Happy 30th Anniversary to Depeche Mode’s fifth studio album Black Celebration, originally released March 17, 1986.
As with many important things throughout my life, I have my sister to thank for introducing me to the brilliance of Depeche Mode. For she was the one who procured the shiny new cassette tape of Black Celebration back in the spring of 1986 and was generous enough to share its magic with her little brother.
Although four studio albums and a handful of chart-friendly hit singles preceded it, Black Celebration was my formal introduction to the Essex-bred band comprised of Dave Gahan (lead vocalist), Martin Gore (chief songwriter, composer, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist), Alan Wilder (arranger, producer, multi-instrumentalist), and Andy Fletcher (multi-instrumentalist). Just a fledgling nine years old when the album was originally released, I was wise enough to recognize great music nevertheless, and Depeche Mode’s songs qualified and then some.
Not to mention that I was convinced that Gahan was the embodiment of cool and I immediately wanted to emulate his devil-may-care swagger and clean-cut style that masked the danger and demons that lay deep within. Indeed, in terms of that unmistakable cool factor that only a rare few possess, my wide-eyed reverence for Gahan ranked right up there with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Nicks, the other anointed objects of my musical affection at the time.
My glorification of Gahan wasn’t the primary reason that I instantly embraced Depeche Mode without reservation, however. Mind you, though he would likely never admit to being the most technically gifted vocalist by any stretch of the imagination, Gahan’s commanding and emotive voice was certainly a big part of the group’s appeal. But what hooked me right from the get-go was the foursome’s dense, dark, and unmistakably melodic electro-fueled sound, coupled with Gore’s masterfully evocative and incisive songwriting.
“We’ve got this real problem in England, where people think that we’re totally doomy and pessimistic, which is just not true,” Gore insisted in a 1986 interview. “A few people have said it in interviews, a few people have said it on the radio and television, and everybody seems to believe it. But, ya know, we’re happy people.” And the band’s distinctive, generally upbeat brand of computerized synth-pop across their first four albums, perhaps best exemplified by the hit single “Just Can’t Get Enough” from their 1981 debut album Speak & Spell, seemed to reinforce this latter point. Three years later, “People are People” from 1984’s Some Great Reward helped Depeche Mode finally break through to an international audience, as until then, they had been primarily embraced by European audiences. Expectations for an even bigger global splash with their next album were inevitable as a result, and amidst the intensifying pressure for the band to deliver, few people ever imagined that they would explore a different sonic and thematic direction altogether.
Recorded in Berlin and London with production duties managed by the band, Gareth Jones, and Mute Records founder Daniel Miller, the considerably more solemn Black Celebration represented Depeche Mode’s revolt against the glossier, less substantive pop music they had crafted to date. “The mood of the album is the mood of the band at the time,” Jones explained in a 2007 film documentary about the making of the album. “And they were becoming more intense. Everyone, I suppose, was grappling with deeper, darker issues, and maturing. That’s reflected in the way we made it and the way it turned out.”
Not surprisingly, considering the traditional antagonism between artists’ and corporations’ visions for success, the group’s evolved vision and songcraft were initially met with skepticism by record executives, including Miller, who claimed upon initial listen to the early album demos that potential hit records were nowhere to be found. Despite the early resistance from those around them, however, the band carried on in their commitment to making the album they were determined to make, while increasingly defining their music in opposition to the mainstream fluff plaguing the charts. “I can’t stand bland, textured music,” Gahan declared to No. 1 magazine a month before Black Celebration’s release, “No one goes out on a limb. Glammy pop bores me silly. Obviously I won’t name [bands] because I hate everything in the charts. I ignore it.” His bandmate Gore echoed his sentiments in a 1987 interview, stating that “I think it’s far more interesting to write about things that are not so pleasant. I think I find more inspiration in less pleasant things. I think there’s too much niceness in the charts.”
Black Celebration’s atmospheric soundscapes, replete with unorthodox flourishes and inventive samples (most notably, the mix of motorcycle, car engine and fireworks samples on lead single “Stripped”), are more grandiose and foreboding than any previous Depeche Mode album, to be sure. But upon closer listen to Gore’s laconic, cogently constructed lyrics, the album’s penchant for gloomy fatalism is not nearly as pronounced as some have claimed it to be. In fact, there are quite a few sanguine moments of hope and romance peppered throughout, and not just within the gentle ballads that Gore lends lead vocals to (“A Question of Lust,” “Sometimes,” “World Full of Nothing”), which makes for a much more balanced tone than the album is usually given credit for.
The initial evidence of this equilibrium appears in the opening title track, which begins with an opaquely ominous arrangement that crescendos toward a propulsive, percussive rhythm by the two-minute mark. A yearning Gahan acknowledges life’s darker dimensions throughout the track, but also proclaims that solace can be found in the redemptive support of another, as he pleads “Can't you see / Your optimistic eyes / Seem like paradise / To someone like me.”
Even more austere is the song that follows, “Fly on the Windscreen,” which harkens back to the industrial-pop fusion heard on the band’s earlier records. The morbid opening lines claim that “death is everywhere” with subsequent references to “lambs for the slaughter” and of course, “flies on the windscreen.” And yet, the song’s chorus (“Come here, touch me / Kiss me, touch me now”) implies that a lover’s embrace offers escapism from the death & destruction that inevitably surrounds us, and suggests that no matter how bleak the world can be, making the most of life and love is imperative for our sanity and survival. The sentiment is revisited, albeit minus the pervasive allusions to death, later on the album with “Here is the House,” an earnest ballad about the sanctity of love and companionship.
The aforementioned compositions that showcase the coupling of Gore’s lead vocals and meditative lyrics are unequivocal highlights, lending Black Celebration a fair amount of fragility and tenderness among its harder edges. The second single released from the album, the introspective “A Question of Lust” examines the complexities of vulnerability and trust in navigating matters of the heart. Clocking in at just shy of two minutes and an extension of the stripped-down “Somebody” from Some Great Reward, the minimalist, piano-driven confessional “Sometimes” finds a humble Gore looking deep within himself and admitting that he falls short as a partner. In the plaintive “World Full of Nothing,” Gore alludes to the significance—or lack thereof—of one’s first sexual experience, offering the repeated refrain “Though it’s not love, it means something.”
Provocative third single “A Question of Time” is arguably Black Celebration’s most subversive song, one that evokes Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1955 novel Lolita, as it explores a man’s desire to safeguard the innocence of a 15 year-old girl from the predatory ways of men. Across the song’s opening verse, I can’t fault the listener for wanting to empathize with his seemingly noble endeavor. But as the song unfolds, it’s never quite clear if he is more or less dangerous than the other men he condemns, as he confesses “I know my kind / What goes on in our minds.”
Despite “Stripped” being a modestly charting lead single in Europe, the band’s US label, Sire, opted instead to release the conspicuously poppier “But Not for Tonight” as the first single in the States, in conjunction with its appearance in the forgettable 1986 film Modern Girls. Despite Sire’s selection for the first single failing to chart stateside and vehement opposition from the band themselves, the label included it as the bonus twelfth cut on US versions of the album. Ironically, “Stripped” appeared three years later on the soundtrack to the unforgettable 1989 film Say Anything. No matter, as the sonically gripping song is arguably Black Celebration’s finest and most poignant moment, with Gahan demanding to see his partner “stripped down to the bone,” a metaphor for revealing one’s true identity by fleeing our corruptive, quasi-Orwellian society dominated by the media and returning to a simpler way of life, far removed from civilization. The song’s anti-media references surface again on “New Dress,” which laments how the misguided, celebrity-obsessed media manipulates people’s minds by focusing on more mundane events (“Princess Di is wearing a new dress”), when there are far more serious issues to confront in the world.
One of the most prolific and beloved bands with one of the most devoted fan bases across the past thirty-five years, Depeche Mode has always been—and will likely always be—a class act. Black Celebration transformed me into a lifelong fan, and it’s one of those cherished few LPs in my collection that I know I simply can’t live without. Though Violator (1990) is also one of my all-time favorite albums, and I thoroughly enjoy Music for the Masses (1987), Ultra (1997), and the most recent Delta Machine (2013), Black Celebration remains the most indispensable Depeche Mode album in my, and I suspect many others’, book.