Depeche Mode Aces High (Zig Zag, 1985) |

Depeche Mode Aces High (Zig Zag, 1985)


Staff member
Aces High
[Zig Zag, August 1985. Words: William Shaw. Pictures: Coneyl Jay.]
Intelligent and refreshing article, written at a time when Depeche Mode were just starting to be taken seriously. The band talk about how they sit uncomfortably in the music world with its round of promotions, and how this affects people's view of them. Best of all, the author means every word of it. There should have been more like this one.
" It's a contradictory thing. We sit there and we think "Oh no...we've only got to number eighteen with "Shake The Disease", and yet at the same time we know that if we want to make higher positions in the charts we've got to do things that we don't want to do, so at the same time we know exactly why. "
Hell would be like this: a subterranean nighterie where champagne swilling P.R. types linger under ultraviolet around a dance floor and unfortunate girls struggle in inadequate nylon leotards to avoid the straying hands while they keep the glasses charged... One of those adorable venues where the lights by which John Travolta once danced glare splendidly upwards in coloured squares from under the dance floor, like torches held under the chin.

In the immoral words of Tom Vague, this is the sort of place that would make you want to crap on the carpet.

Mike Read is here: he's shaking someone's offered hand while pushing his red spectacles back on to his nose; in front of a group of flash-wielding photographers Cliff Richard is discussing revolutionary politics with Jonathan King; Bobby Davro is showing his teeth, while Davey Jones' smile is a tad more careworn.

In the corner sit the constituent parts of Depeche Mode, each as happy as an American in Beirut.

"Oh!" Andy Fletcher is wincingly reminded of the event. "Don't talk about that. What a horrible night that was...horrible."

Martin Gore, grimacing, echoes his agreement: "Horrible...It was a rare occasion. We do try and avoid that sort of thing if we can. Having said that, we did stay to the end...Free drink," he adds by way of an explanation.

In the exotic world of rock'n'roll, where the most ridiculous exaggerations are bandied around with a glorious lack of restraint, it can be a relief to occasionally bend an ear to Depeche Mode. In amongst the baroque absurdities of the rest of the business, they continue to shine through as a beacon of simplicity in the midst of the glitzy goings on.

If Paul Gambaccini was to walk through the door right now, even before you could politely usher him back out, he'd have probably told you that Depeche Mode have had more hits in this country than Duran Duran, or some similar factual tit-bit in praise of their longevity. But then Depeche Mode are never going to attain that starry status because...well...they are the boys who sit in the corners at parties.

It's a few weeks after that odious night now, in surroundings a little different: a small village in the south of England close by Martin Rushent's Genetic Studio where Basildon's finest sons are recording their next single. Ducks frolic alongside longboats in the canal, and in the pub opposite the cricket ground, Martin and Andy explain that the whole reason why they turned up to that party was only because they'd just been having a meeting with their plugger, and he'd suggested that it would be a good idea if they tried showing their faces at the minor media event.


Staff member
In fact only just before this recording session that same plugger had called an emergency meeting about Depeche Mode's low media profile because of their unwillingness or inability to join in the media scramble.

"Well, it wasn't exactly a crisis meeting," recounts Martin. "Our plugger and everyone gathered round and they were saying that basically with any other band they can go on TV and they'll guarantee a certain number of sales the following day, but with us they don't sell any. It's this thing you've got to be. You've got to go on and be up and bubbly and jump. But we don't. We go on and we're just like ourselves."

You always seem to look awkward; as if you'd rather not be there at all.

Martin answers: "The fact of the matter is we're just four ordinary blokes..."

But that's the last thing anyone wants to hear.

"Yeah," says Andy. "They can't understand. You meet most pop stars and they're really timid before they go on. When they do they go made. It's false. It's a bit ironic that we suffer. We are normal."

Do you ever watch video playbacks of the television you do?

"I must admit I don't," replies Andy. "Sometimes my girlfriend watches them, but I try not to. I was on "Number 73", doing the Sandwich Quiz..."

An interruption: What was the inestimable Ethel like?

"She was alright. The only problem was that there was her, Bobby Davro and me, and I was like twice her height. I reckon it was hard to get us both in was really very embarrassing. Bobby Davro as well, he's a real comedian. Every time there was a question he was straight in with a joke. I haven't actually watched the playback because it was too embarrassing."

He adds an afterthought: "At least I won."

To draw an entirely gratuitous parallel, Number 73's Sandwich Quiz should be seen as a microcosm of the world: Depeche Mode winning through even in the face of smart-arsed comedians.

Because though they thankfully cannot be counted amongst the ranks of the Spanddurans, they've survived with them that five years since the time that all those groups were eagerly pounced upon to re-establish the status quo once the shock of the early seventies had worn off.

The peculiar mind of Martin Gore has something to do with that: as their songwriter he's a man at one with the absurdly simplistic, something that's gone down well in pop ever since "Awopbopalubopawopbamboom".

The man can't be daft. Remember when Depeche Mode were trying to emerge from under the shadow of the "Speak And Spell" Vince Clarke time? The little bit in "See You" when Gahan sweetly chorused "People are basically the same"? It was so ridiculous we all grinned for days.

Dave Gahan maps out the territory: "Martin always surprised us. He never seems to be going down hill. He's only just finding out what his capabilities are and how far he can go. I mean lyrically he could go on for a long while.

"People don't seem to see Martin's wit. A lot of journalists seem to see something...see Martin's got a very weird sense of humour, and that sense of humour comes across in his lyrics. For instance, the lyric in "People Are People": "people get along so awfully". The word "awfully" is a funny word. You don't really say that in conversation," he spells it out. "I get on with you so awfully..." There wasn't really anybody who picked up on that..." [1]

Approach Martin about his songs and you'll find him none too keen to get too sociological: "Most people don't really get it. Some people see more than there is," he passes.

Talk to him about the way he reduces songs to the simplest of simple, the fun with truisms of "People Are People", the idea that he might be smarter than he lets on and he looks up blankly and says:

"What was that you were saying?"


The most Martin will be gently goaded to say is this: "I do like the simple stuff. Even now people don't understand the point of a song, but I think it's best to go about it in the most direct way, although I do quite like bands that are flowery, it's just not my style really."

So let's talk flowery groups: The Smiths, for example. Along with New Order, they're the only independent label band who've been able to consistently get into the charts, though they stand at the other end of the playing field. The Smiths play at being the floweriest of sophisticates while Depeche Mode clean up down the other end, simplicity itself.

"The difference between us and The Smiths," answers Martin, "is that we sell records primarily for our music, and I reckon The Smiths' success has got a lot to do with their lyrics and Morrissey. I would say we sold 0.1% of our music through the lyrics...the rest on music and NONE on personality," he chortles.

It's left to Dave Gahan to hit the nail through the head: "I think it's that they've got a better education than we have. They probably all went to public school...I dunno, Morrissey probably reads a lot of Shakespeare...I don't know. I think they're quite good a lot of the time."

"It's a dilemma really," decides Martin. "We still consider ourselves as a pop band, and a lot of people can't take a band seriously, especially if they describe themselves as a pop band.

"One of the things we've noticed is in England we're still trying to live down our early image, Basically when we look back we feel a bit sick ourselves...The way we looked...what we were trying to do then...We don't blame anybody for hating us really if you look back.

"Again it was just us - because we were just four ordinary blokes. If one of the music papers came along to do an interview we'd say yes. We didn't do any of the usual games. We weren't interested in image, we were just wearing the clothes we'd been wearing before."

[1] - This is the only time I have ever seen the band take this line on the song. They hate it, plain and simple, and in later years would distance themselves from it hands down. Maybe it's because this interview is so close in time to the release of the song and they hadn't yet got cold feet; on the other hand maybe they already had their doubts and were trying a little damage limitation, I'd love to know...


Staff member
Agreement is reached here by all members of the group. In 1981 they may well have been the innocents the press still sometimes now makes them out to be.

Dave Gahan: "I think we made a few mistakes when we first started. We were naïve in the way that we didn't know much about the music business, we were just having some fun. We made a few mistakes in the way that we portrayed ourselves, in the way we had photos done and in the way we did interviews. We did everything that came along.

"Now we stay clear of doing things unless we want to. We stay clear of doing things like the daily press...there was one we did in the Daily Star which we did years ago when Vince was still with us...that contributed to Vince leaving the band. They asked Vince something like "do you think it's an advantage to be good looking?" and Vince said well it's an advantage in everyday life, isn't it. And of course the title was "UGLY BANDS WON'T GET ANYWHERE" and it was terrible. After that he wouldn't do any press. He didn't actually do an interview for about six months. He barely spoke to us and we felt that he wanted to leave. [1]

"It upset him so much that it contributed to his thoughts about the music business, that he didn't really like it, you know, that it was really false. [2]

"He was the strangest person in the band really at the time. He's very much the sort of person who likes to be on his own, and now he works on his own out in the studio and he won't have anyone else there..."

Anyone for tennis? A game of doubles perhaps? The sleepy rural idyll of Streatley is beginning to get to Depeche Mode. Andy and Martin have been wandering around the village in the forlorn hope that someone would recognise them so that they'd have someone to talk to. In between times, they saunter up to the court for a leisurely knockabout.

Gahan and Gore team up against Fletcher: Shaw picks up a dubious racket to join his side. After a quick glance at his technique, Fletcher tactfully suggests that perhaps Shaw shouldn't serve. Coneyl the camera plays at umpire.

WAAP! Fletcher and Shaw drop four games in a row.

Dave Gahan is pleased with the way Depeche Mode have thrived in the pop market place. In comparison to the market competitors, Depeche Mode are more or less a cottage industry. They manage the group themselves, sharing out financial and secretarial duties - Gahan's girlfriend runs the Depeche Mode information service. Mute remains a small set up, within which they can do more or less as they please.

"I think a lot of it is down to the fact of how we are as people, really, because we have no contract with Mute whatsoever. And we've been offered huge amounts from majors right from day one...we've been offered six nought figures, ridiculous amounts but it doesn't really interest us because we've got so much freedom with Mute.

"We still manage ourselves, we have no one really pushing us in any direction. Daniel (Miller, producer and Mute man) advises us in certain ways. If we've got six songs and we want to pick one as a single he'll help us to pick one. Other than that we're very free to do what we want.

"We've done it all without aggressive marketing and things like that, without pictures on sleeves, any ads in papers, anything like that. It's all because we haven't been pushed in any way, we've been able to do it on our own. A lot of the groups that came up with us were just mainstream rock bands, just general rock bands that have dumped their synths for electric guitars and spreading their legs on stage."

Depeche Mode spreading their legs and wielding guitars on stage? It doesn't really bear thinking about, does it? Because even though they've transformed completely from the days of the "Speak And Spell" tour when they always looked as if they'd have preferred to turn off the tape recorder and go home to Basildon - nowadays Gahan's hip-swivelling can be a wonder to behold - they could never cut it as "real men" posturing rock stars.

Martin Gore in lipstick and leather skirt (The German Smash Hits equivalent, Bravo blared fallaciously "Underneath He Wears Suspenders!") - it's part of their appeal really isn't it? Not macho people.

"Yeah," recoils Dave. "Well, er, we're not very macho people. I suppose it is." WAAP!

Around the time of "Construction Time Again" There was this idea of Depeche Mode as Basildon's Red Rockers. Somehow they never lived up to X. Moore's expectations.

"They were trying to put us into making political statements," says Dave. "But that was from that album, which did cover generally socialist topics, just sort of everyday things that you come up with. They took it as being really communist. "Red." We were labelled "The New Reds..."

"It's down to how you are. We've made a lot of money, so we find it difficult to put across things like that in interviews. It would be stupid. I mean we've got very left wing attitudes, all of us, because we come from a very working class background. I think it's down to your personal attitudes, the way you present yourself.

"You could preach till the cows come home, we could talk for hours and hours about politics, but I don't think..." he tails off. "It might surprise a lot of people who didn't think we got involved in that sort of thing at all, but we don't want to use that side of things to sell ourselves, if you like..."

Wham play miner's benefit.

"Yeah," he grins. "That sort of thing, which was the management saying, "I think you should do something credible". It's very difficult to look out on those things when you do make so much money. I think it's being very hypocritical.

"You can't help making a lot of money: if you sell a lot of records you make a lot of money...the same as any business. It's down to your personal attitudes what you do when you've got that money. On the other side we don't fit into that nightclub scene, going up to Tramp every night, jetting to New York for a party that someone's throwing. Going off to Diana Ross's birthday party..."

Which brings us back to Depeche Mode sitting in corners...

Depeche Mode agree: their public introversion doesn't really do them any favours. "One of the reasons why we're not very good with the press is because we're not very good talkers. We're not very good at putting ourselves across in interviews, and the press can't handle a band if they're not very outspoken," bemoans Martin.

Alan Wilder, as the only non-Basildon member has more of the outsider's view of it: "We often come across totally wrong, totally different to how we are...this terribly serious bunch of doom merchants, which some people seem to think we are, and that's basically our own fault, the way we put ourselves across because we're not particularly great at explaining ourselves.

"It's a contradictory thing. We sit there and we think "Oh no...we've only got to number eighteen with "Shake The Disease", and yet at the same time we know that if we want to make higher positions in the charts we've got to do things that we don't want to do, so at the same time we know exactly why.

"Trouble is, when you are very honest, when you tell the truth all the time, you can come across as just sounding a bit wimpy...a bit boring."

Pick up any old interview with Depeche Mode, scan through it once, and you'll see that Depeche Mode are possibly the most patronised group around. Wily press men find themselves admiring the media efficiency of Duran Duran say, despite despising the music. Depeche Mode on the other hand - even though their press is nearly always favourable - get a gentle pat on the head. Nice boys. We all seem to do it.

Don't you ever feel like just standing up and shouting "You stupid bastards, just b ecause we go about things in a simple way doesn't mean we're simple minded."?

Martin answers: "It doesn't really bother us. It's true what you say: we go about things in a very simple way. The lyrics are very, very simple, the tunes are very simple."

Andy can have the last word: "We are simple minded."

WHAAP! Cat gut strikes rubber and the tennis ball limps across the net. Game, set and match.

[1] - I am still desperately trying to locate this article. It was written by Rick Sky and would have appeared in the Daily Star some time between late June and early September 1981. If you can help, please contact me.
[2] - And the incident may also have contributed the track "What's Your Name?" to Speak And Spell, with its refrain of "Hey you're such a pretty boy....".