Opinions can be divided on tribute acts, but they can be perfectly valid when the act being paid tribute to no longer exists.
For many years, BJORN AGAIN rode on the wave of the ABBA revival with their good-humoured but authentic take on the Swedish fab four.
Meanwhile, with PINK FLOYD in touring hiatus since 1996, THE AUSTRALIAN PINK FLOYD SHOW has played the world’s arenas with an audio/visual spectacular worthy of the real thing.
But what if the band still exists, what then? SPEAK & SPELL are one of the best known of the many DEPECHE MODE tributes around the world. Often playing fan events in Europe, with their renditions of Da Mode’s hits and fan favourites, they have acquired a fan base of their own by recreating the classic three synths and a front man line-up that existed prior to DEPECHE MODE’s pseudo rock album ‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’.
But in 2013 when ‘Delta Machine’ was released, SPEAK & SPELL got into a strange arms race to play songs such as ‘Heaven’ and ‘Soothe My Soul’ before the real Depeche… this was a trifle pointless and SPEAK & SPELL quickly realised that.
They soon understood their strengths lay in taking Devotees back to DEPECHE MODE’s imperial phase between 1981 to 1990.
This meant doing material that Gahan, Gore and Fletcher no longer touch live, or have now ruined with plodding intros (‘Personal Jesus’), numbskull drum solos (‘Enjoy The Silence’) or tedious grunge workouts (‘In Your Room’).
Following the success of their appearance at TEC003 playing the debut DM album ‘Speak And Spell’ in its entirety using analogue synths and a reel-to-reel tape machine, SPEAK & SPELL premiered their ‘Violator’ showcase at a packed London O2 Islington Academy. The show had actually been upgraded from the smaller upstairs room, thus affirming the kudos and affection held for DM’s seventh long player. With 2015 being the #Violator25 anniversary, any remotely astute DEPECHE MODE fan event organiser should have been in the queue to get SPEAK & SPELL to perform this iconic album; and it was indie club night ‘Feeling Gloomy’ who managed to secure this first ‘Violator’ show.
But why is ‘Violator so important and highly celebrated? It is still DEPECHE MODE’s most complete and accomplished body of work.
Although much has been made of the prominent guitar on the album, former member Alan Wilder told TEC in 2014 that “‘Violator’ is still a very electronic album when you listen to it now, and its less electronic elements, rather than derived from stadium experiences, were mainly influenced by the wave of hip hop and rap music which permeated the scene at that time”.
Indeed, a Roland System 700 modular synth took centre stage alongside a sample blend sourced from hip-hop, rock and classical music which was particularly evident on the song ‘Halo’.
‘Violator’ was the classic line-up of Andy Fletcher, Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Alan Wilder firing on all cylinders, with the quartet at their most happiest as a unit. The end result was four hit singles and five other songs that were more or less equal. The seamless second side with its instrumental interludes added tension and experimentation to proceedings while Martin Gore’s lyrics possessed an honesty that while dark and deviant, still retained a naïve innocence that many loners could relate to.
Additionally, with no officially filmed document of that album’s tour ever having been released, that 1990 live jaunt has fallen into legend, firmly engrained in the memories of those there who still talk in awe of Anton Corbijn’s complimentary visuals and Dave Gahan’s increasingly confident and exaggerated stage presence to suit the bigger venues.
Playing the gig in the original running order, ‘World In My Eyes’ of course opened with its driving sub-Kling Klang beat, chopping stabs and shrill string pads. This club friendly fusion of New York electro and Detroit house was the prefect introduction to proceedings.
With ‘Personal Jesus’, ‘Policy Of Truth’ and Enjoy The Silence all being stalwarts in the regular SPEAK & SPELL set, the well-disciplined tightness of instrumentalists Joe Beaumont, Simon Forsyth and Keith Trigwell playing along to the programmed percussion templates really shone through… well, it did until a few bum notes on Joe Beaumont’s Gretsch guitar meant the famous six string riff sounded awry, but the man persisted and the right melody was eventually found to cheers from the crowd.
That small error aside, what SPEAK & SPELL particularly pulled off well was their interpretations of the album’s textures that in many cases sounded close to the originals. But the foursome added their own spins, particularly with lead singer Paul Christian Wood and his good humoured Dave Gahan impersonations. Tribute bands often work best when assisted by alcoholic refreshment and anyone in the audience who may have had a few too many Vimtos would have occasionally done a double take at the realism of Woods’ vocal and stage performances.
‘Halo’ was done properly, rhythmically and powerfully with the distinctive synthbass squelch, and not as the sparse, unfulfilled number it was reduced to during its 2013 live incarnation by The Real Depeche.
The screeching symphonic string samples hit home as the song built to its terrific, euphoric climax. The two Gore voiced 6/8 ballads ‘Sweetest Perfection’ and ‘Blue Dress’ had been played occasionally on the ‘Violator’ tour but always acoustically. So tonight was the first time these songs had been performed live in an electronic based format.
While ‘Sweetest Perfection’ has emerged as a fan favourite over the years, the emotive if strange ‘Blue Dress’ is possibly the most under rated song in the DEPECHE MODE catalogue. The simple guilty pleasure of watching your girlfriend get ready for an evening out was wonderful conveyed by Joe Beaumont, the plea of “put it on” connecting with all those present.
The marvellous take on ‘Waiting for The Night’ complete with its spacey sequencer, erased memories of the dull bare version that came as part of the DM Receiver app promo for ‘Playing The Angel’.
The hypnotic pulses ironically are the soul of this wonderfully crafted piece that was one of the surprise highlights on the original ‘Violator’ show.
Thankfully, there was no bare rendition of ‘Clean’ either. The bassline appropriated from PINK FLOYD’s ‘One Of These Days’ was faithfully created and the band locked into the right balance of gothic electro and spirited blues. Percussively hard hitting, the haunting atmosphere led to the emotional release that reprised that of the original.
No matter that DEPECHE MODE aired half of ‘Violator’ during the ‘Delta Machine’ tour, time has proved these original album versions are among the definitive arrangements and to hear them in a concert setting again was a pleasure, both artistically and nostalgically. In the absence of DM themselves performing ‘Violator’, this affectionate recreation by SPEAK & SPELL was a worthy alternative mode of celebration.
After a short break, SPEAK & SPELL returned to deliver a set of crowd pleasers like ‘Stripped’, which is often sadly absent from the present day DEPECHE MODE live set, and a take on ‘Behind The Wheel’ free from interference by The Drumhead.
And there was a rendition of the brilliant first B-side ‘Ice Machine’, a song which Dave Gahan is said to have refused to perform on the ‘Delta Machine’ tour (despite the pleas of his band mates) because of its starkly electronic backbone, such is his now overtly rockist stance! What DEPECHE MODE won’t do, SPEAK & SPELL can deliver. And this was notably evident on the concluding song of the evening ‘Never Let Me Down Again’.
Fact… it sounds a hundred times better with the sampled industrialised percussion of the original and SPEAK & SPELL’s version outstripped DM’s current live rendition which is strangely muted by clumpy drums. As is now also most compulsory at both DEPECHE MODE and SPEAK & SPELL shows, the massed cornfield wave by the crowd provided a fitting finish.
Tonight, with their #Violator25 tribute, SPEAK & SPELL substantiated their position within the DEPECHE MODE fan community and proved themselves ready to step up in the tribute band stakes.
So roll on a showcase for the ‘Black Celebration’, especially as any level headed DEPECHE MODE fan would prefer to hear the title song without the rotten infestations of Christian Eigner, and the beautiful ‘It Doesn’t Matter Two’ with its distinctive staccato voice samples, free of ivory noodling from Peter Gordeno. With DEPECHE MODE effectively no longer being an electronic band, SPEAK & SPELL now are an ideal live substitute for that memorable era.
SPEAK & SPELL play their ‘Violator’ showcase at Støperiet Scene, Tønsberg in Norway on Saturday 2nd May 2015
‘Halo’, the book by Kevin May tracing the story behind DEPECHE MODE’s classic album ‘Violator’ is due for publication in 2015. Please visit http://halotheviolatorbook.com/ for more details
Text by Chi Ming Lai
Photos by Nigel Jepson at www.jepsonphotography.co.uk
28th April 2015