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Dancing in the Dark With Depeche Mode

November 29, 1987|CHRIS WILLMAN

"Death is everywhere," begins the first verse of "Fly on the Windscreen," one of the more cited compositions in the dark oeuvre of Depeche Mode, the growingly popular English synthesizer-pop quartet that headlines sold-out shows Friday and Saturday at the Forum in Inglewood and Dec. 7 at the San Diego Sports Arena. "There are lambs for the slaughter / Waiting to die / And I can sense / The hours slipping by / Tonight / Come here / Kiss me / Now. . . ."

Romanticizing life slowly slipping away while unable to shake the fear of that final moment may not be especially novel to modern popular art--certainly not to anyone who got misty-eyed at Dylan Thomas' orders to "not go gentle into that good night" or waxed philosophic over Woody Allen's stated willingness one day to trade all the acclaim for a few more minutes of life.

What does set Depeche Mode somewhat apart from those antecedents is the fact that the vast majority of the band's devoted fans are not yet old enough to vote, let alone experience a mid-life crisis.

Lots of English rock bands have emphasized dark themes, but few have connected so strongly to the under-18 crowd. The unprepared parent visiting a Depeche Mode arena show in expectation of finding kids gathered for another evening of communal pop frivolity may well leave unsettled by the sense of dread that has replaced puppy love in these young minds.

Thousands and thousands of teen-agers join in with the group on, for example, "Blasphemous Rumours," with its grim sing-along chorus: "I don't want to start any blasphemous rumors / But I think God's got a sick sense of humor / And when I die / I expect to find him laughing. . . ."

And that's actually one of the more hopeful forecasts of afterlife prospects found in the Depeche Mode canon (cf.: the new album's agnostic anthem, "Nothing").

Not that Depeche Mode is concerned only with life's end. Songwriter Martin Gore also tackles sin, insecurity, betrayal, loneliness and, through it all, a desperate search for acceptance and love amid the existential ruins.

Pop ennui going over its target audience's collective head, you say?

Not likely. Depeche Mode may pander to its youthful audience in concert, adopting an upbeat tone that seems to trivialize (if not even mock) the subject matter at times, with lead singer David Gahan furiously pumping his hips while exhorting the crowd to " sing it! " through even the darkest anthems.

But the records themselves have the integrity of being very much sober, seemingly adult-aimed affairs--far from the usual stuff of Tiger Beat appeal. And don't believe for a second the old maxim that the kids "don't listen to the words."

In this case, at least, the evidence is overwhelming that they do listen, and that the massive popularity is in large part because of the dour themes, not in spite of them. No more getting morose with Sylvia Plath in English 101 for this generation of plaintive high-schoolers--nowadays, you can ponder the cessation of all existence and dance to the rhythm of life at the same time.

Depeche Mode's first records were unpromising, comparatively crude and typical techno-pop releases, full of catchy, forgettable dance fluff like "Just Can't Get Enough." Those songs sound like rough demo tapes compared to the impressive digital recording of the band's new album, "Music for the Masses," which includes dread-filled instrumental passages that sound patterned more after Philip Glass or Benjamin Britten than Giorgio Moroder.

After the early departure of co-founder Vince Clarke (who went on to form Yaz and Erasure), songwriter Gore kept the all-synthesizer format--though the new album, which has reached No. 35 in its sixth week on the U.S. charts, features the first brief, blink-and-you'll-miss-it use of guitars on a Mode record--and opted for more minor chords and less cheerful sentiments.

Comfort, when it comes, is slight: On last year's "Black Celebration" LP, the group's grimmest, Gore would find a lover but then decide that, in the overall scheme of things, "It Doesn't Matter." In another song, two youngsters lovelessly lose their virginity to each other as the narrator dubiously concludes, "In a world full of nothing / Though it's not love / It means something."

Such cynical but frequently tender human sentiments--married to industrial-strength electronic instrumentation--found an especially receptive audience in Southern California, which until recently was the English band's only major American stronghold.

And if any evidence was necessary for just how seriously teens take this stuff, one can look to the dozens of letters bound to flood in after any negative mention of the band in print--like the defensive missives sent to The Times last year after a review of the group's Forum concert took extensive note of the band's dark side.

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