Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Depeche Mode: Monument'

by

'Depeche Mode: Monument' chronicles four decades.
'Depeche Mode: Monument' chronicles four decades. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

If there's an old-school electropop fan on your holiday shopping list, the new coffee-table book Depeche Mode: Monument will make the perfect gift...but depending on how sturdy their furniture is, you might also need to get them a new coffee table. Weighing in at five pounds, the glossy 420-page tome comfortably claims to be "the most complete book on Depeche Mode. Ever."

It's not a book for the casual fan, who might get to "People Are People" and wonder what can possibly be on the remaining 327 pages. The answer, largely, is a near-exhaustive visual inventory of the band's singles and albums as variously issued in the U.K., the U.S., and Germany. You've been looking for images of the A-side and B-side labels for each of the three promo remix samplers Depeche Mode issued in late 2004? My friend, this is the book for you.

The book isn't exactly an official Depeche Mode offering, but it was assembled with the blessing and cooperation of Mute, the band's longtime label and one with whom they've had such a tight relationship that they didn't even have a proper manager until the 1990s. It's co-authored by music writer Sascha Lange and Dennis Burmeister, whose personal collection of Depeche Mode memorabilia runs to "several thousand items."

Burmeister's collection is the basis for most of the book's copious images, supplemented with archival photographs, some never before published. The collector hails from East Germany, so German-language items are particularly well-represented — apt, given the British band's longtime relationship with Germany, which dates back to the early '80s. An chapter called "Behind the Wall" details just how deeply Depeche Mode's music and designs (strongly influenced by socialist imagery) resonated with East German fans, and how thrilling it was when the band finally played East Berlin in 1988, a year and a half before the Wall fell.

The text of the book tells the story of Depeche Mode, but in a fairly dry style that doesn't delve too deeply into the band's life either in or out of the studio. Even singer Dave Gahan's 1995 suicide attempt isn't mentioned until near the end of the book. Burmeister and Lange track the resignation of Vince Clarke (who wrote nearly the entirety of the band's 1981 debut album Speak & Spell) and the on-again off-again contributions of Clarke's replacement Alan Wilder, but the curtain around the actual creation of the band's music largely remains drawn.

While Monument will be both too much and too little for the casual fan, it's a bonanza for the serious Depeche Mode lover...of whom there are many. As the authors note, Depeche Mode have maintained a particularly ardent fan base both through their musical integrity and through their prescient development of an "Information Service," run from the band's earliest days by the band members' girlfriends. For fans who've spent the past four decades cherishing their holiday flexi-discs and issues of Bong (the official fanzine), Monument will be like the Sears Wish Book.

(Every Depeche Mode single since 1982, we learn, has been given a consecutive "BONG" number that's visible on the label. Why? "'Having a bong,' Australian slang for smoking hashish, was a phrase that Martin [Gore] stumbled across in a magazine and found so funny.")

Beyond big fans, another group of readers who might take interest in Monument are aficionados of graphic design. It's no coincidence that Burmeister works in design, which has helped to fuel his interest in the band. Each of the group's 14 studio albums has its own distinctive visual look, adapted for ancillary releases — from the shrink-wrapped swan of Speak & Spell to the minimalist floral motif of Enjoy the Silence (1990) to the smudged lettering of their most recent release, Spirit (2017).

They've had a long relationship with the artist Anton Corbijn, whose moody photography and videography has proved the perfect complement to the band's bleak but accessible musical aesthetic. In addition to their copious studio releases, the band have also released piles of live albums, compilations, and music videos. Notably, they were one of the first bands to demonstrate the power of the remix release to keep their music fresh and introduce it to new audiences. That's a lot of product.

Despite the fact that the band didn't sign to a major label until 2012 (they're now on Columbia, although they continue to work closely with Mute founder Daniel Miller), they've somehow found the marketing budget for some remarkable promotional items, which make for the most fun images in Monument. Some highlights: a handheld mirror for their 1982 single "See You," a cassette in a soda can for a 1984 promotional sampler ("FOR EMERGENCY SURVIVAL ONLY," the stencil-print label reads), an incense burner to promote 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion.

Martin Gore wrote the band's 1989 hit "Personal Jesus" about Elvis, not Christ, but that didn't stop Johnny Cash from interpreting it in his own way when the Man in Black covered the song in 2002. "That's probably the most evangelical gospel song I ever recorded," said Cash in an interview quoted in Monument. "I don't know that the writer meant it to be that, but that's what it is."

Monument may not be the Bible of Depeche Mode, but if you're a fan, it will certainly inspire plenty more love and devotion.


comments powered by Disqus