Think of a rock band as a modern aircraft carrier.
The bass and drums are the impenetrable superstructure, plowing steadily through the gnarliest seas while carrying the weight of the operation on its shoulders (“I christen thee HMS Jones & Bonham. Your only goal is the western shore”). Meanwhile, the fighter jets – the guitars and vocals – screech from the flight deck to the heavens, engines straining and howling. If an F-22 could sing, it would sound like Ann Wilson.
The helicopters clinging to the edges of the deck? Think of those as the instruments that intermittently appear on a recording and make it recognizable and classic: Neil Young’s harmonica, Clarence Clemons’ sax, Ian Anderson’s flute, Alison Krauss’ fiddle, Prince’s everything.
Okay, so what am I forgetting?
Sure, it’s the keyboards. Piano, harpsichord, Hammond B3, you name it. From Little Richard’s over-revved R&B jackhammer, to Deep Purple’s Jon Lord and his gothic counterpoint to Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar wizardry, and to Carole King’s piano-based songwriting genius, 88 keys have been as crucial to rock as four or six strings. So the keyboards deserve a spot with the other Destroyers of Worlds on our carrier, right?
Maybe. There’s a problem child lurking within this group. Meet the synthesizer, the keyboard all true rockers love to hate.
The synth has been around for decades – The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” wouldn’t work without it – and there have been plenty of rock bands that have used it both brilliantly (see Van Halen’s 1984) and ludicrously (see Van Halen’s 5150). Kraftwerk’s avant-garde Krautrock weirdness with the synth launched a million knockoffs, and that became the problem in the 1980s: the bands of Moog-wielding pretty boys with preposterous haircuts and no use for a Martin D-28 or a proper drum kit. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture some jean-jacketed rocker putting on a Howard Jones album, then promptly slamming his head in a car door. Where’s the rock, man? Is it so hard to strap on a Strat and get down to business?
The name itself invites derision. Synthesizer. It just sounds inorganic, like something constructed by a horde of lab-coated baddies in a 007 nemesis’ lab. And when it falls into the wrong hands, yeah, it sounds utterly soulless, the musical equivalent of a zombie.
But all isn’t lost. There’s Depeche Mode.
The men of Depeche Mode are high priests of British New Wave, the most successful “electronic” group of all time. And, yeah, they played the hell out of synths, but there’s nothing false or saccharine about their sound, particularly when it comes to their 1990 album, Violator.
The album title is a winking joke aimed at goofy heavy metal acts of the time, but it also neatly sums up Depeche Mode’s sound: it’s dark and forboding, driven by Dave Gahan’s beefy baritone, Martin Gore’s maudlin songwriting, and minor keys aplenty. But you can dance to it. (“Happiest Girl”, available on the 2006 re-issue of Violator, practically begs you to turn your living room into a club.)
Violator burst onto the scene behind its opening single, “Personal Jesus”, with its curtain-lifting doorbell chime and Gahan’s brassy order to “reach out and touch faith.” And then, by God, there’s a guitar riff driving the whole enterprise, as deliciously twangy as anything Duane Eddy ever fired through his amps. When “Personal Jesus” hit the airwaves, it both reminded us that Depeche Modes are the kings of synth-rock, but also artists in the truest sense, pushing their sound forward with an unexpected slam into Reverse. Telecasters on DM record? Sign me up!
Also, Johnny Cash covered “Personal Jesus”. How’s that for authentic?
Violator is not breeze-blown 80s keyboard pop; it’s an oozy dive into the deep end of the pool. But you never feel like you’re sinking. Instead, it feels like the band is there with you, slyly trying to breathe their own worldviews and personal issues into you. And it sounds fantastic. Violator is an album that, synth and computer programmed as it is, still manages to sound crafted and cared for. It sounds organic. It will put your speakers to the test.
It sounds like it was created by a rock band.
And that’s what Depeche Mode is, in the final analysis. They’re a rock band, and they make records that make you feel something entirely real. No, they don’t have a Jimi Hendrix-type axe slinger leading them, and for some that disqualifies Depeche Mode – and other acts such as the Pet Shop Boys and Yaz – as real musicians. But people also screamed bloody murder at Dylan in 1965 when he put down his acoustic guitar and plugged in. Hendrix had his electronic toys, too, like wah pedals and Marshall stacks. How are those things different than a Roland TR-808 drum machine? They aren’t, really. Don’t let the instruments a band uses dissuade you from trying their music on for size. Violator still works, nearly a quarter century after it was released.
So back to our aircraft carrier. Where do the keyboards go? I like to think of them as a Cruise missile. Edgy, technical, advanced, and designed by people who know how to put things together brilliantly. And when the button gets pressed, that missile is coming right through your front window. Be ready for it.
Until then, enjoy the silence.