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Devotional Era

Penance Extra

After years of stadium success, cracks are starting to appear in the fabric of the DEPECHE MODE organisation as band members fail to communicate with one another, preferring instead to battle with their own personal Jesuses. GAVIN MARTIN joins the faith

Document par Gavin Martin | NME | 1993 | 32028 caractères. Temps de lecture : 24 min 2 sec

‘You can fulfil / Your wildest ambitions / And I’m sure you will / Lose your inhibitions / So open yourself for me / Risk your health for me / If you want my love / If you want my love.’

Some lines from ‘Judas’, a Martin Gore song, one which David Gahan doesn’t sing, on the ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ album.

David Gahan is breathless, metaphorically bouncing off the walls, leaping from the couch to illustrate his points. His voice is worn away to a raw husky rasp. Still on that adrenalin-surging, post-showtime high, he has just come offstage after a performance in front of a 25,000 crowd at a football stadium in Budapest, Hungary.

On the table before him there’s an inhaler to soothe his throat. His assistant / helper / handmaiden / protector - press officer, dressing room designer, promotional person and bodyguard - are close at hand. This is the interview. A quick meeting, 20 minutes, much of it pseudo superstar babble, cut short when someone taps me on the shoulder and calls it to a halt.

The tap on the shoulder is an unnerving detail, redolent of the polite but firm signal that ends a visit to a sick relative in hospital.

By that time David has said so much - much more than Martin Gore had to say in an interview lasting three times as long that afternoon - it’s hard to believe the chat has been so brief. It has also been such a sad charade, it’s hard to believe it has been allowed to happen at all.

Gahan’s own private dressing room has been transformed into a darkened coven. Candles burn on table tops, on flight cases and other surfaces provided by his makeshift road furniture. Loud music blasts from his hi-fi. Jasmine incense sticks are burned to give the atmosphere he desires. Behind him there’s a red carpet, hung against the wall, the final touch in this full rock’n’roll Parnassian set up. Such are the trappings that befit a Cool Icon, a man playing, or trying to play, the role of A Rock God.

David Gahan has all the trappings, and a few of the problems, of a Rock God. His ‘problems’ have become Depeche Mode’s dirty little secret - everybody in the camp knows about them but no-one mentions them. Gahan talks about them in vague terms. He means to get things sorted out, he says. But everyone knows a rock’n’roll tour isn’t really the place to start sorting things out.

He doesn’t look or sound like a well man. His skin is sickly grey in the half light, his eyes sunk into bluish sockets. Beneath his vest, tattoos embellish his biceps and torso, but the inside of his long skinny arms are all bruised and scratched. Later someone tells me they are scratch marks inflicted by rabid fans who tore their idol apart when he launched himself at them from a stage in Germany.

Depeche Mode have survived, they’ve worked hard, and in previous interviews they’ve alluded to how they like to play hard too. In a recent interview Gahan denied that he has ever had a drug dependency, adding quickly that he did, at one time, drink too much. His press officer asked the writer not to bring up the drug subject again.

The only time the drug subject surfaces during our chat is when David mentions it. He goes off the record once, but it has nothing to do with drugs. He asks me not to print some information. ‘If you do I’ll have to kill you,’ he says, not too convincingly.

Dave Gahan wasn’t cut out for a cosy life in the new town of Basildon, the cradle of the ‘80s Thatcherite revolution. A clean suburb with a nasty underside, Basildon was confirmed as south east England’s still-surviving Tory stronghold at the last election, almost a decade after David made his escape. Early interviews and the Depeche Mode debut single ‘New Life’ placed Dave and his cohorts in a modernist context, a new type of group for a new era, appropriately rising from a planner’s dream town.

The effortless rise and rise of Depeche has masked complexities beneath the surface. All the world sees is fame of humungous proportions. The internal struggles, the turmoil played out in their songs, the lavish hedonistic conceit that has grown around them all goes largely unprodded.

People think of Depeche as clean middle class boys. Though he was studying design at college when the band formed, David was from the rough side of town and he was an emotional yoyo as a teenager. Traumatised by his broken home background, he turned to crime and was in several scrapes with the authorities before Depeche provided an escape.

D. A. Pennebaker’s Depeche Mode documentary movie 101 gives a glimpse into how fame affects a young man like David Gahan. Made in 1989, Pennebaker’s movie captures Depeche at the point where cult following has become mass phenomenon, focussing on a status-sealing show at the 70,000 capacity Pasadena Rosebowl Stadium. Ostensibly 101 is about the band’s huge stateside following and lucre-crazed nature of The Bigtime Rock Event (their toytown capitalist satire ‘Everything Counts’ provides the recurring keynote). But Pennebaker is an acutely sussed documentarist and when he zeroes in on David Gahan, the footage used is very revealing.

Two scenes stick in the mind. In a hotel room in the middle of the tour, David graphically illustrates a fight he’s had a few nights previously with a taxi driver.

‘Letting out all that built up energy and tension like you do onstage - it’s not enough, you’ve still got more,’ he explains to the interviewer. ‘That was definitely a release. I was looking for a fight for a good few days.’

At the main event, his wife and baby child are in attendance, flown out especially for the Rosebowl triumph. David seems to carry it all off easily, orchestrating the chanting crowd onstage, playing the doting daddy offstage. But when he comes to the end of the show he’s ravaged.

‘I was thinking about the whole thing during the gig, everyone. I couldn’t stop crying, y’know?’ he says, falling into the arms of a Depeche crew member. Just as he seems to be about to break down the camera pulls away.

Gahan tried to make a go of it. In 1987 he was enjoying his 19th Top 20 hit, but he told an interviewer he was still looking for his long-lost father. ‘Maybe when I have a family of my own it will stop me thinking about my dad.’ He tried to settle down into a marriage with his local girl bride, Joanne, who was running the group’s fanclub. He tried to do what friends call ‘the Essex thing’. But he was leading a schizophrenic life, joining in the wild hedonistic pursuits of his colleagues on tour while trying to keep a home life going. Inevitably he eventually split with his wife and kid. Then he fell under the influence of, and fell in love with, Teresa Conway.

Conway is the fresh-faced blond publicist featured in 101. Later she worked with Jane’s Addiction. By the time she married Gahan, last year, she’d become a thin-faced brunette. 1992 was also the year when David had to bury the estranged father he’d never really got to know, and as he did so he was stung by the realisation that the same sort of relationship was beginning to develop between him and his own son. To top it all, arguments with the band raged during the making of ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ in Spain. None of the others even attended his wedding to Teresa. But the story was he’d come through it all - hardened, matured, a man.

Spend some time around the Depeche camp, see David’s forlorn little expressions, hear his thinly veiled cries for help; the opposite seems to be the case. Gahan is treated with something bordering on mild contempt by at least one of his colleagues. ‘Did he meet you in his harem then?’ sneers keyboard and business operative Andy Fletcher when we get back to the hotel after the interview.

Gahan is like a lost child. He is fronting an outfit which - give or take Martin Gore’s dalliance with bondage gear and leather skirts - isn’t noted for its extrovert image. What’s more, he’s trying to cater for a phenomenal, monstrous following. That’s the thing - Depeche have become bigger than anyone every imagined. In Hungary they have become a neo religious cult, inspired by the dark mystery and chilling invocations that run through their most memorable music.

Blonde-haired Chico Marx look-alike Martin Gore - bank clerk turned black arts investigator, choirboy come existentialist, geek as svengali - writes the Mode meditations on lust and sin and death and envy. But it is Gahan who sells them, who sings them, who is at the cutting edge where band meets fan. How do you deal with that? David’s solution seems to become the new Peter Pan of Pop.

The Jane’s Addiction song ‘Wings’ is playing on his ghetto blaster. He lowers the volume but, when asked how the show went, he keeps talking about ‘Wings’ anyway, on his feet, arms aloft, playing out some fantasy in his mind.

‘Now with ‘Wings’ that’s just actually how it is, that’s the song. I was just sitting listening to that before you came in and I saw this band at their last gig in Irvine Meadows in California, me and my wife, we were both there and This f---ing song was just like it was tonight, it just BLEWMEAWAY!

‘It was just like everybody could have wings for one night. That’s the greatest feeling and this is possibly my all time greatest song for everything. Everybody has wings. You just have to fly,’ he says.

By everyone’s estimation, even the partisan Depeche crew, the gig David has just played was a lukewarm affair, a chill Eastern European response compared to the hot blooded Latin reception of their Spanish shows the week before. Gahan never really gave the impression of being at the match. Sure, stadium gigs are a hard place to communicate with the audience but it wasn’t that. His performance was disconnected, flailing helplessly as he tried to brandish and capture a spurious sense of bigness.

If he said ‘thank you’ and howled into the mic once he must have done it a thousand times. I like Depeche Mode music. With their most recent LPs, I think they’ve sculpted something exceptional in English pop, but seeing the show, I wish I’d stayed home with the records. Gahan was worse than remote, he was truly wrapped up in his own world. No amount of design, stage projection or help from the back-up singers or FX could mask it.

Back in the dressing room Jane’s Addiction play on. I ask David, who was running with the Basildon punk contingent when he joined Depeche, what he thinks about when he’s onstage.

‘The people and the energy and the f---ing feeling, the feeling, the feeling that’s there now for the first time. And that’s y’know I’ve never felt that before. I don’t think so, not really. Maybe a couple of times in places like The Rosebowl, maybe some gigs but not like tonight.

‘Tonight I felt like shit. I felt like I’ve got a f---ed-up voice. I’m just borrowing time. But you go on there and you see all these people and they’re all waiting all day and you can just smell ‘em. So you just gotta f---ing go for it. And when you touch them it’s just incredible, they’ll kill you. They tried to a couple of times.’

Somewhere during the previous week David looked at the audience. He saw this great heaving mass of arms and faces as he went to the lip of the stage. He stood mesmerised by the colours, the energy, the sound of adulation, he went closer and peered into the whirlpool. Then we went too far, wobbled and fell in.

His voice is hardly there at all as he recounts the adventure. He gets back on his feet, teetering on the brink of an imaginary precipice.

‘The true story is in Mannheim I just went too far, too far to the front of the stage. I could hear it. You f---ing idiot you’ve gone too far! I just knew I wasn’t going to go back. So that was the first time. I thought, f--- it I may as well fly into them, they’re going to pick me up. So I just went for it and got one of the biggest charges I ever got in my f---ing life, getting back onstage. They just tear you apart. They want something like everybody f---ing does I suppose.’

If there’s one thing Gahan’s performance shows, it’s that he knows people want something. He seems to want something too, he seems to want them to take him, to swallow him up, to complete or obliterate the spiritual tragedy played out in his band’s songs. So he does the 360 degree spins, the Christ-like martyr poses, the bravura put your hands together spell, the pouting, the preening, the odd bit of crotch grabbing. It’s what’s expected.

Conscious, perhaps, that he’s not the prime creative force in the band. David must feel that he’s somehow at the centre of this Mode thing - onstage and off. As he’s talking, the backstage party is in full swing outside. Somehow he must make it his concern too so he asks a flunky.

‘How’s things out there? Has everyone got what they want, everybody happy?’

Yes, someone reassures him, everybody’s happy.

David had appeared backstage briefly before the show, slapping colleagues on the back, sipping tequila, like a good chap ready to go over the top, to take on the multitude. ‘Okey cokey,’ he said, all vim and vigour. But he looked woozy, glazed, a benign softness settled over his face as he posed with the lucky young prizewinners of an MTV competition. They’d all been invited to spend the last week of the European tour on the road with Depeche Mode. Twenty of the flying on the band’s charter jet, seeing the sights, seeing the shows. Nonetheless the winners were a bit perturbed when Margaret, the promotional person, took David and his glazed grin away so soon.

Margaret had assured the MTV teens there’d be lots more time to meet and greet with the band. That seemed unlikely. Relating to the teen market may be vital to keep a pop phenomenon buoyant and refreshed, but Depeche have spent long years in the glossy girl / teen mags, now it was becoming a chore. Earlier in the week, Mick the press officer had phoned to ask Gahan would he give him a lip print for a feature in a teen publication. ‘How many times do you want to hear the F word used in this conversation?’ was his response.

However, somebody in the Depeche Mode camp obviously does like young girls. After the show in Hungary there was a whole retinue of them, fresh faced pubescents, some unable to speak more than a few words of English, clad in stockings and suspenders. Eagerly lined up to enter the hallowed portals behind the scenes at a rock’n’roll event.

The Tour programme stresses the comparison between the Depeche Mode 1993 Roadshow and a military campaign. It’s a point well taken considering the phalanx of crew, advisors and strategians that they, and indeed any late 20th century stadium rock show, employs. No doubt these young girls have their place in that comparison, especially in Hungary. Hungary is itself on the border of a full-scale real life warzone in Yugoslavia. As a result, it has a refugee population close to a million. Two by-products of this influx are growing social tension and the biggest porn centre in Eastern Europe. There are people here - men, women, kids - running from unspeakable horrors. In a country with 30% inflation they do what they can to get by. A basketball hall at the back of the stadium provides the makeshift staging post for the Depeche tour team. Black cloth walls have been erected between tour management and catering, between the band’s play area and the eating area. After the show beer, wine and tequila flow, sumptuous platters are laid on. There’s music blasting and all these pretty young girls and even a few lads milling around. It could be a school disco or even one of those emergency centres set up across the border, a place the whole community gathers to rally round from incoming threats. It could be something almost comical in its innocence, the girls dressed up like that, sitting round watching the band playing table football. Or it could be something unbearably sleazy, the beginning of a dive into debauchery.

I mean how did these girls get here, who rounded them up?

You soon realise that some of them must be the girls you’ve read about in previous Depeche Mode interviews. The girls who are always there for the band and crew when they need to be entertained. A tonic for the troops. There’s a girl from France who is following them all across Europe, she met them during the last tour in Paris and now is provided with passes and tickets everywhere she goes. The food and drink provided here after the show makes it cheaper and easier for her to stay on the tour. There’s a young girl from Germany with a T shirt that says ‘F--- school, f--- work, f--- this, f--- that, f--- you, f--- me’ F--- everything, basically.

And then there are the lads. The lads, like many others in Hungary, have hit on the late ‘80s Depeche look - slicked back hair, white jeans and leather jackets as their uniform. To the visitor from Britain they were reminiscent of moonstomping skinhead boot boys. There was something uniform, totalitarian about the way they joined together holding hands aloft in triumphant glory, or slamming the air with their fist during ‘Behind The Wheel’. They really did seem to be a law unto themselves, an example of the way Depeche have grown, become something that the band can no longer hope or want to control.

What do these young Hungarian men get out of Depeche Mode? It’s hard to know; their actions backstage only add to the puzzle. There they were, gathered round while Martin Gore, Alan Wilder and Andrew Fletcher played table football. Fletcher is known as the Depeche money man but he hates to be called a manager. Just say he looks after the business side of things, journalists are told. What’s the difference? You may well ask. It’s not hard to get the feeling that Fletcher is fed up being thought of as a backroom type while David Gahan gets all the glory.

Inevitably and somewhat poignantly Fletcher, the least glamourous of the Mode men, is the object of the Hungarian boys’ affections. There he is, head down studiously going for goal, herbal ‘Yoga’ tea to hand, unaware that behind him the lads have unfurled a banner emblazoned with the legend ‘Andy Is God - GIVE ME PLEASURE LITTLE FLETCHER’. Fletcher gets his goal easily - Martin Gore has collapsed in hysterics with the unfurling of the banner.

Martin Gore had talked about being on tour with Depeche Mode earlier in the afternoon. Gore was hunched over a table in the lobby of the Depeche hotel, an architectural nightmare, like it had been brought to Budapest straight from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

Gore had a tour anorak pulled over his head, furtively reading recent press reports, hiding from the fans, the so called Depeches who were on 24 hour vigil outside his hotel. He couldn’t understand it; he’d been all round Europe but had never encountered anything like The Depeches, Hungary’s very own youth cult who took their style, slogans and rationale from his band. He balked at the suggestion that this had ever been the band’s intention. ‘I’ve never heard of anything more ridiculous,’ he spluttered. ‘If you’re going to start a movement and base it on a band, you should at least get a better name for it.’

The road to Hungary began in April when Depeche Mode sat in London’s Ministry of Sound Club and were satellite linked to fans round the world. Lots of intense young girls and boys, vetted prior to transmission, waited in line to ask solemn questions about the meaning of Mode, the philosophy in their songs, the gravity of their music. In Germany one young man was so overcome with the idea of speaking to his idols that the pressure built up all day until, when it came time to ask his question, he fainted.

There had been other mishaps too, places where the campaign had faltered. In America, Depeche’s affluent unofficial but computer-linked fan club somehow got hold of an early numbered copy of the ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’ album, far in advance of its official release. Tapes of the album were being exchanged, advertised through the computer network. Reviews were being swopped onscreen between the fans. It was a big deal, like someone had got hold of a top secret military strategy. The Depeche battle plan for the next two years was out in the open before the Mode machine had even put it into operation. A full investigation was ordered into how the leak had occurred; record company employees cowered. But no culprit was found, there was no court martial.

Still the Devotional tour rolled out across the continent. Gahan out front while his three cohorts provided the group’s impressive diseased, decadent sound on a raised podium far above him. Together with their arty porn back projections - marching girls with the horned heads of mythical beasts, close-ups of breasts and navels - Depeche wooed the big stadium crowds.

Always, wherever they went, there went parties, girls, the pleasures of the flesh, the fruits of the world laid at their feet. On the afternoon before the show, as he sipped his coke, Gore (or Mister Iscariot as the writer of ‘Judas’ calls himself on the hotel register) was being approached by fans asking for autographs, offering drinks, trying to recommend the best after hours entertainment Budapest had to offer.

‘For me, it always seems that I’m stepping out of real life into a film,’ reflected Gore in his funny little lisping voice.

‘From the moment you start on the first day of the tour until you get home it just seems you’re living in a total fantasy land.’

How do you deal with that?

‘Personally I just accept it, try to have as much fun as I can in fantasy land and then come back down to earth at the end of it.’

Sounds like you can do anything you want, if it’s fantasy land.

‘Yeah, pretty much.’

Are there any dangers in that?

‘I’m sure there are.’

The interview with Gore provided slim pickings for the quote hungry. His answers weren’t evasive exactly, though they did seem circumspect. I had not seen Gahan when I spoke to Gore, hadn’t witnessed the frankly disturbing state the singer was in. Naturally, like any songwriter, Gore denied that his ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion were written for any one person or about any particular subject. But later Gahan would seize on them, saying the songs on the new record related directly to him.

That gave them a creepy quality - was he singing the songs of penitence, punishment, persecution and turmoil or were they singing him, providing him with a pit to fall into? Was he following the well-beaten paths of rock tragedians, playing out a fantasy for the band and the fans alike?

Gore described the aforementioned ‘Judas’, with its sepulchral tone and its creepy vision of real love tied to a willingness to risk death, as ‘an arrogant love song’. He said the Aids reference gave the song counterweight, balanced it against the many nice love songs he’d written. ‘Judas’ has a lure and an abiding fascination common to Depeche’s strongest material, a sense of danger and foreboding ripples beneath its surface. Gore didn’t argue with that.

‘I can never work out if I’m just being realistic or if I’m a total hypochondriac. That probably comes through in the music. Maybe it’s not real danger at all and I’m an eternal pessimist but sometimes I think it’s based on reality.’

Martin Gore gets touchy when it’s suggested, but he definitely is a strange boy and that has been a vital factor in defining the Depeche’s perverse pop appeal. Though he was never a Christian, Gore went to church as a teenager because ‘there was nothing else to do in Basildon on a Sunday night’ and he had a fascination with belief and religion. A fascination which has subsequently been played out in many of his songs.

Much has been made of the fact that Gore moved to Berlin in the mid-’80s and started to wear a leather skirt onstage and in photographs. He’s well weary of the subject.

‘It’s only in England. Nobody mentions it anywhere else. It’s like an English hang-up. Why is it that whenever there’s a fancy dress party in Britain, every man goes dressed as a woman? I did it because I didn’t want the macho image, it’s no big deal.’

Pushed to the writing forefront when Vince Clarke departed the band (ostensibly because he didn’t want to be in a pop band but more likely, says Gore, because he couldn’t stand to be part of a democracy) Gore’s songs have propelled Depeche Mode, making them the archetypal English ideas band. Although he’s embarrassed now by the group’s first two albums (‘Speak And Spell’ and ‘A Broken Frame’) he thinks that they have become their most influential records the subsequent development of Britpop and even the American house scene. Hailed as pioneers of Detroit dance, the group made a trip to that city in 1988 but they didn’t like it and aren’t keen to go back.

Depeche albums have slyly tackled weighty concepts, gathering force and authority all the while. With ‘Construction Time Again’, Gore posited a nouveau socialist manifesto; ‘Music For The Masses’ dabbled in totalitarian imagery; ‘Violator’ was deadly in its simplicity, deep in its grandeur - consummate electro blues - and ‘Devotion’ uses gospel fire to fuel its lost pilgrim pleas. With the ‘Black Celebration’ album in 1988, the one-time cheery electro poppers successfully moved in on the constituency of goth; songs of dominance and subservience, a little gloom and doom and the black arts ranked high in its appeal.

Last time Gore spoke to the NME he said he was reading a lot of black magic books but had not ‘come to any conclusions’. Ask him about it now and he deals with the question the way Aleister Crowley fanatic Jimmy Page would.

‘(Long pause) this stuff always sounds really bad in print so I think I’m more aware now of some spiritual things and I do believe in good and evil. Other than that if you delve into it in print it sounds naff.’

‘Condemnation’, the new single, sounds like a dialogue with God, a wracked judgement day confession.

‘That’s roughly what it’s about. I’ve always said you demystify songs if you say they are about a specific incident, it makes it sound so bland.’

What frightens you?

‘I think death for some strange reason. Death in general, specifically my own death, that’s why I’m a total hypochondriac. I can’t work out if it’s normal to be a hypochondriac. I think it’s normal for men to be hypochondriacs.

‘Every now and then on tour I have these panic attacks where I think my heart is beating too fast, my pulse seems strange in my arms and I think I’d better get a doctor, I think I’m going to die at any moment. Then I talk to all the men on the road with us and they all have them, all my male friends at home have them too.

‘The funny thing is it’s virtually all men that have them, women don’t seem to have them at all. Men must have massive egos and are always worried about dying whereas women just get on with life.’

If Gore gets panic attacks on tour, what must it be like for Gahan? While Martin is somewhere up near the stage roof, having done his bit at the songwriting stage, David is out front carrying the weight.

Back in his dressing room, ranting about what sounds like the best show since Moses did his turn in the Red Sea, Gahan still seems to be out on his own.

‘Well that’s pretty much what it looked like for a while, but now it’s not like that. I think it was like that for a long while, yeah, when we’ve played live. It was never a problem in the band - it was just my job. I wanted something very different this time - I wanted to feel like I was playing with people. And I wanted that from day one with the record and pushed really hard for it, and I think that’s why, in lots of ways, we achieved things like ‘I Feel You’. We’d never really rocked that hard, y’know? Without me bullying everybody to hell it wouldn’t have happened.

‘I bullied Alan into drumming because I said I want live drums. Fletcher thought I’d gone crazy, he said èDave’s gone crazy, he wants drums, next thing he’ll want backing singers’. And I did. Martin’s songs are like èCondemnation’ and stuff and straightaway you know you have to do them in a gospel way.

‘Martin was writing beautiful songs and sending them to me. I was getting them and every one was like a f---ing jigsaw puzzle at the time.’

There must be certain songs that you’ve sang that you feel closer to than others.

‘With this album I felt that every single song on the album, even the songs that Martin sang, were the best things he could have done for me at the time. As a friend to a friend - he kind of helped me to heal a lot of my personal problems and he wasn’t even trying. When you’ve been in a band for 13 years together it’s four weird energies, and I think now with Depeche Mode we really can do anything.’

You were saying that Martin’s songs helped your personal problems, had you considered music as a healing force before?

‘My attitude has changed, my whole life has changed really. There’s certain things that maybe didn’t used to be so important to me and they’re now very, very important.’

Like what?

‘It doesn’t matter, I don’t think I really need to name anything but I think I’m getting things in the right order now. Finally starting’ he laughs

‘There’s just a few things I’ve still got to get right. I feel really good about I love going onstage and playing. I hate all the rest of the shit - doing tours, doing interviews, all this kind of shit to be quite honest. But I do love that couple of hours I get to go out there and do whatever I f---ing like basically.’

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