While standing beneath the live-remote MTV newsstand at the MTV Awards this past September, I overheard newscastress Tabitha Soren being prompted by her producer as each celebrity was led captive into her presence. "Next up is Dave Gahan," said her producer, during a rare lull. "Who's Dave Gahan?" asked Soren wonderingly. And you can hardly blame her. Though Gahan is lead singer for one of the world's most successful bands, and his face is all but omnipresent on MTV, neither his name nor his visage is really recognizable. Eddie Vedder would be green with envy. Gahan's strange facelessness may have something to do with the cold, cold sound of his band, Depeche Mode. It is easily the most popular synthesizer-driven new wave group of the last decade and, along with the Cure, one of the only to have survived the onslaught of grunge intact.
About 10 or 12 years ago, rock critics were required to discuss obsessively whether the advent of drum machines would ruin rock 'n' roll. Since that technologically dark time, recorded music, especially rap, has proved the critics' direst predictions wrong again and again. Despite all bets to the contrary, there has never been a convincing reason to stop people from learning how to drum. If anything, human drummers have become more precious, since outfits like Depeche Mode continue to demonstrate that without a human drummer, a band may as well be an android. The singer has not yet been discovered who can inflame rock music without the help of a unmechanized beat, and Depeche Mode's Gahan falls so short of the mark you wonder how he dares to try, year after year after year.
But try he does, with marked commercial (if not critical) success. Apparently, Depeche's tunes and values will always suit a certain kind of serious-but-pretty party kid, the same way adopting the ridiculously old-fashioned iconography of the Grateful Dead or of punk rock fits into the growing pangs of others. In Depeche Mode's 13-year history, it has succeeded in selling out large arenas, even stadiums, without benefit of genuine radio hits. (Most adult radio listeners couldn't name one.) The band did so even before MTV elevated their limited talents to art-level, and it has done so long after "new wave," the genre it helped perfect and within whose synthetic pop confines it still exists, faded from the short memories of Western youth.
Critics are supposed to pay attention when bands get this huge behind their backs: there must be a there there., goes our reasoning, or the band would diminish and die like so many other trend-oriented outfits. Depeche Mode has been huge in America for well over ten years, outliving one shrill generation of cute teenaged girls in magenta-and-turquoise-striped miniskirts and encountering the next. It is clearly accomplishing its task. But what that task is may forever elude sociologists. The band's music seems to fill up a trivial hole in the adolescent psyche.
After much thought, I think I've figured out why Depeche Mode is more beloved than other bands of its ilk (OMD, Human League, or New Order, for example). Depeche Mode has succeeded because its core audience is an ever-regenerating mass of black-clad boys and girls who think of themselves as alienated because they, as so many adolescents before them, have begun to doubt the precepts of Christianity. Adolescents like Depeche's heavy, remote lyrics and the way they are set in a mechanized beat, because you know what? The world's a really cold, cold place.
And this is a potentially huge market, given the ineffectiveness of organized religio in dealing with the modern world. Depeche songs are certainly simplistic, but after years of belittling the band for its trivial technical achievements, even the harshest critics have grudgingly admitted that Depeche Mode's somewhat pompous LPs (Speak & Spell, Music for the Masses, Black Celebration, the new Songs of Faith and Devotion) and its remake of "Route 66" have legs.
Of course, it's a sad comment if a trifling pop band like Depeche Mode is better able to appease America's spiritual needs than, say, the Catholic Church, yet it seems that DM's anti-religious (but pro-human) songs, like "Condemnation," "Walking in My Shoes," "Fly on the Windscreen," "Get the Balance Right," and "Personal Jesus," do exactly that. Lines like all I ever wanted, all I ever wanted, was here, in my heart and I don't want to start any blasphemous rumours, but I think that God's got a sick sense of humor reiterate conventional Christian thought while at the same time repudiating the need for it. In other words, Depeche Mode tells kids exactly what they want to hear, wrapping it all up in groovy rhythms and cool clothes. It preaches its lessons in the convincing language of the cliché: people are people is one of their famous, deathlessly correct choruses; so is everything counts in large amounts (duh!).
Granted, some fans don't give this content a second thought and don't need to have their feelings championed by a haircut band, but not many of this type were at the sold-out Sports Arena show last week, and their presence has not been crucial in making Depeche Mode one of the last decade's top sellers 1990's Violator sold six million copies; this year's Songs of Faith and Devotion will probably equal that over time.
Although Depeche Mode's songs have become less catchy over the years, and their live act is cold as ice, the kids still flock to see the, clad in stone-washed goth wear, DM t-shirts (one version of which costs 75!), and cute black boots. They dance frantically to those chilly beats, while Gahan sings and dances at the lip of the stage. The three other members, walled in by synths, hover over him on a platform, occasionally giving a poke to a keyboard or raising a fist. At the Sports Arena, there were long periods when no one even touched an instrument. In effect, Gahan does karaoke to recorded music — not that this bothers the audience. Kids brought up on MTV and Nintendo may well prefer the inhuman music and pinball-like distractions a band like this offers, rather than the gutsy imperfections of say, Pearl Jam or even the Grateful Dead. It's impossible to imagine DM pleasing without a shower of lights and video images to cover up their robotic nature.
The band's light show is, of course, stunning but reminiscent of so many past shows — ELO, Journey, Genesis, the Inspiral Carpets — where lights were needed because nothing else was going on. With Depeche, the audience invariably cheered whenever the lights flashed or changed colors, and whenever Gahan picked up the mike stand or touched his crotch. They also liked it when the lights would come up (that makes them feel he's looking right at them).
The set was decorated with giant faux-metal earrings of great ugliness. Many of the images shown on teh screens behind the singer were really hideous, in particular an awkward woman dressed as a bird for "Walking in My Shoes" and a series of blinking supermodels during "Behind the Wheel." The band's central image — of alienation — was clunkily illustrated during "Never Let Me Down" by a mummy floating in space behind the earth.
All this was a reminded that technology has changed not just rock music but the way people raised on it perceive and interact with the world. Rock music used to be an escape from the ghetto for uneducated members of the working class. It still is, but the advent of technology has complicated things. Performers, like members of Depeche Mode (not to mention Public Enemy), must now know about everything (especially such things as copmuters and interior design) except music. No doubt DM's synth players Alan Wilder, Andy Fletcher, and (primary songwriter) Martin Gore could easily write a software program specifying the bass line for "Route 66," but whether they can play guitar or even piano with the warmth and passion one expects from rock 'n' roll is another question entirely.
Luckily for them, they aren't expected to deliver that passion. But the seriously unsexy Gahan is. And when someone sings over backing tapes, he has to be hotter than July to make up for the chill factor — or else, like instürzende Neubauten 's Blixa Bargeld, be so cold as to scare the living daylights out of the listener. Gahan in neither. He's just dull. He does have a sonorous bass voice (unexpected, coming out of such a skinny and chinless body), and he uses it effectively, tolling out his earnest, rhyming verses about God's silence with nary a smile. But he undercuts it with his ridiculous, frantic disco dancing.
In recent interviews, DM members have discussed the limitations of synthesizers. In fact Gahan, who moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, decided he wished he were in a grunge band after recently seeing Rage Against the Machine. The bizarre result was that he tried to get famed grunge producer Butch Vig to produce Songs of Faith and Devotion (kind of like asking Sam Peckinpah to direct Home Alone 3). You can understand Gahan's impulse though: waking up one day at age 30 and thinking, "Help! I'm sick of being a Euro-weenie." Alas, he is what he is. To deny it would be (commercial) folly.
Luckily, the other members weren't under any illusions about what they do well; they scotched the grunge idea right at the start. According to Alan Wilder, when Depeche plays real instruments sand production magic, "We sound like ... a bad pub-rock band." As it is, dependent on processed computer sequences, Depeche gets away with its simplistic pomposity by being incredibly tuneful. At the Sports Arena, however, the band concentrated on doleful numbers from the last two LPs. Except for an interlude when songwriter Martin Gore, dressed fetchingly in silver lamé, warbled two ballads, the show dragged on and on, drawing heavily on leaden songs from Violater and Faith and Devotion. (The members' lack of interaction with one another was phenomenal. It's no surprise to find out that Gahan and the others are barely on speaking terms, except for check-signing type activities.) Songs the band avoided included "Blasphemous Rumours," "Master and Servant," "Just Can't Get Enough" (penned by Erasure's Vince Clarke), "Route 66," and "People Are People" — in other words, the hits.
However, the first encore, "Personal Jesus," which injects a modified Bo Diddley beat into the band's patented anti-religious stance, was a best-case scenario of what Depeche Mode can do when it allows itself a tune, a guitar, and a lighter-hearted, human approach. But that's an increasingly rare occurrence in its repertoire. The second encore, "Everything Counts," was much appreciated by the patient crowd (and by me; I have a secret fondness for that song, because for years I thought its lyrics went grabbing hands/grapple with clams).
Earlier, for the 13th song of the evening, a real drum set had been rolled out. (Gore had already been goofing around with a real guitar on some songs, though you couldn't hear it much over the many layers of keyboard lines.) When Alan Wilder sat behind it and played, the audience was distinctly unenthusiastic. In fact, as Wilder played along to the song, they sat down. True, the tempo was slower, but the real thing sounded a lot better to me. Of course, I wasn't brought up on Sega Genesis games, so what do I know?