At a Depeche Mode gig you can spend an outlandish amount of time working out your favourite Dave Gahan dance move – and he’s got dozens. After their 3Arena show I’ve a shortlist: Jesus pose; helicopter spin; ballet pirouette; Freddie Mercury mic stand thrust; Bon Scott limp-wristed finger-point, and ‘kill-em-all’ General Zod hand swipe. Honorable mention as well to the cheeky twerk, and his wiggling ass that appears in close-up on the 30ft screen at one point.
Gahan has spent the last few decades bypassing regular rock star lanes and aiming for rock god status, and he’s still hitting that bullseye in suitably OTT fashion. Not bad for a 55-year-old who once had a heart attack onstage in 1993 and ‘died’ for two minutes in 1996 after an overdose. It also helps when you’re fronting a band that’s bigger than U2 in plenty of corners – before Dublin, DM played Europe’s biggest venues, including the San Siro in Milan, the Stade de France and four Olympic stadiums, including a home gig in East London. They also went on an actual stadium tour in Germany.
As a warm-up for the 3Arena, I caught Depeche Mode at their BBC 6 Music Festival headliner in March, bum-rushing the show at Glasgow Barrowlands with a few mates, using a side door Jedi Mind Trick on a flustered bouncer. That streamlined gig was a showcase of a few songs from their 14th album Spirit, with the last half turning into a home run encore, and 2,000 turnt-up Weegies chanting the Enjoy the Silence riff. It’s as ‘intimate’ as you’ll get with a Depeche Mode gig these days, with Dave hamming it up further by eyeballing the front row and blowing the odd kiss.
Since March, Spirit has gone down as one of the stronger latter-day Mode records, and their most overtly political LP since the industrial clatter and proletariat imagery on 1983’s Construction Time Again. And if you had any doubt whose side they’re on, Gahan wasted no time calling Richard Spencer a “cunt” earlier this year, when the Nazi mouthpiece claimed that Depeche Mode were the “official band of the alt-right”.
Depeche Mode’s 80s records are still a synth patch template for electronic acts, with Pet Shop Boys, Juan Atkins, Nine Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein and The Killers just a few who’ve tipped the hat over the years. But the current setlist leans heavily on the 90s and beyond – slithery industrial goth-rock and murky electronics, with no concession to their most frivolous chart hit Just Can’t Get Enough, and no People Are People or the classic 101 concert movie opener Behind the Wheel.
After a recording of The Beatles’ Revolution, they start with foot-stomp Spirit opener Going Backwards, with Martin L Gore’s power chords the cue for Gahan’s appearance in silhouette against the paint-spattered big screen. Gore straps on his star guitar for slow-burners It’s No Good and Barrel of a Gun, with Gahan prowling and shimmying, looking like a burlesque snooker player in a waistcoat (no shirt), slacks, silvery red Cuban heels and a dastardly moustache.
There’s a slightly controversial whisper that the worker bee live synth man is doing more than OG Andy Fletcher, who does look half-bemused in his top-right platform. But there’s credit due to someone for the retooled Violator classics World In My Eyes and Halo, robo-electro workouts with the synths snapping as vividly as Kraftwerk’s recent live reboot. Likewise on the remixed A Pain That I’m Used To, an early pogo moment on the back of waspy leads, a 4/4 head kick and Gore piling on industrial guitar.
But even if there’s a few (unsubstantiated) questions about Fletcher, there’s no doubt that Gore does the heavy lifting as musical director – swapping guitars, backing up on synths and sharing vocals, all besides the fact he’s written most of their songs, and every one of the belters. I feel like a right begrudger saying the show loses some fizz when Gore takes the lead for his traditional solo stripped-down interludes – but A Question of Lust and Strangelove reimagined as piano ballads hits the spot for the thousands of disciples singing and swaying along, so who’s in the wrong here?
I take the debate to Facebook the next day and it causes a bit of a schism, with one responder taking it a bit too far, saying Gore was wailing like an X Factor reject, to aghast “WTAF” keyboard bashing. One mate maybe sums it up better than me: “No wonder Martin is so mad into S&M imagery. He’s imagining bateing all hell out of the Depeche Mode fans who love his songs but don’t want to hear him singing them. His bits are the big, wide-eyed (if utterly pervy) heart of the band to complement Dave’s libidinous rock godness.”
Not exactly case closed, but I felt like I’d gone to a Stones gig and chucked eggs at Keith Richards.
There’s no crowd moaning or mass exodus for new tracks – Where’s the Revolution? Is a fist-up live anthem and Cover Me takes on a whole new transcendence with the back projection of Gahan as an astronaut wandering through empty streets lost, helmet in hand. Still, Everything Counts is the fuse for the first genuine arena-wide freakout – one of those classic 80s pop songs with a synth lead that trumps the chorus, and it’s battered into shape with an industrial EBM breakdown. The delirium carries all through the second half, as Depeche Mode deal out some of the most untouchable anthems of the last 30 years. Enjoy the Silence has their biggest arms aloft “all I ever wanted” chorus, but it’s also been shape-shifted with an acid house middle section, and some of Gahan’s most lecherous hip-thrusts of the night.
The prophetically-titled Music For the Masses album in 1987 was Depeche Mode’s one-way ticket to US stadium domination, and lead single Never Let Me Down Again has over the years become Gahan’s live cue for full-on messianic moves as the set closes. He’s on the extended walkway among the crowd, leading thousands in a synchronised arm swing as the synth fanfare hits absurdly grandiose levels.
Never Let Me Down could’ve easily brought the curtain down with no complaints, but they’re back to tie up a few loose ends. After the aforementioned Strangelove, we get some surprises: Policy of Truth ensures 1990’s Violator is the LP most represented on the night, and A Question of Time chugs along like a proto-industrial metal cut with beefed-up guitars and the closest thing we get to a moshpit. It fades into the heavy-breathing samples and filthy bass pulse of Personal Jesus – one of the most deceptively heavy songs of the 90s, and the one song Marilyn Manson wishes was his own.
They’d been closing with David Bowie’s “Heroes” for months, but it seems they’ve dropped it for this third leg. As they line up and bow in a hail of feedback and Dave gives one last skip offstage, you know he’ll be king round these parts for a while yet.