People Are People: Exploring The Politics Of Depeche Mode

Searching for the roots of their new dimension...

“Where's the revolution? People, you're letting me down.”
Depeche Mode, ‘Where's The Revolution?’, 2017

Within the first bar, you know you're into familiar Depeche Mode territory. A stentorian, commanding voice, a skeletal modular synth pattern and scratchy rhythm evolving into a electro-glam beat overlaid with bluesy processed guitar. ‘Where's The Revolution?’ literally could have appeared on any Depeche Mode album since 1997’s ‘Ultra’. I said more or less the same about ‘Delta Machine’, their 2013 album – no-one expects this band to deliver anything especially new thirty-six years into their career, and for the most part, if you're a long-standing fan, you probably don't especially want them to.

The only nagging doubt you feel is the overt political message in the first single to be taken from ‘Spirit’. That feels new, right? In the lyrics here, Dave Gahan gives voice to the same disenfranchisement with governments / society / the inequality gap that have given us Brexit, Trump, possibly will give us Le Pen and all manner of supposedly ‘populist’ movements elsewhere round the world. The delivery is a little clumsy at times, and maybe the train that Gahan and Martin Gore claim is coming arrived a short while ago, but the message is mostly coherent, if not especially original – it's time to take action, you're not doing enough with your passive-aggressive stance, rise up, revolt etc. It's not exactly Bob Dylan in the 1960s, for sure, but it is at least a new side to the band.

Or is it?

It's 1983. Depeche Mode have just released their third album, ‘Construction Time Again’. The record seemed to signal a major change in direction for the band, prefaced by the one-off single ‘Get The Balance Right’ which had appeared a few months before. It wasn't especially evident at all times in the songs themselves, which still were mostly pop in their framing, but something had definitely shifted. The band’s image had altered – frontman Dave Gahan was no longer wearing New Romantic-friendly billowing white blouses like he had around the time of their debut ‘Speak & Spell’; leather was in evidence; it was altogether a harsher, darker look.

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Never judge a book by its cover, and never judge a record by its packaging, but with both ‘Get The Balance Right’ and ‘Construction Time Again’ a certain other imagery had begun to appear. Mallets, cogs, the muscular Stakhanovite worker atop a mountain in Brian Griffin’s sleeve image for ‘Construction Time Again’. It wasn't quite Test Dept. or Laibach, but it was of the same root ethos.

The music press branded the band as Marxists, a divisive label amid the prevailing chill between the West and the East. The adverts for the inevitable mega-tour to accompany ‘Spirit’s release sees Gahan leaning on a huge mallet akin to that appearing in some of the imagery the band used around this time – except now, dressed in a smart, expensive suit, you'd be mistaken for thinking the photographer had caught the band in downtime during a game of croquet on a Long Island mansion lawn.

Packaging though that might have mostly been back in 1983, in the songs, too, something had changed. Lead single ‘Everything Counts’ took a cynical swipe at corporate greed and financial excess during the Yuppie era; ‘The Landscape Is Changing’ foretold of impending environmental disaster unless people took action; ‘Pipeline’, created using various bits of detritus found on location at a disused railway yard in London’s East End, spoke of the misery of manual labour, the decline of industry, maybe even the dismantling of the East End’s character.

These were grown-up, political themes, and they seemed to come out of nowhere. The only trace of this type of songwriting in previous Depeche Mode releases could be found in ‘Monument’ from 1982’s ‘A Broken Frame’, but that felt more like a Kafka-esque piece of musical art rather than a treatise on the futility of labour.

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The 1984 follow-up, ‘Some Great Reward’ included ‘People Are People’, a political song wrapped in pop’s clothing, a song about inequality and intolerance. Elsewhere, Martin Gore’s songwriting seemed to be going for adult themes of the distinctly top-shelf variety, though it was possible to hear a song like ‘Master & Servant’ less as an S&M anthem and more as a deft look at the emerging problem of modern slavery. 1986’s ‘Black Celebration’ felt like a broadcast from a post-apocalyptic world – a report from after the event that felt like a cautionary message to a civilisation hell-bent on destroying one another.

Something in this approach resonated, not necessarily here in the UK, but in places like East Germany or Russia that were divided and separate from the West by ideology. Depeche Mode’s music spoke to a generation of young people that felt betrayed by Communism, capturing the hearts and minds of a youth who heard something in this music that we’ll probably never fully appreciate unless we were living through it with them.

Jeremy Deller and Nick Abraham’s wonderful and heartfelt Mode documentary ‘Our Hobby Is Depeche Mode’ (2007) – largely unseen outside of festivals and occasional screenings owing to hardcore Mode fans believing it paints them in a bad light – tried to sensitively show just why, if you were stuck on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall in the divided city, this music appealed to them on such a deeply political level.

1987’s ‘Music For The Masses’ carried a recognisably populist title, even if its songs seemed to be poised on the precipice of the self-absorbed, deflated, thwarted sense of misery and disappointment that has preoccupied Martin Gore’s writing (mostly) ever since.

Whatever demons Gore was facing from this point on we can only piece together vaguely, but his focus shifted from the the plight of the masses to the identity crisis and psychological trauma of the individual, providing musical succour and redemption to those who somehow felt cheated in love, in life, in everything; those that had made mistakes and errors of judgement through poor decisions, drink, drugs or ill-advised partners; dark and brooding, songs like ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘Home’ seemed to offer hope and transcendency only in the form of religion, a cathartic, organised outlet for the sharing of similar beliefs, and perhaps the most direct political message the band had ever made – until maybe now.

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If ‘Where's The Revolution?’ is any sort of bellwether of what ‘Spirit’ will sound like, it suggests that Depeche Mode are ready to stop dealing in vagueness, the cryptic and the shrouded, and instead feel inclined to go for a more direct approach to the message they're trying to get across. ‘Where's The Revolution?’, in its blunt reliance on quotable, hackneyed, pithy sloganeering might also be a deftly cynical stab at the politics-by-Tweet era that we find ourselves in today.

My General Studies teacher once asked our class to explain what politics was, this being at another volatile political time in the UK as the Conservatives began the process of self-destruction that ultimately installed New Labour in power in the Houses of Parliament. Teachers like these deep, hairy and slightly oblique questions about things you are surrounded by but which you never have cause to define. After five minutes of the class collectively floundering about, he told us that politics was simply about choices. This lesson has always stuck with me.

Matt Black and Jon Moore from Coldcut bemoaned to me last year that their attempts to present a political dimension, either through their music or their vocal support for one cause or another, were often greeted with a barrage of vitriol and abuse on social media platforms. If Depeche Mode are heading down this path, we can expect to see a similar reaction that has greeted Coldcut, Taylor Swift and countless other celebrities as they stand up for what they believe in.

This is where remembering that politics is literally nothing more than the collectivisation of personal choices serves you well; in this context, the music of Depeche Mode has always been about individual and often inexplicable choices of themes – to be negative, to be religious, to be obscured, to be precise, and now, to be outspoken. These are Depeche Mode’s personal choices, and who are we to deride or challenge them.

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Depeche Mode will release new album 'Spirit' on March 17th.

Words: Mat Smith

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