One Epic Release Day, 30 Years Ago

It’s not often that we put importance on an album release date.  When it is, it’s usually for a single album that’s considered a historical artifact, like 2 June 1967 with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, or 9 March 1987 with U2’s The Joshua Tree.

But on 28/29 September 1987, we were treated with not one but four excellent albums that many consider a vital part of the 80s alternative rock movement.

First, we had a newbie:  Pixies’ debut EP on 4AD, Come On Pilgrim.

We all know the story behind the band by now…two UMass Amherst students (Frank Black and Joey Santiago) start up a noisy band and move to Boston; a smartass ad in the local paper pulls in exactly one audition, one Kim Deal; a friend of a friend, David Lovering, is chosen as drummer. Their off-kilter mix of punk, surf, folk and who knows what else is both frightening and intriguing. Ivo Watts-Russell is convinced signing them to his label is a bizarre move, and yet…

I remember hearing “Vamos” on WAMH probably around the same time their “Gigantic” single had come out (about six months after this EP) and thinking, what the hell is this…? By that time I was more into moody college rock, but this was something so leftfield yet so fascinating that I had to follow up. Of course, they were a local band by my standards, so I definitely had to check them out.

Next, we had a band on its way up, not quite there yet but already given a huge following: The Red Hot Chili Peppers, with their third album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.

They’d been around since 1984 with the delightfully weird but funky first album, but their follow-up, 1985’s Freaky Styley, was a bit too weird for a lot of people. This third album was a return to their rock-funk sound and became a favorite. Tragically, their guitarist Hillel Slovak would die of a heroin overdose after this album’s tour. His death would deeply affect the rest of the band, especially singer Anthony Keidis, and their next album, Mothers Milk, would reflect that darker edge. Still…that album would clear their way even more (especially with their fantastic cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”), and a few years after that their popularity would peak with 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

 

Next, we had a band that had already reached significant heights with their distinctive sampling and synth-heavy sound, combined with curious lyrics (often about sex, emotional pain, and the darker side of love) and fascinating melodies. Depeche Mode had no way to go but up. Their album Music for the Masses would take their sound even further than before: louder, brasher, stronger.

“Never Let Me Down”, was the second single, released a month before the album (the first single, “Strangelove”, dropped a full five months previous, the usual habit for DM releases), and its in-your-face volume intrigued many fans. The rest of the album delivered just as much punch, to the delight of many, even as its lyrics seemed to be darker and more personal than ever. A little over two years later they’d return with their absolute best album, Violator.

 

And lastly, a band on its way out. It’s the story of too many bands; two front men with strong egos and opinions, writing absolutely stunning, gorgeously played music and proudly singing heart-on-sleeve lyrics that say exactly how you feel, splitting up in the most acrimonious way possible. The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come was their last gasp, their Abbey Road, containing some of the strongest songs they’d written…and by the time it hit the shops, the band was already in the past tense.

The Smiths was the band for the wallflower, the weirdo, the proud outcast.  Morrissey’s poetic missives perfectly balanced Johnny Marr’s amazing guitar work, and in the short four-plus years they’d been together, they’d given teenagers a hell of a strong and massive soundtrack to their lives.  Though their work on Strangeways had been enjoyable, just like always, the clashing of egos caused the band to fall apart.  Both Morrissey and Marr have moved on from it all, now playing Smiths songs in their live sets, have even talked with one another over the years, but life has gone on.

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Of course, there were other album releases that day — Yes’ Big Generator, Wet Wet Wet’s Popped In Souled Out, The Art of Noise’s In No Sense? Nonsense!, and Boston locals O-Positive with their Cloud Factory EP, for starters — but those four albums had to be the most important.  They were by four bands either on their way up or their way down, all four bands that could be considered integral to the growing alternative rock scene of the time.

Depeche Mode in the 90s – Songs of Faith and Devotion

depeche-mode

The next release from Depeche Mode in the 90s was a much darker affair…

But first, I’d like to make a little side trip to late 1991 and Wim Wenders’ fantastic epic, Until the End of the World.  One of my top ten favorite films, it’s a road movie about a woman whose presence changes the fate of nearly everyone around her, while she herself is trying to figure out her own.  It takes place at on New Years’ Eve, as 1999 changes over to 2000 — not just the end of the year, but the century and the millennium as well.   For the soundtrack, Wenders reached out to numerous bands and musicians and asked them to write a song in the style they believe they’d have eight years from then.

DM’s donation was a religiously-tinged blues ballad called “Death’s Door” that hints at the prodigal son returning (much like William Hurt’s character in the film).  It’s a great soundtrack worth picking up, and if you can find a copy of the film (it’s available for streaming on Amazon), it’s well worth checking out.

After that, the band remained quiet for some time until February 1993, when the new single “I Feel You” was released.  Upon first listen, it sounded like the band had retained their fuller, stronger sounds and melodies, but had continued with their darker themes and moods.  Like many previous pre-album singles (like “Strangelove” and “Personal Jesus”, it sounded vastly different than anyone had expected, right down to the opening screech of feedback.

Also gone was Dave Gahan’s perky goofball image; he was now grungy and longhaired with a dangerous sex swagger.  [It was revealed sometime later that this partly due to his worsening drug addiction.]  In fact, within the first minute of the video, we no longer see the band on banks of keyboards; only Andy Fletcher was behind the keys.  Alan Wilder was now drumming, and Martin Gore was playing a Cash-like twang that would become the motif of the entire track.

 

Songs of Faith and Devotion arrived not six months later but almost exactly one month after that first single.  There’s a rough tension throughout the album, not unlike listening to The Beatles’ white album (a description given to it by Alan Wilder himself)…the music is full of powerful anger, and Gahan’s singing has taken on an irritated growl (inspired by the LA alternative bands he’d been hanging with by that time).  There are more organic samples here — live drums and guitars laid down and sequenced — and hardly a clanging pipe or popping firework anywhere at all.  And tensions within the band had grown to such a degree that Wilder would quit the band at the end of the supporting tour.

It’s a very apt title, as religious themes pop up all over the place.  It’s not an album about praise, though…it’s about the limits of faith and devotion, both in life and in spirituality.  The critical response to the album was highly positive, however, and though its singles are rarely chosen for airplay nowadays, it’s an incredibly solid and deeply emotional album worth checking out.

Second single “Walking in My Shoes” is the track that would get the most airplay, as it’s the most melodic and most typical of the band’s sound.  That’s not to say it was written to sell units, however, far from it.  It’s a bleak song using the ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ metaphor as only Gore and DM can do it: don’t you dare judge me until you feel what I’ve gone through.

Third single “Condemnation,” however, was a completely leftfield hit on both sides of the Atlantic.  While “Death’s Door” hinted at a hymnal, this one is purely gospel choir, and it’s a deeply moving and lovely track.

Fourth and final single “In Your Room” featured the band venturing even further from their digital sound as well as their previous image: the video features numerous visual cues from their previous videos made with Anton Corbijn, twisted just that little bit to hint at a wish to be freed of them.  Even the mix used here (the Zephyr Mix) is almost all analogue, showing DM as an almost purely rock band now instead of a synth band.

Even the album tracks like the gospel-by-way-of-Led-Zeppelin “Get Right with Me” and the turbulent irritation of “Rush” feature a band going all out in spirit and emotion.  Taken as a whole, the album definitely mirrors the real-life tensions the band had been dealing with during the writing and recording, as well as the expectations laid upon them to recreate something as phenomenal as Violator.  It would nearly break them.  Wilder would depart at the end of the album’s tour, and once the tour was over that December, they would go their separate ways.  Dave Gahan would attempt suicide in late 1995 and nearly die from a drug overdose in spring 1996.  Gahan survived and persevered, recovering from his heroin addiction and turning his life around.

By early 1997, they were back with a new, even stronger and more cohesive album, Ultra.