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Depeche Mode – London Royal Albert Hall, 17 Feb 2010

History unfolds before your eyes

20 years is a lifetime. Over half my life ago, 22nd November 1990 to be precise, I saw Depeche Mode play one of just six UK dates for their ‘Violator’ album. It was the day that Thatcher was ousted from power by her own party, and the day that I first experienced arena rock, and the last time I saw the classic four piece line up of Depeche Mode.

20 years later, and here we are again. This time, everything has changed: the usual passing of time, the widening of the gut, the sadness and the joy, births and burials, weddings and divorces. Life has dimmed the promise of the future, but life – mine at least – is a richer, happier place than it was at half my age. Times change. Humanity doesn’t.

But all it takes is a song: a moment, a flash. Music is a vehicle: it can transport you, elevate you, and levitate you. Take away everything imperfect about this world, even if only for five minutes 22 seconds. All it takes is a piano chord, and you are teleported back to clutching a 4 track 7’ single with a yellow cover rotating at 33 revs per minute with a mark on the cover – where the price was written in biro on a removable sticker.

It’s a moment unique to Depeche Mode history, when Alan Wilder takes to the stage to perform ‘Somebody’ with the band: Depeche simply do not do such things. Former members do not strap on the guitar to finish ‘Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You’. Guests do not jam with Depeche Mode for a song. It simply does NOT happen.

Depeche Mode

But tonight is special and different: the most intimate Depeche Mode show in the UK for a quarter century. The first time Depeche Mode have performed a show for charity. The first time in two decades there has been a string section on stage – and the first time on this tour they have performed ‘Photographic’. The first time a former member has rejoined – even if only for a song. It’s history.

Even before that, the show, for the Teenage Cancer Trust had entered the annals of history for the bands devotees: a venue awash with balloons to match the backdrop film of ‘Policy Of Truth’ adds a sly humour. As indeed, does Andy Fletcher dancing with a banana thrown from the crowd at the end of the song. The songs themselves have been altered slightly ; ‘In Your Room’ rolls on new drum fills, and then, near the end of the main set, there’s the view.


Despite some of the worst seats in the venue (I calculate only 14 seats of the 5,022 have more restricted visibility; I do not see Martin Gore for 90% of the set, nor the live 10 piece string section), the view of the rest of the Victorian Classical Concert Hall is stunning; you can see every person singing and dancing – and boy, how bad is some of that dancing – everyone lost in their own world during songs such as ‘Enjoy The Silence’, all together, all alone; and the sea of hands that traditionally fills the venue during ‘Never let Me Down Again’ as the song thunders to it’s bombastic stadium electro conclusion has never looked so good. I suppose it’s how Himmler must have felt – you say something and everyone does it – but it looks wonderful, a endless wave of hands that wave like reeds in the wind as the band, the nearest their generation ever got to a Rolling Stones, an unstoppable iconic metaphor for the spirit of the times, power on and lose themselves, as we all do.

And for a while, the rest of the universe doesn’t really exist. This is all there is.

pink mode

Despite it’s somewhat conventional staging – the relatively standard setlist, which, in their case does not vary from one night to another in any great way – and the slick, finely tuned show which the band have been throwing across most of the world for the past 9 months, tonight’s Depeche Mode show was an Event before even a note was performed. Seriously folks, Depeche Mode fans are batshit nuts, and there’s people who have flown from America, Italy, Bulgaria, Sweden, Israel, and no doubt many other countries to stand in this room tonight. Devotional, indeed.

For Depeche Mode, whatever you want to call them, it is, mostly business as usual: the set is 4 songs from the latest record (three in a row for the opening, then one peppered half way through), alongside a set comprising almost exclusively of singles. It’s long been a setlist gripe for the ardent that many of the Mode’s finer songs have not been the hit singles but album tracks and even b-sides; songs overlooked in favour of a Rolling Stones style revue where you are guaranteed to know almost every song. Even with this, the set rises and falls with pacing and familiarity.

Some hits are bigger than others.

But here, and now, Depeche Mode conquer a friendly, willing crowd. The staging is, as ever, unique – Anton Corbjin made the band cool after a few years in a visual wilderness and gifted them a visual currency they have spoken ever since; colourful and quirky with an emphasis on bright oranges and deep blues, on crows and space suits. The songs equally straddle the vestige of rock with deep, smooth electronics, and mine a deep vein of immense, mature, and powerful songwriting. From a band that once had a staging that existed solely of banks of synths, the fully fleshed Depeche Mode of now are as powerful – though maybe not as supple – as they have ever been. Yes, they look old. But everyone looks old eventually. Music makes the years invisible.

And Martin L Gore, once the ‘Nearly Man’ of Depeche Mode, has become a powerful voice – as he did with speed and ease – and managed to attain a unique voice in his work. When you see a masterpiece, you can recognise the master who created it, even if you don’t quite know how.

The main set is executed with a rare humour – a string section enhances the middle quarter – and the venue rolls on balloons, bananas, and a rare live improvisation. It’s already, by the end of the main body of it, a rare, and momentous event. A Depeche Mode gig, and their reputation as a fierce and strong live act, has been well earned. Here, the proof pirouettes in front of your eyes.

lighter mode

When Alan Wilder comes on stage and guests on ‘Somebody’ is when the event rolls from Special, to ‘Historic’. It’s been sixteen years since he was last on stage anywhere in the world, 16 years since he last appeared with Depeche Mode, a decade since he swore he’d never guest with DM ever again. The Internet probably fell over in shock.

Alan smiles, each member of the band hugs an old friend. And then it’s ‘Personal Jesus’ that roars and licks like a happy puppy to a room that is ecstatic.
And then it’s out of the Victorian Amphitheatre to the cold London night. We are living through history every second of our lives, even if we don’t always know it. But tonight, we knew it as it happened. Um. Wow.

In Chains
Hole to Feed
Walking In My Shoes
It’s No Good
A Question Of Time
World in my eyes
One Caress (with stings)
Home (with strings)
Come Back (with strings)
Policy of Truth
In Your Room
I Feel You
Enjoy the Silence
Never Let Me Down Again

Somebody (with ALAN WILDER)
Personal Jesus

For more from Mark, please visit The Final Word