Depeche Mode - Music for the Masses (1987)

Strap on your legwarmers, pop on your shoulder pads and set your hair dryer to stun as we take a retrospective look at our favourite 80s pop records and their influence on current styles.

In 1989, legendary direct cinema documentarian D.A. Pennebaker made a film called 101 about the 1988 world tour of the now infamous synth pop band Depeche Mode. The documentary (of sorts) follows Depeche Mode as they tour their then latest album Music for the Masses, a trek which would take them to many nations around the world, eventually culminating at the Pasadena Rose Bowl stadium in Southern California, an unprecedentedly large show for the band at that point in their career. At the same time, the documentary follows a group of fresh faced New York teenagers who were hand picked by the filmmaking team to set upon a road trip across the country to the final show as a sort of pop pilgrimage. 

Cutting between the two journeys, 101 manages to capture the elusive crackling energy of a band on the rise, both in popularity and artistic definition. Through its youthful vibrancy and numerous road metaphors the film invites an influx of change and rebirth, a quality that was at the epicentre of Depeche Mode’s eventual triumph of popular music. 101 is thus a perfect document of a band beginning to taste the fruits of their labour, as we start to envision Depeche Mode as something more than just four lucky lads from Essex. Amidst this shift in perception is Music for the Masses, an album that served as a catalyst for change, as it found the band slowly regressing into the shadows in order to burst forth into the light.

Although the previous record Black Celebration was similarly darker in tone and theme when compared to their earlier works, it’s really 1987’s Music for the Masses where Depeche Mode solidify their industrial pop sensibilities with an atmospheric experimentation that results in some of the band’s most evocative and memorable work. Compared to early break out singles like “Just Can’t Get Enough” and “See You”, Depeche Mode’s late 1980s work rebelled against the notion that synth pop couldn’t be art, an opinion legitimised by the industry’s pursuit of expendable hit makers like A Flock of Seagulls or Spandau Ballet.

Such a stance manifested itself in songwriter Martin Gore’s growing desire to expose his vulnerability in the songs’ lyrics and sound. Rather than rest its laurels on an abundance of pop pleasure, Gore instead focused on the pain and suffering such indulgence can elicit. On the immense opening track “Never Let Me Down” the focus is drug abuse, a strange rumination on the dependency of the drug experience, with its pocket symphonic sounds implying great tragedy rather than elation. The track “Nothing” is pure pop existentialism, a song that softly resigns its listener to a perceived emptiness of everything. Even with a track like “Little 15”, a song often analysed for the questionable relationship at its centre (a fifteen year old boy and an older woman), the end result is more sad than it is provocative, with Gore’s older woman seeking youthfulness rather than sexual fulfilment.

Despite these insights, it’s actually the songs about sexual fulfilment that contribute to Music for the Masses’ intoxicating moodiness. Depeche Mode had dealt with the darker side of the coital act in numerous songs previously, notably Some Great Reward’s “Master and Servant”, a song that concerns itself with images of sadomasochism, ownership and submission. While the S&M angle isn’t new to Depeche Mode lyrical analysis, it’s absolutely crucial to their evolution, a move towards their unique brand of pop darkness and light.

Examples of such conceptual balance include the album’s third track (and the album’s first single) “Strangelove”, a song that’s primarily interested in the powerful seduction of sin, and the track “I Want You Now”, a song that quite literally personifies pleasure with its choir of voices in ecstasy (apparently sampled from a number of porn films). The real standout though is “Behind the Wheel” (yet another reference to the road), a song that finds the band capitalising on images of submission and powerlessness. With a cyclic and repetitive musical structure, “Behind the Wheel” not only advertises the band’s desire to work outside of pop arrangements (another example being the last track “Pimpf”), but also becomes the figurehead for the band's then current motif. The song capitalises on Gore’s ability to weave strange metaphors around his own desires and pitfalls and is undoubtedly one of the band’s defining tracks.

To use a term like “matured” when talking about the band at this point would be both terribly cliché and yet somewhat apt, as Music for the Masses is an obviously conscious progression. As much as the music was fading to black so was the band’s image, a result owed more to their partnership with renowned photographer/director Anton Corbijn, whom singer David Gahan claimed “visually saved” the band. Defining Depeche Mode within a stark black and white, expressionist aesthetic, Corbijn ingeniously tied the band’s image into its new sound. His film clips implied sexual tension, nostalgic revision and visual immediacy, an instrumental force in the band’s new attitude. Combined with the communist imagery of the album’s megaphone-laden cover and promotional materials, Depeche Mode had obviously changed, no doubt for the better.

Synthesised music is obviously one of the most important movements in pop music history, and with Music for the Masses Depeche Mode capitalised on its overwhelming saturation. While guitars do often appear, much of the music on Music for the Masses is programmed and sampled, with the band adopting Kraftwerk’s rigid keyboard orchestra. They also brought in a new producer Dave Bascombe for the record, whose previous work with Tears for Fears and Peter Gabriel brought even more acoustic clarity to the proceedings. Music for the Masses is thus a razor sharp work of electronic music, a sonically dense record that manages to sound both sterile and yet romantic, easily slotting into the band’s brilliant polarised balancing act.

Music for the Masses might not be as well remembered as 1990’s Violator, the album that immediately followed it, but that doesn’t detract from either its quality nor its importance in Depeche Mode’s legacy. Even the album’s title, initially a self-depreciating, ironic play on the band’s decision to make less commercial music, ended up being somewhat prophetic. The album entered the Billboard Top 40, a first for the band, and went on to sell over a million copies in the U.S. alone. For Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses was the beginning of superstardom, a musical offering for the masses who clearly wanted nothing more than to dance to their synth pop in the dark.

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