Sunday, 22 April 2012

Simon Spence-Just Can't Get Enough: The Making of Depeche Mode

Mention of James Nice's "Shadowplayers" in my last entry also makes me think of another tremendous book which I finished recently, Simon Spence's "Just Can't Get Enough: The Making of Depeche Mode" which is equally detailed and focused, written by someone with a similarly evident enthusiasm and fascination for his subject matter and, although in paperback rather than hardback, also published in very satisfying proportions so that it's a pleasure to simply hold in the hand.

As the title suggests, the book takes as its subject the nascent Depeche Mode, tracing their development upto the release of their fifth album "Black Celebration" in 1986, the point at which they were poised to meteorically transcend their opening five years of British / European stardom and become the global, stadium-sized super group which they remain until the present day, a point also before the American influence began to seep into their sound as it had so obviously done by the close of the decade. Interestingly, this was also the point at which my eye began to drift from the band, having previously been an ardent follower of their every move and someone who bought each new record during the week of its release, if not on the day. I do, however, remain a fan, I must say, and even travelled to Munich and Manchester to see them last time they toured.

In the initial stages of the book, Spence is at great pains to explain the band's originating from Basildon as being of enormous significance to their sound and outlook, their adoption of synthesizers and electronic technology being a mirror to the post-war new town whose brand new houses, shopping precincts and purpose built industrial estates offered a similar freshness and split from the past to those families who initially moved there from areas in the east of London as did this sparkling new ultrapop to almost everything that had gone before when first heard in 1980-81. On the back cover, singer Dave Gahan is quoted as having once described DM as " a new sort of band from a new sort of town".  

The first hundred pages or so, therefore, provide a kind of potted history of the town, as well as tracing the developments of Vince Clark, Martin Gore, Andy Fletcher and Dave Gahan upto their first performance together - under the name of Composition of Sound - in June 1980, their set around this time still including a number of cover versions such as "Mouldy Old Dough", "I Like It", "Then I Kissed Her" and "The Price of Love", as well their own early compositions, some of which, "Ice Machine", "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and "Big Muff", turned up on those initial releases. Gore was also playing in a band called French Look at the time, often on the same bill, which included Robert Marlow who released some of the songs from their set as a solo artist a few years later on Clarke's short-lived Reset Records, consideration of which is always a rather interesting diversion. Through interviewing people like the aforementioned Marlow and Alison Moyet, as well as other key players from Basildon at the time, Spence manages to provide a fascinating and essential keyhole into the town during this era, this including the importance of Christian youth groups on the teenage Clarke and Fletcher, and to a lesser extent Gore, the area's punk, soul and eventual "futurist"scenes, as well as some of the early bands therein such as sixth-former Gore's Norman and the Worms and Moyet's The Vandals.

By the end of 1980, Depeche Mode were playing regularly at venues such as Croc's nightclub in Rayleigh and in London at The Bridgehouse in Canning Town, balancing their synths on beer crates and this, as we know, is where Mute Records boss Daniel Miller saw them supporting Fad Gadget, thus kick-starting a relationship which still continues over thirty years down the line. In fact, this part of the book is particularly interesting as it charts the band's decision to go with the relatively new independent label and retain artistic freedom rather than sign up for the huge advances being offered by the major labels also chasing them at the time but keen to mould them into something which would no doubt have been much more ephemeral - quite canny decision making, especially considering their tender ages. All were still under twenty, I think, or at least thereabouts. Fletch, as they call him and whose input into the band is often rather nastily played down, seems to have been the prematurely sage factor at the time. Clarke's then girlfriend, Deb Danahay, who I remember running the Yazoo Information Service when I was a schoolboy, also seems to have been keen to influence the decision towards Mute, being quite a fan of "Warm Leatherette", "Back to Nature" and "Ricky's Hand" like the best of us. 

At this stage, whilst also explaining the deals made to distribute Depeche Mode in various international territories, artwork decisions, Clarke's departure just prior to the release of their debut album and with their first few "Top of the Pops" appearances just under their belts, Gore's switch to the role of main songwriter and the addition, initially on a temporary and jobbing basis, of Alan Wilder, Spence begins to peddle a parallel narrative in telling the story of the early years of the Mute label and its limited roster at the time, something I have to say has obsessed moi since the day I received a label biography from them in very early 1983. So, whilst the focus stays primarily on the band, other voices such as that of Boyd Rice and DAF's Robert Görl weave into the picture, offering new information and perspectives regarding the period, and peripheral stories are told regarding early Mute artists such as Robert Rental and The Silicon Teens, as well as Rice's NON and the first incarnation of DAF over in Düsseldorf. Linked in to the latter, the beginnings of the German connection, so important to Depeche Mode during the first part of the eighties, is also introduced through the voice of Moritz Reichelt of Der Plan and Warning / Ata Tak records, he also having designed the sleeves for 1982's "See You" and "Meaning of Love" singles

The years 1982-84 saw Depeche Mode maturing away from their initial teenybop, pop sound and, through singles like "Leave in Silence", "Get The Balance Right" and "Everything Counts", as well as their second and third albums "A Broken Frame" and "Construction Time Again", towards becoming a darker, more experimental entity than would have first been envisaged and whose insistence on remaining on an independent label and to not pander to corporate expectations began their drift into near invisibility in the eyes of the British media, in spite of being one of the most successful bands the country has ever produced. It's always struck me as strange how nauseating tosh such as U2, Blur and a hundred others always receive these lifetime achievement awards and so on yet the much more internationally successful and genuinely influential Depeche Mode, who have also consistently been appearing in the British charts for over three decades, remain a name practically unspoken. I am rather glad, though, as it has led to them retaining a good degree of their cutting edge and integrity. I said a while ago that they remind me of The Horrors and Siouxsie and the Banshees and here, again, I say it as one always feels/felt with these three bands that they are primarily fans of music themselves, with pretty impeccable tastes, too, prior to making their own which almost serves as a necessary by-product. 

Anyway, I digress so let's jump to Berlin, always a good idea, where Depeche Mode were recording and, Martin Gore with his A-level in German especially, were spending a great deal of time around the middle of the 1980s, Spence providing another invaluable insight, this time into life in the city during the period and the band's place in it, the voices of people like Gareth Jones who recorded them at Hansa Tonstudios, Gudrun Gut and Beate Bartel adding to the tale which now also references clubs like Dschungel and bands like Palais Schaumburg, Liaisons Dangereuses (whose Chrislo Haas is, once again, heralded as the unrealised genius of the period) and Einstürzende Neubauten whose influence on the Depeche Mode sound at the time and since cannot be overstated and who, indirectly, brought metal bashing onto prime-time television in Britain and elsewhere around the world. To me, it's all fascinating and brings new information to the table, even though I thought I'd read almost everything there could be to read about this kind of thing before. 

At this time, Gore's dress sense deviated into leather butchers aprons and skirts, studded leather torso harnesses, black nail varnish and seethrough black silky tops, probably another reason the conservative British media took against the band, although single titles like "Shake the Disease", "Blasphemous Rumours" and "Stripped" won't have helped either - let's hear The Saturdays cover one these, hey!  - and  his presence at the mid-week fetish night "Skin Two" around the time is detailed by none other Genesis P-Orridge-Breyer - all the German Bite favourites are cropping up here in the Depeche Mode story, it seems. Here, anyway, the pair would hang out together, with the likes of Soft Cell's Dave Ball and journalist Betty Page (yes, her again - see SALT piece) and would, it seems, whip the occasional bottom before heading home of a night. Again, a short peek into another, as yet, undocumented area of pop culture is unveiled by Spence.

Which brings us more or less to the point where the book closes with a very definite sense of the end of an era as their "Black Celebration" tour grossed $100 million dollars with a 40% or thereabouts profit and, in spite of us being told that some band members still lived in Basildon and, to this day, have retained very "feet on the ground" links with old friends there, they certainly, as a fan, began to be feel more and more distant with every release. Mute had also moved to much bigger premises on Harrow Road and their release schedule increased and diversified year by year so that the cottage industry feel, albeit with international success, seemed finally to be over, too.

Well, teary-eyed nostalgia aside, I want to thoroughly recommend "Just Can't Get Enough" to anybody with an interest in the band and the period and, even though it deals with the poppier end of the experimental / electronic/ industrial music crowd from the period, like I say, in providing a context for Depeche Mode, Spence has gone some way towards writing a biography of the early period of Mute, as well as offering quite broad insights into the late seventies/early eighties "futurist" scene, early to mid-eighties Berlin and a whole lot more besides. It's a superb book which brought so much back to me and provided even more which was new besides.

Here's Depeche Mode doing "Photographic" and "Puppets" on BBC television during that golden period.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

SALT : Issue 10

When I got back from Germany last weekend, I was very pleased to find that the new issue of SALT was waiting for me on my doormat. Being approximately as old in years as it is now in number, I believe, SALT is produced by one Kevin McCaighy whose enthusiasm for all that he writes about, both thoughtfully and in depth, is extremely infectious and always an absolute joy to cast the old peepers across. Keen to scour the darker, often unexplored corners of popular culture, Kevin draws his subject matter from all areas of his far reaching and highly individual tastes, each issue reflecting what's turning him on from the current crop, as well as unearthing histories long buried in the ever expanding morass which is popular culture, winkling out some fascinating and highly engaging interviewees in the process. Drawn towards the obscure, experimental and compendious, regardless of trends, SALT is the expression of a genuine and tireless investigator who has a compulsion to share his enthusiasms with an audience no matter how small that may be. He's a good friend of German Bite, too, and most definitely a kindred spirit.

For me, this issue has as its centrepiece eleven pages of A4 devoted to an interview with Steve Parry who talks of his early influences, move down to London from the north in the late seventies and the milieu into which he fell, this including the young Matt Johnson then laying the foundations for The The. He also tells the story of his band Neu Electric / Neu Electrikk who released two 7" singles - "Lust of Berlin"(1979) and "Cover Girl"(1980) - but remain most famous for their contribution of a track to Stevo's "Some Bizzare Album" released at the dawn of 1981 and which, as we are repeatedly made aware, gave very early exposure to Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Blancmange and the aforementioned The The, as well as other more experimental artists like Eric Random, almost rans like B-Movie and Naked Lunch and assorted nutcases such as Blah, Blah, Blah. Keen to drain every drop of info as he possibly can through his questioning, Kevin has managed to produce an essential, unique and detailed insight into the period which would otherwise most definitely have remained unearthed.

Elsewhere, he interviews James Nice of LTM Recordings who also wrote the fantastically comprehensive labour of love about Factory Records that is "Shadowplayers" a few years ago, this being one of the very best music books ever in my view and so beautifully packaged, too. Another kindred spirit, methinks. Other interviews include a vintage piece from 2001 with The Minders who, I must confess, were a new name to me until now but such is Kevin's enthusiasm that I shall going off to do some researching very shortly, as well as a few questions answered by my very self about German Bite and its origins. This is also coupled with pieces about Maher Shalal Hash Baz and an extremely heartfelt piece about how Kevin fell in love with Royal Trux and why they remain his favourite band to this very day. It ends with a short obituary of the abstract painter John Hoyland RA, who died last year, written by Katharine Simpson, one of whose paintings is reproduced, albeit, unfortunately, not in colour within this issue. Overall, it's a totally superb read and one I keep picking up and browsing through again and again, even though I have read the majority of its contents at least three times already.

It costs £2.50 or $5 and Kevin can be contacted by email at . I don't think he gets a tremendous number printed up, though, so it may be worth dropping him a line sooner rather than later and, whilst you're at it, may I suggest asking him if he's got any copies of Issue 9 left which contained a fantastic piece about the aforementioned "Some Bizzare Album" for which he interviewed one Beverley Glick, she once called Betty Page and a champion of all things electronic through her writing in "Sounds" and the short-lived grown-ups alternative to "Smash Hits" called "Noise", this alongside interviews with Pyha, Carla Speed McNeil, 13 and Korperschwache, as well as pieces on Jason Lytle, Grandaddy b-sides and "A Guide to Great (Fairly Inexpensive) Vodka. Getting the picture? Zum Wohl, Kevin!

Triadic Ballet

I was in Stuttgart a week or so ago and, in addition to seeing the amazing collection of works by Otto Dix which are housed in the impressive Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, which wasn't there last time I went ten years ago, visiting the Mercedes and Porsche museums and having tram rides out to both Stammheim Prison and the Weissenhofsiedlung housing estate from the 1920s, a  trip to the superb Staatsgalerie was also an absolute essential. Foregoing the current temporary exhibition, which juxtaposes later works by Turner, Monet and Cy Twombly, I took advantage of the Saturday free entrance charge to the permanent collection which took over three hours to work through, so brilliant it is. My absolute highlight, though, as on other visits, was Oskar Schlemmer's costumes for his "Triadisches Ballett" which was first performed in the city in 1922, shortly prior to his move to The Bauhaus. These are some of the photographs I took which make a nice companion, I feel, to the article from my magazine which I put on here last summer. 


Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Minny Pops-Leeds Brudenell Social Club: 20th January 2012

I also took some photographs of Wally Middendorp when Minny Pops played in Leeds in January, some of which are probbaly worth sharing. They were dead good, too, even though they didn't play "Island" which had apparently gone wrong the night before in Sheffield.



Wishful Thinking: In Remembrance of Peter Christopherson - Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle: 17th March 2012

Sticking with the north east of England, myself and a friend were up in Newcastle a couple of weekends ago for an event at The Tyneside Cinema - "Wishful Thinking: In Remembrance of Peter Christopherson" - which was an evening of music, performance and film centred around aspects of the work of  he who was ex-Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, Coil, SoiSong etc. etc. who passed on in November 2010.

The evening began a little confusingly with three pieces called "Evocatio (Air & Metal, Muscle & Spit)", "Re-Man Unkind" and "Wishful Thinking Redux" which, I believe, consisted partly of sketches from an unfinished work commissioned of Christopherson and producer Paul Smith by The AV International Festival of Art, Technology and Music and Film and which was based on and intended to be staged at Durham Cathedral to mark the Spring 2012 Equinox, his father having been Vice-Chancellor and Warden at the city's university throughout the sixties and seventies and the environment, therefore, having had quite a significant effect upon shaping the young "Sleazy". Interwoven with this was recordings made at the cathedral by Chris Watson, as well as a live vocal contribution by Attila Csihar who was seated at a table strewn with candles, as well as the obligatory laptop, and who provided something rather like a more abstract and electronically treated Gregorian chant from somewhere deep down inside his rather sizeable torso. Behind him, projected onto the screen, was a stream of mesmerising imagery by Alex Rose and, at one point, a creature with features covered by a head-dress and draped in fairy lights shuffled around the room delivering a repeated recorded message, stopping rather sinisterly every few steps along the periphery of the audience. It was all very atmospheric and evocative, I must say, especially the bells which opened and closed the procedings and which hopefully evoked the spirit of the man in whose honour we were all assembled.

Chris & Cosey followed, performing some mixes from the final Throbbing Gristle album, a cover of Nico's "Desertshore", which Christopherson was working on when he died and the completion of which, I believe, has now passed into their hands, and a real thrill this turned out to be, the original album being one of my very favourites, anyway, but now being given a new life by this lot. Again, seated at a pair of laptops - miming were they? - who knows or cares? - and backed by an image projected behind them - this time a film made with a static camera of a beach near their home where, Cosey told us, they used to take Sleazy on his visits and where he would eat a bag of seaside chips which he so missed, living out in Thailand - they began by playing a version of "Abschied" on which the vocals were provided by none other than  Blixa Bargeld in the absence of Ms. Breyer-Orridge, this grinding along eerily and in a very stately fashion, retaining some of the tone of Nico's original whilst having the TG stamp all over it. Next was a superbly elongated version of "Le Petit Chevalier" which I felt was verging on the disco, although sounding as though refracted through a factory floor, and which had a number a people visibly twitching in their seats. Here, little Ari's vocals were replaced by the rather trollish rasp of Argentinian filmmaker Gaspar Noe which worked wonderfully. I should add, however, that none of these vocalists were actually present, performing live - that would have been really something! - but were emanating out of the aforementioned duo's laptops. Cosey did, though, provide live vocals next on "All That Is My Own" which was superb and perfectly suited to her unique echoing timbre which here was almost choirboy-like. She also provided live cornet, which is always a treat, on the fourth extract "Janitor of Lunacy" where the voice was this time provided by Antony Hegarty, suggesting that this album will contain all of the promise of Vince Clarke's, unfortunately, never fully realised The Assembly project of 1983 with its host of guest vocalists, several of whom must be still to be revealed. They then finished with a non-cover where a collage of the voices of those Christopherson held dear to him drift in and out repeating the words "meet me on a desert shore" over a simple, echoey piano riff. It all promises to be extremely good when it gets completed and released later this year.

The evening then moved into its second half, beginning with a very rare showing of "La Cicatrice Interieure" in which Nico appeared wandering around with assorted men in various states of undress, whilst screaming, wailing and moaning a  great deal, also throwing herself on the ground on several occasions in childish exasperation. It's all very poetically shot, though, in an almost lunar, desert landscape so was worth every second spent watching it. It also features a number of songs from the original "Desertshore" album and a still from it graced the record's sleeve, as anyone who knows anything about Nico could readily tell you. Events then finished with two Derek Jarman films, each with a soundtrack provided wholly or partly by Coil, "A Journey to Avebury" and "The Angelic Conversation", neither of which I'd previously seen on a big screen and which were, again, well worth the trip up north for alone. When it all finished at midnight, there weren't many people left in the cinema, as it did take rather a lot of staying power I imagine if you're not a fully committed fan, especially for a Saturday night. The whole event was completely amazing, in my view, and also that of my travelling companion.

Here are some photographs I took of Chris & Cosey which aren't brilliant but give a flavour of what it was like.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Lebanon Hanover-The World Is Getting Colder

Lebanon Hanover are an interesting duo who contacted me recently with word of and then a promo copy of their debut album - "The World Is Getting Colder" -  which they released as a limited edition of 300 copies on 12" vinyl just over a month ago.

Hailing from both Sunderland and Berlin, they consist of Larissa Iceglass, the German connection, and William Maybelline who are both in their early twenties and have been together since July 2010 which must be around the time I first heard them, around the fag-end of the My Space era, when  a friend of mine put them on at The Star and Shadow in Newcastle and sent down glowing reports, if that's the right choice of adjective given the sub-zero temperatures they conjure up.


I'm very glad they got in touch, too, because I love them, playing their album on an almost daily basis and enjoying it more and more with each go. By their own admission, they're influenced by eighties Cold Wave, the like of which seems to be perpetually popular on the continent and is in vogue over in America with bands like Led Er Est, Sleep Museum, Staccato Du Mal and the Weird Records lot at the moment. So, there's no prizes for originality, unfortunately, as likely influences, either direct or second-hand, are strongly in evidence throughout but, this aside, practically every one of the eleven tracks featured is a winner, being as accomplished and certainly more memorable than most others in this vein and each being possessed of a quite catchy energy in spite of their inherent gloom.

So, let's pick a few tracks out. The set begins with "Die World" which sets the tone with similarly descending notes to "Bela Lugosi's Dead" before a drum machine kicks in, the bassline picks up momentum and glacial keyboards and occasional guitar create a perfect foundation for vocals reminiscent of the ladies of the NDW era which here mix between German ("Die Welt, die Welt") and English ( " as cold as an iceberg) to very appealing effect. This is then followed by "Ice Cave" where it's now the turn of a deeper but no more cheerful male voice singing of being claustrophobically "trapped in the ice cave", unable to find a way out, all this backed by a gloriously dated sounding drum machine, plinky keyboards, a doom-laden bass line and occasional scratches of guitar which put me slightly in mind of a more subtle Joy Division or The Cure on their "Faith" album, as well as circling sequenced synth which conjures up a sound very much akin to Malaria! who, I would say, are the omnipresent influence throughout - and welcomely so! This is certainly the case, too, with one of my stand out tracks "Totally Tot" which has a simple, repetitive keyboard line, driving rhythm and vocal intensity which make for highly infectious listening and which wouldn't sound at all out of place on a dancefloor like the one mentioned in the lyrics. "Kunst" which follows is another favourite with a rhythm and sequenced electronics which bring P1/E's "49 Second Romance" to mind, although the sensitively delivered vocals and yearning keyboard line in the background add greater humanity, all this embellished by occasional synthetic zaps which flash across the speakers to superb sonic effect. Things then intensify with the last three tracks, "Canibal"(their spelling, not mine), "Einhorn" and "Sunderland", the first of which begins a little like Suicide with Farris Badwen on the mike singing of "bones, lovely bones" before the vocals swap from William to Larissa, although with none of the menace lost in the process. "Einhorn" then sounds a bit like the song you'd wish The Banshees had produced somewhere between "Kaleidoscope" and "Juju", whilst on the somewhat apocalyptic closing track they really vent their spleens about their home town and its inhabitants who clearly do nothing whatsoever to feed this pair's sensibilities.

I think you're getting the picture now, although I don't want to make this sound too laden down by its influences or gothic germanic cliches as it really is extremely good quality stuff which would have confidently stood shoulder to shoulder with the very best of those of the early eighties were it released then and is certainly an extremely welcome diversion in 2012 - in an ideal world with a lot more readily available money, I'd be straight on to asking them to do a single for my German Bite label at the drop of a hat. It seems, actually, that there might be a little something bubbling up at the moment with bands like Soft Riot, who, I'm told, have just released a single, and the brilliant New Matrix who will, no doubt, have something released before the end of the year. Then, of course, there's Cyberbeatnix over in Berlin who've yet to get anything out on vinyl but should do at some point.

Anyway, to have a listen to some of the tracks from the album and to maybe contact them and buy a copy whilst they're still available, here's a link for you to click:

Here's some stuff off You Tube, too.