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101: How Depeche Mode’s live album captured their legendary Rose Bowl show

In this exclusive extract from Mary Valle’s 33 1/3 book on Depeche Mode’s 101, she tells the story of how these Boys From Basildon triumphed at the Rose Bowl

By Mary Valle

Depeche Mode. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“We have Depeche Mode, and I’m just going to describe that they are all wearing black leather,” says Richard Blade, broadcasting live on KROQ from the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

Blade, an expatriate Brit and popular DJ at the influential “alternative” FM station, is DM’s No. 1 stateside fan and booster.

It’s a cool April morning in 1988. DM—an British electronic band composed of singer Dave Gahan, songwriter Martin Gore, sound wizard and classically trained musician Alan Wilder, and utility player, the late Andy “Fletch” Fletcher, clad in black leather biker jackets, are riding onto the Rose Bowl’s field in a vintage Cadillac. Like many rock band-related affairs, it’s a bit ludicrous and “Spinal Tap”-esque. The open-air Caddy gives them the air of a touring cast of “Grease” in a small-town Fourth of July parade, but there aren’t any townsfolk on hand to wave to the singing greasers. Touchingly, Blade is beaming with pride in the accomplishments of his “boys from Basildon.”

The boys are here to announce their upcoming KROQ hosted “A Concert for the Masses,” the 101st and final concert of their world tour supporting Music for the Masses, DM’s sixth studio album. It’s a significant risk: the band lacks traditional markers of popularity such as high album sales, hit singles, and critical acclaim, and has topped out American concert attendance at around 20,000. DM’s avid SoCal fan base, fueled by KROQ’s dedicated support, turns out in droves. 65,000 souls reported for duty, filling the stadium.

Alan Wilder the group’s musical wizard, steps up to a microphone. He’s sheepish, awkward. His hair is perfectly sculpted.

The other lads are goofing off behind him. They always make Wilder do the things they are embarrassed to do.

There’s some fidgety business with his leather jacket. He’s taken it off and is clutching it awkwardly to his chest. Wilder is usually the literal coolest of the cool—“too cool for Depeche Mode,” joked Gahan on the 101 film commentary—and has the supernatural ability to wear a leather jacket on a roasting summer night, under stadium strength lighting, and remain cucumber-crispy, perfectly coiffed, all “I got this, clowns,” attitude in spades.

Wilder announces that they will have a very special concert, the last of the tour, at the prestigious Rose Bowl and that there will be other bands as well. The Modes are interviewed by various media outlets. Gore says, “Ni hao China, this is Martin Gore from Depeche Mode. I hope you like listening to our music.” Fletcher, the group’s tall, bespectacled, multipurpose utility man, goes long to catch a football and misses.

Two and a half miles away, I was in high school, sporting a pastel-coloured poly-blend uniform dress, undoubtedly zoning out in class.

Roll the Tape

The live album occupies a special place in the taxonomy of rock ‘n roll. It serves several purposes—providing an early or mid-career greatest hits, introducing new fans to the sound. Live albums can animate songs and change a band’s fortunes—think Cheap Trick Live at Budokan or KISS Alive!

The live album, above all, announces in a voice raw and cracked from rocking so hard: We have arrived. There’s a kind of prestige there, a macho demonstration that you can “bring it” in a purely physical way. Hitting drums with sticks, plucking guitar strings—you know, rockingwithout all that candy-ass studio mumbo-jumbo.

Just dudes creating sound by transferring energy from one thing to another right before your eyes and ears.

A live rock album serves as proof of authenticity.

What, then, is a live album made by an electronic band?

DM’s 1989 101 brings another factor to the fore: it’s a thundering stadium-sized assertion that the band are not merely synth-playing milquetoasts; laughable, limpid button-pushers who purvey plink-plonky dirges. 101 insists that DM can and will rock you, no guitars required. 101 also serves as a transitional piece between their dues-paying semi-obscurity (in the United States) to arena-straddling, masterpiece-creating, masses-pleasing chartlords. Providing “banger” versions of their career to date, it’s a peppery intro to their oeuvre. To this day, 101 continues to serve as a starter kit for DM beginners—that is, a literal Depeche Mode 101 class for generations of DM freshpeople.

The band couldn’t have overlooked the live album prestige factor. When announcing “A Concert for the Masses,” where 101 was recorded, band member Wilder noted that the concert, held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, would be the “largest and most prestigious” that the band had yet played.

The concert was hosted by KROQ, a radio station that consciously avoided guitars for most of the 1980s, believing them to reek of dinosaurs and troglodytes—everything KROQ was not.

DM were never shy about using tapes to augment their sound. In early performances, the reel-to-reel, taking the place of a drummer, sat right in the middle of the stage. 101 is also the name of a documentary made by D. A. Pennebaker, which provided some glimpses into DM’s touring life, tailed a busload of fans and culminated at the Rose Bowl show, where the band had two tape machines going (in case one failed). As the lads left the dressing room to go onstage, someone yelled, “Roll the tape!”

I asked Daniel Bukszpan, author of The Encyclopedia of Heavy Metal and The Encyclopedia of New Wave, what makes for a good live album. “My take is that a good live album offers something beyond the songs as we know them already,” he said. I noted that, while DM’s drum tapes don’t allow for “jamming” (a prominent feature of many live albums), the song arrangements are different and more dynamic, and the music that is played live has a different feel than the studio stuff. I added that a few middling tracks become total bangers when they are played live. “A good live album should transform all that is middling to ‘banger’ status.”

By this metric (and any other, frankly), 101 is a great live album.

Ironically, DM’s success helped usher in the era of “alternative rock,” which was about as rockist as it gets, all crunchy guitars, growly vocals, and sweaty, hairy men in indifferent clothing. Indeed, indifferent clothing will themselves catch grunge fever and go all rawk. But more about that later.

The Boys from Basildon

DM began in 1980 with Vince Clarke, Fletcher, Gore, and Gahan, who were first called Composition of Sound. Clarke and Fletcher had done some time in a Christian group called Boys Brigade singing folk tunes and trying to convert people, and Fletcher and Gore attended school together. They had formed a guitar/bass/keyboard trio; after overhearing Gahan singing David Bowie’s “Heroes” he became the singer and the band went electronic. Synths were cheaper and more versatile and allowed them to practice quietly, wearing headphones.3

They are frequently asked, to this day about the meaning of their name. “Depeche Mode” came from something Gahan saw in a French magazine during his tenure as a window dresser. It means something like “fashion bulletin”—that is, it has nothing to do with the contents of the group. They pronounced it Day-pesh-ay Mode at first, for a little extra flair.

The 101 documentary shows the lads backstage in their dressing room. Their flight cases are stencilled on the side “Depeche Mode, Basildon, Essex.” Their short Twitter bio reads “From beginnings in Basildon …” Basildon looms large in the DM legend. Richard Blade, the legendary KROQ jock, always said, “It’s the Boys from Basildon!” every time DM came on, which was often. I never heard him blare “It’s the Boys from Crawley!” every time he played a Cure song. No, DM were always the Boys from Basildon.

Basildon, Essex, was a New Town constructed on the outskirts of London after the Second World War. The new towns were built to house factory workers and serve as catchment zones for people spilling out of London. The New Town plan was part “Let’s make special places for the little people so we can ship them off and get them out of our hair” and part “But seriously? How can we live better? Let’s get radical.” Simon Spence, in Just Can’t Get Enough: The Making of Depeche Mode posits that DM, the first British group not influenced by American blues, may have invented the Basildon blues, “a modern blues born out of a feral heritage and the hopes and dreams for the New Town and the nightmare reality of becoming the capital city of Chavland.” It was where you might get beaten up for wearing nail polish.

Still, Basildon could be a great place to grow-up. There were areas where cars were barred and kids could run around freely. When it was newly built, it had a space-age feeling, with abstract public sculpture and smooth, fresh concrete everywhere. And, because it was in a field of “nothing to do,” young people were inspired to do things to entertain themselves. Things like forming bands, making art, becoming involved in political causes, or, say, Christian youth groups.

DM’s fellow world-beating musical mopers the Cure originated from another new town, Crawley. Lol Tolhurst, who founded the Cure with Robert Smith, said that he thinks the Cure and DM strike a chord with many young American listeners due to the bands emerging from boring suburbs. Paloma Romero, the drummer from the Slits, changed the name of a song called “Drugtown” to “Newtown” as she was thinking of bored young people in places like Milton Keynes9 (which had one of the highest suicide rates in the U.K. in the 1980s) or who “take drugs, drive around fast or beat each other up at football matches.”

Basically, DM were tagged early on in England as being hopelessly uncool and that stuck really, really hard. Sophia Deboick in The Quietus said that Basildon is “a part of England that nobody talks about and which lacks the cache of Joy Division’s Manchester ….” Rank snobbery, in other words.

Basildon was called “Little Moscow on the Thames” by a Conservative government official11 because of its great lashings of concrete and origins in avant-garde thinking, both of which are real plusses in my view.

Basildon, in all its glory, provided the backdrop for what Gahan called “a new kind of band from a new kind of town.”

The Modefather

When Mute Records honcho Daniel Miller was at art school, a guest lecturer, Rob Geesin, who had recorded Pink Floyd, brought a synthesizer and let the students play with it. “That was a really important moment for me,” he said in his book Mute.

In 1978, Miller, then a twenty-seven-year-old film editor living in London with his mother, figured it was now or never if he wanted to make a record. Punk rock was happening and DIY was in, but Miller found the music quite conservative and unimpressive. Relatively cheap synthesizers allowed for homemade recordings; with a second-hand Korg 700S, he wrote and recorded a few songs in his bedroom.

As The Normal, he released his self-produced only single, the landmark “T.V.O.D.” with “Warm Leatherette” on the B-side. Inspired by J. D. Ballard’s “Crash,” in which Miller’s, in an arch, eerie, voice, narrates a tale of a car crash … but a sexy one. Jane Suck, a writer at Sounds Magazine, obtained a test pressing and named it “Single of the Century.

She wasn’t wrong. “Warm Leatherette” is timeless and immaculate. Miller made up the name “Mute Records” and put his mother’s address on the back of the sleeve. People started mailing him music. “Warm Leatherette’s” sleeve design included the use of Letraset—a primitive form of manual typesetting using scratch-off sheets that captured the DIY spirit of the times.

Miller chose a 1931 German typeface that was used for its road signs. Letraset became part of the label’s core identity—it also provided its “walking man” logo, featured on every release.

After Miller met Frank Tovey (who called himself Fad Gadget), an experimental electronic musician, he suggested to Tovey that they put out a single, and voila! With a second artist besides Miller himself, Mute Records was officially born.

Miller didn’t create any more music as The Normal, but he did invent an imaginary band called Silicon Teens, which was, like The Normal, Miller himself. The Teens, who were named Darryl, Jacki, Paul, and Diane (the man is a genius, right?), had a pretend frontman: Fad Gadget. Silicon Teens’ sole album, Music for Parties, hit No. 4 on the U.K. indie chart. Which was respectable, but Miller wanted more. “Although Silicon Teens didn’t exist, our press release claimed that they were the world’s first teenage all-electronic band. That actually hadn’t happened yet. But I knew it was going to happen soon.”

Miller’s real-life silicon teens came to life when he saw DM in October 1980, supporting Fad Gadget. The band consisted of teens (and the almost teen) Clarke, twenty, unemployed; singer Gahan, eighteen, college student/trainee window dresser; and keyboardists Martin Gore, nineteen, bank clerk; and Fletcher, nineteen, insurance clerk. “They had a fanbase with them and their fans weren’t watching the band,” said Miller.

“They were just dancing.”

Miller, impressed by the quality of their songs, introduced himself, asking the Basildon quartet, “Do you fancy doing a single?” They did. The universe’s gears turn in mysterious ways. The Silicon Teens’ first single was a cover of “Memphis, Tennessee” by Chuck Berry.

Really Fucking Rocking

In April 1981, the late Seymour Stein, the legendary co-founder of Sire Records who signed, among others, the Ramones, Talking Heads, the (English) Beat, Madness, the Cure, and Echo & the Bunnymen, was sitting in bed, reading a three-week-old copy of NME. Stein was the A&R human equivalent of the black-footed cat, the world’s deadliest (yet smallest) wildcat. Nocturnal, sure of itself, not a big showy tiger or lion. You’d never see that cat coming until it was too late.

An article caught Stein’s eye about a new band, Depeche Mode, who were being produced by Daniel Miller. Stein thought Miller was brilliant and had extremely good taste.

He had previously acquired The Normal’s single and the Silicon Teens album and released them in the United States. Stein discovered that DM were playing the next day at a nightclub in Essex. He booked an expensive trip on the Concorde, a then-popular supersonic airplane that made it from NYC to London in mere hours. Due to its cost, the glamorous Concorde, with its singular turned-down beak, belonged in the realm of the rich and/or famous. When Boy George needed to get to London from New York to make it to the Band Aid recording session on time, he took t theConcorde.Paul McCartney was known to break out his guitar on flights and play a few tunes. When Phil Collins needed to make it to both Live Aid sites—Concorde was there. It hit a James-Bondian Mach 2 as it flew 11 miles from the Earth.

Stein’s socks were knocked off and he decided to sign DM to Sire. They were the first electronic band that “fucking rocked,” he said.

TV and NYC

DM’s first single, “Dreaming of Me,” released in February 1981, reached No. 57 on the UK charts—a promising beginning indeed. Their second single, “New Life,” reached No. 11, earning them an invitation to perform it on Top of the Pops (TOTP). TOTP, watched by the nation each week, was an institution—a sign that you had made it. The lads memorably rode the train to the BBC’s London studio schlepping their synths under their arms.

The band seems as surprised as anyone that they have found themselves on TOTP. This performance is, well, goofy.23 No one’s really sure what they’re doing. Gahan has a new-wave bouffant flopping down over one eye and is wearing a poufy pale-orange blouse and leather pants tucked into his boots. As usual, he’s giving it his all. Fletcher is awkward in a graphic T-shirt and leather pants, dancing behind his synth. Clarke and Gore are little blond twins in a leather jacket (Clarke) and what appears to be a sheer shirt with bondage overalls (Gore).

There’s an animated green sine wave superimposed over them, emphasizing their digitalness.

Nice touch, BBC of yore.

This performance seems like it’s in a high school lipsync contest. These are cool guys and they are crushing the competition, which includes a pretend Human League (with admittedly, a good Joanne and Susan). You never really noticed Andy Fletcher before? But “He’s actually kind of cute,” you whisper to a friend.

Fletcher and Gore reported to their jobs the next morning. Soon enough, they quit and committed to life as full-time musicians.

Their third single, released on September 8, 1981, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” took them to No. 8.

DM played their first concert in the United States on January 22, 1982. Because they had done TOTP the day before, the boys arrived via—you guessed it—Concorde.

In the New York Times, Stephen Holden24 described their performance at the Ritz: “Consisting of four young men, three synthesizers and a tape recorder playing prerecorded rhythm tracks, Depeche Mode makes gloomy merry-go-round music with a danceable beat.”

Six years later, this group, in the exact same formation, rocked approximately 65,000 people at the Rose Bowl at “A Concert for the Masses,” with their guardian angels, Miller and Blade, watching in the wings. The concert, which became 101, crowned DM on American soil, ended the 1980s in real time, and kicked open the doors for the likes of Nirvana in the process.

This is an extract taken from Mary Valle’s 33 1/3 book on Depeche Mode’s 101 published by Bloomsbury. Mary Valle is a Baltimore-based writer and editor.