“Lift up the receiver… I’ll make you a believer” – one of the most instantly recognisable lines in a Depeche Mode song.
But the famous lyric from Personal Jesus has recently reappeared, in a context and genre about as far removed from Depeche as you can imagine.
UK-based MIA is a bundle of creativity, covering music, production, fashion and photography (she’s overseeing this year’s arty Meltdown Festival in London), with her roots originally in a curious fusion of hip hop and “world music”.
She came to mainstream attention when working with A H Rahman on the soundtrack for Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire, fronting the hit song Paper Planes.
Not only is her music inventive but the live act is terrific (Glastonbury, a few years back, was a rather feisty affair).
Ahead of her curation duties for the Meltdown Festival, MIA has released a song straight to YouTube, called Goals.
MIA’s dark and extremely lo-fi rap features a slight variation on the Personal Jesus line (swapping a “lift” for a “pick”) as part of a hypnotic series of verses and choruses.
It’s essentially a love song, tinged with anger and venom. It’s a terrific and unusual type of track.
MIA has a habit of creating music that is strangely addictive, especially because her use of melodies and harmonies often do not conform to conventional standards.
Even the “video” for Goals is oddly compelling, in a very simple way, using a series of stop-motion shots from a gig.
Many Depeche Mode devotees, given the general reaction to countless reintepretations of material from their idols, are going to hate it.
Kanye West and Depeche Mode – chalk and cheese, polar ends of the musical spectrum, right?
It’s a match made in hell, at least for hordes of devotees who would probably burn a red rose or two in protest if it were true.
Still, some may recall a “mashup” of Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus with rapper and R&B megastar Kanye West’s Black Skinhead from 2013.
The Dan Chamberlain creation got a fair amount of buzz on the web at the time but the track was never given any kind of official release or widespread airtime.
Fast forward four years and it’s about to get A Lot Of Exposure, with the track included on the soundtrack and new trailer for Charlize Theron-fronted action movie Atomic Blonde.
The first third of the three-minute showcase features New Order’s Blue Monday, but then it’s time for the fusion of Depeche stomping and Kanye verbal pouting to kick in.
Here is the trailer:
The movie is the first big-ticket outing for director David Leitch, a former stuntman who has stood in for the likes of Brad Pitt and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
And if you think Atomic Blonde, a spy thriller set at the end of the Cold War, has a certain Jason Bourne-type vibe about it, then you’d be correct – Leitch starred in both The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy.
Atomic Blonde is due for release in the summer of 2017 and also stars James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones and Bill Skarsgard.
Before any big interview, writers and journalists often ask around to find out if anyone has any tips about what to expect from the interviewee.
This is usually done not in the hope of learning what they are likely to say ahead of the interview, but mostly to discover what they are like as a person.
Perhaps they are a bit prickly on certain subjects. Or they take some time to warm up. Maybe they are rather erratic with their answers and need keeping on track.
Such a tactic is as important as the research you may spend weeks doing beforehand.
I did this for most of the people featured in HALO – but with Francois Kevorkian, the legendary DJ/producer who mixed all but one of the tracks on Violator and created many of the famed remixes of the singles from that period, I was arguably more curious than any other interviewee.
In the official 30-minute Violator documentary from the mid-2000s, Kevorkian is praised (in particular, by Dave Gahan) for his creativity with the mixing yet labelled “pedantic” and “a stickler” by Martin Gore and Alan Wilder respectively.
When he does eventually appear in the same documentary, Kevorkian comes across as gentle, thoughtful and, of course, extremely focused.
The interview came in at a mammoth 25,000 words (thank you, my trusty transcriber, Nabaa!) and will eventually be included in HALO.
Kevorkian is articulate, measured, expansive and, interestingly, I found perhaps less interested in the technical aspects of what he did (and still does) and, instead, more comfortable to discuss the aesthetics of it all and what it all meant to him, the band and the fans.
The only disappointing aspect of the time I spent talking to Kevorkian was that the interview was carried out over the chat platform Skype – him at home in New York City, me in Bishops Stortford (an infinitely less exciting town than the Big Apple, located just north of London).
Yet we agreed that if he ever came over to London – or me to New York City – that we would say hi…
Fast forward to September this year and the wonderful Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, the DJ behind the Classic Album Sundays project that I took part in last year, was conducting a Q&A with Kevorkian at an arty venue in the trendy Whitechapel area of London’s East End.
This was an ideal opportunity to fulfil our promise but, for me, to learn a lot more about Kevorkian’s career outside of the Depeche bubble of 1989 and 1990.
(Kevorkian’s work with Depeche Mode came up briefly towards the end of the discussion when he recalled how he was mixing Personal Jesus in Milan at the same time as the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, China, in June 1989.)
Here are my rough notes from Kevorkian’s chat with Murphy:
He was a big fan of Jimi Hendrix and was amazed at what the legendary guitarist could do with sound.
If he had not carved out his own role in music as a DJ in the mid-1970s, Kevorkian was destined to be a bio-chemist or engineer.
The club scene in New York City, where he moved to from France in his early-20s, “felt like science fiction”, such was its “revolutionary” impact on the alternative and dance music scene at the time.
It wasn’t particularly glamorous at times, with him struggling to make enough money to pay his NYC rent.
The craft of the modern-day DJ was born in the clubs of NYC in the mid to late-1970s, with turntable “battles” often a highlight of a club night.
Up-and-coming producers would often deliver acetate records to the DJs so that they could hear how their work sounds in a club.
Working at the legendary Loft nightclub, opened in 1970 by David Mancuso, was an important moment in Kevorkian’s career as it exposed him to other well-known DJs and made him appreciate the mechanics behind sound and atmosphere (from an acoustics perspective, “there was really nowhere else like it”).
Kevorkian is a firm believer in the concept of the studio “console desk being an instrument”, where a track can be taken in a different direction purely from how it is manipulated and massaged during the mixing phase in the control room.
He is NOT a fan of one of Daniel Miller’s favourite bands, the pioneering “krautrock” ensemble, Can (“crap rock!”).
The best nightclubs are those that consider the audio as an “acoustics system, not a sound system”. Designers should consider every aspect of a room, even where walls and pillars are placed as these are disruptive to the “laws of nature” around the movement of sound.
One of his favourite nightclubs in the UK is the Ministry of Sound in London – the closest he has known from a sonic perspective to the famous Loft club (and, later, Paradise) in NYC.
CDs sounds “awful” in clubs as the sound is often heavily compressed, meaning the frequency ranges are not as wide as on vinyl.
On the controversial and vast subject of modern music distribution on streaming sites (an area that admittedly requires an entire discussion in its own right), Kevorkian says at the most basic level, services such as Spotify et al are great for consumers of music but not so for those making it.
One of the “exciting” new forms of dance/electronic music for Kevorkian has been the emergence of the dubstep genre.
Thanks to Murphy for organising and moderating the event – a fascinating dive into the world of one of the key figures in the creation of the Violator sound.
The lack of a bona fide, official video from the World Violation Tour means many fans have forgotten about (or never even seen) the visual elements.
Although the stage design didn’t reach the creative heights of the Devotional Tour period a few years later, Violator‘s accompanying tour did hint at what was to come.
In particular, was the introduction of screens and video projections for the first time.
Illustrating how Depeche Mode’s artwork and visual design had finally been coordinated into an overall theme (roses, typefaces, style and overall aesthetic across sleeves, merchandise and the tour materials), collaborator Anton Corbijn created a series of projections to run behind the chaps as they performed some of the songs during the set.
Some of the films were basic but effective – Waiting For The Night‘s sparklers or Clean‘s hand brush painting of words, for example.
But Personal Jesus once again employed the cowboy theme from the video for the single release in the summer of 1989 (August 29, to be precise).
Rather than directly re-use the seedy bordello scenario from the Spanish desert, Corbijn re-shot the band in the US, essentially messing about with a few (cow)girls.
Whilst the full effect of the backdrops (each of the screens were at least 20-feet tall) can never be obtained by watching a clip online, languishing in a corner of the web is this apparent “rough cut” of the tour projections from Personal Jesus (including a pretty decent recording of the song).
Here it is:
And here is the official Depeche website’s tribute video, including Fletch about talking the “horse prank” from the original video for the single (poor fella) 🙂
We all know that Depeche Mode have sold over 100 million albums in their 35-year history.
Furthermore, countless singles from the band’s repertoire have snapped up precious metal-labelled discs for hitting various sales points.
But those milestones are very much a reflection of the era in which the various albums or songs were released.
One of the wonderful hallmarks of Depeche is that they still manage to excite their existing fanbase with new releases, at the same time as attracting new devotees to the back catalogue.
Until recently, however, we had no real idea (i.e. hard data) as to how popular might the band’s older material be.
Digital music streaming services such as Spotify may have caused all manner of financial headaches for bands looking to make decent money for their craft (thus why touring is so important these days) – but the other side of the coin is that we are now able to understand more about the songs being listened to.
In particular, crunching the freely available data (thanks Polygraph!) can show us how popular older songs remain.
So here are some factoids for you from data for “playcounts” on Spotify during 2014…
Three of the singles from Violator feature in the top ten most popular Depeche songs on Spotify last year.
In fact, Enjoy The Silence and Personal Jesus have been listened to more times than the remaining 15 other Depeche tracks on the list combined.
So what about some numbers, then?
To put it all into context a bit, Bing Crosby’s 1942 hit White Christmas remains the best selling single of all time, with 50 million units shifted worldwide.
In second spot is Elton John’s Candle in the Wind, re-released in 1997 in the wake of death of the Princess of Wales, with 33 million sales.
Unsurprisingly, Depeche have never sold anything close to these figures for any of their singles.
Pharrell Williams’s Happy was the biggest selling (including downloads) single of 2014, with 13.9 million units.
But by remarkable coincidence, Enjoy The Silence was listened to just over 13 million times on Spotify last year ;).
Spotify’s hosepipe of information doesn’t break down the number “playcounts” against the number of people actually listening to the songs or from where the users are based, unfortunately, but the data-crunching certainly illustrates the longevity of Depeche’s work.
For example, Personal Jesus had 9.2 million listens in 2014, with Policy of Truth capturing 1.8 million and World In My Eyes just short of one million.
Violator’s legacy endures, it seems…
Here is the full list of most listened to Depeche Mode songs on Spotify in 2014:
Very little is ever really said about the process that goes into giving the thumbs-up (or down) to other artists coving Depeche Mode songs.
Sometimes it appears that there is no restriction at all, but presumably many artists ask principal songwriter Martin Gore permission to rework a Depeche Mode song.
Back in 2008, however, singer Dave Gahan was asked about the release of Reach Out by US starlet Hilary Duff.
The song uses countless samples and many of the lyrics, and triggered all sorts of hand-wringing by fans who bemoaned the fact that popstress Duff was allowed to borrow so heavily from such a hallowed Depeche song.