Are Depeche Mode Metal’s Biggest Secret Influence?
When Depeche Mode titled their 1990 album Violator, it was supposed to be taken ironically. The previous year had seen smarmy hair-mongers like Bon Jovi, Bad English and Poison scoring Number Ones with saccharine power balladry, and the leather-clad, synth-pop group had understandably “gotten enough.” So they exacted vengeance on their album sleeve. “We wanted to come up with the most extreme, ridiculously heavy-metal title that we could,” the band’s chief songwriter, Martin Gore, told NME at the time. “I’ll be surprised if people will get the joke.” His skepticism was warranted.
In the 25 years since Depeche Mode officially became a phenomenon with a string of Violator singles like “Personal Jesus,” “Enjoy the Silence” and “Policy of Truth,” the band has inspired a strange, surprising cult following among headbangers and hard rockers. Marilyn Manson, Rammstein, Converge and even Mr. Power Ballad Himself, Sammy Hagar, have tackled Depeche Mode covers – most of which cull from Violator. Their love of the band is genuine. Singer Chino Moreno, who alternates between throat-shredding screams and Dave Gahan–like crooning with alt-metal group Deftones, even has Violator’s cover flower tattooed on his bicep.
In hindsight, though, Depeche Mode’s influence on the most extreme of music genres makes some sense. When the group formed in Basildon, about 30 miles east of London, in 1980, it played light-hearted new-wave pop songs like “Just Can’t Get Enough” and “Dreaming of You” with keyboard parts that the band’s Alan Wilder nonetheless later likened to blues and heavy-metal riffs. When founding member and original chief songwriter Vince Clarke left that year to form Yazoo, Gore took over songwriting duties and brought a darker sensibility to the group. “Rock musicians say you can’t express yourself with a synthesizer,” he told Sounds in 1981. “‘Soulless’ is the word. But what is there in whacking a guitar? Every heavy-metal riff sounds the same anyway.” He proved his naysayers wrong.
Within the next couple of years, Depeche Mode became a force to be reckoned with on the pop charts, eventually making an impact in the U.S. with 1984′s urgent-sounding plea for peace “People Are People.” But in the U.K., they’d been putting out one high-charting single after another, many of which carry controversial themes including survival of the fittest (“Everything Counts”), bondage and discipline (“Master and Servant”) and breaking free of groupthink (“Stripped”). Deeper cuts like “Fly on the Windscreen – Final” – which begins with the very metal line, “Death is everywheeerrre!” – tackle inevitable mortality.
Most chilling, though, was their 1984 single “Blasphemous Rumours,” which tackled teenage suicide and mortality in the verses, which were bolstered by the chorus, “I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours/But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humour/And when I die I expect to find Him laughing.” That sentiment predates Slayer’s “God Hates Us All” by almost two decades and the song bore the sort of scrutiny reserved for metal bands at the time. The BBC reportedly told the group’s label that it couldn’t play every single it got (though the song later reached Number 16 in the U.K.) and the tune got a good shaming in the band’s hometown. “If we can say God so loved the world that He sent His only son, if He did that, He cannot have a sick sense of humor,” a Basildon priest told the press at the time, according to the 1994 book Depeche Mode: Some Great Reward. It seemed the group’s world-wary ethos threatened mainstream sensibilities and it mattered not a jot.
But while headbangers were singing about the same things and filling midsize venues with sweaty mosh-pit warriors, Depeche Mode were packing arenas and stadiums with screaming teenage girls singing their hits (even “Blasphemous Rumours”). Moreover, a reported 20,000 fans, many of whom had been waiting for days, showed up for a Depeche Mode record signing in Los Angeles when Violator came out, and the roar of the fans captured on the band’s 1989 live album and video 101 is still echoing around the Pasadena Rose Bowl.
Their impact stretched far and wide during the lead-up to Violator’s release, and it was around that time that it settled into the psyches of hard-rock and metal bands. The first notable hard rocker to sing their praises was Axl Rose, who in 1989, reportedly attempted to curry the band’s favor by reciting the lyrics to their tender, hopeful love ballad “Somebody” to them at the 101 Hollywood premiere. Later that night, he brought them to the L.A. metal club the Cathouse but he soon lost their friendship. After the party, the Guns N’ Roses singer reportedly attended a Beverly Hills barbecue where he allegedly shot a pig. Depeche Mode then released a statement to the U.K. press that, as vegetarians, they were “appalled” with him and did not want to be associated with him.
It was also around that time that people who would come to define metal over the next couple of decades became fans of the synth-pop group. Marilyn Manson fondly recalls seeing Depeche Mode in L.A. on their World Violation Tour, and Deftones’ Moreno proudly says that that was the first concert he ever saw. “I fought my way to the front to be against the barricade,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I have a feeling it’s what launched me into wanting to make music, just by seeing the energy. It was just something else, one of my fondest and greatest memories of coming of age.”
“Dave Gahan’s voice was always attractive to me,” says Burton Bell, who peppers industro-metal growls with full-throated, Depeche-y singing when fronting Fear Factory and identifies himself as a Mode fan from even before Violator. “He did not have a ‘whiny’ voice, which was popular for that genre of music during that time. He has a voice that resonated deep emotion and commitment. It’s not really about what he was singing, but more about how he was singing it, that really made me a fan.”
“It was different from anything that was going on at that time, and that’s what drew me in,” offers Ville Valo, frontman of the brooding Finnish “love-metal” group HIM, which once covered “Enjoy the Silence.” “The uniqueness of Depeche Mode was similar to Black Sabbath. They gave us hope that you don’t have to do exactly what the rest of the people are doing. They reinvented the wheel.”
As with like-minded groups the Cure and New Order, Depeche Mode’s mid-Eighties appeal to Future Metal Leaders of the World lied in an almost morbid, matter-of-fact gothy iconoclasm. What set them apart from their peers, though – other than a sparing use of guitar – were the ornate lattices of synthesizer counterpoints and clanging rhythms that defined their albums beginning with 1985′s Some Great Reward (and its hit “People Are People”) onward. It’s a sound that has gone on to inspire many industrial bands, notably Nine Inch Nails and Ministry (though the latter, who started out sounding like Depeche Mode, would later disavow them). That sound would become increasingly sexually charged and trance-inducing on albums like 1986′s Black Celebration, the following year’s Music for the Masses and their masterpiece Violator.
“Depeche Mode have got sex appeal and their music is hypnotic.” – Marilyn Manson
“I don’t know about what appeals to other bands, but for me, I think it’s just music that you put on because it’s got sex appeal to it,” says Marilyn Manson, who covered “Personal Jesus” in 2004. “That’s what inspired me about it. That and it has a hypnotic feel.” The singer, who also cites a time he received “oral sex with a rosary bead around my dick” as inspiration for the cover, still plays “Personal Jesus” with a “southern Baptist bible-pulpit” approach. (It’s worth nothing that Gore drew inspiration not from Jesus Christ for the song but from Priscilla Presley’s almost religious admiration for her onetime husband Elvis in her book Elvis & Me.)
Another artist who covered “Personal Jesus” but for a different reason is former Van Halen belter Sammy Hagar, who included a bluesy, hard-rock rendition of the tune on his 2013 solo covers comp Sammy Hagar & Friends. “A lot of people find it hard to believe I’m a fan,” he says. “My oldest son, Aaron, actually turned me onto the band when he was little but it wasn’t until I heard ‘Personal Jesus’ that I became a fan. It hit me how cool it sounded for an electronic band to play such a heavy blues groove. That riff always gets me.”
Beyond the feel of the group’s music, Depeche Mode’s allure for modern heavy music artists also stems from Gore’s cutting, moody, often personal lyrics. In metal’s first two decades, the most successful bands had, by and large, lived out their fantasies in their lyrics, but at the start of the Nineties – as punk- and hardcore-influenced grunge bands threatened the futures of puffed-chest pop-metal groups with songs about (gasp!) their emotions – an influx of harder-edged bands, too, started singing about real life.
“Depeche Mode records are all a little bit personal and extremely powerful,” says Converge frontman Jacob Bannon, whose histrionic hardcore-metal crossover group once covered Violator’s Pink Floyd–referencing “Clean.” “On Violator specifically, maybe it’s the aesthetic, the character, the sort of battle between human darkness and temptation that’s in there, I think those things just relate to a lot of artists that are making heavy music. The subject matters are essentially the same.”
Similarly, the appeal of doing a “fully heavy” version of “Clean,” to use Bannon’s words, was the song’s message. “It’s talking about somebody trying to get emotionally, physically and spiritually clean,” he says. “At least that’s the interpretation and narrative that I wanted to explore with the song.”
“My favorite music from Depeche Mode is a little unsettling.” – Deftones’ Chino Moreno
“My favorite music from them is a little unsettling,” Moreno says. “It’s darker-themed and there is a lot of love- and relationship-type things, but it’s not happy music.” With Deftones, Moreno has covered Music for the Masses’ “To Have and to Hold” and Violator’s “Sweetest Perfection.” In 2013 he also sang Music for the Masses’ “Behind the Wheel” with math-metal troupe Dillinger Escape Plan. “You never really know what they’re singing about, they’re never really just so open and out front about it,” the Deftones singer says. “When you listened to them, you sort of ran with the mood of it and you connected it to wherever you were in your life at the time.”
Moreno recalls attempting a version of Black Celebration’s “Fly on the Windscreen” with Deftones when they were making their 1995 debut album, Adrenaline, but they never finished it or put it out. “It was our first try at doing something not so typical for a heavy band,” he says. “Now we’re known for doing covers that are not so typical of a hard-rock band.”
The singer still recalls surprise that his bandmates would be open to trying something so outside of the heavy paradigm, saying that Deftones guitarist Stephen Carpenter had never heard of the group prior to meeting Moreno. That goes, too, for singer Cristina Scabbia and her bandmates in goth-metal outfit Lacuna Coil, who scored a hit in the U.K. with their cover of Violator’s “Enjoy the Silence,” the most verbose song extoling the virtues of quietude since Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.” “Marco [Biazzi], our bass player, who arranged the music was not a big fan of them,” she says. “He respects them but he wasn’t a fan to start with. But the alchemy worked out perfectly.
“With some songs you get that special feeling,” she continues, explaining why she picked “Enjoy the Silence.” “Depeche Mode write songs with notes that just hit you right in the heart. They are sometimes melancholic. I don’t know if it’s part of human nature to like to suffer a little bit but to me it’s like that when I listen to music, because I like to listen to the heart of every song.”
“‘Enjoy the Silence’ is one of those songs that sounds so overwhelming that your heart seems to burst when you hear it,” says HIM’s Valo, who covered the song in part “to get the girls interested” in his band. “It has very simple melodies and lyrics, too.”
Another artist who recalls getting resistance initially to covering Depeche Mode is Rammstein guitarist Richard Kruspe. He discovered the synth-pop group while growing in the former East Germany where it was difficult to find records by his favorite bands; nevertheless he became a fan after seeing them perform “People Are People” on TV and, in 1998, he convinced his industrial-metal group to take on Black Celebration’s “Stripped.” “I even paid them money to do it,” he jokes.
But even once the rest of Rammstein were on board, he had to make a concession with the way the song was recorded. “I remember going into the studio and Till [Lindemann, vocals] was trying to sing ‘Stripped down to the bone’ and for hours he couldn’t get rid of this thick, German accent,” Kruspe says. “So we eliminated the ‘down to the bone part.’”
For his part, Lindemann says he has come around to Depeche Mode, save one thing. “They don’t have guitars and when you play metal, you want to hear a guitar, so it demands a cover version,” he says. “But Depeche Mode are the best band without guitars where it’s still working.”
The fact that Depeche Mode’s sound is so delicate and malleable is also why the theatrical heavy-metal group Ghost attempted Violator’s tender “Waiting for the Night” on their 2013 covers EP, If You Have Ghost, which featured Dave Grohl on rhythm guitar. “It had a lot of body to explore, since it’s very ambient and sonically sparse,” one of the group’s so-called Nameless Ghouls says. “When we got into the studio with Dave Grohl, we toyed with the idea to sludge it out to a really doomy metal song, and I think we did rather well. The original though has a unique, nocturnal ‘listen in bed in the dark before you go to sleep’ quality to it, though, that we never achieved. It’s a very beautiful song.”
“Depeche Mode’s music is not tied to a certain period of time or fad,” Valo says. “That’s the magic of the band, to be able to cater to a unique world and existence. Whenever you can open a door by listening to music, you’re sucked in. and often, you go from this everyday dreary, gray existence, and that’s the beauty of Depeche Mode.”
Despite the admiration Depeche Mode have received from hard-rock and metal fans, the group’s Martin Gore remains ambivalent about the appeal of their music to a genre that seems so diametrically opposite of his own. Earlier this year, the singer told Rolling Stone he’s amazed with the number of requests in general he gets from artists wanting to cover his songs. “The majority of them, I have to say, I don’t particularly like,” he said. “But I usually approve them, because they’re my fans. Nobody’s going to want to cover something unless they’re actually a fan. To say, ‘No, you can’t release that because I don’t like it,’ I think, is just a bit unfair so I always approve them.
“Metal bands and Susan Boyle,” Gore said with a laugh. “When people ask us about our influence, the thing I’m most proud of is the fact we seem to have influenced people right across the board in all different genres of music.”