Depeche Mode – Never Let Me Down Again

Recently-realized: Depeche Mode’s 1987 “Never Let Me Down Again” is pretty much a lyrical re-write of Iggy Pop’s 1977 Bowie-produced “The Passenger”; a snapshot of a pair in vehicular motion out under the bright stars, and possibly looking to cop (or having already done so).

Iggy Pop – The Passenger

In retrospect, it all makes perfect sense – you don’t get to Martin Gore’s gender-bending without Bowiean ambiguous androgyny; Bowie and Pop in Berlin were famously smitten with Kraftwerk, without whom the Mode would probably not exist.

Not to mention the Pop-like drug addiction DM singer Dave Gahan struggled with, beginning around this time.


This realization sent me on a several-day DM revival jag, where something else occurred to me: early rock music was famous for “concealing” its kinkiness – whether its implied themes of bondage and homoeroticism are intentional or not, something like Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” is determined keep them as subtext, and present the song-story as good clean wholesome fun on its face. (We’ll leave aside something like “My Ding-A-Ling” though).

Protopunks like the Iggy and the Velvets dragged some of this decadent subtext out into the text – when Lou Reed sang about “Heroin”, the innovation was that there was little metaphor or subtext being employed – the song is about what the song is about.

When Iggy sang “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, the BDSM implications were clear to everyone (even if Iggy himself has stated that the meaning is even LESS obscure than that, and is simply about being a “horndog” who wants to engage in the titular sexual position). In protopunk/punk’s war against artifice, subtext was right out, and the dirty laundry put on proud display; a modern guy gets it right in the ear.

By the postpunk eighties, subtext was making a comeback.

Only now, it was going in the opposite direction: using the dirty laundry as camouflage in order to smuggle in more wholesome, old-fashioned sentiments.

For all that Martin Gore’s songwriting was seen as “kinky” (“Master and Servant”, for example), he was often using seeming perviness as metaphor and vehicle to communicate a very basic, straightforward desire for human connection.

Take “Stripped”, off 1986’s Black Celebration.

Depeche Mode – Stripped (101 Live version)

Starting right there with the title, we’re thinking “sex”.

Except it’s not about sex, not really; yes, right at the beginning the narrator propositions a lover to “Come with me, into the trees / We’ll lay on the grass, let the hours pass“; but it’s really a request to leave behind the clatter and pollution of the modern world, in which “you’re breathing in fumes / I taste when we kiss“.

And so the entreaty to “Let me see you stripped, down to the bone” isn’t really a sexual proposition at all, though the use of “bone” neatly calls to mind the old sex/death thing.

It’s a cry to see something real from another human being; a demand for emotional nudity rather than physical.

Similar to Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love”, this most future-minded of bands is expressing disquiet at the dehumanizing effects of the technology we employ, and the way it can obscure our true selves. “Let me hear you make decisions, without your television / Let me hear you speaking just for me” (would a modern rewrite contain a request to instead “turn off your Twitter feed“?) is as heartbroken and angry a protest of the modern world as was decrying the swap of paradise for parking lots.

(I used a live version, which I like because it beefs up the clanking, hissing percussion, reminding you that DM were once somewhere on the outskirts of industrial music. The lumbering, lurching dark groove here is rhythmically very much like something Tricky or Massive Attack circa Mezzanine would have been proud to conjure up in the next decade; Gahan’s vocals are on-point, with Gore providing the plaintive answering lines to Gahan’s passionate baritone.)

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Glyph is worse than some and better than others. He believes that life is just one damned thing after another, that only pop music can save us now, and that mercy is the mark of a great man (but he's just all right). Nothing he writes here should be taken as an indication that he knows anything about anything.

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13 thoughts on “Epiphany!

  1. If I remember correctly, not just drug use but christianity? On Gores part I mean. We often jump towards the purile meaning and skip past the literal meaning in our quest to view what may seem tricky and dense on first glance. We want our rock starts to move in the circles of danger, a la drug use or sex, rather than singing about what we might find uncomfortable, such as trying to find thier place spiriturally in the world.

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    • I have never heard of Gore endorsing Christianity, and would be surprised to find it was so; while he has played with religious tropes in his songwriting quite a bit, it’s in some of the same ways that say Jason Pierce of Spiritualized does. If anything, Gore tends towards the blasphemous (rumors).

      I don’t want to start any blasphemous rumours
      But I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor and
      When I die, I expect to find Him laughing

      – “Blasphemous Rumours”

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    • So I’ve spent some time googling around, to see if I’d missed something, but I am not finding anything. You are right that they have used religious and spiritual motifs repeatedly, but in my reading these tend to be metaphors for more general concepts like guilt and redemption and human love. “Personal Jesus” isn’t actually about Jesus, and was inspired by Elvis & Priscilla. “Blasphemous Rumours”, which I quoted above, is a neat little pop song about the problem of evil (and which uses life-support sounds in its rhythm tracks) which appears to take a dim view of the idea that there is a God (or if there is, that He is good). “Walking In My Shoes” casts the narrator as an epic sinner who hilariously, unrepentantly defends his life of sin by telling us if we’d only seen the things he has seen, we’d understand why he had to do those things.

      And I have a hard time seeing the “he” in “Never Let Me Down Again” as Jesus or God, mainly because the usual Christian conception of Jesus or God is one of constant faithfulness; by definition, He can’t “let you down” even once, let alone again.

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  2. In 1999, I was a student intern at the local college newspaper. That was back in the glory days of getting boxes of CDs to review. It was a scrum whenever new stuff came in, but I had a weird schedule, often being there in the morning, and that meant I got first crack at things. Oh the howls of outrage that arose when I got Depeche Mode’s Greatest Hits triple album. I still have that thing, even though listening to CDs is an odd thing to do with none of the cool of listening to records.

    Anyway, I can’t speak to the meaning of lyrics, but I can say that I’m always a fan of some Depeche Mode appreciation. Those guys had the goods.

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    • I don’t know why I am surprised to find you are a DM fan, but I am.

      And yeah, they did have the goods (takin’ it to the sky!). Gahan really learned over time to use his voice to great effect (or Gore learned how best to write for it, or both).

      I myself was a fairly casual fan, up until I saw them in concert, on the Violator tour. A girl I liked wanted to go, so I went with her, skeptical that a band that (I presumed) stood motionless behind banks of synths and keys could really be a worthwhile thing to go see in a stadium.

      Boy, was I wrong. Absolutely one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, not just because Gahan was an expert frontman, working that crowd; but because getting thousands upon thousands of people to dance while they sing along is something most straight-up rock bands can’t manage.

      And the songs – holy cow, Martin Gore is absolutely one of the great pop songwriters of his generation; not just because the songs are catchy as hell, but because he was regularly tackling pretty big subjects for the genre (capitalism, religion, etc.), and doing it with his own slightly-warped perspective and sly humor.

      It didn’t work out with the girl – last I heard, she was living in the Bay Area, and as a male I would never have been her type – but my love for DM abides.

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