Album cover artwork for Violator by Depeche ModeBryget Chrisfield explores the creation, impact, and astonishing legacy of her favourite classic records. This month: Depeche Mode’s Violator (1990).

Primary  songwriter Martin Gore admits Violator is his favourite Depeche Mode record, at the tail-end of Depeche Mode: 1989-90 (If You Wanna Use Guitars, Use Guitars). This ace documentary’s title was actually inspired by Violator‘s producer, Flood, with keyboardist Andy Fletcher recalling, “Flood said all our preconceived ideas were basically a load of shit. I mean, if you wanna use a guitar, you use a guitar – you should just do what sounds good; you shouldn’t have rules. ‘Cause we had this rule that you should never have the same sound twice, and we were sort of running out of sounds, big time [laughs].”

Four bandmembers of Depeche Mode

Gore opines: “Over the last five years I think we’d perfected a formula; my demos, a month in a programming studio, etcetera, etcetera. We decided that our first record of the ’90s ought to be different.” And Dave Gahan echoes Gore, stating Depeche Mode wanted to steer Violator in a different direction from previous output: “We didn’t want it to be so cluttered, we wanted it to be more direct.” Gahan also has “very fond memories” of recording Depeche Mode’s seventh album, since “the partying had hit an all-time high”. (Drugs would go on to nearly kill him, mind: Gahan’s heart stopped for two minutes following a 1996 overdose).

Encouraged by Flood, Gore brought unfinished demos into the studio – rather than his usual habit of bringing in almost-finished songs – for the Violator sessions, which enabled more experimentation and collaboration. For example, Gore’s original demo version of Enjoy The Silence was a ballad utilising just vocals and harmonium.

Blu-ray of Spirits In The Forest concert by Depeche Mode

The ‘Spirits In The Forest’ Blu-ray, available now from Sony

According to Gahan, Flood and multi-instrumentalist Alan Wilder were responsible for this song’s uptempo, pulsating reimagining: “They basically said to me and Fletch and Martin, you know, ‘Piss off for a coupla days,’ which was difficult because we were out in Denmark, in Puk studios, which was out in the middle of nowhere. And there was nothing to do [laughs] apart from being in the studio.” Fletch recalls, “Within an hour, we knew we had a massive hit.”

But Gore initially baulked at this reworked version: “The song was called Enjoy The Silence, and that seemed to be in total contrast with a disco track.”

When Anton Corbijn first presented the band with his idea for the Enjoy The Silence film clip – starring Gahan as a stereotypical king (kinda like King Willie from the Weeties commercial) wandering through the Scottish Highlands, the Algarve and the Swiss Alps carrying a deck chair – Gahan admits, “I thought he was mad!”

“I had to actually come back three times with that idea,” Corbijn acknowledges.

Fun fact: The video’s producer Richard Bell stood in for Gahan during final long shots of the king walking through the snow in Switzerland, ’cause the singer was frozen and over it.

For the Personal Jesus video, Corbijn cast Depeche Mode as a cowboy posse. Filmed at a ranch (brothel included) in the Tabernas Desert, Almería, Spain, the film clip gives Personal Jesus Spaghetti Western flayva. After MTV deemed Gore’s mouth movements during the bridge too suggestive, these scenes were edited out and replaced with some footage from elsewhere in the video before it could be played on the channel.

The lead single from Violator, Personal Jesus marks the first time guitar was elevated to dominant instrument position in a Depeche Mode song. Throughout the track, Gahan’s vocal delivery positively drips with insouciant sauciness.

According to Gore, this swashbuckling number was inspired by Priscilla Presley’s book Elvis And Me: “It’s a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care. It’s about how Elvis Presley was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships; how everybody’s heart is like a god in some way, and that’s not a very balanced view of someone, is it?”

To plug the single, Depeche Mode’s label Mute placed ads that read “YOUR OWN PERSONAL JESUS” – white text against a black background – in the personal columns of some regional newspapers in the UK. Later, these ads included a phone number and intrepid callers were rewarded with an airing of this new Depeche track.

newspaper

Courtesy of depmode.com, a newspaper scan containing of one of the original ‘Personal Jesus’ ads (1990)

Personal Jesus became Depeche Mode’s insistent calling card (“REACH OUT AND TOUCH FAITH!”) and has been covered widely by artists including Marilyn Manson (who was attracted to this song’s “sex appeal”), Johnny Cash (“I heard that as a gospel song”) and Sammy Hagar (“I was never a huge fan of synth music in the ‘80s, but that song has a badass groove and a cool lyric”).

Flood also mixed an acoustic version of Personal Jesus.

To promote Violator, Depeche Mode hosted an in-store “autograph party” in LA. An estimated 20,000 fans rocked up and a ‘riot’ (which was ‘managed’ by 130 policemen) ensued. The band were signed up to be at Wherehouse record store in the Beverly Centre for four hours, but were ushered out after just four minutes due to security concerns. To make it up to those disappointed fans who left autograph-less, Depeche Mode pressed 25,000 copies of an exclusive collection of previously unreleased material and rare interviews, and these were made available to anyone from the LA area who sent a stamped, self-addressed envelope into KROQ radio station.

Remembering this incident in Depeche Mode: 1989-90 (If You Wanna Use Guitars, Use Guitars), a delighted-looking Gahan – wriggling around excitedly in his seat – recounts, “It’s not the kind of advertising you can buy, and certainly no record company would pay for [that].”

Violator broke Depeche Mode in the States (reaching #7 on the Billboard 200) and Gore reckons it was “probably the in-store” that drove the band’s success to this next level “because of all the national coverage that [they] got in America.”

And we’ve gotta hand it to US journo Ashley Naftule for pointing out that Violator-era Gahan exudes “goth f-ckboy energy” – NAILED it! Exactly no one wears a fringed black leather jacket quite like Gahan.

To promote their 14th studio album Spirit, Depeche Mode embarked on the Global Spirit Tour – their longest to date. Playing 130 shows from 2017 into 2018, Depeche performed to more than three million fans around the world, but once again Australia was left off their itinerary.

So I just had to fly to Stockholm to attend the debut Global Spirit show at Friends Arena, didn’t I? Yeah, you’re right to feel extremely jelly.

Depeche Mode’s Heroes cover was biblical and we’ve never experienced a louder crowd singalong than the one that accompanied Enjoy The Silence: “ALL I EVER WA-NTED/ ALL I EVER NEE-DED…” And Depeche even included a jazzed-up, percussion-heavy (kettle drums, perhaps?) version of Just Can’t Get Enough, which transformed the 75,000-capacity arena into a trampoline!

Gore regularly jokes about never breaking into a sweat onstage, being ‘just’ a keyboardist and all, but nothing could have prepped us for Gahan’s sassy onstage charisma (think Freddie Mercury/Michael Hutchence hybrid!). And Gahan is the undisputed king of spinning on the spot, with mic stand stretched out in front of him like a tightrope walker’s balancing pole or casually placed behind his shoulders like the best-ever DIY social-distancing tool.

Evidence of these unrivalled shows can be can viewed in the Corbijn-directed SPiRiTS In The Forest – A Depeche Mode Film, which contains footage from the band’s final Global Spirit shows held at the iconic Waldbühne (Forest Stage) in Berlin. The full-length Depeche Mode concert, LiVE SPiRiTS, is also now available on DVD or Blu-ray.