April 29, 2009

Hear Again: 101.

During the promotion of Depeche Mode's first official live album much was made of the coincidental fact that the heavens opened up, and rain poured down on an enraptured Californian audience during the performance of Blasphemous Rumours - the agnostic anthem Smash Hits' Neil Tennant (later a famous Pet Shop Boy) dubbed "a routine slab of gloom in which God is given a severe ticking off" in a 1984 review.  Though hardly evidence of an indubitable connection with higher powers, it's an interesting and suggestive example of the serendipity that accompanied Depeche Mode on their rise from Essex pub residences to sold-out arenas across the globe in little under eight years.

Indeed, upon release twenty years ago, 101 was accompanied by as much fanfare as astonishment.  A double LP set in a special envelope sleeve, designed by Peter Saville Associates, featuring photography by Anton Corbijn; an accompanying feature-film by documentary director D. A. Pennebaker, which opened up in cinemas prior to being released on video; and expanded version of the album on double cassette and double compact discs.  It's a set as much intended as a greatest hits package, as evidence of Depeche Mode's arrival on the stage of arena performances - an exclusive club which hadn't yet granted entry to synth pop bands, let alone one which had performed for the first time eight years prior to an audience of seven of their friends and ten teddy bears in one of their mum's sitting room.

Named after the 101st performance of their Concert for the Masses, the album could literally serve a North American audience as a crash course in this quintessentially European band's history.  But it was primarily tonal evidence aimed at their perennial detractors at home, who'd never forgiven the upstarts from Basildon New Town their roots as teen favourite purveyors of light-weight, electronic pop, and refused to take a second look at the solemn merchants of socially conscious alternative rock Depeche Mode had become.  Which never prevented millions of continental and Scandinavian youths from pledging firm allegiance, yet left the band outside looking in among their British peers; especially as the howls of derision grew louder once the band announced its ambitious intention to end their latest tour in the 104,594 capacity Pasadena Rose Bowl.

This documentary package made it perfectly clear that however different North American youth may've been from their European counterparts, they - and Californian youth in particular - were as unwavering in their devotion to a band whose music resonated with them like no other, regardless of what middle-aged rock critics thought of it.  Ultimately, 60,453 people paid to pile into the Pasadena football stadium to partake in the moment Depeche Mode ceased being merely another ambitious European alternative act, and turned into transatlantic superstars.  Something even many of their long-time European supporters had trouble coming to terms with - perhaps because the obverse implied that a cherished underground brook (and the hipness implied in following it) had finally swollen its banks and gone mainstream.

The album is intrinsically connected with numbers; one of the accompanying film's most memorable scenes is the counting of the evening's earnings.  Mounds of money are poured out to be counted,  the result of merchandise sales among the nearly 86,000 in attendance.  It's a scene in which the band themselves come closest to embodying the credo of their 1983 hit Everything Counts: "The grabbing hands / grab all they can / everything counts in large amounts."  Anton Corbijn's artwork captures this budding dichotomy in a manner typical for his ambivalent relationship with the band.  He'd first photographed Depeche Mode in 1981, and hadn't cherished the experience much.  Yet by the late 1980s, Corbijn's photographs - with their pseudo-candid poses, exaggerated contrast, grainy texture, features sinking into shadows - had come to define the band's look.

Until 101, their sleeves had featured Martyn Atkins' social realism inspired designs and Brian Griffin's photography to capture the mood of the music.  Yet Griffin's iconic images - for example, the covers of A Broken Frame, or Construction Time Again - had never included the band itself, and though much of Depeche Mode's appeal outside Britain lay in their comparative anonymity, it left them relying on the much more commercial trappings of 1980s rock photography when a picture of the band members was required.  Corbijn ended that long succession of disjointed portraits, starting by providing the band's videos with a unifying style.  His 101 sleeve is the band's first to feature the individual members, albeit indirectly.  They're represented by merchandise, as faces on posters, t-shirts; the band name and album title provided on a sticker that could double as a price tag.

Musically, the emphasis lies on their latest album at that point, Music for the Masses, released in September 1987 - a stripped down affair with modernist leanings.  But the set also includes tracks from their three previous albums, not only the most well-known titles but also more obscure tracks - like the faux rocker Pleasure, Little Treasure, previously confined to the back of a single.  The show-stopping Everything Counts, the final chorus of which is performed by the audience itself long after the music stops demonstrating the rapport Depeche Mode had achieved with their fans, is preceded by Just Can't Get Enough, the very early hit neither fans nor critics seem willing to let the band forget - though for completely different reasons.

One aspect that naturally comes into question is what point performing electronic music is; to most people it's just pushing buttons on stage.  Which frankly could be said of playing the tuba or saxophone too.  It may also seem a lot less loaded question today, when gadgets capable of producing music aren't only ubiquitous but also incredibly user-friendly.  This wasn't always the case, and certainly not in the 1980s.  Music machines were anything but friendly; they were temperamental and sensitive beasts, prone to act up as soon as the humidity of the venue changed, the temperature dropped, or the prices at the cash bar went up.

Coaxing music from them involved not only large amounts of patience but also significant musical skill - something that will no doubt once again become evident in an era saturated by amateur stabs at electronic music stardom.  The degree of skill was no less than that required by musicians performing on "conventional" instruments - an excellent example of which can be seen in the 101 film as Alan Wilder demonstrates exactly what he did on stage by playing practically all parts of Black Celebration on his keyboard.

Besides questions of sheer musical quality, there's the issue of performance itself.  Generations of rock critics reared on the luddite notions of late 1960s "counter-cultural revolutionaries" would cling for dear life to the notion that there's something much more "honest" about an unwashed troubadour strumming his guitar than anything produced by a sampler.  Yet the process of recording and producing music is entirely electronic - especially since the advent of compact discs, which by the mid 1980s had rendered practically all music a stream of digital data.  And there's really no such thing as a ""true" live recording - unless one refers to the unbalanced, uncompressed, low quality bootlegs produced to profit from the most obsessive fans.

Every "live" album ever produced has undergone some kind of studio process, quite often adding and refining bits and pieces that didn't quite work out in reality, rendering the question of whether an album of electronic music performances is "authentic" or not utterly meaningless.  As it happens, Depeche Mode's Pasadena performance doesn't represent the best of the tour, having been hampered by monitoring problems - wrinkles which no doubt were ironed out by Alan Wilder and budding producer Alan Moulder at London's Swanyard Studios.

However, the most important aspect remains context.  The audience for which this music was performed were the children of the self-styled "counter-cultural revolutionaries;" the ones left to deal with the addictions, divorces, social and economical upheaval left in the wake of their parents' persistent drive for "self-fulfillment."  The world they inhabited had long ago moved beyond utopian visions of peace, harmony, and flowers in everyone's hair.  More wars were waged than ever, the chasm between haves and have nots was wider than ever, more people hungry and unemployed than ever, the threat of nuclear warfare hung constantly in the air, while the once idealistic boomers were taking up residence in the towers of power.

To their kids, maturing in a grim place with a bleak future, increasingly surrounded by machines, electronics establishing themselves in every facet of existence, machine augmented music meshing the detritus of pop culture with the rock cliches of past decades provided the perfect soundtrack to the Cold War nightlife.  It captured the mood of their environment more "honestly" than any barefoot guitar strumming idealist ever could.  Their answer wasn't blowing in the wind, it was saved straight to disk.

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