - whose debut single had stalled at number 57 in the UK charts - played a show to 70,000 fans at the Pasadena Rose Bowl. That’s quite a step up.

With Music For The Masses, Depeche Mode seemed to have grown into their sonic skin. The signs had been there for a while – I’d loved their criminally underrated 1985 single ‘Shake The Disease’ and felt Black Celebration was their best album yet. However, Music For The Masses pushed them further into new territory. The use of sampling was drastically reduced (there are only so many times a band can make the recording of a hammer hitting a pipe sound interesting), while experimentation with synths and an increased use of guitars and drums nourished Martin Gore’s dark and clever songwriting.

By early 1987, Gore had moved back to London from Berlin, but not before soaking up the German city’s club scene, while keyboard player Alan Wilder had released an experimental solo album (1 + 2) under the name Recoil, which showcased a love of minimalist artists such as Philip Glass. Singer Dave Gahan had become a father for the first time, so the creation of Music For The Masses became a three-step process; Gore would write a basic song structure, Wilder would then arrange the music and the full band would add the final flourish in the recording studio. The end product was a tougher but richer sound, described by Gahan as “electronic metal”.

The album was recorded at Studio Guillaume Tell outside Paris and, significantly, without the direct input of producer Daniel Miller, who had worked on all five previous Depeche albums. The arduous Black Celebration sessions had brought the band’s relationship with Miller (who also ran the Mute record label) to breaking point and fresh ideas were required.

Depeche Mode turned to Dave Bascombe, who’d impressed with his work on Tears For Fears’ blockbusting Song From The Big Chair. The change of producer (although Wilder would subsequently claim that Bascombe played the role of engineer rather than producer) ensured the recording sessions were relaxed (even if Andy Fletcher dubbed Paris ‘Dog Turd City’) and inspired the title of a video documentary - Sometimes You Do Need Some New Jokes - included with the album’s 2006 re-release.

The first track that saw the light of day was lead single ‘Strangelove’. For me, it’s one of the album’s two weak tracks (the other being the misfiring ‘Sacred’) and sounded like a dot-to-dot Depeche Mode song bedevilled by a clunking chorus. However, the next single more than made up for any concerns I had about the Mode’s new material. ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ was absolutely mighty. It’s still my favourite Depeche Mode song and the felt like the perfect fusion of a huge synthesized riff, arena-sized beats (the track incorporated a Led Zeppelin drum sample) and a delicious chorus. Gore’s lyrics were a heady mix of drug references and homo-erotica and ‘Never Let Me Down Again’ would quickly become one of the band’s biggest live performances.

The promo videos for both singles were directed by Anton Corbijn, who had previously worked with them on their ‘A Question Of Time’ single. Put simply, the Dutch filmmaker brought Depeche Mode a slug of credibility. Shot in grainy black and white, and featuring central female characters for the first time in the band’s video history (although they were all waifish models, so it was hardly radical feminist art), both videos looked fantastic. “I think Anton saved us, visually,” Gahan admitted on Sometimes You Do Need Some New Jokes.

The artwork for Music For The Masses was pretty smart too. I bought the album on geektastic limited edition transparent vinyl (although my copy had a nasty black smudge entombed within its loveliness) and the cover was a sleek design by artist Martyn Atkins who created his “propaganda and open spaces” concept using East German motif imagery and landscape photography of the Peak District.

But, even with some neat packaging and with Anton Corbijn as a champion, it was the songs that made Music For The Masses so special. Martin Gore had become a luminous songwriter. The two tracks on which he provided lead vocals highlighted his ability to write songs from a very personal place and work them into anthems for a stadium of fans. ‘The Things You Said’ was an intimate eavesdrop on an end-of-relationship conversation. “I’ve heard it from my friends/ About the things you said/ I’ve never felt so disappointed” he sang, defeated and dejected. Even better was the sex-pestering ‘I Want You Now’, on which Gore laid out his carnal wish-list against a backdrop of wheezing accordion sounds and samples from porn movies.

That’s not to say that Gore kept the best songs for himself to sing. With Gahan on lead vocal duties, Music For The Masses played out its beautiful balance between edgy experimentation and giant pop songs. The chorus-less ‘Behind The Wheel’ pulsed over a simple repeated chord pattern (I’d take great delight years later when Depeche Mode would be cited as an influence on techno), while aping the ‘Big Sky-driving’ songs that would sit so well with an American audience. The jittery ‘Little 15’ was inspired by Michael Nyman’s score for the Peter Greenaway film A Zed And Two Noughts, while ‘To Have And To Hold’ was sinister electronica with Gahan confessing a lust for salvation. Easily the album’s oddest track was the closing ‘Pimpf’, which began as an eerie Wilder piano refrain before descending into crashing metallic samples and doomladen chanting.

And if Music For The Masses managed to sound good on my absolutely shit (thanks, Sir Sugar) Amstrad, it birthed a thrilling live show. By January 1988, the album’s promotional tour had schlepped to Manchester’s cavernous G-MEX venue. Ably supported by Hard Corps (whose singer wore a totally backless outfit – and I mean totally), Depeche Mode had perfected their electronic metal show, even if Gahan flailed around like a marionette after too much Sunny Delight and Gore looked like he’d raided the S&M section at H&M.

But, even then, the band’s fanbase was a bit of a mystery to me. None of my school friends liked, or at least admitted to liking, Depeche Mode. I’d never – and still haven’t - met anyone who would describe themselves as a huge fan, but here they were selling out a 9,000-seat arena. The Mancunian woodwork must have been frightfully empty that night.

However, slowly and surely by word-of-mouth, America were starting to truly ‘get’ Depeche Mode, and the band began to nuzzle into the ‘post-college radio’ stratosphere inhabited by REM and U2. Music For The Masses entered the Billboard Top 40 (a first for them) before eventually selling over a million copies in the US alone. A thirty-odd date North American tour was captured by legendary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker on the ground-breaking 101 feature-length documentary. Pennebaker would beautifully portray the grind of touring, set against a faintly bizarre sub-plot featuring of a bus-load of Depeche fans following their heroes across the continent.

The climax of the Music For The Masses tour (and the documentary) was the 101st show at the venerable Rose Bowl in Pasadena on June 18 1988. Supported by OMD and Thomas Dolby, the band played to their largest ever audience. The gig felt like a landmark – Depeche Mode had somehow managed to become one of the biggest bands in the world even if few folk would outwardly confess to liking them. I loved Depeche all the more for their achievement.

On the Sometimes You Do Need Some New Jokes film, Martin Gore recalls how he named the album with a “tint of irony". The awkward, uncool Depeche Mode were never supposed to make music for the masses. Their next album, 1990’s stadium-ready Violator, would sell over four million copies and spawn two global anthems in ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘Enjoy The Silence’. Depeche Mode had grown wise beyond their years - Music For The Masses had fulfilled its own prophecy.

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Oct 25, 2012 10:46am

I was at the Birmingham show for that tour and always wondered afterwards why Hard Corps never made a bigger splash in that climate - they seems just the right band for that moment in time? One of my biggest merch annoyances was ripping my tour sweatshirt some years later. Sigh.

Pimpf/Fpmip, Stjarna, Agent Orange and the Aggro mix of Never Let Me Down Again (that bruising intro!) still stand out out high in the list of DM tracks for me.

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Robbin Sargent
Oct 25, 2012 11:19am

My first Deoeche gig, aged 15, was at the Bournemouth International Centre on the MFTM tour. Have seen them on every tour since, sometimes 2/3 times and travelled to Paris to see them for SOTU tour. They are one of Britain's biggest music exports, but their history of that early 80's poppy sound still denies them a bigger audience here in the UK. Never Let Me Down Again a DM classic, while Behind The Wheel is strangely brilliant. Here's to he new album in 2013 - I know it won't be another MFTM, but that's why DM are so great and have such longevity - hey keep evolving.

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Post-Punk Monk
Oct 25, 2012 2:16pm

As an American buying the records from day one, I liked DM without ever loving them. I was 18 when the first album dropped and it didn't impress, frankly. Not when I'd been into the likes of OMD and Ultravox prior. Fortunately, the second album was a quantum leap for my ears. DM were always second tier to me. Like Pet Shop Boys. They were a group that came after the wave of groundbreakers in the Post-Punk era. The more successful consolidators. Reliable, never awful, but just not at the primal level of a group like Japan or Simple Minds for me. The '77-'80 bands stand apart for me, perhaps because I was older than the writer. After buying any and all DM releases that were available through the "Violator" album [certainly a great record] and finally seeing the band after 10 years of fandom [playing in an arena of 18,000] on the Violator tour, I closed the book on DM and moved on. I can't say I've missed them for the last 20 years. This was a good album, but not a DM peak for me like "Some Great Reward" or "Violator."
For further ruminations on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

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Oct 25, 2012 2:33pm

Always a huge fan, and this is the high point for me. Violator's arguably the more consistent and slicker album, but Masses retains just enough of the first gen Mode goofiness (Sacred, as you point out, and elements of Nothing) to add extra charm, and it marks the beginning of Wilder's imperial phase in terms of song arrangement. Never Let Me Down is probably their finest hour, and minor gems like To Have And To Hold abound. Last of Martyn Atkins/T&CP's underrated cover art too, which I always preferred to Anton Corbijn's "scribble on a photo with a crayon" technique.

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Oct 25, 2012 4:33pm

1.Tears For Fears-2. Shout- 3. Dave Bascombe-4. Depeche Mode - 5. Never Let Me Down Again.

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Oct 25, 2012 7:30pm

The middle record in the DM holy triumvirate (Black Celebration, MFTM, Violator), it is one of my favs yet does not move me quite like the other two. Hard to explain why, exactly.

Not sure how Mr. Freeman finds Strangelove to be one of the weaker songs on the album as it's always been one of my favorite singles of theirs. Not to disparage you, sir, everyone has an opinion. Conversely, Never Let Me Down Again has always been a bit too stadium ready for me tho I will also say i like the song a lot. I enjoyed Mark's 5 step process to Never Let Me Down Again but I'd add 'Shout' is one of my least favorite songs of the Tears' lexicon.

Interesting that Post-Punk Monk doesn't have DM on the Simple Minds level for him whereas I would flip the two bands for me. Music is fun that way.

Thanks for the article, a nice journey back to exciting days.

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Post-Punk Monk
Oct 26, 2012 7:15pm

In reply to Apop:

Apop - Total agreement on "Strangelove," my favorite by far from M4TM. All of those mixes of it were worth the time and effort, too. Perspective: I heard current DM and SM the same year [1981], but DM on their first album were children making electro ditties and Simple MInds were peaking in 1981. That's the difference for me. Sure DM got better and SM got worse by the mid 80s but that still doesn't erase those first 6 SM albums; any of which I'd listen to before playing a DM album off the racks.

Mark - You are a genius! And Apop, I never liked "Shout" very much either. Props to Mark for articulating the big reason why to me for the first time in 25 years.
For further ruminations on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

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Oct 26, 2012 9:40pm

In reply to Post-Punk Monk:

Good call Monk, completely understandable that you'd favor Simple Minds - I didn't catch up with them until Alive and Kicking hit the airwaves here in the States. I liked them but wasn't terribly impressed. Then about 10 years after that my friend played 'Promised You a Miracle' and my jaw hit the floor. Their early material, a la OMD, is heads and shoulders above that which they produced by the time the US started paying attention.

Listened to MFTM again this morning and was reminded of the seriously beautiful songs and melodies on this record (not the singles). It sounds great on headphones and Alan Wilder's orchestrations are just absurdly good (about as absurdly good as Dave and Martin's vox).

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Ukhan Kizmiaz
Nov 2, 2012 3:09pm

I'm sorry but after Soft Cell - the real thing - DM was like the IKEA version, hugely popular with very annoing fans.

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Nov 18, 2012 8:33am

i can remember "Dee-pa-chay mode" on Calgary's CKXL with the gawd awe-full just can;t get enough, i was a weird kid, into my mom's led zep and janis joplin records... they were the enemy... i was like 9 or 10

forward to 85, for the first time i heard blasphemous rumours on a school sposored euro tour... as a banger, i was at first unsure... but it was good music... master and servant, people are people (and these were played at the school dances)

while gahan's claims of electronic metal are laughable (check ministry's over the shoulder for a more plausible claim) it was still musical enough and complicated enough for a rock fan.

1987... strangelove... full on pop, yet somehow stil kool... never let me down again, like really... well done. and the minimalism of behind the wheel... this punk/goth became hooked...

25 years, really wow, i feel old...

but to this day, the feeling of what lurks behind the noise on the things you said... still what a headphone experience...

thanks for the memories.

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Nov 18, 2012 1:15pm

beautiful review! You remind me that my first huge concert of a north hemisphere band was Depeche Mode, music for the masses, Denver 1988. Now, dedicated to prmote and work with music in China, and having been at millions of concerts, still that concert of Depeche Mode is one of the best I've been at. They simply expanded my world in the couple of hours I listened to their magic sounds. I remember I was standing on a chair swinging each song, yelling, like a mad south american teenager, and people around me was asking to seat down, I couldn't understand how people could not feel throught themselves the urge to stand up as high as possible and be big with the music, strange people that one that was not physically feeling the music. ha! anyway, now, listening again to the album while reading your review, woooow! yesterday night i was at a gig of kode9 here, and this whole week i've been listening to many new albums, specially techno and electronic stuff, yeah basses and beats are quiet strong and deep in ways that it was maybe not possible during the 80s, but wooow! depeche mode was bit part of the bridge that made the road for electronic music to become popular as it is now. but most importantly, to me, they expanded my universe, and made me feel new feelings with music. if they were so big that resulted in people hating them for their popularity, who cares, at the end the experience of music is personal anyway. Thanks for your review! and I hope your present girlfrien, partner, or whatever, has no silly restrictions for love. Cheers!

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Nov 20, 2012 5:54pm

A great read that brought back many memories of seeing DM live for the first time at Wembley Arena, when they toured MFTM. The 'Strange' video compilation that DM released during this era, slayed all the big hair and revolting shoulder pad styled crap that was clogging up MTV at that time!

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Paul Gallacher
Nov 19, 2014 11:33am

Many thanks for sharing your DM memories John, it was a very interesting read for this devotee.
My first sighting of Depeche Mode was of them in 1982 on TOTP singing Get the Balance Right
My first DM gig was on September 20 1983 Tiffanys on Sauchiehall Street Glasgow and the set-list (for anyone who is interested is linked here

(I find the website a great site for concert info on any band)

I also have a created my own DM top 20 along with my comments and memories on the following link and welcome any of your feedback to that

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