My Top 10 Live Bands – 5

Depeche Mode

Every once in a while, an avid music fan is lucky enough to catch a band at the very peak of their pomp. While it’s great to find exciting up-and-coming acts and somehow more real to see performers once the media machine has discarded them, sometimes we hit that sweet spot. Ironically, we’re often ignorant of that truth at the time.

That’s what happened to me when I saw Depeche Mode at Crystal Palace in July 1993. Still riding high on the huge success of Violator and touring to promote Songs of Faith and Devotion, this once plastic synthpop band from the early eighties had somehow transformed itself into a worldwide musical phenomenon.

If I’m honest, I don’t really know what I was expecting because I’d turned out as much to see the Sisters of Mercy in support as I had to see the headline band. After all, that kind of combination doesn’t come along every day and so I jumped at the chance of getting two for the price of one.

As the light faded and the boys from Basildon took to the stage, I quickly realised that I was witnessing something far greater than just a few blokes twiddling with keyboards: this was an all-out musical assault by a band of hardened professionals who’d honed their skills both in the studio and on the touring circuit.

I remember being blown away by the sound quality, innovative use of video and the sheer energy and excitement of the crowd; something I’d only really experience at rock gigs before then. If Dave Gahan was on something that night, it was still during those early days when energy and endurance are enhanced and the piper is still totting up his bill for the user.

It was really terrific to hear all those old hit singles remixed and re-delivered, yet still so comfortingly familiar as to create a slightly disconcerting effect where it was difficult to reconcile the live experience of the moment with the countless years of radio repetition that had burrowed deep into my brain.

For me, the standout moments were the band’s performances of Enjoy the Silence and Stripped, both of which are considered by many to be the finest recordings of those two singles ever made. The video of a hand writing the word “stripped” over and over is one of the simplest and most impressive effects I’ve ever seen at a live show.

Although I’m sure they’re still very good now, I don’t think I’d want to watch Depeche Mode again today. I want to remember them as the conquering heroes who held the world in the palms of their hands, standing high on the crest of a wave that was always destined to crash upon the gently declining shores of age and familiarity.

I know they continue to tour and attract huge worldwide audiences, and so they should, but sometimes a kind of magic chemistry occurs between band and audience. Like a user forever chasing that first high, the wise music fan knows that any attempt to recapture those few golden hours will inevitably end in disappointment.

I’ll leave Depeche Mode as I found them, in a place where age, scandal and mediocrity can never diminish them.

The Music of my Life 1990-1994

If the late 1980s can be identified as a period of cultural and musical fracturing, then the early 1990s is surely defined by a marked and probably permanent acceleration of that divergence. With the mainstream on corporate life support and the homogenized march of nu metal through the alternative scene, the nineties are seldom remembered as a cultural or musical high point by anyone who wasn’t actually young during that period.

Nonetheless, there were some glimmers of hope in the dark, and here are my favourite albums from the first half of that difficult decade.

1990 – Elizium by Fields of the Nephilim

At the risk of committing gothic rock heresy, I’ve often thought that Fields of the Nephilim were seriously overrated. However, they proved more than capable with this absolute beauty, and what I believe is by far their strongest release. For a start they seriously dialled back on Carl McCoy’s voice effects, resulting in very pleasant surprise for many listeners. McCoy’s much improved vocals are seamlessly blended with a much more creative use of guitar, bass and keyboards to produce a languid and often haunting audio experience.

Musically speaking, Elizium takes its time, perhaps reflecting a personal and musical maturity that was wanting in the promising but not-quite-there Nephilim album. Elizium is best played loud, especially during the slower, more sweeping sections of this often ignored and unjustly forgotten album.

1991 – Hey Stoopid by Alice Cooper

Confirmed alcoholic Vincent Furnier (aka Alice Cooper) finally stopped drinking in 1983, and that personal journey partly explains Cooper’s creative rebirth and undoubtedly contributed to the two best written, arranged and engineered albums he’s ever released. Once you’ve gotten past the admittedly questionable cover, Hey Stoopid is an unapologetic orgy of rock production gorgeousness. With a really, really big sound and plenty of Cooper’s old theatrical flair, this album is like a connoisseur’s wine cellar, where all the mediocre stuff has been served to guests and the quality stock is kept safely hidden away. Tracks like Might as well be on Mars and Love’s a Loaded Gun remain true to the time honoured Cooperesque ethos, while dishing out newer and hitherto untasted dollops of bitter anger and lasting regret.

In the final analysis, Hey Stoopid just sounds so freakin’ good that it can get away with just about anything.

1992 – 1992: The Love Album by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine

Carter USM were the back row dwelling, bogey flicking, teacher taunting bad boys of an increasingly whiney, sanctimoniously self-referential and horribly bourgeois indie scene that was bubbling up during that decade. With a great big ballsy sound and playfully insightful lyrics, The Love Album is a long overdue swipe at the establishment from the parts of Britain that were scorned and left behind during the previous decade.

Even the album’s cover is eerily prescient of the cultural and economic divide which has now been laid bare within British society, despite an increasingly discredited media class’s efforts to pretend it had never existed before 2016.

With several Sinatra gags and parodies thrown in for fun, the chart topping Love Album is possibly the biggest poke in the establishment’s eye since Never Mind the Bollocks went and gobbed on the mayor’s car back in ’77.

In fact, the unstoppable Carter stopped after only a decade, and many of us still lament the departure of those very gifted and unashamedly rowdy street poets.

1993 – Songs of Faith and Devotion by Depeche Mode

Following on from the massive success of Violator, Songs of Faith & Devotion was produced by a band who were at the peak of their powers and charting an exciting new creative direction. Gone are the last vestiges of the eighties pop band, shoved aside by something with a much harder edge and a far more subversive sound.

Accompanied by a massive tour, Songs of Faith and Devotion is arguably the first album by the “new” Depeche Mode of the nineties and beyond. Not afraid to experiment and seemingly less interested in the fickle tastes of pop fans, it’s almost as though these guys had decided to keep the fans they themselves had grown up and matured with.

This is not an album that fits easily into any category, and although the newer influences of the growing grunge movement can clearly be heard, SOFAD stubbornly refuses to be tied down creatively. Some have decried this as a creative identity crisis, while I believe Depeche Mode were blazing a trail for others to follow with this album.

1994 – Brave by Marillion

Brave is Marillion’s third studio album fronted by the hugely talented Steve Hogarth, marking yet another course adjustment on their seemingly endless musical voyage. Much smaller of stature than Fish, Hogarth nonetheless more than manages to fill the big man’s shoes as Marillion return to the prog rock roots that were, and remain the cornerstone of their continued success.

Based on a report of a young amnesiac girl, Brave charts her fictional, troubled and invisible life within an insular society that found her easier to ignore than to protect. Another prescient piece of work given the seemingly endless procession of disturbing cases of conscious institutional neglect we’ve uncovered in recent years.

Showcasing all of their musical flexibility and creativity, Brave also marks Marillion’s departure from an increasingly insular mainstream music scene as they set out to build a much more independent operation. Their years of hard work and forward thinking have been amply rewarded with a corporate-proof fan base and enviable creative freedom.

The nineties can be thought of as the first skirmishes of the often cited “culture war” which is raging across most of the West. During the decade of Brit Pop and the Spice Girls, it was difficult to shake the feeling that doubters and thinkers were being deliberately driven out of mainstream culture, to be replaced by safely sanitised short skirt rebellions. The unpalatable truth is that Girl Power was merely the creation of middle aged men in tall buildings, who were smart enough to make a ton of money by selling an insurrection deliberately designed to go nowhere.

However, the culturally cleansed did not simply disappear. They retreated to the internet and patiently waited for their time to strike.

The Music of my Life 1980-1984

The eighties was a decade defined by contradictions. The neon dawn of a beckoning consumer age shone brightly against a dusty background of industrial decay. Newfound freedoms and lifestyles rubbed shoulders awkwardly with centuries-old social norms, often chafing against them. The gender benders shocked on Top of the Pops, while the bowler hatted city men were overrun by the hungry and street smart barrow boys who’d finally broken into the City’s sacred inner sanctum.
It was a time of both economic expansion and industrial contraction, which somehow managed to co-exist within the space of a single frantic decade.
With a little less wealth but a lot more personal freedom, it was a great time to be growing up, and I would never trade it for today’s paranoid, smoke free and calorie counting childhood.

1980 – Vienna by Ultravox

It seems to be an unwritten rule of the music world that one may like either the John Foxx or the Midge Ure incarnations of this band, but never both. That’s a rather short sighted outlook in my opinion, as this technically advanced offering from Midge and the boys is one of the finest examples of the post punk synth wave. While certainly more commercial than their first three albums, Vienna nonetheless displays a high degree of creative integrity. Indeed, I would argue that New Europeans is the single greatest new wave track ever. Never a band to chase the teen romance demographic, this album’s title track is emblematic of a bygone age when bold, innovative and unconventional music could still attain chart success.

1981 – Rage in Eden by Ultravox

That’s right, two in a row for this highly creative musical quartet, and in fact my single favourite album of all time. Too often overlooked by nostalgia channels and list shows, Rage in Eden is a triumph of dark-tinged electro pop that clearly doesn’t give a damn whether the “inkies” deem it worthy or not. Indeed, so cleverly constructed are the tracks and running order of this album that its lengthening shadows creep imperceptibly across the listener’s consciousness, while masquerading as a high quality synth-pop creation. With a brooding, concrete production style and lashings of dark, quasi monastic backing vocals, Rage in Eden is a neglected jewel of the eighties synth movement. Slide the CD into the player, sit back and experience the hidden depths and darkest corners of this most unlikely of masterpieces.
Indeed, time has vindicated this band’s creative approach as Ultravox are still touring in their own right, as opposed to being rolled up into some last hurrah of a fading revivalist roadshow. In hindsight, whilst their commercial triumph was much smaller than the Spandaus and the Durans of the day it has endured far, far longer. Perhaps there’s a lesson for us all in this story.

1982 – A Broken Frame by Depeche Mode

If Ultravox were dark synth with a poppy undertone, then Depeche Mode were their mirror image of poppy synth with a dark undertone. The early eighties marked a distinct societal as well as musical shift, where the groans of that wounded industrial world were processed, digitised and remade in the imagined likeness of the coming computer age. Many bands attempted to balance these opposing cultural currents, more often than not falling off the beam and into day-glo derision or respected obscurity. Somehow Depeche Mode managed to harness these two opposing forces to create something that is both easily accessible yet just a little off key. The video for the popular single See You is a brilliant example of that gravity-defying juggling act. Anyone old enough to remember those dark, frosty and atmospheric BR stations will immediately smell dust, diesel fumes and cigarette smoke in those wonderful opening frames. An album made by young men who were themselves shaped by the greater forces at work during those important years.

1983 – The Golden Section by John Foxx

The third of John Foxx’s post Ultravox projects is less well known than Metamatic or The Garden, and that’s a great shame. The master of the discordant dream and the fleeting shadow finds his strongest abstractionist voice in this glowing, warm and yet distantly chilling production. Perhaps finally trapping the phantom he’d been chasing for over a decade, The Golden Section is a triumph of musical arrangement that takes the listener on a journey to a quiet, melancholy place. This collection of beautifully crafted musical tracks brilliantly succeeds in triggering introspection and a longing for something once known but now forgotten, distilling ideas of shuttered shops and overgrown ruins into a vague longing for past freedoms. The greatest trick this album plays is that it achieves its ends by deception and subterfuge, forswearing any pretentious teen dirge in favour of a far more mature and nuanced musical expression. This album demonstrates an advanced and intuitive understanding of both music and the human condition, where discord somehow gives birth to beauty. An unrivalled triumph of the era.

1984 – Fugazi by Marillion

The second album by the last of the prog rock children is a veritable feast of musicianship and poetic prowess. Fish’s peerless lyrical agility finds a new confidence in this virtuoso display of song-writing and studio production. Steve Rothery shines as the most underrated guitarist of his generation, ably matched by Mark Kelly’s dazzling keyboard skills. Indeed, Steve’s soaring, weeping solo on Jigsaw is my personal favourite.
With major chart success still elusive, Fugazi makes little attempt to chase the then lucrative singles market, as the butchery of Assassing into a short seven inches makes all too plain. Who would buy a single like that?
It’s also worth noting that this is an album that arrived at exactly the right time for music fans like me, providing a vital escape route for those of us who’d spotted the scouts for the Stock, Aitken & Waterman invasion. It’s both an end and a new beginning as the musical mainstream begins its steady and seemingly irreversible decline.

Yes, the eighties are remembered with great fondness, but they also mark an irreparable fracturing of the music scene. By mid-decade the music charts had become increasingly homogenised and predictable, so there was only one thing for it. To misquote a very famous British singer, it’s time to go underground.