30 years ago Depeche Mode released their fifth studio album, Black Celebration. It boggles my mind that this is the 30th anniversary, but here we are. What follows is my “Depeche Mode story”. Every Depeche Mode fan has one. So stop now if you just wanted a quick appraisal of the album and how it stacks up today. I’ll do that too, but I can’t do this album the injustice of simply saying something like “sounds as fresh today as it did when it was released”.
So, in March 1986, I had purchased precisely one Depeche Mode album, and that was the singles compilation released just before Christmas 1985. I had played that over and over, being mildly amused that I had never pieced their career together, uttering “ohhhh, that was THEIR song” as I listened to the familiar-yet-largely-ignored (by me) trajectory of songs from “Dreaming Of Me” to “It’s Called A Heart”.
I had purchased that cassette with some Christmas tokens, along with Duke by Genesis. I grew up in a house filled with rock music from two older sisters, and by this time had already seen Status Quo, Judie Tzuke and Sting live. My creative other half (of Photostat Machine) was already a huge Mode fan, and had scrawled the lyrics to “Shake The Disease” on his school bag. This single act had intrigued me enough to get more interested in their music.
So when it was announced shortly after Christmas that a new album was on the way, and a UK Tour to boot, excitement built, and tickets were purchased. I was not braced for what followed. Namely, the release of lead single “Stripped”. Jesus Fucking Christ. Game over. THE most powerful, menacing yet beautiful song I had ever heard. I was a drummer-in-waiting. I had spent the previous few years driving my family mad by picking up knitting needles and drumming on every surface in the house. My parents relented and bought me a drum kit. I was obsessed with rhythms. Art Of Noise released “Close (To The Edit)” and the door was opened. “Stripped” blew the house down.
How can you make a song which is driven by the sound of a motorbike engine idling? Depeche Mode didn’t use a ‘drum kit’. They just beat the crap out of anything they could find and made rhythms out of it. Later, on stage, this manifested itself on that tour with what looked like white iron Christmas trees, all mic’ed up and loaded with banging and crashing samples. By the end of the gig I was partially deaf. Neil, next to me, was joining in the call for an encore by bellowing the band’s name “De-we-woh” he appeared to be saying. I couldn’t process the hard consonants. Or was he not saying them?
Wait. Black Celebration. Ok, sorry. Here we go. By this time I subscribed to a magazine called Record Mirror. They were obsessed with The Cure and New Order, but Depeche never got a bad review. I eagerly awaited the review of Black Celebration. 4 out of 5. “Strength through whimpery” was the tone. Black Celebration. 4 out of 5. “Strength through whimpery” was the tone.
So let’s unpack this album. The thing I was supposed to be doing from the outset. But you need the context. This was a life-changing album for me. Off the back of it’s release, Neil bought a keyboard and we started writing songs with the vague (and still unrealized) hope that we would be able to write something that ‘sounded like Depeche Mode’. You can’t create Black Celebration in a bedroom. Certainly not in 1986, hunched over a Yamaha PSS-460, one person at each end of the 3-octave keyboard. Elbow room? Who needs that!
Looking back, you get the sense this album was a bit of a watershed for Depeche Mode themselves. Up until this point, the image had been slightly all over the place. The songs were largely ‘pop’ in nature, sometimes overtly so. There were boundaries being pushed and they didn’t sound like any of their so-called contemporaries. But they were a feature in the Top 10 of the singles charts. Something a teenage boy in 1986 cared very much about. I remember crowding round the radio at lunchtime to hear the latest chart rundown and assuming there had been a mistake when “A Question Of Lust” was announced to have non-moved at number 28 in its second week. It was supposed to have leapt into the top 20, surely? Depeche Mode always released an additional 12” in the second week to help boost sales. They didn’t do this with any of the releases on Black Celebration.
So the early 80’s had seen big Top 10 hits, from “Just Can’t Get Enough” to “Master And Servant” with many other Top 10s in between. “Stripped”, by far the most original and stunning release of their career, stalled at number 15. It’s quite possible no-one knew what to do with this.
The title, the clothing (they all switched to an all-leather look), and the dark video, bashing bits of knackered cars in a foggy looking scrapyard at night, as you do, all created a new identity for Depeche Mode and their fans. Enter “The Black Swarm”. Of course, from the “A Question Of Time” video onwards they teamed up with Anton Corbijn and finally sorted the videos and image out, but let’s not worry about that now.
So in the build up to this review I have been playing the album over and over through my headphones. Commuting, walking, lying in silence in my room. Black Celebration is not, I confess, one of the albums I return to when fancying a dose of Mode. I’ll more often visit it’s older brother, Some Great Reward, or maybe the brattish, stadium-filling offspring, Music For The Masses. I’d always filed many of these tracks away as, well, a bit, ‘meh’. So this was a genuine reintroduction for me. Songs I know intimately yet I’ve not communed with for a while.
Black Celebration opens with the title track, something they had never done before and haven’t done since. It begins menacingly, with low synth sounds and what sounds like Dave Gahan impersonating a sheep. Daniel Miller impersonates Winston Churchill saying “a brief period of rejoicing” and in comes the rhythmic synth-glockenspiel sound and we’re off. This is a musical theme of the album I think, with much of the rhythm actually provided by short synth stabs rather than drums. The bass and snare are usually very 1-2-1-2 and simple. There are almost no cymbals. It’s the way the songs are filled by tones and atmosphere as well as drums that sets it apart I think from other albums of the time.
This track, anthemic chorus, but downbeat message (it’s been a shitty day, let’s all get pissed) finishes as it began, and we are moved seamlessly into “Fly On The Windscreen”. A strange choice insofar as it was a b-side to the previous single release, “It’s Called A Heart”. However, as with each Mode album before it, you can hear similarities, but a definite progression in sound. The message? Erm, well, ‘death is everywhere, there are flies on the windscreen, for a start’. I love that ‘for a start’. It’s so British. I mean, look at all this shit, but we don’t even have to look any further than the bloody (literally) windscreen!
Then comes the first Gore-sung song. This album has four Martin Gore sung songs on it. More than any other. I firmly believe that had there not been so many, he probably would have sung “Dressed In Black” as well, but maybe we’ll never know. The thing is, Martin Gore tends to sing on songs which are slower, and often more intricate and intimate than the others. So by bagging four on this album, you’ve immediately got twice as many ‘slow and quirky’ songs as any other album. I think this is where my ‘on paper’ reluctance to return to this album as readily as others, comes from. He has taken the lead vocal on my all-time favourite Mode song though (“Home”), so it’s not an open ‘objection’!
So, “A Question Of Lust”. Once reviewed as ‘Phil Spector under a train’. Difficult to think past that really. It’s beautiful. Not a wimpy kid anthem. Of course it can’t be a simple love song. We have to consider love as a slightly perverted thing, as borne of lust rather than anything more pure. But that’s ok. We’re all dressed in leather, so it’s got to be a little bit seedy.
So far, so atmospheric and ‘big’. Then we get our first twist. “Sometimes”, sings what sounds like a choir at a funeral. Martin Gore steps up to the microphone and we are subject to overlaid, strangely offset vocals with just a piano for backing. ‘Sometimes, only sometimes, you must be, as embarrassing as me’. My only complaint about this song is that it is not long enough. It’s under 2 minutes! It’s just beautiful. A stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful. I have replayed this over and over, as some external noise or visual distraction put me off. It requires your full attention. Lie back, turn off the lights, and let it wash over you. You can do that for 1 minute 54 seconds, can’t you?
Then, because we haven’t had enough of Martin’s lead vocals, we get “It Doesn’t Matter Two”. This is the son or daughter of “It Doesn’t Matter” from Some Great Reward. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with it, but it doesn’t really stand much chance having come after the previous two Gore-sung songs. The theme of insecurity and of questioning love continues. After lust, and being embarrassed at how embarrassing you are, we have shame. ‘As I lay here with you, the shame lies with us, we talk of love and trust, it doesn’t matter’. This may well be Depeche Mode’s break-up album. It’s been pretty well disguised, and these are songs Adele wouldn’t go anywhere near, but I think I prefer this version of impending (or recent) doomed love.
The next section of the album should be 3 singles in a row, but I’ll get to that. First comes “A Question Of Time”. The song regularly gets an outing at gigs even now, and it’s easy to see why. It’s ‘Metal Mode’. A bit of a stomper really. Lyrically, I’m really unsure what’s going on. Are we happy that Dave is going to take a 15 year old girl under his wing? ‘Somebody should’. So it’s ‘come and stay with me before the real perverts get to you’. I’d rather not think about it, but the song is a corker nonetheless!
“Stripped”. Ah. “Stripped”. I could talk all day and night about it. I won’t. This time. When people talk about ‘anthemic’ songs, they have to listen to this. This is the benchmark. It makes ‘dark and brooding’ run away and hide. This is menacing, beautiful, powerful and uplifting. The playout, especially in extended form, is just a perfect piece of music. The sampled rhythms, the under-layers of synth chords and the glorious melody played over the top. It should be our national anthem. Sorry, “Jerusalem”, but you’re just a bit ‘pedestrian’ in comparison. Ok, enough. Well played though, Depeche Mode, extremely well played.
You can’t go anywhere after that. However, after listening to this album about 30 times over in the last fortnight or so (the pain of research!) I have come to realize that “Here Is The House” should have been a single. I can see a link directly from “Shake The Disease”. It starts off innocently enough and you’d think we’re in for another ballad. But this is perhaps the most intricate song on the album. There are so many layers of music going on it’s astonishing how it all sounds so simple and yet so beautiful. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a hint of happiness creeping through. Nothing seedy, no guilt, just ‘those tender moments, under this roof’. But don’t worry, Martin is about to come and spoil it all again.
“World Full Of Nothing” is the last of the Gore sung songs on the album. I love the way this song ends. The simple arpeggio synth repeating til fade. It’s another of the very naked songs on the album. Almost no rhythm, simple melodies intertwining. It’s not a song full of nothing at all. But after all the happiness and love in the previous song, it’s back to old misery guts singing ‘Nothing is true, but he will do in a world full of nothing’. Yay! Better than nothing is as good as it gets. Thanks, Mr. Gore.
The last two tracks are where the album maybe runs out of puff a little. “Dressed In Black” should probably have been sung by Martin, as I suggested before. It’s a bit of a misery-waltz but it does cement the theme of ‘blackness’ across the album.
“New Dress” is one of Mode’s ‘message’ songs. They had “Shouldn’t Have Done That”, pretty much all of Construction Time Again, “People Are People”, and now the press get a bashing for focusing on Princess Di’s new dress. I wonder how the modern era of social media would play out in this song if it were written today. We write our own headlines now. Still, musically I actually like this song, particularly the strong opening bass synth and kick drum. It’s the kind of song only Depeche Mode could write. It closes an album only Depeche Mode could write. An album which, 30 years on from release, still rewards the listener with space, melody, power and vulnerability. If you’ve never heard it, go and have a play now, starting with Stripped. If you haven’t played it for a while, just go back to it and enjoy it from start to finish. After the shitty week at work you’ve had, you deserve better than just a pint or several. Let this be your soundtrack.