June 18, 1988 is a date that will live in Modern Rock history forever. That was the date that British synthpop band Depeche Mode played to over 60,000 fans at the Pasadena Rose Bowl in California. It represented America, the final stronghold of “traditional rock,” falling to electronic music and it would pave the way to even greater success for Depeche Mode in the years to come.
The Rose Bowl show was the 101st and final concert on the band’s world tour for their 1987 album, Music For The Masses. Knowing how special this concert would be and wanting to show people their live success, which flew in the face of their less than stellar record sales, (at least in the United States), the band recorded the show and recruited famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker to make a movie about the experience. The result was Depeche Mode 101 and 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of both the live double album and the film release.
I truly became aware of Depeche Mode with their 1990 album, Violator. Violator was the culmination of all the hard work the band had put in since forming in 1980. I liked the album a lot, what with its hits “Personal Jesus, “Enjoy The Silence,” and “Policy Of Truth,” but I didn’t become a true Depeche Mode fan until later that year when my friend Warren handed me a single cassette tape that would change my life forever. He’d compiled the 101 double album onto a single tape, the final song got chopped off a bit at the end, and I took it home to listen to it. What I heard was a revelation.
The album opened with the tail end of the instrumental, “Pimpf,’ which sounded like it could have been the entrance music for a sultan or something. It was pretty cool, very epic. The music stopped. Two single drum hits sounded before a driving, electronic bass line kicked in, appropriate for a song called “Behind The Wheel.” Once I heard the next song, “Strangelove,” I was completely hooked.
My ears devoured the tape, reveling in what was, for me, a new discovery. As this was the final concert of the Music For The Masses tour, many of the tracks on 101 were culled from that album. Some other songs I was surprised to see, like “People Are People.” I knew the song from the radio play it got in the mid-eighties, but had no idea Depeche Mode was behind it until listening to 101. Like the neophyte fan that I was, my favorite song quickly became “Just Can’t Get Enough,” but specifically the 101 version, as no other remix or studio version could compare. I recognized the track from local Philadelphia station WTAF-29, which used the song to promote their cartoon slate in commercials with local DJ John DeBella. Again, I had no idea it was a Depeche Mode track. As I came to learn more about the members of the band, I discovered that “Just Can’t Get Enough” was the lone song on 101 not written by chief songwriter, Martin Gore. Instead, it was written by former band member and founder, Vince Clarke, who went on to form Yazoo and Erasure.
As I got older, I gained a greater appreciation for Gore’s darker, more mature songs, so much so that another track on 101, ‘Stripped‘ from Black Celebration, has become my favorite Depeche Mode track of all. Like most of the other cuts on the album, the 101 version of ‘Stripped’ is pure perfection. Depeche Mode always seemed to make the live versions of their songs transcend their studio origins. This was thanks to the hard work of Alan Wilder, a classically-trained musician and studio whiz who is, unfortunately, no longer with the band. Wilder would take various remixes of the songs and create ultimate versions of each track. He rarely made a misstep and in the time he was with Depeche Mode, he managed to make all the classics sound fresh again on each subsequent tour.
While Gore supplied the songs and Wilder the soundscapes, at the center of the whole album is lead singer Dave Gahan, whose deep baritone runs through not only the majority of 101‘s tracks, but Depeche Mode’s catalog as a whole. Gahan brought gravitas to the whole endeavor, enhancing Gore’s darker songs with almost a menacing aura. Gore sang most of the ballads, including two standouts on 101. The first was, quite possibly, the greatest rendition of the Some Great Reward classic ‘Somebody,’ while the other was saved for the encore?Black Celebration‘s ‘A Question Of Lust.’ Gore also contributed vocals to ‘Things You Said’ from Music For The Masses, but that track never gained the popularity it deserved. Fourth member of the group, keyboardist Andy Fletcher, summed up his role in the band succinctly in the 101 film while speaking with a DJ: ‘My job is to keep everyone together, really. Martin’s the songwriter, Alan’s the good musician, Dave’s the vocalist, and I bum around.’
As I mentioned, Warren couldn’t totally fit the whole album on a single 90-minute cassette and ‘Everything Counts‘ from Construction Time Again was the sole casualty. Unfortunately, that’s the first song I think of whenever anyone mentions 101. Part of that had to do with the fantastic rendition found on the album, but also because it had a prominent place in the film and Depeche Mode released an edited down version of the track as a single to promote the live album.
After living with 101 for a while, I picked up a few more tapes from Warren and then headed out into the wild myself to purchase more of the back catalog. My thirst for new Depeche Mode artifacts was insatiable. I bought 12′ singles, cassettes, bootlegs, anything I could get my hands on and what my wallet would allow. Something else that I looked to pick up fairly quickly was the 101 VHS tape. The film was not a concert film, though it had plenty of footage. It was a documentary that focused both on the band and their fans. One camera crew stuck with Depeche Mode, while another followed a busload of contest winners from WLIR/WDRE in New York. The contest winners traveled cross-country to follow Depeche Mode on tour, ending up at the Rose Bowl show. It was a progenitor to reality TV shows like MTV’s The Real World, but without all the angst. The cast of characters was likable and made the film more interesting than a straight concert film. It highlighted why this show was important and how far Depeche Mode had come.
It was great to finally see my heroes in action too. Sure, I’d seen the music videos, but I had missed the band when they blew through Philly on the World Violation Tour in 1990, and it was great to see them doing what they did best. Looking the stage set-up, it was easy to see just what a great frontman Dave Gahan was and is to this day. He was essentially all alone on the stage, while the three keyboardists were on a riser behind him. He had to carry the majority of the production on his narrow shoulders alone. However, it was great to see what the audience was screaming about on the album when Martin Gore came down to play guitar on ‘Nothing‘ and ‘Pleasure Little Treasure.’ Since 101, Depeche Mode has incorporated more and more guitar into their studio and live work.
I also enjoyed the lighting design of the show. It made tracks like ‘Black Celebration‘ and ‘Blasphemous Rumours‘ even more mysterious and ominous. Watching the film, one could see the looks on the band members’ faces and that even they couldn’t believe the turnout for their show. There’s a great moment during ‘Behind The Wheel,’ while the band is still behind a curtain, where Dave and Martin share an excited smile that reads, ‘Can you believe this’? The crowning achievement of the film, though, is when the band plays ‘Never Let Me Down Again‘ and Gahan has 60,000+ people waving their arms in unison, looking like a giant wheat field. Mute Records founder and producer of Depeche Mode’s first five albums, Daniel Miller, said on VH1’s Behind the Music, ‘I mean, it was scary too, because I think Dave could have done anything at that moment and the crowd would have followed him. He could have said, ‘Go home and shoot your parents,’ and they probably would’ve. Y’know what I mean, There was that power. It was simply mesmerizing. As a documentary, Depeche Mode 101 is great, showing both the band’s impact and talent, but as a concert document, it’s priceless. The biggest show they’d played to that point, captured on film for all time, for the most part.
With Depeche Mode 101, I went from casual fan to superfan, almost overnight. Depeche Mode quickly overtook every other artist I liked to become my favorite and it’s a position they still hold to this day. Whenever people ask me about getting into their music, I don’t give them the Singles collections or the lone Best Of album they have out. I tell them, ‘Buy two albums: Violator and 101.’ 101 was better than a traditional greatest hits album, it was Depeche Mode at the top of their game and collected some of their best songs to boot. I also like how the title sounds like a college course: Depeche Mode 101. Of course, nowadays, the band’s catalog has grown so much larger, it’s hard to confine a starter kit to just those two albums, but it’s a damn good start and it always will be.
You can find my reviews of ALL of Depeche Mode’s studio albums at Doug’s Reviews
Doug Simpson is an author and blogger. As one half of The Hodgepodge Podcast, he talks movies, music, TV, and pop culture with his partner, Dirty A. He also writes a ton of movie reviews, which can be found at Doug’s Reviews and The Hodgepodge Podcast. His first Young Adult novel, Great Big World: The Trouble with Dr. Beamo, will be available in Summer 2014. Please follow him on Twitter