With the sad news that Andy Fletcher, founding member and keyboard player of Depeche Mode, recently passed away, we look back at the band’s now classic album ‘Violator’. While many albums that go on to be considered classics are groundbreaking debuts or early career breakthroughs that see artists hitting their stride after a couple of albums finding their feet, ‘Violator, released in 1990, was Depeche Mode’s seventh studio release. From their 1981 debut ‘Speak and Spell’ on through the 1980s the band had established themselves as a dependable Synth Pop group with an eye towards a darker palette than some of their New Romantic contemporaries. They were not by any means, however, Pop Superstars. That was to change as the 1990s began in earnest with the release of ‘Violator’.
Looking back to their 1981 debut, Depeche Mode were already a very different band than the manner in which they started. ‘Speak and Spell’ was written primarily by Vince Clarke, later of Yazoo and Erasure fame, who would leave the band after that single record. It’s sound was more upbeat and loose than the direction they would go on to take as the decade unfurled. Most notably it’s lead single ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ was catchy, danceable, and featured hookey, singalong lyrics and would, until 1990, be the band’s biggest hit. With Clarke’s departure the band would, over the next couple of years, coalesce into their now classic lineup of principal songwriter Martin Gore, singer Dave Gahan, and keyboard players Alan Wilder and Andy Fletcher. Through a series of albums they also developed a structured way of working; Gore would create fully sequenced demo versions of the songs he wrote featuring lyrics, drum and synth parts before the band would group together to record while adding finishing touches, overdubs, and a bridge or intro/outro here and there. By the end of the decade the band were feeling stale, and choosing to embrace the possibilities of a new decade, began work on ‘Violator’ with an agreed upon strategy where Gore would provide only minimal demos and the group would work more communally to flesh out the tracks.
Joined in the studio by Flood, then perhaps best known as the Engineer on U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’, but also as Producer for fellow Mute Records labelmates Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Vince Clarke’s new outfit Erasure, he had recently worked on Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Pretty Hate Machine’ and would go on to be one of the ‘90s defining Producers working on landmark albums by NIN, U2, PJ Harvey and The Smashing Pumpkins among others. With his guiding hand, the Depeche Mode would develop a crisper, sparser sound that added layers of darkness without reaching for the feedback, gain, and clamour of other bands ploughing the darker furrows of Rock, Pop and Electronic music at the time.
The resulting album melds Synth Pop, Industrial, Goth and Electro into a collection of remarkably accessible genre-blurring tracks that focus on the seedier side of life. Beginning with an exploration of sex, and a hint at bondage, ‘World In My Eyes’ was lyrically familiar terrain for Martin Gore. The pulsing synths and deep 4/4 beat help set it up as a relatively straight Electro track, connecting their past work with their latest release. Gore has commented that he feels the song is notably “positive” celebrating sex and pleasure in a way that few of his tracks do.
Perhaps the central track to the album, and most familiar to audiences today, was the lead single ‘Personal Jesus’. Unusually for Depeche Mode, the track is built on an electric guitar riff, the first track on which they had taken this approach. Originally conceived of as an acoustic part, Flood persuaded Gore to record the riff on an electric. It was not the only change to the demo he made. The now familiar stomping bass drum track was recorded by band members literally stamping variously on stairs and road cases to get the desired, swinging, low percussive sound. Most impressively is how it showcased the way that Gore’s lyrics and Gahan’s vocal delivery complimented each other so well. Gore has said his lyrics were inspired by the way that Priscilla Presley described Elvis in her book ‘Elvis and Me’, and thus he wrote the track as a form of devotional showcasing the ultimate bounds of love where one becomes their own personal Jesus for their partner. Gahan’s delivery, on the other hand, comes across more devilish in nature thanks to his louche, assured style. Throughout the tracks on ‘Violator’ Gahan’s delivery is conflicted and draws contrast to Gore’s lyrics, where Gahan appears so comfortable in his own skin while singing lyrics that appear to come from the pages of a diary never intended to be read. The resulting sense of unease produces a sense of the uncanny, where nothing quite feels right. On ‘Personal Jesus’ that sense is ratcheted up further by the Blues-based riff, recalling the Devil at Robert Johnston’s crossroads, where Gahan promises himself as Saviour with his fingers crossed behind his back.
The new way of working in the studio to flesh out tracks in place of the extensive pre-production of previous releases is nowhere more obvious than on ‘Enjoy The Silence’. Gore’s original demo is a slowed down ballad backed by harmonium, but at the insistence of Alan Wilder the track was re-conceived as a more uptempo number which Gore initially rebuffed. In time Wilder and Flood crafted the rhythm track, before Gore added the guitar parts and the band realised they had a potential hit on their hands. The finished work is built on a 4/4 beat, bubbling bass synth, and Gore’s guitar line, together delivering a track that hints at House music and resulted in Warner Brother’s biggest selling 12” single, no doubt many of which were spun in clubs across the land.
The common thread throughout ‘Violator’ is the way that disparate elements came together to make something that stood apart and stepped up and beyond the band’s previous work. Much of that can be attributable to the new working methods the band put in place as well as to Flood’s production and guiding hand. What is often overlooked, not just for ‘Violator’ but on many albums, is the final mix and the way the tracks occupy space. In comparison to their previous work, the soundscape on ‘Violator’ is more open with clear breaks between one passage and the next, as on ‘Sweetest Perfection’ where synthesised strings join in for the bridge before the bass comes back in to take things home. Elsewhere, on the intro to ‘Blue Dress’ percussion is panned left and right filling space before the vocals come in as if riding on a wave, while ‘Waiting For The Night’ features an outro filled with delay and reverb that calls to mind Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. The manner these effects are applied, as they are throughout ‘Violator’, is subtle; hinting at space rather than attempting to carve it out. The resultant tracks often feel as if they come from the corner of an empty space, literally from the shadows where there should be no voices. The master of this mix was the legendary House pioneer and famed remixer, François Kevorkian. While many acts had utilised Kevorkian’s talents to adapt their album tracks into radio and club friendly singles, few had ventured to bring him in to mix an entire album. The resulting immediacy to the tracks on ‘Violator’ helped establish it as a truly essential listen.
Featuring two bonafide hit singles and backed up by a collection of tracks that all sounded like they could be singles, ‘Violator’ brought the post-Punk, synth-wielding sound towards a more accessible, radio and club friendly era before Grunge and Acid House swept away those same Electro and Post-Punk styles. It was perfect timing for Depeche Mode as they elevated themselves to stardom, particularly in the USA, just as a musical tide turned and ushered in a new musical era. After a decade of developing a sound and working relationship, the band opted for a looser, more creatively open way of working and reaped the benefits with their biggest commercial success in nearly a decade. For anyone who thinks Synth-Pop is bright, cheerful and a little too soft, point them in the direction of ‘Violator’; the Synth-Pop album that elevated the genre to a new level.