Depeche Mode in Detroit
John McCready, The Face, 1989
IT'S JUST after one at the best club on the planet. This is Detroit’s Music Institute, an all-night and most-of-the-next-day juice bar with a sound system designed so that recurring phrases like ‘feel the music’ begin to make sense. House and Techno trax weave in and out of club classics like Dinosaur L’s ‘Go Bang’ to make up the Saturday night soundtrack.
The DJ could be Derrick May except for the fact that he’s just led us through the queue at the door. Perhaps, then, it’s Big Fun’s Kevin Saunderson or Juan Atkins, both of whom regularly direct the mix at 1315 Broadway.
With Chicago’s Warehouse, where house took shape, and Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage having both passed into legend, the Music Institute is now the music’s flagship. Depeche Mode head straight for the bar. Having spent the previous evening with them, I know they’re fond of a drink or three. Obviously not aware of the dance-till-dawn concept of the juice bar, Andrew Fletcher turns to me and announces incredulously, "No alcohol". Beginning to get the hang of things, Martin Gore calls out, "Waters all round!" The heads of the immaculately turned out young blacks around us begin to turn.
Despite the fact that we are all beginning to look like death warmed up following last night’s late warehouse rap party in New York, Depeche Mode are very quickly ‘recognised’. Within minutes, Martin Gore has a tape from local Techno group Separate Minds thrust into his hand. Had this been Schoom, The Kool Kat or The Hacienda, the group might have been blanked, laughed at, or even insulted. In Britain, Depeche Mode are a kids group, a ‘pop’ group; Bros, but older. In the gun capital of America, the reaction is inevitably different. Will they get shot? Only with a camera.
"Smile, please," says a beautiful young black girl as her friends crowd around the group.
"Oh, God!" says another, "I can’t believe it! This is great, Depeche Mode in Detroit... Why?"
Believe me, it’s a long story.
Yet in America, they are spoken about in the same reverential tones as New Order and even Kraftwerk. Frankie Knuckles won’t deny owning a well-worn copy of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and Todd Terry will talk about them as his favourite dance group. In America, Depeche Mode are a phenomenon, a white English ‘pop’ group respected on the black club scene in New York, Chicago and Detroit through records like their 1983 single ‘Get The Balance Right’ — a $25 ‘Disco Classic’ in Manhattan’s hip Downstairs Records. And this is despite the fact that their knowledge of club culture is such that they haven’t heard of most of the people who control your night-time soundtrack. Here, they remain a laughing stock thanks to a received impression of them as fools lost in the pop machine.
"We accept that we are partly responsible in creating the problem in Britain," says Andy Fletcher, the group’s diplomat and all-round diamond geezer. In the hotel bar in Detroit we begin the interview proper. Depeche Mode are in America viewing the final cut of 101, their first concert movie, which was put together by legendary pop filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker. A mixture of documentary and concert footage, it echoes the candid style of the director’s Don’t Look Back, made during Bob Dylan’s early Sixties tour of the UK.
It records Depeche Mode’s 101st concert, held before a 60,000 crowd at the Rosebowl in Pasadena, and illustrates their obvious overground success in America. The film accompanies a new live LP set from the same concert. That job done in New York, here, in the interests of providing another view of a group whose name is always accompanied in British magazines by an italicised cynicism from an unidentified ‘Ed’, Depeche Mode are taking a Techno holiday, their curiosity stirred after hearing some of the city’s innovative new dance music. The trip also provides a way of approaching a group who are now in a position to refuse the standard tape-recorder-on-the-table trial.
"When we began, we couldn’t believe that anyone was interested," says Fletch. "And we did every TV show, every interview that came up. We were wrapped up as a pop group, nothing more and nothing less, and we have suffered from that image ever since." He takes time out to explain that there is nothing inherently wrong with pop music. We agree that it has become a simple term of abuse due to the critics’ common viewpoint that what is popular is therefore crap: bad logic in anyone’s philosophy book. Alan Wilder — who can look as sullen as a Spurs fan on any Saturday afternoon but instead turns out to be another diamond geezer who doesn’t get enough sleep — adds that the power of the pop press is such that those who like the group find themselves having to explain why — something I’m used to. New Order, who began life as Joy Division, thereby giving music critics the opportunity to prattle on about cathedrals of sound, are seen in America as similar white-dance practicians. In Britain, the respect they have overseas is more than equalled. It’s an attitude which frustrates rather than puzzles the group.
The situation seems massively ironic when the full extent of Depeche Mode’s American success becomes clear.
When I mention Todd Terry to Andy Fletcher and he asks me who he is, it’s clear that the group themselves are blissfully unaware of their influence. Perhaps the fact that they remain largely uninterested, preferring to concentrate on creating more of the same, is the key to their dance success. Dave Gahan relates that their much sought-after 12-inch mixes were created not for clubs, but for bedroom listening.
"We had to do these 12-inch records so we made sure they were interesting all the way through. We spent a lot of time putting them together so that people would want to listen to them from end to end."
The dub techniques and intuitively rhythm-conscious sound collages that resulted are landmarks in the development of the house sound. Whether you like it or not, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ is a dance masterpiece which like ‘Disco Circus’, ‘Love Is The Message’ and Klien And MBO’s ‘Dirty Talk’ helped shape the most feted club sound of the decade.
Most of the other British groups who emerged from the white dance boom of the early Eighties would have paid dearly to hear their records smoothed into a mastermix on new York’s Kiss and WBLs radio stations, or even to share a minibus with Derrick May. Duran Duran courted the attentions of the Chic Organisation, yet they have as much to do with current club culture as ABC, who even recorded a tribute to the house sound called ‘Chicago’. The Human League, always mindful of their club success, are the only British group to come close to Depeche Mode’s American standing in the clubs.
As musicians with a genuine love of black music, they tried to build on that success by attempting to mould their very European awkwardness into something more soulful. Millions of pounds were spent on the Crash album, produced by Minneapolis studio gods Jam and Lewis. The move did nothing but upset a black audience almost bored by a million and one immaculate arrangements and endlessly capable voices. They want to hear an English accent and a synthesiser and be persuaded by a different sound. They wanted Phil Oakey to be Phil Oakey singing ‘Being Boiled’. When Phil Oakey nearly became Alexander O’Neal singing ‘Human’ they lost interest. The Human League blew it by trying to assimilate a sound their American audience already knew by heart.
Depeche Mode, far from capitalising on their appeal, believe they too are about to upset their ironic alliance with US club culture. Alan Wilder tells me that the new material they are working on builds on the slower tempos of the Music For The Masses LP. Martin Gore, the group’s only songwriter who, curiously, listens to old rock and roll for inspiration, believes that Depeche Mode aren’t capable of making dance music anyway.
"We can’t create dance music, and I don’t think we’ve ever really tried. We honestly wouldn’t know where to start."
As usual, with the tape recorder switched off people start telling good stories. Our planned visit to Majestics, an Anglo-obsessed ‘English Beat’ club which Derrick tells us is haunted by Numan clones and tea-towelled futurists, is the subject of comic anticipation. The group admit that they benefited from their association with the kilt and make-up scene of the early Eighties. But as the tag became a critical liability and Depeche Mode grew into the willful pop stylists of ‘Leave In Silence’ and the brilliant ‘Get The Balance Right’, it proved hard to shake.
Dave Gahan recalls a concert in Paris about two years after the whole scene had died. Arriving at the hall, they couldn’t help but notice huge posters announcing DEPECHE MODE: KINGS OF THE NEW ROMANTICS.
When we get to Majestics, Bauhaus’s ‘Bela Lugosi’ is stirring up the dancefloor. This is Retro Anglo or ‘Nu Musik’, and these are the people who have helped create a market for groups like Information Society, who try to recreate the awkwardness and the essential Englishness of the early Depeche Mode sound. As a man in a green fishtail parka and a flat cap passes me I am mysteriously reminded of Chicago’s Bedrock Club, where one of the main attractions for the house nation seems to be the exotic charms of Watney’s Red Barrel. A big man in mascara crushes past and I decide that Depeche Mode may not leave without giving the assembled crowd a quick blast of ‘Photographic’, an early Basildon New Romantic classic. Here, as in the Music Institute, which we head for after a minute or so of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ signals we’ve been spotted, the autograph requests begin. We drive to the Institute with the group discussing their music and the Techno sound with Derrick May. They want to know why almost every house track utilises the very specific sound of the Roland 808 drum machine. Later, Dave Gahan tells me that they don’t really feel part of what’s happening.
"Still, I can feel the excitement of it. In a way it’s confirmed that what we are doing has been right all along. House seems to me the most important musical development of the Eighties, in that it’s combined dance and the electronic sound. What Derrick is doing looks to the future."
With a grin on his face, Fletch recalls a British interview where the opening question was, "What’s it like to be playing old-fashioned music?"
"This was before house — a really dark time for electronic music. At the time electronic was a dirty word. People were talking about guitars a lot. It was like, ‘How does it feel to be finished?’ Dave nearly clobbered the guy!"
As we approach the club Dave is taking the piss out of Derrick’s hyperactivity and Derrick is taking the piss out of his accent. A mention of Kraftwerk changes the subject and provides the best explanation for the phenomenon that is Depeche Mode’s American club success. While most British groups dealing with America try to be American, Depeche Mode are, like Derrick May and Todd Terrys, till listening intently to Kraftwerk and chasing the elusive European electro sound created and perfected by the masters of Dusseldorf. The admiration for Kling Klang techno ties them all together and makes sense of the line to be drawn between Basildon and Detroit, between Depeche Mode’s ‘New Life’ and Derrick May’s ‘Nude Photo’.
Of course, there is another way of looking at it. "Some of our records have a good beat and that’s about the end of it," says Dave Gahan.
© John McCready, 1989
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