22nd Sep, 2020

The sweetest perfection: Why Depeche Mode's 'Violator' album remains their defining moment

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James Iles 4th Sep, 2020

IT was the perfect album, released at the perfect time, and it propelled Depeche Mode to the higher planes of pop music success, putting them on a par with contemporaries like U2 and REM, except ‘the Mode’ achieved it using synthesizers and samplers.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, ‘Violator’ was the major breakthrough in both the commercial fortunes and critical acclaim of one of my favourite bands, who are frequently misunderstood and criminally underrated.

James Iles explains why the seventh studio album by Depeche Mode remains not just his favourite by the legendary synth-rockers, but also his favourite LP of all time.

‘V’ is for Violator

I feel eternally fortunate to have grown up at a time to witness Depeche Mode graduate from the teeny pop of ‘See You’, through the teenage angst of ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ and, eventually, into the stadium rock gods they seemed always destined to be with ‘I Feel You’.

The epic musical journey of lead singer Dave Gahan, chief songwriter Martin Gore (keyboards, vocals and guitars), Alan Wilder (keyboards, piano and backing vocals) and Andy Fletcher (keyboards and backing vocals), was a joy to witness, and we were lucky to have grown up alongside it.

Having borrowed ‘The Singles 81-85’ cassette off a girlfriend I was hooked on ‘the Mode’ and so I taped all Depeche’s albums off her, excitedly exploring their impressive back catalogue up to that point, which was circa 1988.

The live album and film ‘101’ – a road movie which builds up to the bands 101st and final show of their ‘Music for the Masses’ tour in front of 60,000 fans at Pasadena Rose Bowl, filmed by the legendary D.A. Pennebaker – came next.

It was rarely out of the VHS player at my parents’ house.

I had become “one of the devout” (that’s a line from the Depeche Mode track “Sacred” for you ‘non-believers’!), and so too had my two brothers – it’s a bond we still share, decades later.

My copy of Depeche Mode’s ‘Violator’ vinyl, bought the day it came out on 19th March 1990, with sleeve design by Area and photography by Anton Corbijn.

Depeche Mode were rightly brimming with confidence after the global success of their ‘Music of the Masses tour’ that preceded the recording of ‘Violator’.

While the title of the LP ‘Music for the Masses’ was intended to be self-deprecating, it had, ironically, been the album that finally brokered large scale international success and set them on the path to ‘Violator’.

In between albums, Martin Gore had branched out on a successful solo EP of six cover versions called ‘Counterfeit’. Studio whizz Alan Wilder had produced work for Toni Halliday from Curve while industrial favourites Nitzer Ebb were working with soon-to-be Depeche producer Mark ‘Flood’ Ellis.

Hiring Flood and engineer Francois Kevorkian, Depeche Mode tore up the rule book on their regular working methods and headed to Milan.

On ‘Music for the Masses’, Gore had, as per usual, presented the rest of the group with demos of his songs that were almost finished, leaving the band the more simple task of polishing up the songs and adding their own vocals or synth parts.

Ahead of Violator though, Alan Wilder – widely recognised as the ‘producer’ within Depeche Mode – and co-producer Flood asked Gore to present his demos in the rawest format possible with just vocals accompanied by either guitar or organ so they could develop the tracks almost from scratch.

The new policy proved a masterstroke.

For example, ‘Enjoy The Silence’ started life as a slower song with just Martin singing over a simple organ chord sequence. You can hear something very similar on the “Harmonium” version on my playlist.

Devotee – A collage of some of my own Depeche Mode postcards I would have bought from The Oasis in Birmingham in the 1990s.

Andy Fletcher later explained the group had previously lived by restrictive rules in the studio where they would not use the same sound twice and guitars weren’t really used. So, for Violator, they stopped all that and declared: “If you wanna use guitars, use guitars.”

This afforded them greater creative freedom in the studio with classically-trained Wilder working on sounds and arrangements and Flood offering up the technical expertise on the analogue equipment.

One song that stood out from the early demos was ‘Personal Jesus’, which saw them break free of their synth-led sound and put down a raunchy blues guitar riff and slide guitars over a glam rock dance stomp.

It was the first time guitars dominated a Depeche Mode track (they had previously appeared fleetingly on tracks like ‘Behind The Wheel’ (1987) and ‘Love In Itself’ (1983)), though the deep synth bassline and sampled sounds gave this new track their familiar stamp.

They recorded and released it as their first single off ‘Violator’ in late August 1989, signposting a bolder and more adventurous sound.

It worked. The 12” single of ‘Personal Jesus’ – cleverly promoted in newspaper classified ads inviting readers to call a number to reach “Your Own Personal Jesus” which played a segment of the track – became Warner Bros’ best selling 12” ever at that point and hyped up anticipation for the new LP.

‘Violator’ was the first time we’d bought a new Depeche Mode album on vinyl.  I clearly remember my brother Matthew coming home from town on the bus with a copy of it on the day of release – 19th March 1990.

We sat in his bedroom and put the record on. It was a memorable occasion – we couldn’t quite believe how brilliant it was. I felt even then we were listening to one of the best recordings we would ever hear.

Little surprise then there was an explosion in popularity of Depeche Mode upon the release of ‘Violator’.

The day after the album came out, more than 17,000 screaming fans turned up at a record signing at Wherehouse Records in LA which the private security firm could not handle and riot police were called in.

There was not a riot, but the ensuing chaos of a massive crowd rushing to see their heroes hit the headlines on US TV from coast to coast in scenes the news anchors likened to Beatlemania.

It was the kind of publicity money could not buy.

Thankfully for the band this was no false dawn, and those whose interest was piqued by what all the fuss was about were duly treated to a perfect Depeche Mode album.

Having heard all of the 12” mixes of ‘Personal Jesus’ the previous summer and bought ‘Enjoy The Silence’ the month before, we knew there were at least two tracks of brilliance on ‘Violator’.

Dave Gahan in concert with Depeche Mode. Pictures by Avis De Miranda / Shutterstock.com

The superb B-sides to those singles – ‘Dangerous’ on ‘Personal Jesus’, and ‘Sibeling’ and ‘Memphisto’, the two excellent instrumentals on ‘Enjoy The Silence’ – shouted out that if they could spare those tracks, there must be some absolute belters on the album.

There were. And the truth is all nine songs on the LP could have been singles.

Indeed, thanks to the Anton Corbijn-directed music video collection ‘Strange Too’ that accompanied the album, ‘Halo’ and ‘Clean’ also got a visual version, in addition to the promo videos for singles ‘Enjoy The Silence’, ‘Personal Jesus’, ‘World In My Eyes’ and ‘Policy of Truth’. So, seven songs off ‘Violator’ were in effect ‘released’.

The album also includes the brilliant unlisted linking tracks ‘Interlude #2 – Crucified’ and ‘Interlude #3’, that highlight the wealth of wonderful melodies Depeche Mode had on tap at the time.

On the final single to be taken from the album, ‘World In My Eyes’ we were spoiled again – this time to the sensual dance track ‘Sea of Sin’ and lusty tones of ‘Happiest Girl’.

This truly was a purple patch for Depeche Mode’s Ivor Novello-winning chief songwriter Martin Gore.

Let’s talk more about the ‘Violator’ album tracks that make it so perfect.

‘World In My Eyes’ – The album opener became the fourth single to be released from the LP (No.17 in September 1990).

Andy Fletcher has often called this his favourite of all the Depeche Mode songs, recalling how it came together so well in the studio.

It’s Gahan singing but Gore saying, in his eyes, sex and pleasure are positive things to enjoy.

The song has a classic intro with the analogue bass riff before those Kraftwerk-esque snare drum samples and blippy riffs resonate over soothing string samples.

I love the reversed loop before the “And that’s all there is” bridge which has a spine-tingling, dramatic chord sequence.

The single video features the only officially-released footage from the ‘World Violation Tour’.

‘Sweetest Perfection’ – ‘Real’ drums gradually pirouette their way in to the soundscape of this brooding slower song of surrender to an irresistible force, sung by Gore.

Whether it’s wine, women or substances (or all three) that he’s powerless to resist is open to interpretation.

Whatever it is “Takes me completely, Touches so sweetly, Reaches so deeply, I know that nothing can stop me.”

Discordant noises whirl around with guitar slides above the verses as the intoxication takes hold.

A beautiful string segment acts as a release to the desperate intensity of the song.

‘Personal Jesus’ – Gore told Rolling Stone the song was inspired by ‘Elvis and Me’, Priscilla Presley’s memoir. “It’s about how Elvis was her man and mentor… everybody’s heart is like a god in some way, and that’s not a very balanced view of someone, is it?”

It became an instant classic and tens of thousands still “reach out and touch faith”, arms aloft, at Depeche shows.

A No.13 hit in the UK in 1989, it’s been covered by Marilyn Manson and Johnny Cash (much to the band’s delight!)

‘Halo’ – Gore wrestles with the guilt “like shackles on your feet” of his immoralities on this dramatic and powerful song which marries drums secondhand sampled from Led Zep’s John Bonham with strings sampled from Elgar.

It is testament to the great body of work that is ‘Violator’ that ‘Halo’ has been played live 431 times by the group since the album came out, despite it not being a single (though it was on their shortlist, and, as previously mentioned, does feature as a video release on ‘Strange Too’).

‘Waiting For The Night’ -This beautiful duet of Gahan and Gore’s vocal harmonies, set over simple, hypnotic arpeggios from an ARP 2600 synth/ sequencer adds calm to the running order.

Their performance of it on the 2001 ‘Exciter’ tour, remains one of the best Gahan/Gore joint vocal performances I have seen in the many Depeche gigs I’ve been to.

‘Enjoy The Silence’ – Gore presented a simple, organ-based song in the demo. Wilder and Flood had different ideas.

They looped a house beat under an analogue bass sequence and programmed in the chords Martin had written.

Next they asked him to work on some guitar licks to overlay on the track.

Memorable results and anthemic melodies ensued, and the rest is history.

Enjoy The Silence was a No.6 hit in the UK in February 1990, becoming gold certified, and it also won Best British Single at the 1991 Brit Awards.

It remains one of their most iconic and popular songs – certainly one of my favourite songs ever – and a key part of their live encore with Martin adding guitar solos in an extended version.

‘Policy of Truth’ – Another classic Depeche Mode single, peaking at No.15 in the US and No.16 in the UK, the lyrics get straight on topic, questioning whether being truthful is always the best policy.

“Hide what you have to hide, And tell what you have to tell,” is the conclusion by the final verse.

The single was backed by the on-trend house track ‘Kaleid’, a version of which opened the ‘World Violation’ tour.

‘Blue Dress’ – Gore admits this is “a bit pervy” as it is a simply an open realisation that watching his favourite lady put on his favourite blue dress, “the one that he prefers” is “what makes the world turn.”

‘Clean’ – An epic ending to an epic album. The irony of the lyrics “The cleanest I’ve been” have never been lost on me as this is the point in Depeche Mode history around the time Gahan’s near-fatal heroin addiction began.

The bass guitar sample-driven intro is akin to Pink Floyd’s ‘One of These Days’ and the video on the ‘Strange Too’ collection features Gore watching ‘Clean’ being painted on a surface on a home movie screen, before spending most of the song kissing a woman.

 

Martin Gore in concert with Depeche Mode. Pictures by Avis De Miranda / Shutterstock.com

I’ve debated many times with my Mode mates which is the best album – ‘Violator’, its raunchier, rockier cousin ‘Songs of Faith and Devotion’ that followed in 1993, or even 1987’s ‘Music For The Masses’.

I always (narrowly) side with ‘Violator’ on this important pop music matter. It’s a fine line though.

It’s true the title ‘Violator’ was intended as a joke, as it was the most extreme and ridiculous heavy metal name they could think of.

However, it became a huge international success for Depeche Mode, their first album to chart inside the Billboard 200 in the US, going on to sell 3million copies worldwide.

The ‘Violator’ era was also the first time my elder brother and I saw them live.

It was at Birmingham NEC in November 1990, on the final date of their seven-month-long ‘World Violation Tour’. (We’ve seen them at least once on every tour since.)

We were fully invested in Depeche Mode, even dressing in the white 501 jeans, Chelsea boots and biker jackets favoured by frontman Dave Gahan at the time!

Matthew’s subscription to “Bong”, the Depeche Mode fan club magazine, also meant we got tickets to a huge fan convention at The Institute in Birmingham in 1991. He still has his “Bong Brum” T-shirt!

We also left that night with arms full of cardboard promotional placards for the album which adorned our bedroom walls for many years after.

Exciting times, and ‘Violator’ was the soundtrack to it all.

Thirty years on and the album still sounds as precise, well crafted and fresh as it did back in 1990. A true testament to its incredible quality.

My top three ‘Violator’ tracks

1) Enjoy The Silence

2) Personal Jesus

3) World In My Eyes

Underrated track = Sweetest Perfection

* Check out James’ “V is for Violator” playlist on Amazon at tinyurl.com/y6b4etqm.

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