Saturday, January 2, 2010
"What's Your Name?" by Depeche Mode (1981)
Ah, Depeche Mode... perpetually soundtracking teenagers' mood swings into melancholy down the years. I shouldn't knock that, actually: it's a very valuable public service, one that Robert Smith of the Cure could be helping them at if he weren't prone to releasing 'pop' singles every now and then.
It's very easy to make fun of Depeche Mode - and probably very reasonable to do so as well. There's much to laugh at, from Martin Gore's arrested-development angst to Dave Gahan's nuance-free bellow of a voice. Yet they have, perhaps against their will, come up with a decent handful of greatness. In fact, the trilogy of albums Black Celebration, Music for the Masses and Violator (which so happen to coincide with my personal melancholic teenage years) are impressive enough to actually make a case for Depeche Mode as - gasp - one of the greats.
Well, in a manner of speaking. Depeche Mode is currently songwriter, singer and accountant. There used to be a fourth, Alan Wilder, who joined the band late and left it early, quite unsung and best known now for the part of his website where he talks about his days in Depeche Mode. But if you ever wonder who made those three albums so great, look no further than the song "Never Let Me Down Again". On paper, it's terrible: completely melody-free, Gore leaves Gahan to bleat the barrel-of-cliché lyrics as a mere tick-tock between two notes. Gahan decides to compensate by oversinging, even by his standards, and bellows the whole thing out in a thick baritone that would make Jim Morrison blush. And yet... the song is wonderful. Wait, no: the song is bollocks. The recording is wonderful: widescreen, lush, with sounds coming in all over the spectrum. That's what Alan Wilder did in Depeche Mode, and why their glory years are so limited.
Mind you, Alan Wilder also co-wrote "Work Hard", which vied with the current song for 'worst Depeche Mode song' in my book. If you've never heard it... well, don't. Depeche Mode went through a phase of fetishising manual labour and capitalism, and threw in kilograms of cheese. Avoid.
No, I tip my hat to Messrs. Gore and Fletcher, who nominated "What's Your Name?" as 'worst Depeche Mode song ever'. In deference to them, I agree.
What is this fresh hell? Well, Depeche Mode was originally a very, very different band. Their first album, Speak and Spell, is coloured by two things: one is the songwriting of Vince Clarke, who dominated the first album and then left the group before they recorded their second. The other is a kind of glorification of rinky-dink keyboards. Depeche Mode have, of course, always been a keyboard band, but there's a Kraftwerkesque 'go machines go!' theme to the first album that occasionally succeeds (especially in moodier mid-tempo tracks) and occasionally falls spectacularly flat, especially all these years later, when the whole album sounds like a Nokia ringtone.
Vince Clarke has written some amazing songs. In fact, I've heard tell that one of the reasons he left Depeche Mode was because of disagreement over his song "Only You". It seems the others in the band didn't want to record it. if this is so, we can, as Depeche Mode would later say, 'thank the Lord for small mercies', since it breaks my heart to imagine what Dave Gahan's walrus of a voice would have done with that beautiful song that Alison Moyet gets so spectacularly right. The début album is not that bad, except for the two 'boy' songs. Oddly enough, nobody in Depeche Mode is gay, not even songwriter Vince Clarke (I just checked online), so these lyrics make even less sense. The problem with the lyrics is not their kinda-gayness, which is entirely whatever. The problem is just how ridiculous this song and "Boys Say Go!" are. This song is entirely built around the line "hey, you're such a pretty boy", and it's happy-go-lucky to the point that it's quite nauseating (the background singers chime in, "P-R-E-double-T-Y"). For a band whose subsequent career was built around moodiness, it's shocking to hear how happy-go-lucky, naïve and tacky they were when they started out.