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Depeche Mode: Black Celebration (1986)

July 4, 2013

black_celebration

Roll: 2-5-8
Album: Depeche Mode, Black Celebration (expanded CD/DVD)

This album marks another chapter in my emotional growth and sexual awakening as a teenager. Or I suppose it’s more accurately a new subheading in the exact same chapter on being a closeted synth-pop fan wearing a heavy metal beard.

The year was 1986 and I was effin’ LIVID this “fagotty bubble-gum pop band” that all the girls were all crazy for, Depeche Mode, had such an awesome, dark, drop-dead cool looking cover for their new album with the coolest, darkest, delightfully cynical title, Black Celebration.

How dare they use this before a more deserving metal or punk band had a chance? What could these dreamy pretty boy airheads do with such a powerful idea? What was going on? Aren’t the culture police monitoring things? How could this happen? Who do I write a letter to? How can we make this right?

Needless to say, I didn’t listen to the album.

Not that I had much of leg to stand on if there had been a Department of Artistic Control I could lodge a complaint with.

Do you wish to file a report?

Yes, that pop band Deepish Mood or whatever stole an awesome album title.

Really, from whom?

I dunno. Anthrax or SNFU. Or somebody else who didn’t think of it. Anyway, a band that isn’t like synthesizer gaylords, man.

I see. And what is that I hear coming out of your Walkman headphones?

Please by the Pet Shop Boys. What’s that got to do with anything?

I was, if nothing else, a highly nuanced fourteen year old headbanger.

Twenty-seven years later, I’m able to make a little sense out of the scrambled eggs of my adolescent brain. After being utterly seduced by the hi-NRG beat of the original “Opportunities” single (1985), I think was able to accept my love for Pet Shop Boys (albeit secretly) because they had the good sense to use white as the predominant colour on their album design. Pop bands got white and neon or pastel shades; hard rock bands got black and red.

That was the rule.

And I was the kind of rock’n’roll rebel who liked to play by the rules and have rules to play by. If you played by the rules, you didn’t get beat up for being poncey. Therein I saw the appeal of conformity.

But more important than playing by the rules, the girls in my grade six class never went gaga over PSB they way they had over Depeche Mode after the band made their first big splash in North America with “People Are People” (1984). Girls in my classes never seemed to take much notice of PSB at all and I wonder now if it’s because they were always quite clearly gay (PSB, not the girls), though they didn’t flaunt it. And I wonder if that’s why us boys didn’t sneer or throw pejorative terms at them they way we did with completely heterosexual bands like Duran Duran and Depeche Mode—both groups who, like many Bowie-worshiping ’80s pop stars, played with androgyny.

When you’re a twelve-to-fourteen year old boy, anyone—even an adult living on a whole other continent—who’s perceived as a sexual rival instantly becomes a target. You have to cut them down, that’s the rule. You have to try and convince the girls in your class they should fancy you instead of David Gahan or, more immediately, the kid in the desk beside you. The easiest technique is to just declare him gay. If you can wield the hammer of homophobia and turn whole class against your competition, you have that much more of a chance of getting a date.

That was the theory anyway. I don’t remember if it ever worked for anyone, but since you often see full-grown men play by these rules, maybe it did.

I also don’t remember actually calling any band “fags” myself, at least not without prompting, but I certainly paid attention when my classmates did. As I’ve mentioned before, I was terrified anyone would catch me listening to a singer (Billy Idol, Boy George) that might clue people in to what I was beginning to suspect about my own nebulous sexuality.

And by “nebulous” I mean I was fully aware I saw that the grass was greener on both sides of the fence, I was just trying really hard to not see it that way.

Depeche Mode's overly macho phase.

So it had to be in secrecy that I was enthralled by “People Are People” and its metallic percussion. It was the first time I’d heard industrial sounds in a song and I was baffled that hard-edged rock bands weren’t doing it first (they were, of course, but I was still a few years away from discovering them). Still, there was absolutely no way I could allow anyone to catch me with a copy of a Depeche Mode tape. I especially couldn’t let them catch me gazing dreamily at a picture of Martin Gore with his shirt off. I’d have to get my fix of that thundering sound from Midnight Oil‘s “When The Generals Talk” (Red Sails In The Sunset, 1984).

As a result, I spent most of my high school years labouring under a misconception about Depeche Mode. I thought of them as being prefab pop fluff like a sort of a British New Kids On The Block. It wouldn’t be until I took a summer class at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in the summer of 1990 (the summer between grades 11 and 12) that I’d hear Violator (1990) played on the studio ghettoblaster. While we worked on our projects, I found my long-standing dismissive attitude towards the band changing. At first I admitted, “Well, it’s not bad for a pop band, I guess…” and then later realized they weren’t really a “pop” band at all.

Not in the North American sense of the word, anyway. Over here “pop” tends to mean “inconsequential” and “insubstantial”—like the audio equivalent of meringue. You’d never hear someone call The Beatles “pop” for instance. They were serious. They were rock. But in the UK, people always seemed to have a more sophisticated (or simplistic?) definition of pop. Pop music is music that’s popular. Whether it’s deep and heavy or light and shallow. I was suddenly realizing Depeche Mode weren’t all that different from my beloved Nitzer Ebb and (at the time) Nine Inch Nails. They were certainly very much like New Order whose music I was just getting acquainted with at the time.

At any rate, my mind was, as they say, blown. I didn’t let on though. I played it cool.

Also, all the girls the in program seemed to love DM (or at least Violator) and I’d learned since grade six that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. So I wasn’t about to call David Gahan and Martin Gore “faggots” but, rather, declared them “artists”. The girls and I basked in their art while we pushed charcoal and ink around on paper trying to create our own. Not that I had the nerve to put what I’d learned in the past five years into practice. I was more comfortable being a theoretical flirter than a practicing one.

So it was that I hadn’t listened to Black Celebration until after that summer, a full four years after its release.

It’s not a bad place to start for those coming to Depeche Mode for the first time. In the DM catalogue it’s the leaping off point. It’s where they break free of the stark, two-dimensional synth-pop format they’d been working in and created a whole new template for what would become the Depeche Mode sound; a richer, more complex pallet of textures and moods that would become one of the main ingredients in the NIN recipe.

It’s also the first album of theirs that doesn’t constantly lurch and shudder with a hit-and-miss track listing. The songwriting isn’t quite as strong as it will be on the next two releases but it generally goes from strength to strength to strength. The mechanical synth arrangements are still a little stilted on Celebration—DM would master blending the organic and the technological (or making technology feel organic) on Music For The Masses (1987)— but even the filler tracks are, if not outright killer, equally engaging as the singles (“Question of Lust“, “Stripped“).

The only moment where the album stalls is “Sometimes” which plays as a sort of sequel to the sickeningly drippy ballad “Somebody” from Some Great Reward (1984)—a favourite at the weddings of gen-Xers and the worst thing they (or almost anyone) recorded in the years pre-Alan Wilder‘s departure. Incidentally, “Sometimes” is the far better song if only because it’s far shorter and the smothering reverb obscures the dodgy lyrics.

This 2007 CD/DVD reissue does the album justice. Unlike previous standard jewel-case editions, the embossed and spot varnished design of the original cover is replicated to an extent. All the associated b-sides and rarities are present but only appear on the DVD which is annoying (if you wanted to easily rip “Shake The Disease” or “It’s Called a Heart” to you iPod, that is). The short “making-of” film is perhaps the most interesting of the retrospectives included in this series of reissues as this is the point where Depeche Mode really began to experiment in the studio.

Black Celebration could possibly have gone down in pop music history as the best synth-rock album ever made if Depeche Mode weren’t fated to consistently out-do themselves with the next two volumes of their unofficial trilogy, the aforementioned Music For The Masses and Violator.

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