Depeche Mode – Black Celebration

Black CelebrationDepeche Mode‘s fifth album, was released thirty years ago this week. Things had gone decidedly dark with the preceding album Some Great Reward, a couple of years earlier, and now they would positively celebrate the darkness.

This isn’t honestly one of Depeche Mode‘s albums that I know too well, so there are probably going to be a few surprises here. It opens with the title track, which I’m actually surprised to read was never a single (a live version was on the b-side of A Question of Time, which I suspect is what I’m thinking of). It’s definitely good enough, with a catchy chorus punctuated by curious samples.

Just a few months earlier had come the release of The Singles 81-85, packaging the highlights from their first four albums in one easily digestible package, and one of the b-sides was Fly on the Windscreen, which appears as the second track on Black Celebration. In other circumstances, such an appearance might have seemed a little out of place, but here it fits perfectly. It’s a particularly good song, in especially good form.

It’s finally time for a single, the downtempo A Question of Lust, with Martin L. Gore on vocals. I’ve got a feeling I was nonplussed the first time I heard this, however many years ago that might have been, but now I’m rather fond of it. It is a strange choice for a single, though, so it perhaps isn’t too surprising that it was their worst chart performer since their debut.

The album, meanwhile, was their most successful yet, peaking at number 4, and after the glorious follow-up Music for the Masses only scraped to number 10 a year or so later, Black Celebration managed to hold onto that title for four years.

Sometimes echoes Somebody on the previous album, a piano piece led again by Gore, but ultimately it sounds a bit of a mess, with its extravagant delay, although it ends nicely. Like it or not, it doesn’t last long. The lovely It Doesn’t Matter Two (so named to avoid confusion with It Doesn’t Matter on the preceding album) comes next, closing the first half of the album in particularly stylish manner.

Side B opens with a bang, in the form of third (and, for the most part, final) single A Question of Time. Perhaps for the first time in their career, we see Depeche Mode truly embrace rock music, something they have continued to do ever since. The huge bass line, which used by anybody else might have sounded cheesy, punches out the rhythm of a classic rock track, and the lyrics are brilliantly appropriate. Their chart success was quickly restored.

A Question of Time also saw the first of many collaborations with filmmaker and visual wizard Anton Corbijn, someone whose input seems now to be pretty much integral to Depeche Mode‘s image. Five albums into their career, they were clearly still working out who they were.

Lead single Stripped comes next, a huge anthemic piece with less of a rock feel, but still a noticeable depth, and then we have Here is the House, a pleasant song with more of a pop leaning. Actually, this would have fitted very comfortably on pretty much any of the earlier albums, except the lyrics show a lot of maturity, and they have had a lot of fun with the production. It’s a good song, although ultimately it’s perhaps a little forgettable.

One of the most fascinating things is just how short the songs are. There’s plenty to like, but if you aren’t too keen on something, another song will be along again in a couple of minutes, which is a stark contrast to Some Great RewardWorld Full of Nothing is another one that I’d entirely forgotten, but that is actually rather good.

It would be hard to forget the glorious Dressed in Black, which echoes a 1960s pop song, with the pad backing and curiously daft bass line. Again, if you had to pin down exactly who Depeche Mode have become in the last three decades, this would be a pretty good place to start.

The final track is New Dress, with a verse that many (mainly German) imitators would revisit continually for the next decade. Honestly, I’ve no idea what this is meant to be, or even really what it’s doing here, but somehow it seems entirely appropriate as the closing piece for this album.

Some of its contents might be a little forgettable, but for the most part that’s the worst you can say for them. In the end, Black Celebration is a career-defining moment, and is every bit as brilliant as anything they have released yet.

The 2007 remaster of Black Celebration is the definitive one, still available as a single-disc reissue here.

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Preview – Depeche Mode

Depeche Mode are back with another live release which looks fantastic – Live in Berlin, a new film by Anton Corbijn. The box set contains a whole load of CDs and DVDs, including a 5.1 surround sound version of their last album Delta Machine (hopefully less compressed than the original release). As a taster, here’s a brilliant live version of Enjoy the Silence:

Depeche Mode – Only When I Lose Myself

Fifteen years ago this week saw the release of a special one-off Depeche Mode single to launch their beautifully packaged The Singles 86-98 compilation. Having only returned from the dead (literally, in one case) a year earlier, they returned to the studio uncharacteristically quickly and recorded one of the finest singles of their career.

This may be obvious from that introduction, but the lead track is probably my favourite Depeche Mode song to date. In true Mode fashion, it’s overflowing with dark energy, with a beautiful lyric and has some intriguing experimental elements too. It has to be one of Dave Gahan‘s finest vocal performances too. Having come back only a year earlier with gusto on their latest album Ultra, they were really going with all cylinders firing.

There are two b-sides on this single: one vocal and one instrumental. Surrender is the first, and as with the lead track would have fitted perfectly on the previous album. It’s one of Martin L. Gore‘s more soulful bluesy tracks, again delivered perfectly by Gahan. This is followed by the instrumental HeadstarDepeche Mode instrumentals tend to be curious little instrumental tracks driven by a particular sound or sample, and you do have to wonder exactly what Gore’s writing process might involve in these cases. This is no exception, but the flowing synth pads lead through to a darker, more industrial backing, and even a counter-melody. It’s tempting to wonder if this one might have even been intended as a vocal track at one stage.

Anton Corbijn is also on form on this release, with a totally brilliant cover picture showing the ‘DM’ LEDs in an anonymous hotel room, beautifully lit with an orange glow. Truly masterful.

As always in the 1990s, there’s a second CD for the remixes, but this was after the chart rules changed in May 1998, so you only get three. The first is by Subsonic Legacy, a curious choice to lead the disc as it’s a deep and dark dub mix, driven by a grimy bass. You get hints of the rest of the song, and it’s brilliant, but as with a lot of dub mixes you’ll find it a little unsatisfying if you can’t just enjoy it for what it is.

The second remix is by Dan the Automator, and is more faithful to the original, but this also means you’d be much less likely to hear it in a mainstream club, which would normally be the point of a remix. This version changes most of the track, approaching it from a very different angle, but most notable are the new drums and bass, and added vinyl scratching (“no doubt”). But it’s by remaining faithful to the original that it becomes all the more compelling in many ways. You can find this version on their recent collection Remixes 2: 81-11.

Finally on this disc you get a remix of the instrumental Headstar by electronic legend in training Luke Slater. This isn’t one of his finest efforts unfortunately, driven by banging saucepans and a characteristically massive bass part. Whereas the b-side remixes on Ultra really tended to add something to the originals (more on that later) this one does struggle a little.

Released a few weeks later as a special ultra-limited edition, there is also a third CD for this single (or, more practically, you can now find the whole lot in one go on their singles box set DMBX6). This final CD delivers some excellent surprises, kicking off with the first of two versions of the title track by Gus Gus.

Running at a slightly faster tempo than the original, their aptly named eleven minute Long Play mix is brilliant, both faithful to the track and also more dynamic and more suited to the dance floor. I’m not sure I think the higher tempo does a huge amount for the track, but it does fit the remix perfectly. It’s a mix of two halves, as once the main track finishes you then get six minutes or so of deep gargling dub mix, but it’s pretty excellent nonetheless.

Next is a remix so special that it appeared on their original remix collection The Remixes 81-04, the brilliant Kill the Pain version of Painkiller, mixed by drum and bass legend DJ Shadow. Augmented by extra electronic warblings and a whole lot of trippy drum samples, and bristling with energetic samples, what was already an excellent little instrumental is transformed into something really quite excellent.

We then get a remix of Surrender by Catalan FC, which is overflowing with reverb and effects, and completely new electronic backing. It’s not perfect, but it does transform the bluesy original into something much more electro, and is pretty excellent for all of that. This is followed by Gus Gus‘s Short Play mix, which is effectively just the top half of the earlier mix.

Finally, the last track is a bit of a surprise – completely out of nowhere we get a new mix of 1990’s World in My Eyes by Safar. It’s nothing special unfortunately, but it is refreshing to hear such an old favourite again. It opens with one of Gahan’s traditional live statements – “Good evening San Francisco!” and quickly becomes a pleasant but pedestrian 90s house track. It builds into something rather more pleasant over its eight minutes, but it’s not essential listening.

Only When I Lose Myself is a fantastic single, which is accompanied by a great package of bonus tracks and remixes, and proves to me that when Depeche Mode put their mind to writing a new hit single, they really do make an exceptional job of it.

Disc one of Only When I Lose Myself is available on the repackaged version of Ultra if you can still find it anywhere, but the definitive version of the single is in the DMBX6 set here or as a CD on its own here.

Various Artists – Control

The story of Joy Division is, of course, a particularly fascinating one, which is why it’s been told in two very good films already. The second came out in 2007, was directed by music video genius Anton Corbijn, and was entitled Control.

One of my personal claims to fame is that I accidentally went to the premiere of the film in Manchester, which was a real privilege. In particular, meeting Corbijn (in his gold trainers) and seeing what turned out to be quite an exceptional film.

The soundtrack is something of a journey too. The three little new tracks from New Order, at the time on yet another of their regular hiatuses, open, close, and form the centrepiece of the album. The rest of the album is often a dark and experimental exploration of the kinds of music that influenced – or in some cases was influenced by – the sound of Joy Division.

The first full track is The Velvet Underground‘s What Goes On from their debut album in 1969. The Killers‘ cover of Shadowplay follows, with a very strong Joy Division flavour, and is followed by The Buzzcocks with a lively and slightly chaotic live version of Boredom from 1977.

Even at their weakest, every track on the album is an interesting listen, and you can definitely hear how Joy Division may have been influenced by them. Dutch prog rock band Supersister‘s She Was Naked and Iggy Pop‘s Sister Midnight are both good examples of the sort of unusual experimental recording and songwriting which clearly helped make them the band they were.

In many ways the whole album is just a compilation of the more interesting music from the 1970s. Sex Pistols crop up with a live version of Problems. Roxy Music are on there with the pleasant Hammond Organ rumblings of 2HBDavid Bowie turns up a couple of times, with Drive-in Saturday from 1973’s Aladdin Sane and Warszawa from Low (1977).

The inevitable high point of the album apart from the competent live cast recording of Transmission is an exclusive edit of Kraftwerk‘s essential 1974 hit Autobahn, as well as a few reminders of why exactly Joy Division were so special in the first place.

In summary, then, Music from the Motion Picture Control, to give its full name, is a perfect companion to an exceptionally good “motion picture”, and comes highly recommended if you haven’t heard it yet.