Stowaway Heroes – Vince Clarke

One of the most prolific names in music is Vince Clarke. After a couple of excellent false starts including Yazoo and The Assembly, he’s spent most of his career as the knob-twiddling genius responsible for Erasure‘s backing tracks.

Things started out, of course, with Depeche Mode, and we can’t really overlook his sunglasses and designer stubble in their breakthrough hit Just Can’t Get Enough:

Of course, Erasure is where he’s spent most of the last thirty years, and it would be difficult not to give him credit where it’s due for his exquisite performance in the video to Abba‘s Take a Chance on Me:

In recent years, he has branched out, working again with his old bandmate Martin L. Gore as well as half of Orbital, all of Jean-Michel Jarre, and others. From 2Square, his project with Paul Hartnoll, here’s Better Have a Drink to Think:

Genius is an over-used word without a doubt, but it’s absolutely fair to say that Clarke should be one of our stowaway heroes.


Retro chart for stowaways – 24 January 2004

Here are the top ten singles from fourteen years ago this week:

  1. Liberty X – Everybody Cries
  2. Sugababes – Too Lost in You
  3. Pet Shop Boys – Miracles
  4. Girls Aloud – Jump
  5. Martin L. Gore – Loverman
  6. Madonna – Love Profusion
  7. Goldfrapp – Twist
  8. Dave Gahan – Bottle Living
  9. Kylie Minogue – Slow
  10. Sugababes – Hole in the Head

Depeche Mode – Music for the Masses

“Taking a ride with my best friend,” could very easily be a description of Depeche Mode‘s sixth album Music for the Masses, released thirty years ago this week. Now, thirty years on, it all seems very familiar from the singles and the fantastic live album 101, but at the time in the UK, this was actually Depeche Mode‘s lowest selling album yet.

It opens with the second single Never Let Me Down Again, surprisingly only a moderate hit a month or so before the album came out. It’s strange, as it seems such an iconic piece for its time now, but apparently it didn’t seem so back then.

The haunting The Things You Said is next, with a Martin L. Gore lead vocal. Whereas the previous album Black Celebration had purposely tried to challenge listeners, Music for the Masses is, as its title suggests, very much about pop music – and although apparently at the time they thought of the title as a bit of a pun, I think it’s truer than they might have realised. Typically dark Depeche Mode pop music, but pop nonetheless. The Things You Said is slower and more mellow than most of the things on here, but it has a wonderfully soulful side too.

Opening single Strangelove is next, a curiously twisted piece about either hidden fetishes or accepting people for who they are. Towards the end there’s a hint of a bit of the late 1980s 12″ mix, before it mixes into the gloriously sacrilegious Sacred. There’s something beautifully ecclesiastical about it, although ultimately it grows into a fairly traditional Depeche Mode production. It’s a great song.

The France-only single Little 15 completes Side A of the album, an odd but beautiful choice for a single, full of warped strings and mournful piano and vocal samples, without a single drum. It’s difficult to know what could be done to improve it – this is complete perfection.

Side B opens with the other single, the fantastic Behind the Wheel. Again, this didn’t even scrape the top twenty in the UK (although it did make the top ten across Europe), but surely it has to be one of the finest road trip songs you can name.

Depeche Mode produced this album pretty much by themselves, with some help from Dave Bascombe, and this might explain how I Want You Now came to pass. It’s almost all built around vocal samples, which could have worked very badly, but instead it sounds fantastic, and turns what could have been an unusually mundane lyric into something quite fascinating.

Even more experimental is To Have and To Hold, a sweet track that’s built around enormous drums. It’s short, and at the end it slightly uncomfortably mixes into Nothing, a rocky track which here is built around digital synthesisers, but the later remix that replaced them with guitars was none the worse for the change.

Finally, we get Pimpf, the pleasant instrumental that still turns up from time to time as an interlude for TV programmes, and its miniature companion Mission Impossible, which appears right at the end as a hidden track. Honestly and without irony, this is probably as close as Depeche Mode had come to “music for the masses” since their first album.

The original CD release gave you a few extra b-sides, but these were relegated to the bonus DVD for the reissue, and honestly, good though they are, the album feels better without them. Music for the Masses marked a turning point for Depeche Mode, a point where they could pull off a massive 101-date tour closing at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, and one which would lay the foundations for the fantastic Violator.

If you can’t find the reissue with the bonus disc, try not to be tempted by the original CD with its bonus tracks, as the sound quality is markedly worse than this 2013 reissue.

Depeche Mode – Ultra

In the four years since Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993), Depeche Mode had shed a member and come dangerously close to losing another permanently, as Dave Gahan hit an extremely low point and nearly died of an overdose.

So it’s hardly surprising that Ultra, released twenty years ago this week, is a dark album. From the very first opening sounds of first single Barrel of a Gun, you can tell they’re exploring grimey territory. But there’s also something overwhelmingly positive about it – the delivery is punctuated by a confidence and force that I’m not sure we had really heard before.

It is said that they only went back into the studio to record a couple of new tracks for a best of album, but discovered a new energy and ended up with an entire studio album – and it’s easy to believe. Working with Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass as producer, they seem to have re-emerged from their life-changing four year hiatus with something quite extraordinary.

In a way, the album tracks are more interesting than the singles – The Love Thieves is a soft and uneventful track which is elevated to something beautiful by its production. Then comes Home – and remember that some of Martin L. Gore‘s more introspective songs in the past have taken an under-produced approach. Home definitely isn’t one of those; instead, it’s full of huge orchestral flair, making it one of Depeche Mode‘s most beautiful songs.

This leads us to It’s No Good, the second single and without a doubt the most commercial track on here. There’s still a definite air of darkness, but this is also a great pop song, and was deservedly a significant hit.

What makes this album stand out so many years later is its sense of spaciousness. Pretty much nothing on here is less than four minutes long, and everything has been expanded, so there are huge gaps between vocal lines and verses. The miniature instrumentals, like Uselink, had for many years been key to Depeche Mode‘s sound, but here they add to the experience on a basic level.

This makes it all the odder that when you first listen to Ultra, there’s a decent chance that you won’t like it very much. This is an album that demands at least four or five listens before it starts to get under your skin, but as soon as it does, it really won’t leave you alone.

Useless was the last of the singles from this album, and it’s with this track that you really find Depeche Mode‘s new sound – it’s rhythmic and danceable, but it’s very definitely rock. There are elements of many of their previous guises hidden in here, but it also sounds quite new. Honestly, even twenty years on, this wouldn’t sound too out of place today either.

Then we get Sister of Night, which could have easily kept its head down and just been another album track, but the huge, effect-laden melody that opens the track and reappears from time to time throughout really grabs you and makes you pay attention, and as you do, you realise that this is an incredibly beautiful song.

After Jazz Thieves, another of the little instrumentals, comes Freestate, an excellent opportunity for Dave Gahan to demonstrate himself to be a truly amazing vocalist, which might have been obvious to some a few albums earlier, but then the UK had never really given Depeche Mode the attention they deserved.

After that comes the daft but sweet The Bottom Line, starting off sounding as though it might be about a cat and punctuated by cat-like synth wails, and then the last proper track Insight, which echoes It’s No Good somewhat, but is otherwise a sweet and uplifting closer. Apart, of course, from the hidden bonus track, an instrumental colloquially named Junior Painkiller, which turns up a few minutes after the end.

Ultra was always emotional but mature, and every bit as good as Depeche Mode needed to be at that stage in their career, but it’s encouraging to see that it has aged so well, and it’s a relief that the three remaining members were all present and correct.

The 200x double CD reissue is the definitive version of Ultra, but if this is no longer available, go for the remastered reissue instead.

Onetwo – Instead

In a parallel universe, Onetwo would have been an enormous electronic supergroup. The duo of Claudia Brücken, formerly of Propaganda, and Paul Humphreys from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and a collaboration with Martin L. Gore of Depeche Mode, really should have been enough alone to guarantee a couple of number one hits. But this is the twenty-first century, and anyone above the age of 25 who who keeps their clothes on is considered “cult”.

So Onetwo‘s brief career began in 2004, with an EP entitled Item, and three years later came the one and only album, Instead. It opens with the glorious two-part The Theory of Everything. A great introduction to the warm synth and simple vocals that characterise the duo, it is however somewhat overshadowed by Sequential, a beautifully evocative piece that must be one of the finest pop songs never to make the charts.

Home (Tonight) continues the theme, and while for the most part this is an album where the tracks work together to form something brilliant, rather than always trying to stand out on their own, there’s plenty to enjoy here too. Similarly Signals, one of just two tracks on here from the original 2004 EP, is another gentle and beautiful song.

The really unexpected moment comes with a cover of Pink Floyd‘s Have a Cigar, which works well and sounds great, but you are left wondering somewhat how on earth it came to be recorded and included here. There’s a certain logic when it mixes into another cover, this time of Cat Power‘s I Don’t Blame You, with Humphreys on lead vocals, a voice barely heard since, but just about recognisable from OMD‘s Souvenir.

Then comes Cloud Nine, definitely the best moment on here – in fact, it’s probably one of the finest songs of the decade, in spite of the opening “shalalalalala” from Brücken. Featuring the writing talents and guitar work of Martin L. Gore, somehow the chords and warm synth sounds come together perfectly. Also worth mentioning is that it features the synth work of friend of this blog Jon Russell, also known as Jonteknik.

If there was any doubt that Onetwo were in fact a synthpop supergroup, Andy McCluskey gets a writing credit on the lovely Anonymous, and perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a bit of an OMD feel to it, particularly in the chorus. Then Heaven has a bit of an end-of-album feel, even though there’s still plenty to come after it. There’s a pleasant ethereal other-worldliness to it, and while there’s not been anything particularly dark or violent up to this point, it still makes for a welcome change of pace.

It’s always nice to hear singers using their native language, and so it is with Kein Anschluß (which, interestingly, by 2007, was actually a misspelling). I suspect it’s partially intended as a nod to some of the duo’s influences from Brücken’s homeland, with its rhythmic electronic beats and almost Gregorian sounds. It’s easily one of the best songs on here.

After another downtempo moment with The Weakness in Me, you finally have to accept that it’s time for the closing track A Vision in the Sky, a sweet and memorable pop song with a gentle swing pattern and an enormous choral pad backing. This is entirely how this album should end – with something epic and unforgettable. If only it had sold a few more copies.

But ultimately Onetwo‘s downfall was that the seventeen year romantic partnership of Brücken and Humphreys meant an inevitable end to their combined musical career, but the 2006 reformation of the original line-up of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark had already put paid to most of Humphreys’s time commitments. So sadly, we’re left with just one album from Onetwo, completely forgotten but entirely brilliant, Instead.

You can still find Instead at all major retailers.

Depeche Mode – Speak & Spell

This week we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the debut Depeche Mode album, Speak & Spell. Vastly different from anything else the group have ever released – A Broken Frame shares some sonic similarities, but that’s about the only thing you can say – it really shares as much with Vince Clarke‘s later work as it does the artist whose name on it.

So you could probably forgive Depeche Mode fans for disliking this album, but really there’s something rather charming and fascinating about it.

It opens with the hit single New Life, which had hit the chart four months earlier and provided their first major hit. By the time the album came out, all three singles had been released already, so there were never too many surprises here. What is a surprise is just how far the group have come in the subsequent three and a half decades. With Vince Clarke at the helm as the main songwriter here, the focus was very definitely on pop music at this point.

I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead, despite the alarming title, is a short and sweet pop piece which is sufficiently different from its neighbours to guide us through smoothly to the darker PuppetsBoys Say Go! follows, and for many acts might well have been a huge hit single, but for Depeche Mode it’s just an album track. There isn’t a hint of Personal Jesus here.

Nodisco is a delightfully ironic disco track, and then the ridiculously pop-sounding What’s Your Name? closes Side A. It’s quite bizarre – absolutely nothing else Depeche Mode have ever recorded sounds like this, and yet it reminds me a lot of Yazoo. Not too surprising, until you remember that there were four people in Depeche Mode at this point, and three of them weren’t Vince Clarke.

Side B opens with the brilliant Photographic, perhaps the first moment since New Life that you realise quite how brilliant Depeche Mode are going to become once they get going properly. The more raw version on the Some Bizzare Album from earlier in 1981 is definitely better, but the album take is rather exceptional too.

At the end, it quietly morphs into the first of two Martin L. Gore-penned pieces, Tora! Tora! Tora! I doubt you would have noticed at the time, and maybe I’m pinning my expectations onto it, but it definitely sounds more experimental than anything we heard on Side A. You could probably also argue that Gore wasn’t quite at his best yet in terms of songwriting, although the chorus is great. And Dave Gahan‘s pronunciation of the line “You played a skellington” still amuses me every time I hear it.

Until A Broken Frame appeared barely a year later, the remainder of Gore’s songwriting legacy was represented by the instrumental Big Muff which follows. The lovely and dreary b-side Any Second Now comes next, in a new version, before passing the baton to its a-side, the adorable Just Can’t Get Enough.

For the most part, the singles are the highlights of this release, and the latter two at least have had so much radio airplay over the years that they’re difficult to forget. Debut release Dreaming of Me is less well known, and didn’t actually make it onto the original version of the album, but it got tacked on in a few different countries, so the reissued version includes it right at the end.

In many ways, Speak & Spell is more of a precursor to Depeche Mode‘s career than a debut. Apart from the lineup changes and the evolution of their sound, the artwork is particularly fascinating – the swan wrapped in cling film was heavily obscured for the original 1985 CD release, and is considerably more provocative than anything on the album. The photographer Brian Griffin returned for the cover of their next album, and that one is often cited as one of the finest album sleeves ever. This one is less well understood.

If you can find the double disc version of Speak & Spell, that’s the one you want – if not, forego the extra tracks in favour of less tinny sound, and grab the remastered single disc.

Depeche Mode – Exciter

I wonder if Depeche Mode fans just don’t like the idea of being happy? That’s one possible explanation for why they might not be too fond of Exciter anyway. But it celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this week, and so like it or not, now is a good time to give it a listen.

It opens with the excellent Dream On, an unusual opening single for the trio, as it’s immediately accessible and enjoyable – often they seem to prefer to challenge their fans with something obscure as a first single. It really sets the mood for the album – after a number of increasingly dark and introspective releases, Exciter found Depeche Mode in their happiest state of mind for years, and this is reflected in the music.

Shine is another example of this – it has a slightly dark side in the bridge, but even so it’s hard to imagine something like this being included on Ultra (1997) or Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993). There’s almost more in common with their first two or three albums than anything recent, and that’s very refreshing.

It blends into The Sweetest Condition, which at least borrows some slide guitar from the preceding album, and then When the Body Speaks might be one of the most beautiful songs Depeche Mode have ever recorded, with the gentler strumming allowing Dave Gahan to deliver a much more sensitive vocal than he otherwise might.

Their dark side is still there, as The Dead of Night amply demonstrates, although some might suggest that it isn’t quite as sincere as on previous releases. Perhaps surprisingly, contemporary reviews seem to have picked this track out as one of the highlights from Exciter while much of the album was dismissed as vacuous, but to me that just demonstrates Depeche Mode‘s greatest strength – even with three and a half decades of albums behind them, they are still able to surprise and perplex their listeners. You might not like everything they’ve done, and honestly neither do I, but we have to agree that they’re always interesting.

The short instrumental Lovetheme carries us through to the beautiful and unshakable Freelove, one of many songs which, when they play live, the audience continues to sing long after it’s finished. It’s so serene, in fact, that it’s rather difficult to actually write a review without singing along yourself.

Martin L. Gore turns up in person to deliver the curious Comatose, and then we launch headlong into the brilliant I Feel Loved, a modern disco anthem every bit as good as the one it’s surely almost named after. It’s difficult to understand how anybody could dislike anything this good. Then Gore turns up again on Breathe, before the short and very sweet instrumental Easy Tiger.

I Am You is a surprising penultimate track – it would be easy to dismiss it without much thought, but it’s actually rather catchy and atmospheric, and after that comes Goodnight Lovers, which might be the best song on here. I don’t think Depeche Mode had ever done anything quite like this before, a very gentle, lullaby-like song which would later make a very effective limited edition last single before they went off to their respective solo projects for another three or four years.

Ultimately, Exciter seems to be difficult to dislike. There are moments when you wonder if they’re trying to channel their own past a little too much – particularly the Violator album – but if nothing else it’s very refreshing to see Depeche Mode look on the bright side for once.

If you can still get your hands on the double disc edition of Exciter, this is the one to go for – otherwise the original release is still widely available.