❉ Let me take you on a trip… Looking back on the landmark album, released on this day in 1990.
“We called it Violator as a joke. We wanted to come up with the most extreme, ridiculously Heavy Metal style title that we could! I’d be very surprised if people could spot the joke!” – Martin Gore
Happy 30th birthday to Depeche Mode’s landmark studio album, Violator which hits a significant milestone this week. Originally released on 19 March 1990, it contains some of Mode’s best-known hits including Personal Jesus and Enjoy the Silence.
The album reached number 2 in the UK Album Charts and made the top 10 in the American Billboard charts peaking at number 7, making this album the catalyst for propelling them from ‘British Synthpop band’ to ‘international rock artists’. Perhaps more importantly, Violator is cited as a favourite album by many of Depeche Mode’s global fanbase and critically acclaimed by music journalists the world over: Melody Maker called it their “most arresting work to date.”
It was recorded in Milan and Denmark and mixed in London by one of the forefathers of house music, Francois Kevorkian. It was co-produced by legendary producer ‘Flood’ aka Mark Ellis who provided the technical know-how and steered the music in the right direction, ably assisted by band member Alan Wilder. Additionally, the album allowed the band to understand that they each had a unique, bespoke role within the dynamic, which at that time brought them together in a tight bond of friendship.
Alan Wilder would later say to Depeche Mode’s official biographer, Steve Malins, “That’s how we made the group work at that time, by accepting that we all had different roles and not actually all trying to do the same thing. So we ended up with this unwritten agreement in the band, where we’d all throw together a few ideas at the beginning of a track. Then Fletch and Mart would go away, and they’d come back after we’d worked on it for a while to give an opinion.”
The band’s designated songwriter-in-chief, Martin Gore, wanted to write their seventh album in a new and unprecedented way, away from the tried and tested albeit moderately successful albums produced in the 1980s. As Gore told NME‘s Stuart Maconie at the time, “Over the last five years I think we’d perfected a formula… We decided that our first record of the ’90s ought to be different.”
Lyrically Violator revisits the familiar ‘sex and religious imagery’ themes of their previous work but encompasses a deeper emotional approach, which sets the direction for their song writing from thereon in. Regarding the album’s title, Gore said, “we called it Violator as a joke. We wanted to come up with the most extreme, ridiculously Heavy Metal style title that we could! I’d be very surprised if people could spot the joke!”
Though still cited as a ‘synthpop’ band in many quarters, the new introduction of the electric guitar to the band’s repertoire gave their tracks a bluesy edge, which no doubt aided Personal Jesus to be the lead single, and the track by which they would henceforth be primarily known by, amongst Joe Public. That famous twangy riff would go on to be used in many an advert over the ensuing decades and in a lot of ways, defined Depeche Mode’s new direction.
It’s fair to say that this guitar-led direction brought Depeche Mode a whole new expanded fanbase, especially in America appealing to their collective Rock and Grass Roots sensibilities. Violator was released hot on the heels of their 1988 Music for the Masses tour, ultimately playing their 101th gig of the tour at the Pasadena Rosebowl to a capacity audience (immortalised in the concert film, Depeche Mode: 101). It was also laying the foundations for future sell-out stadium concerts not just in America, but across the world.
The album opens with one of the singles, World in my Eyes which was accompanied by a sexily enticing video by Dutch creative director Anton Corbijn. The relationship between the band and Corbijn started with Never Let Me Down Again from Depeche Mode’s 1987 album Music for the Masses, and the visual relationship between Corbijn and the band famously continues to this day, both in their video output and also in the live Depeche Mode experience.
The opening, synth-led riff of World in my Eyes begins with lead singer Dave Gahan’s delicious invitation; ‘let me take you to a trip, round the world and back, and you won’t have to move, you’ll just sit still’. His voice drips with allure and intrigue and immediately draws you into both the track and the album. Gore states “it’s a very positive song. It’s basically saying that love and sex and pleasure are all very positive things”. The song also features vocals from every member of the band, which, in Depeche Mode world is a very unusual place to be. However, it vastly contributed towards the bond of friendship between the four at that particular time.
Track Two is Sweetest Perfection and is about being completely drawn in by something that it ultimately a thing of complete perfection; be it an individual or a drug-induced euphoria. The sweetest perfection is the ultimate feeling of longing that we all crave. Gahan told MTV in 1990, “there are songs on the album that maybe I would have sung but on Sweetest Perfection it made sense for Martin to do it”.
Track three is lead single Personal Jesus, and along with that catchy bluesy riff contains the lyrical hook “reach out and touch faith!” It was released on 28th August 1989 and encapsulates the overall ethos of Violator. According to song writer Martin Gore it’s “a song about being a saviour for someone else, someone who gives you hope and cares about you”. It was inspired by the relationship between Elvis Presley and his wife Priscilla, and how he was her mentor, lover, her everything, and how everyone’s adoring heart is ultimately god-like in some way and how that adoration is an extremely unbalanced view of how a relationship can be.
With Halo the message is ‘let’s give in to this’ but there’s also a real feeling of wrong-doing, seemingly advocating immorality, but always with the key theme of guilt. It has a stomping synth intro which melds into a searching string laden chorus which Wilder recalls was something they had not done before, but was keen to explore during this track.
Waiting for the Night was intended to be vocalised by solely by Gore, but its simple arrangements seemed more suited to Gahan’s lead vocals with Gore’s backing vocals, making it the album’s key duet. Wilder and Flood were influenced by Tangerine Dream’s ethos at that time, and wanted to achieve the same kind of atmosphere on this track, so they used an ARP sequencer to achieve that feel. It gives the song a sense of fluidity which seems to marry well with the track.
Enjoy the Silence is the sixth track on the album, and was another successful single and is about personal relationships; ultimately its saying ‘I enjoy being with you, in your arms, and you’re all I ever wanted, but don’t tell me things that I don’t need to hear’. It alludes to the deeper satisfying connection between two lovers when words like ‘I love you’ are completely unnecessary, as those emotions are deemed to be ‘shown’ rather than ‘spoken’.
The Corbijn video shows Gahan, bedecked in Monarch-like robes of ermine and a gold crown, walking through his Kingdom with a blue deckchair, punctuated with black and white shots of the band looking mean and moody. Gahan hated the video saying that he “looked and felt like a prat” in it, and it took a lot of gentle cajoling that it would all be OK in the end. As it turns out, the video (which was shot in Portugal, the Swiss Alps, Scotland and London) and song, is one of Depeche Mode’s most iconic.
Policy of Truth was the third single to be released from the album and scored another UK and US Top 20 hit on both sides of ‘the pond’. Always a crowd pleaser at live Depeche Mode events, this song has become another ‘old familiar’ in their back catalogue.
Gore described the track Blue Dress as ‘pervy’ but it’s basically about sex; watching a girl get dressed in her (blue) dress and the realisation that ‘that’s what makes the world turn’. Highly erotic yet cleverly wrapped up in a song, it espouses guitar riffs and electronica perfectly, sliding effortlessly into Interlude 3 on the album.
The closing track Clean was inspired by Pink Floyd’s song One of These Days from their 1971 album Meddle. Alan Wilder said, “they were doing something very different to everyone else at the time. You can hear the electronics in there and the influence of classical music. It has a very repetitive synthesized sound and the bass riff with the echo have a hypnotic groove that underpins it. We basically nicked that idea!”
It’s the perfect ending to a perfect album, which demonstrates the depth both lyrically and musically of Depeche Mode in their new-found creative arena and which was to ultimately propel them into a different league. Violator is truly a whole album experience whose tracks work well together in considered and well-placed synchronicity, rather than just a random collection of songs which happen to be on the same album. Listen closely to the heart-rendering strings, the profound lyrics, the startling synthesizers, the clever placement of each individual track on the album, and you can’t fail to be emotionally moved or impressed. The sweetest perfection, you might say.
❉ Depeche Mode – ‘Violator’ was originally released on LP, CD and cassette by Mute Records, 19 March 1990. CD RRP £11.99. A Violator Deluxe Edition CD+DVD was released on 6 June 2006. It was reissued as a Remastered 180gm Vinyl LP by Sony Music Entertainment, 14 October 2016, RRP £22.99. Earlier this year, Mute Records released the ‘Violator – 12″ Singles Collection’ box set for a limited period only. Buy the MP3 album for £9.99 at the Amazon Digital Music Store.
❉ Ange Chan is a poet, author and writes regularly for We Are Cult. She is also a Depeche Mode fan of some four decades, and Violator is her favourite album. She believes it was a slow descent downhill for the band after this album.