Electronic Music History: Depeche Mode ‘Violator’ (Mute Records)

Dubspot contributor Michael Emenau investigates the moment of pop synchronicity that led to Depeche Mode’s groundbreaking 1990 album, Violator.

DM_Violator_Header

Depeche Mode released Violator in 1990 on Mute Records to massive commercial success. The album sold over four million copies, reached the top ten in the US and UK, and included four hit singles. Artists as diverse as Derrick May, The Crystal Method, Gary Numan, and Shakira have all cited Depeche Mode and Violator as a major influence. How did this band from the electronic music scene, already almost ten years old, explode into the pop charts in such a dramatic fashion?

There are a few factors that led to this perfect pop synchronicity. The post-disco synthpop sound of the 1980s was giving way to a darker, more sinister sound that would become the grunge sound of the 1990s. Violator encapsulated many different styles of music into a seamless package that satisfied a hungry fan base and pulled in a huge new crowd. The music was appreciated by fans of disco, house music, and rock. Even followers of the infant stages of grunge and goth took note. The magic was that the music never felt forced or as if it was pandering to any particular style.

 “If there was ever an album that bridged two decades successfully in just nine songs, Violator was it.”

            – Stephen Gore

Unlike many albums from the transitional period of the late 80s and early 90s, Violator has stood the test of time; by avoiding many clichés of this period, it still sounds fresh today. Listen to the first single from the album, “Personal Jesus,” as this track sets the tone for the album and signals Depeche Mode’s departure into new territory.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNcPjPgbR5M

“The album’s lead single, “Personal Jesus,” a cynical jab at organized religion and televangelism, mixes a grinding bassline and industrial march beat with a bluesy guitar riff and multiple vocal overdubs. It was the unlikeliest of pop hits.”

        – Sal Cinquemani

This was the first time that a guitar had been used as the lead instrument on a Depeche Mode track. The song starts with a bluesy guitar riff and a raw drum track, but slowly, layer by layer, it turns into an electronic rock masterpiece–the last quarter is entirely electronic, the guitar riff replaced by synthesizers. Whether preconceived or not, the structure of this song (from bluesy rock to electro) was able to draw in mainstream listeners who might not pay attention to electronic music.

Their next single, “Enjoy The Silence,” starts off as a light and melodic synthpop track:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pMfV0sVQ_VU

By the first chorus, however, it has morphed into a big drum, big synth, club-style track. Again, a first-time listener to electronic music might not listen to this song if it started in the middle, but it unfolds in a way that makes it possible for nearly anyone to go along for the ride.

The music never goes too far in any one direction–the melodies are singable, but not too saccharine. The production features danceable grooves, but nothing too intense. It’s an electronic album that isn’t an obvious DJ pick for the clubs, and a rock album that doesn’t fit into the rock category.

So moody, So dark

Cheer up guys, you’re rich!

It was the input of four people that made this album rise above what could have been a complicated and, at times, adolescent album. Martin L. Gore’s song writing talents, alongside Alan Wilder’s musical abilities and taste made Depeche Mode a very good band. The addition of Mark Ellis (a.k.a. Flood) as producer and François K as mixer made this one of the seminal albums of all time, of any genre.

Flood, as a producer for Mute Records, had previously worked with Depeche Mode. He was important in bridging the gap between the somber and sometimes morose lyrics of Martin Gore with the more upbeat mood of Alan Wilder and the other band members. Like any good producer, he was part therapist, part sage, and a musical visionary.

This video succinctly describes the development of “Enjoy The Silence,” and is an excellent example of a producer doing his job.

François K’s contribution to this album, although not well understood, cannot be underestimated. He had moved from France to New York intending to be a full-time drummer, but quickly found himself immersed in the club world as a sought-after DJ. His experiences as a musician and a DJ served him well later as a mixer, remixer, and producer.  François’ mix of the single “Personal Jesus” defined the new tone of Depeche Mode, and led to his mixing most of Violator. He was more team player than hired gun, involved in the recording and the creative production end as well.

“You know, sometimes we’d stop in the middle of mixing and say, ‘No, no, no, Dave’s gotta re-do [it].’…there may have been a couple of synthesizer parts Martin wanted fixed, or we were going, like, ‘Ah yeah, this is not really working like this, we gotta change that.’ So then we switched to recording mode…Then I had all kinds of ideas on effects that I wanted to add to the track, where I recorded some of my own vocals doing, like, weird vocal effects…or percussive vocal things that I added as layers.”

- François K

The back cover of "Personal Jesus" single. Poor Francois missed the photo shoot

The back cover of “Personal Jesus” single. Poor Francois missed the photo shoot

Violator is Depeche Mode’s greatest work. There is no filler, and every sound is in the perfect place, beautifully blending sonic worlds.

 


Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO has worked professionally as a musician (vibraphone, percussion, laptop), producer, remixer and arranger for 25 years, playing such diverse genres as, jazz, rock, drum’n’bass, salsa, techno, country, Hindustani, gospel, baroque and orchestral music. He has recorded on over 150 CDs, composed music for eight films, toured internationally, and lived on three continents. Michael was the house studio mallet percussionist for Sony Records (Japan) in the 90s, was a founding member of the award winning “Jazz Mafia” as well as working as a producer/remixer for Six Degrees Records in San Francisco, arranged and produced contemporary multimedia productions of the 16th-century composer Henry Purcell in Paris and is now writing a musical based on the life of Dionysus and dividing his time between Montreal and New York.


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