PERMANENT RECORDS: LITTLE 15
[NOTE: Next week's installment of Permanent Records will not be posted on Friday, but instead will be held until Sunday, 6/18, for reasons that will become apparent.]
Permanent Records is a year-long project. Each Friday (or thereabouts), I will post a new entry about one specific album, chosen due to its significance to myself as a fan. Though the list is numbered, a particular record's placement should not be considered a ranking. There will be 52 albums in all.
30. DEPECHE MODE - MUSIC FOR THE MASSES (1987)
Personnel: Dave Gahan, Martin L. Gore, Andrew Fletcher, Alan Wilder
Producer: Depeche Mode & David Bascombe/ Label: Sire/Mute
Every Depeche Mode fan has heard all the jokes. And I mean it. All of them.
We know what the detractors say, about how the band is dark and depressing, yadda yadda yadda, and we also know that you people just don't get it. There's actually a scene about this in the second Love the Way You Love, though it's a discussion of the Smiths. Tristan goes in for the attack when his arch rival makes a snide comment about wanting to slit your wrists when you listen to a Morrissey record. Tristan's more than happy to set this dumbbell straight as the soulless twit he is.
Which isn't what I've set out to do here, to convince you that Depeche Mode is really a happy band, all you need do is look beneath the surface. No, this is what we call a preamble. I'm leading up to my real point. That being...
Yes, Depeche Mode is a dark band. Yes, they concern themselves with heavy things. It's all love and sex and death and religion. So, isn't it funny that I came to the band in a rowdy, joyous fashion?
I had known about Depeche Mode for several years, but they had only been that "People Are People" band. Unfortunately, when my time would have come to discover they were more than that, I moved from the San Fernando Valley in Southern California to the more remote Mojave Desert. Had we moved just a few miles back over the mountain, I'd have still had access to Los Angeles radio stations, and my musical development would not have become stunted. I was thirteen, and easy access to new tunes had been cut off. Thus, until I was old enough to work so that I'd have more money--money I was becoming less interested in spending on comics--musical discoveries happened slowly.
I was 15 when Music for the Masses came out. I had some friends who lived down in Thousand Oaks, one of the endless lines of suburbs that grew like mold around Los Angeles, reaching out in all directions. If you faced the ocean, you had three choices: left was Orange County (and no one, not ever, called it the goddamn O.C.), behind you was where I lived, and to the right was Thousand Oaks. I would get my dad to drive me down there when I could. It was an escape, a place I could get into endless trouble. My Thousand Oaks friends were the friends who got me drunk for the first time (I think only a couple of days after the events I am about to relate). It's where I ended up sprawled on the hood of a cop car because I was sporting a fake beard and bandana and carrying a plastic Uzi for a silly drive-by shooting movie we were making. Turns out, that's illegal. Thousand Oaks was where I had my first date, stupidly selling my twelve-inch Macross transformable plane so I could buy the girl a bracelet. Too bad she got all serious on my little boy ass and demanded I go to her church the next day to meet her friends. I refused, we broke up, and I learned a valuable lesson about Catholic girls.
Thousand Oaks is where I climbed into my friend Jeff's red Suzuki Samurai with three other guys and a bucket full of water balloons. Jeff had just bought a cassette of Music for the Masses. By the end of that night, I'd have heard it five or six times in a row, with special emphasis placed on the singles. "Behind the Wheel" and "Never Let Me Down Again" ("I'm taking a ride with my best friend") were particularly apropos for a night of tearing shit up in a buddy's car.
Actually, we had started listening to it back at Rico's house, playing it on a boom box while we messed around in his pool and hot tub. (Rico sometimes reads this. Hey, Rico!) Rico's house was where I always stayed. He had my dad fooled into thinking he was a good kid, just like I had his parents fooled into thinking I was, too. And essentially, we were. We did very little that was truly rotten. It was all mainly mischief. The worst thing we did that night, for instance, was try the vodka his dad had left out by the barbeque when no one was looking. To a man, we all spit it out immediately. One guy, I think Jeff, spit onto the fire and it exploded. "Why did people drink something that was flammable?" We just couldn't understand.
By the time we were in the car, I was already digging Depeche Mode. They were not the band I had expected them to be. There was "Strangelove" with its chants of "Pain, will you return it?" and the religiosity of "Sacred" and those weird sucking sounds on "I Want You Now." Like a lot of the other bands I was starting to get into around then, something struck me about them, that they were different, that this was somehow outside what the other kids were listening to. It was music I would probably want to hide from my father because he might think it's too bizarre, while secretly wanting to play it for him on the off-chance he would say, "Wow, that stuff is really smart. You're smart. Why was it that your sister listened to such crap?" That would be vindication. It was my sister's odd choices of what she would play in the car that had made me cautious. I remember the night she put on James Taylor of all things, and there was some song full of sexual double entendres about being a steam roller and other rather coarse metaphors, and at one point Sweet Baby James dropped the F-bomb, and whoaaaaa, look out! If it was going to be dirty, it had to be cacophonous so that his old man ears would not be able to translate. How many times had I played the first Beastie Boys record and him never catch on to how filthy it was?
Anyway, that's a huge digression.
It's a Friday night and you have four teenage boys feeding off each other's testosterone in the back of a jeep convertible with Music for the Masses blaring and, as I said, buckets full of water balloons. I don't know whose idea it was, but we were going to go out that night and we were going to throw water balloons at people on the street. That, dear reader, is unparalleled fun. Any time you can slam unsuspecting people with water, it's fun. In junior high, when I still lived with my mom, there was a BB hole in my window. (There were similar holes in windows all over the neighborhood. Legend had it some dude had gone crazy and went around shooting everything with his BB gun.) I had a syringe my dad had bought for his horses, and it's nose was just the right size to fit through the hole. I could spend all night squirting people on the street from my second story vantage. Later, when I was driving myself, I turned the windshield cleaning nozzles sideways so I could spray pedestrians and cars as I passed. I also swerved quite often to hit puddles and douse people on the curb.
Let me tell you. It never stopped being funny. None of it.
We were amped to go out and blast some people with balloons. Our initial efforts were slightly frustrated by the learning curve. Our brains had not yet comprehended certain scientific notions about throwing an object from a moving vehicle, and so we had to figure out when it was best to fire. As the night and supplies were dwindling, we had achieved very little success. There had been one direct hit on a suburban street, with Rico landing a balloon dead center on some guy's windshield, but when he stopped and was turning around to chase us, we had to park in a darkened cul-de-sac and hide in the bushes a little while. That was our second lesson: hit people who can't come after you.
Our enthusiasm would have likely waned had it not been for Music for the Masses. It never stopped being exciting when Jeff would crank it when one of the singles came on. They were louder songs to begin with, outlined in big noise. "The Things You Said" also became a big favorite, its sparse melody soundtracking passing urban mini-mall landscapes perfectly. I could see the world like I was in the credits of some cop movie, looking for skells on my nightly beat, the song playing over a montage of brick walls and grafitti. "Pleasure, Little Treasure" had a beat you wanted to put your shoulders into. Its odd mix of Gahan's low growl and Gore's exaggerated falsetto, and the lyrics about living now because this exact moment was the only true thing, made it seem like we were free and capable of anything.
It was noted that we only had a couple of balloons left. Basically, enough for one shot each. This would be our last chance. We had to make it count. I was in the shotgun position at that point, and I spotted an intersection full of people up ahead. "Crosswalk!" I shouted. "Crosswalk!"
Everyone was at the ready. As Jeff went through the light, we began to throw. I was one of the first two, hitting one person while whoever else had lobbed their balloon had hit another. We were scoring! Only, our big target had not yet been reached.
Beyond the two pedestrians we had beaned, there was a kid with a big afro lazily biking in the direction coming towards us. I don't quite understand now how this all worked out, because really, we hadn't that much time to get across the street. Maybe the first two hits were on the sidewalk before the intersection, I don't know. It was just one of those moments where time slowed down. They say fighter pilots and exceptional athletes have this ability to function in an altered speed. It looks fast to the observer, but within their mind, they are performing complex actions in what feels to them like a very normal, unrushed space.
We had entered that space. "Sitting target/ Sitting waiting/ Anticipating/ Nothing."
Having realized that I was out of the final attack unless I got my hands on something, I turned around to the back seat and grabbed the bucket. It had no balloons, of course, but there was a layer of water at the bottom of it, the residue of busted bombs. It was mine now.
In the intersection, we met the bicyclist in the middle. He was illuminated in the headlights of the traffic waiting at the stop signal. Time was still at a crawl as I heaved the water from the bucket. It cascaded over him, exploding into tiny droplets that lit up like fireworks in the headlights. As my tsunami drenched him, I saw the final balloons enter his airspace. First one hit him in the torso, then the second was a direct shot to his head. A trifecta!
Needless to say, we all about died laughing. Victory had been ours. Jeff drove us back to Rico's place, and we all went upstairs to bask in our glory. We called another friend, Frank--whose house was the one we would end up getting drunk at--and told him what we had done. His response was lame. "How could you do that?" he asked. "What's that guy going to tell his father when he gets home?" Frank's reward for being a buzzkill was us waiting outside his house and nailing him with a couple of balloons to his body. We'd let him explain it to his dad and inform us how it went.
That night, I walked away with a new set of cruel little-boy memories. I also walked away with a new obsession. I would have to have my own copy of Music for the Masses so I could listen to it back up in Quartz Hill and remember what life was like down in civilization. Soon, other Depeche Mode albums would follow. Some Great Reward was probably second, and then somewhere along the way, the greatest of them all, Black Celebration. I would ditch class in my senior year of high school to buy Violator when the store opened on its day of release, getting back in time for lunch and being the only kid on campus to have it. It would later become the bonding album for Mason and Laine in Cut My Hair, that's how important Depeche Mode would become. They even show up again to bring another loving couple together in Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?
It was Music for the Masses that did it, though. And not via some sad boys sitting around and feeling sorry for themselves, but some rowdy teens out having an indecently good time. As the song suggested, we wanted the feeling to go on forever.
"We're flying high
We're watching the world pass us by
Never want to come down
Never want to put my feet back down
On the ground."
NOTABLE B-SIDES: There were lots of good tracks hidden on the backs of the four Music for the Masses singles, but the most unconventional were the two songs released on the most obscure of them, "Little 15." They were solo piano pieces, one written by Martin Gore and one by Ludwig Beethoven. The former was called "Stjarna" on the original vinyl, and later printed as "St Jarna" on the CD. The original is likely what was intended, it's the Swedish word for "star." It's a soft piece with gently climbing scales, with subtle effects in the background (a triangle? xylophone?). It's construction is similar to the Beethoven selection, "Sonata No.14 in C#m (Moonlight Sonata," played here with no added adornment (probably by Alan Wilder). Both are exercises in repetition, layering on simple melodies that build as they progress. At that age, I knew nothing of classical music, and in a way, these B-sides opened a door, teaching me something about the beauty that was possible in more traditional forms.
* Yes, I did just mix my Pet Shop Boys with my Depeche Mode, trainspotter.
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Current Soundtrack: Depeche Mode, "Suffer Well/The Darkest Star/Better Days" remixes
Current Mood: disappointed
[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2006 Jamie S. Rich