I remember Christmas 1992 for one thing more than any other: it was the year that some guys came to attach a satellite dish to the front of our house, just to the left of my bedroom window. It seems quaint now, in the age of set-top boxes, EPGs and I-players, but back then it was a bold step into the broadcasting future. It heralded the increasing globalisation of communications (or at least, it revived my Dad’s interest in foreign languages, with its raft of tacky Italian game shows and German arts programmes). But for me, it was mainly thrilling because I got to see MTV for the first time.
MTV in 1993? Well, there was a lot of REM. This may have had something to do with my early love of that band: all those doomy black and white videos from the Automatic for the people era (‘Drive’, ‘Man on the moon’). There was David Bowie, with his new, gleaming dentistry and tailored suit (the unjustly forgotten ‘Jump they say’). And then there was a Depeche Mode special, timed to coincide with the release of their new album, Songs of Faith and Devotion. The lead single was ‘I feel you’. Another black and white video (my, were they popular in the 1990s – I blame Madonna’s ‘Vogue’). I found it all a little scary, truth be told. Up to that point, the only Depeche Mode I’d heard was their dizzy 1981 hit ‘Just can’t get enough’; ‘I feel you’ was clanking, grinding and dirty, and I couldn’t square the bubblegum with the blood. Dave Gahan was doing Bono on smack; a personal Jesus with track-lines for stigmata. But the MTV special introduced me to the back catalogue that got him there: neoclassical gloom on ‘Little 15’, mulleted S & M on ‘Master and servant’, the sound of yuppies converting warehouses into penthouses (‘Everything counts’, probably the first industrial pop record to reach the UK Top 10). The one that got me in the chest though? Probably an easy guess; it’s the song that even professed Mode-haters grudgingly admit to liking. You know – the one with the king and the deckchair.
Anton Corbijn’s video for ‘Enjoy the silence’ is one of the very finest, I think; it’s safe to say this now that videos appear to have reverted to the ‘let’s put a singer in a room with dancers’ model. The scenario is very simple. Dave is a monarch, crowned and gowned, travelling the world with a fold-up seat under his arm. He has everything that anyone might covet – jewels, status, underlings (we imagine) – but all he wants is a quiet place to sit and watch the world in peace. We see him on the Portuguese Coast, watching the waves; in the Scottish Highlands, surveying a loch; traversing the Alps, a speck of regal red in the snow. It’s beautifully directed, and beautifully shot: saturated colours are interspersed with monochrome group shots, accenting the light / dark dynamics of the song, while also inferring that if being in a band is a bed of roses, it’s one in which thorns lurk. It’s clever too. King Dave only mimes one line of the lyric: ‘Words are very unnecessary, they can only do harm’, a double irony when you realise that the mountains and cliffs can’t listen or answer back.
You’ll find another ‘Enjoy the silence’ video on Youtube, a lip-synched rendition from the top of the World Trade Centre. The implications of this in 2011 are vast, of course, though irrelevant to Depeche Mode in 1990. Back then, the Twin Towers performance signalled their true American breakthrough, the point at which they became beloved of misfit Europhiles the States over; indeed, ‘Enjoy the silence’ remains their only top ten hit on the other side of the Atlantic. The WTC video is a variation on the Corbijn theme. Both videos confront the sublime – that point at which the power of one’s surroundings creates a sense of dumbstruck awe – and seem to confirm that this is the song’s message. When you look at it like that, it could almost have been written by Wordsworth or Coleridge. Almost.
It’s borne out by many of the other songs on Violator, a record so good that Neil Tennant recalls being ‘deeply jealous of it’. Its key songs grapple with being a small thing in a big world, and try to cut that world down to size, try like William Blake to see eternity in a grain of sand. On the first track, Dave Gahan offers to ‘take you on a trip’, to show you ‘the world in [his] eyes’; on the epic, orchestrated electro-rock of ‘Halo’ (a truly gorgeous, wondrous thing it is too), he’s almost beckoning civilisation to collapse, willing himself into the paradox of feeling so small he’s huge; in ‘Personal Jesus’, we get a domesticated messiah, the sublime reincarnated in ‘flesh and bone by the telephone’ (though the irresistible swagger of the record hints at the Mode to come). Martin Gore’s lyrics excel at these tensions, these little clashes of ego and id. They’re not always subtle, but they have extraordinary power. It’s something that Dave Gahan himself has learnt, in his own belated songwriting; in my opinion, their best track of recent times is his own ‘Suffer Well’, so typically titled it might be a self-parody, but so expertly written and elegantly produced that it winds up being Depeche in excelsis.
Still, it doesn’t quite measure up to ‘Enjoy the silence’s strength and soul. It’s a record that contradicts itself again and again, is about contradiction. If you want to enjoy silence, you don’t write a song about it, least of all one which is so great it demands you hit repeat after every listen. It’s big, beauteous, blessed music, which in 1990 silenced the band’s numerous critics, the hacks who thought Depeche Mode couldn’t write from the heart or were incapable of melody. The most contradictory thing of all, though, is the music itself. ‘Enjoy the silence’ comes from the New Order school of disco – electro-pop so melancholic that you just want to sway to it with your eyes closed. I wonder if those who took ecstasy to it in 1990 wept tears of joy as it stormed the floors; the pill has never passed my lips, but this song still makes me want to hug someone close amongst a sea of dancers. The verses pivot around a jolt: that first chord, C minor, rubs up against E flat minor, which is no friend, and you feel that ‘violence’ is indeed in the air. There’s trouble brewing, but the chorus works a little alchemy and brings the E flat major right on time for the word ‘arms’. You sink into security, fall into an embrace; the person you thought was going to nut you has ended up offering you a shoulder to cry on. This surprise never leaves the music; believe me, I’ve listened to it obsessively for years and that frown always creases into a smile. Nevertheless, the song never feels safe. It depends on friction; the grain of that sad, plaintive guitar hook against the silk of Flood’s elegant production, or that other unexpected chord, that leaves the song in alien territory on the word ‘harm’.
These are similar qualities to many of the songs I’ve lauded on this blog, but ‘Enjoy the silence’ moves me in a different way to The Supremes, or Robyn, or Rufus Wainwright. It’s not just the chord structure or the sheer beauty of the sound that gets me where it matters. It’s the fact that this is a record sung by a heterosexual male which acknowledges the difficulty of being just that; a man who, like many, finds it hard to express himself, but in expressing this reaches a level of perfect eloquence. It’s a track that blurs the edges too. Dave Gahan’s dramatic baritone, one of the richest and manliest in pop, is complimented in the chorus by Martin Gore’s limpid, even slightly effeminate falsetto, a shiver-inducing little accent. It’s then that you realise he isn’t playing the straight male pig, but baring his soul, and trying to welcome the feminine in. Though his renditions are rather sweaty and breathless these days, to watch Gahan singing the song live at his prime is to see this embrace of vulnerability in action. He’s an undeniably handsome man, but except in his druggier days, a surprisingly shy, circumspect one. Forgive a sentimental queen like me for finding this almost claustrophobically sexy; yet another contradiction, given that the song is so expansive and cinematic.
‘Enjoy the silence’ is about escaping to the wilderness with the one you love; or dancing in a club where the music is so loud you can’t hear or speak; or being a working-class lad from Essex struggling with your sensitivity. As you can probably tell, I can’t really do justice to all that the song means to me. It’s fitting really; ‘feelings are intense, words are trivia’. If you want any further explanation, silence me. Stick on Violator instead, and enjoy the sensations that words can’t voice.