Recently-realized: Depeche Mode’s 1987 “Never Let Me Down Again” is pretty much a lyrical re-write of Iggy Pop’s 1977 Bowie-produced “The Passenger”; a snapshot of a pair in vehicular motion out under the bright stars, and possibly looking to cop (or having already done so).
In retrospect, it all makes perfect sense – you don’t get to Martin Gore’s gender-bending without Bowiean ambiguous androgyny; Bowie and Pop in Berlin were famously smitten with Kraftwerk, without whom the Mode would probably not exist.
Not to mention the Pop-like drug addiction DM singer Dave Gahan struggled with, beginning around this time.
This realization sent me on a several-day DM revival jag, where something else occurred to me: early rock music was famous for “concealing” its kinkiness – whether its implied themes of bondage and homoeroticism are intentional or not, something like Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock” is determined keep them as subtext, and present the song-story as good clean wholesome fun on its face. (We’ll leave aside something like “My Ding-A-Ling” though).
Protopunks like the Iggy and the Velvets dragged some of this decadent subtext out into the text – when Lou Reed sang about “Heroin”, the innovation was that there was little metaphor or subtext being employed – the song is about what the song is about.
When Iggy sang “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, the BDSM implications were clear to everyone (even if Iggy himself has stated that the meaning is even LESS obscure than that, and is simply about being a “horndog” who wants to engage in the titular sexual position). In protopunk/punk’s war against artifice, subtext was right out, and the dirty laundry put on proud display; a modern guy gets it right in the ear.
By the postpunk eighties, subtext was making a comeback.
Only now, it was going in the opposite direction: using the dirty laundry as camouflage in order to smuggle in more wholesome, old-fashioned sentiments.
For all that Martin Gore’s songwriting was seen as “kinky” (“Master and Servant”, for example), he was often using seeming perviness as metaphor and vehicle to communicate a very basic, straightforward desire for human connection.
Take “Stripped”, off 1986’s Black Celebration.
Starting right there with the title, we’re thinking “sex”.
Except it’s not about sex, not really; yes, right at the beginning the narrator propositions a lover to “Come with me, into the trees / We’ll lay on the grass, let the hours pass“; but it’s really a request to leave behind the clatter and pollution of the modern world, in which “you’re breathing in fumes / I taste when we kiss“.
And so the entreaty to “Let me see you stripped, down to the bone” isn’t really a sexual proposition at all, though the use of “bone” neatly calls to mind the old sex/death thing.
It’s a cry to see something real from another human being; a demand for emotional nudity rather than physical.
Similar to Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love”, this most future-minded of bands is expressing disquiet at the dehumanizing effects of the technology we employ, and the way it can obscure our true selves. “Let me hear you make decisions, without your television / Let me hear you speaking just for me” (would a modern rewrite contain a request to instead “turn off your Twitter feed“?) is as heartbroken and angry a protest of the modern world as was decrying the swap of paradise for parking lots.
(I used a live version, which I like because it beefs up the clanking, hissing percussion, reminding you that DM were once somewhere on the outskirts of industrial music. The lumbering, lurching dark groove here is rhythmically very much like something Tricky or Massive Attack circa Mezzanine would have been proud to conjure up in the next decade; Gahan’s vocals are on-point, with Gore providing the plaintive answering lines to Gahan’s passionate baritone.)