Buffalo Gals – Back To Skool

Risque. Kinky. These are the words that only boys brought up in Basildon could find exciting...

RISQUE. KINKY. THESE ARE WORDS THAT only boys brought up in Basildon could find exciting, and sure enough, Depeche Mode’s take on perversity and ambivalence was always straight out of Freeman’s Eurogoth catalogue.

Cute enough to be [I]Smash Hits[/I] stars yet manfully hanging on to their S&M signifiers by the skin of their teeth – a practice they would no doubt intimate was much to their taste, man – they were blessed with mainstream success while remaining a little too [I]recherchi [/I]for global rock monsterdom. Yet this two-CD collection shows how the grimy alleyways of cult approval opened out into shiny stadium Valhalla, singer Dave Gahan moving from songwriter Martin Gore’s personal voyeur to rock star ringleader.

The earliest tracks are still streaked with the dregs of their days as bedsit freaks – the erotic insinuations of ‘Stripped’, the proudly flashed perversions of ‘Strangelove’ – yet you don’t sell records in Kansas if you dress like a girl.

By 1990’s ‘Violator’, Depeche Mode had swapped the snakebite-and-superglue gloom of ’80s Britain for an altogether more American Gothic. The magnificent [I]Night Of The Hunter[/I] leer of ‘Personal Jesus’, bearing down through the swamp-fog with love-and-hate-tattooed knuckles, is not only the single moment where Gahan sounds authentically seductive, but a perfect combination of their doomy past and swaggering future. ‘Policy Of Truth’ and ‘Enjoy The Silence’ swing by on the momentum, yet any band that forces [I]”words are very unnecessary” [/I]into a rhyming couplet have you suspecting their stab at brilliance was made with a rusty spoon.

There’s a black hole at the centre of these later songs, and it’s not the thrilling moral vacuum they’d hope for, either. Compared with the inch-thick scuzz of the industrial crew, the articulate horrors of Nick Cave or Mark Almond’s operatic sexuality, Depeche Mode sound like they dial up their redemption and absolution from room service. Gradually infected with the creeping contagion of U2’s dilettante smugness – the thin gospel whine of ‘Condemnation’, the tinfoil-heavy scree of ‘I Feel You’ – they’ve earned their rock star dream; the right to make pallid repro music, let the singer half-kill himself with drugs, and still sell out South American stadium hell.

The LP closes with a live version of ‘Everything Counts’, recorded in Pasadena in 1989. Above a delirious crowd singalong, Gahan is heard whooping, “Let’s hear you!” and, “Thank you very much and GOODNIGHT!” like a man born with a spandex soul. All along, lurking behind the dungeon door and the bedsit curtains, Depeche Mode never really enjoyed the silence. All they ever wanted was the applause.