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Black celebration: Depeche Mode’s Violator at 30

It’s 1990, and the trajectory of synthpop had undergone many great changes, the main one being that it had kind of dissolved. As the Eighties mutated into the Nineties, the fashion of big, bouncy, keyboard-led tunes had seemingly passed. 

David Bowie had now refashioned himself as a beardy rocker in the thankfully short-lived Tin Machine, the Pet Shop Boys had just been relieved of their chart-slaying imperial phase, hip-hop was in the ascendant, and something called grunge was hovering ominously around the corner.

Thirty years ago, listeners were looking for newer sounds for the newest decade. Most of the lads I knew in the Milton Keynes of 1990 had discovered Public Enemy, and the girls, well, they were excited by some cheesy New Kids On The Block in more ways than one.

As is evident of the evolutionary nature of pop music, if you didn’t keep up…well, you were simply left behind. But sometimes an album comes along and changes things forever, almost always when you least expect it. When Depeche Mode’s seventh studio album arrived that March, a whole three years after the colossal Music For The Masses, it certainly changed things. And how.

Co-produced by Flood at the insistence of Mute Record’s Daniel Miller, Violator set a new benchmark in electronic pop music – a benchmark that not only critics and fans recognised, but also an impressive number of the moody quartet’s contemporaries. Take the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant for example, who admitted during an interview that they felt the need to up their sonic game during the recording sessions for Behaviour with Harold Faltermeyer in Munich in the spring of 1990.

“We were listening to Violator by Depeche Mode, which was a very good album and we were deeply jealous of it.” 

Bandmate Chris Lowe, the “other one” couldn’t help but agree, conceding that 

“They had raised the stakes.”

Keyboardist Lowe also once remarked that his bent would be to underpin Depeche Mode’s tuneful songs with a just discernible noisiness, thereby shifting it away from straightforward pop music. You could say that with Violator they managed to achieve that without him.

Now a decade into their recording career, one healthy sign of Depeche Mode’s continued success into the ‘90s, bucking the trend where the PSBs faltered in commercial terms, was that a new generation of pop fans could accept a synthesizer band as heroes as long as their sound evolved, particularly in America, rather than just insist on groups armed with rock’s traditional guitar, drum and bass arsenal. This is important because rock was badly in need of new textures and character.

Martin Gore, the Mode’s main songwriter since the departure of Vince Clarke, is, of course, a guitarist, and has certainly employed the instrument—subtly—on the odd gem in their catalogue. On Violator his strumming is most notable on the set’s first single that preceded it in 1989. 

With its grungy take on techno—or was it a techie take on grunge?—Personal Jesus was striking and swaggeringly confident lead single, and the first Mode track to push the guitar all the way up front. Inspired by bluesy Robert Johnson style riffs and Elvis Presley, Gore drew fuzzy garage-rock tones that emphasised the juicy contrast between his instrument’s organic intensity and the sleeker surfaces of the group’s programmed rhythms.

The song pretty much qualifies as the first true rock ’n’ roll number of the band’s career. And in a way it’s also their first original song influenced by Americana, after testing the territory on the US road-tripper Route 66, the B-side to 1987’s Behind The Wheel single. Having said that, Personal Jesus’s sonic dominance is ultimately provided by the techno throb supplied by Gore, Alan Wilder and (allegedly) Alan Fletcher. Which was a fact not lost on Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar, who wanted everyone to know that “I was never a huge fan of synth music in the Eighties, but that song has a badass groove and a cool lyric.”

That distinction helped set Violator’s tone from the start. Wilder began taking a production grip at about the time Anton Corbijn started refiltering the band’s image, and his sonic masterstrokes cannot be underestimated.

Violator’s title comes from Gore recognising that the main radio play in the late ‘80s was heavy rock and metal: AC/DC, Bon Jovi, Kiss and all those high-haired bores. So he came up with the most “extreme and ridiculously hardcore” word as a jokey fuck-you to the music industry and then created one of the greatest electronica albums of all time, even if the end result isn’t too far removed from the alternative rock genre in both its tone and doomy outlook. The song was also covered by Marilyn Manson and Tori Amos (separately, not together), but its the haunting version by a terminally ill John Cash covering Personal Jesus kind of confirms its immortality.

However, their ascent into stadium rock gods aside, the heart of Depeche Mode’s appeal is usually Gore’s songwriting. Lyrically, he has a way of striking sharp Morrissey-like emotional chords while articulating the loneliness, anxiety and fear of impending doom and/or nothingness that seem to particularly afflict teens in the midst of a pre-pre-pre-midlife crisis. Albeit with less of the compelling literary or poetic edge that the former Smiths man has made his own.

Combine that with irritatingly catchy melody lines sung in Dave Gahan’s minor-key monotone over eminently danceable industrial rhythms, throw in a geeky-looking haircut or two, and voila! One order of depresso-techno-pop coming up.

Remember those charmingly upbeat ditties like Just Can’t Get Enough that filled the school discos? As the 1980s progressed, Gore’s subject matter became weightier as the Mode’s sonic landscape looked increasingly brooding and oppressive. Vince Clarke’s trademark tinny New Romantic sound he transplanted into Yazoo and then Erasure became all but some distant memory.

Policy of Truth and World In My Eyes pulsate atop darkly seductive, lean dance rhythms that virtually out-Kraftwerk Kraftwerk, which was more than timely seeing as how the Düsseldorf pioneers didn’t release a solitary new composition for the entire 1990s.

The result is a more bare, and at times almost ambient work that distinguishes itself from its predecessors, somehow managing to be both artful and demanding: Blue Dress is sleazy and eerie, Halo creepily intense, while with their low-key percolating beats and guitar screeches the tasty triumvirate of Clean, Sweetest Perfection and Waiting For The Night are haunting, pensive ballads that attempt a dark poetry on the effects of desire and drug addiction, something which would almost claim Gahan’s life just a few years later.

The music is more Kraftwerkian than ever on the undoubted tour de force: With its sublime guitar arpeggios and spine-tingling synth scrapes, Enjoy The Silence is a sonic masterpiece that throbs with a pristine yet punishing musical environment; Gahan staying unvaryingly sombre as he voices unsettling lyrics of darkness and violence played out over an atmospheric, disciplined techno pulse.

The pinnacle of this Depeche Mode masterwork, and a shining light for these unknowable and troubling times, its words: “All I ever wanted, all I ever needed is right here in my arms, words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm,” are like a warm truthful embrace, assuring us that even in solitude, we can yet flourish together.

“Strangely, the thing that immediately came to mind was that I could hear Neil Tennant singing it in my head,” Alan Wilder says of his first listen of the original demo. “Something about the line ‘all I ever wanted’ sounded very Pet Shop Boys to me.”

Returning the Basildon four-piece to the UK Top 10 for the first time in six years, Enjoy The Silence would go on to become one of the Mode’s biggest ever hits, a precision engineered slice of beautiful dark pop that thirty years still on sounds absolutely timeless. With the possible exception of the Pets‘ own beautifully elegiac Being Boring, issued later the same year, if there’s a single from the 1990s any better than Enjoy The Silence then, hell, why don’t I know about it?

It’s so easy to understand why Violator set the benchmark in electronic music. The result of a band as talented and challenging of itself as Depeche Mode, continually pushing its music and ideas into new fields of sound. Fastidiously formulated and flawlessly executed, it’s a mature, elegant, majestic, compelling and wholly satisfying album that raised the stakes in the genre to devastating effect.

In 1990, the challenge for was for Depeche Mode to grow with its youngish audience. While that may have been difficult for a group about to enter its second decade, there were giant steps forward taken on Violator that not only gave the quartet their biggest-selling album in Britain and first top tenner in the US (fittingly, for a record that grabbed inspiration from various corners of America), but assured their place in rock and pop history as one of the most creatively and commercially successful bands of the last 40 years.

More significantly it altered their perspective and fans’ perception of them. While the synth-pop label continued to follow the band long after guitars, live drums and deeper, darker music became fixtures in its sound, the group effortlessly transformed into dominant rock radio staples and arena headliners across the globe while evoking a joyfulness and thrill in exploring the darker quarters of our psyches.

In other words, Kraftwerk for the masses. 

Steve Pafford

BONUS BEATS: On their now notorious two-night stint at Dodger Stadium in Elysian Park,  in August 1990, Depeche Mode were supported by opening act Nitzer Ebb and an auspicious appearance of second-billed Electronic, a collaboration between New Order singer Bernard Sumner and ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr with assistance from a couple of Pet Shop Boys. The much anticipated debut live appearance of Tennant/ Lowe in the US boiled down to just two songs, Getting Away With It and the unreleased Patience Of A Saint (through they’d go one better when they repeated the rare live four-way in London the following year.

Oh, and see if this sounds a little familiar. Naughty!

Depeche Mode do Bowie’s Heroes for more than one day is here 

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