The First Time: Sean Hannam – Depeche Mode, Wembley Arena, London, 19th November 1990  

Strictly speaking, this wasn’t actually the first gig I attended, but it was the first major one I can remember going to without my parents and using my own money to pay for the ticket.

In 1990, I was 16 and a huge Depeche Mode fan. I travelled from the Isle of Wight, where I grew up, to Wembley Arena by boat and a coach, to see this show on the electronic rock band’s World Violation tour, which came off the back of their hugely successful ‘Violator’ album – still one of my favourite records of all time and easily their strongest collections of songs. It’s the one with some of the big hits on it, like the bluesy stomp of ‘Personal Jesus’ and the blissed-out, pulsing pop of ‘Enjoy The Silence.’

Prior to watching Depeche Mode, I’d seen local bands, and my dad, who was a freelance showbiz journalist, used to take me to gigs – quite often by ‘60s acts like The Searchers or The Tremeloes, who were playing the South Coast.

I have happy memories of hearing jangly pop songs being played by middle-aged men in Isle of Wight venues, like Freshwater Memorial Hall and Sandown Pavilion, in the ‘80s, but I can’t recall who I saw first and exactly when. I can, however, clearly remember seeing pervy, black-clad synth meisters Depeche Mode at Wembley Arena – it was my first big rock gig and I went with two friends from school. It seemed like a huge adventure at the time – we were going to a gig on our own, on ‘the mainland’, to see our favourite band.

The support act was Electribe 101 – the dark and soulful, house-electro-pop group fronted by the wonderful German diva, Billie Ray Martin. When I found out they were going to be on the bill, I bought their debut album, ‘Electribal Memories’, on cassette, and listened to it several times ahead of the gig. Not all of it was my [hand] bag – it was a bit too dancey for an indie kid like me – but I liked some of the songs and have fallen in love with the album over time, as my music taste has become more eclectic. I can’t recall too much about their performance, but I was impressed by the mysterious and alluring Martin and her soulful and haunting voice.

I can remember a fair bit of the Depeche Mode set – the intro music was an instrumental B-side called ‘Kaleid’, and then the band came on and opened with the techno-inspired ‘World In My Eyes’, which is the first track on ‘Violator.’ The crowd went mental – we were in a seated area on the floor, about halfway back from the stage – and there was a raging sea of people wearing black all around us. Frontman Dave Gahan did a lot of crotch-grabbing too – some things never change…

I was disappointed and confused that Depeche Mode chose to play a radical remix of ‘Everything Counts’ rather than the well-known version. In more recent times when I’ve seen them in concert, I’ve enjoyed it when they reinterpret songs, but 16-year-old me was left scratching his head in disbelief.

My anxiety about the performance didn’t end there, either. I know that I spent quite a lot of time at the gig trying to deal with the fact that I was watching my favourite band live for the first time. I couldn’t believe it and found it very overwhelming. A similar thing happened to me 25 years later when I saw Bob Dylan at the Royal Albert Hall, in 2015, whom I hadn’t seen play live before, and I struggled to deal with the fact that I was in the same room as him.

Anyway – back to Depeche Mode at Wembley Arena. I can recall that band member Martin Gore played two tender and fragile solo songs, ‘I Want You Now’ and ‘World Full of Nothing’, on acoustic guitar in the middle of the show, and that the stadium anthems ‘Enjoy The Silence’ and ‘Personal Jesus’ were two highlights – the live version of ‘Enjoy The Silence’ from this tour, with its funky and twangy Gretsch guitar break from Gore, remains one of my favourite Depeche Mode moments. In fact, I used to have a bootleg tape of one of the shows from the 1990 tour – I got sent a copy of it by a girl I knew who, like me, was in the band’s fan club. It seems strange that an official live album from the legendary World Violation tour has never been released.

For the second encore, Depeche Mode played the hypnotic ‘Behind The Wheel’, from 1987’s ‘Music For The Masses‘ album, and then a cover of the R’n’B / rock ‘n’ roll classic, ‘Route 66′, written by Bobby Troup. Well, it’s one way to get your kicks…

We arrived back on the Isle of Wight very late at night / early in the morning – it was chucking down with rain when my dad picked us up from the ferry terminal, and my giant Depeche Mode poster, bought at the merch desk, along with a T-shirt, got soaked. It survived for a few years though, as it adorned my student bedroom wall, next to pictures of The Cure and The Smiths, when I was at university in the early-mid ’90s. Like Gahan’s infamous drug habit, it’s now bitten the dust, as he nearly did, when he overdosed on a speedball, a mix of cocaine and heroin, in L.A, in 1996. His heart stopped for two minutes, but paramedics managed to revive him.

I actually think seeing Depeche Mode as your first big gig is cool – my best friend saw UB40 around the same time, so I win… On reflection, I probably have Depeche Mode to thank for getting me into americana. Although I discovered, and soon fell in love with, alt-country acts like Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams, Chris Mills and Wilco in the late ‘90s / early Noughties, largely thanks to friends and ‘Uncut’ magazine, my love of rock ‘n’ roll and country music probably mostly came from hearing ‘Personal Jesus’ back in 1989, when it was released as a single. Rather fittingly, Johnny Cash covered it in 2002 for his album, American IV: The Man Comes Around.

When I was listening to that Depeche Mode song as a teenager, those twangy guitars, moody press shots in US deserts, cowboy hats and a promo video with horses filmed in a Spanish ranch, Spaghetti Western-style, must have turned me onto americana and made me reach out and touch faith.

About Sean Hannam 76 Articles
Freelance journalist, editor and presenter. Digs retro specs,The Smiths,Dylan,Cash,Richard Hawley, Scott Walker, Lee Hazlewood, country / Americana and '50s/'60s pop.
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