Tuesday, 28 November 2017

LIVE REVIEW: DEPECHE MODE, ARENA BIRMINGHAM, BIRMINGHAM, 19 NOVEMBER 2017 - PART 1

This review is the first of two reviews of the Birmingham show from 19 November. It's by Shaun Coward, a long time Depeche fan and a man uniquely placed to write about the Birmingham gig. Shaun's review takes us all the way from his formative Depeche experiences, through many gigs in Birmingham and all the way up to a mojito fueled Global Spirit gig on the 19th of November. It's a superb, hilarious read, crammed with historical Mode chat and pics and I know you're all going to love it. Thanks Shaun. Pictures are all Shaun's unless otherwise credited If you want to abuse him having read the review, his Twitter name is @TonmeisterJones

Picture courtesy of Depeche Mode Classic Photos & Videos Facebook Group

March 1986. I am eleven years old. My Depeche Mode obsession is now really kicking in and I have nailed my colours to the mast: this is My Favourite Band. The posters are going up. The exercise books are getting covered in whatever logos I can hamfistedly sketch. The Singles 81→85 has cemented my relationship with this band, who will go on to help shape my adolescence and even adulthood. (Admittedly, there was some confusion caused by Martin’s exposed chest on the cover of that record, but we will not dwell on that here.)

We have some family friends, whose son Chris is a good six years older than me and a huge Depeche fan that’s already seen them play live half a dozen times. (He also, infuriatingly, has countless anecdotes of bumping into Fletch at Erasure gigs, being backstage with the Human League and so on. What an utter bastard.) We happen to be at their house on the day that he buys Black Celebration (on CD, the first one I think I’d seen). There is a listening session in his bedroom. Not much is said. I feel like I’m going to burst, but with the exception of A Question of Time, Chris is unmoved. He thinks the album is too slow, too downbeat. Too dark? I am not about to start disagreeing with him, so I keep my thoughts to myself. It is perfect. 

Wednesday April 9th, 1986. Depeche Mode are playing at the NEC Arena in Birmingham, about thirty miles north of where I live. It’s their first gig at the still relatively new venue, much larger than the Odeon in town where they had become a fixture. My older sister is going, with a few of her friends. She is also a fan, although even then I had doubts as to how anyone could simultaneously enjoy the music of Depeche Mode and Bon Jovi. If you ask me, she’s only going because she has a crush on Dave. But I don’t really care; all that matters to me is that I will be able to tag along.

Picture courtesy of Depeche Mode Classic Photos & Videos Facebook Group
Of course my parents say no. Devastation.

Friday January 15th, 1988. I’m almost thirteen years old and now in the grips of full blown Depeche Mode infatuation. On the German exchange, I buy the European version of Music For The Masses on cassette, with the four extra tracks on the b-side. (I already own the album on vinyl, obviously.) During coach journeys, I take to moodily standing on the steps by the toilet with the curtain wrapped around me, watching the landscape slip by with the album playing on my Walkman constantly. I don’t speak to anyone for hours at a time, and am fairly sure that this will not only impress my schoolmates, but also impart to me some kind of unknowable cool. As opposed to looking like a dickhead stood outside a chemical toilet on the autobahn.

By this point, Depeche Mode are MY band. I think of them as my band in the same way that I would think of my girlfriend as being my girlfriend, if I’d had one. I graciously allow a select number of friends to like them as well, on the strict understanding that it is impossible that they could ever like them as much as me. (This was blown to fucking smithereens the following year when they released 101, at which point seemingly everyone in my entire school became a fan overnight. This is probably the most traumatic period of my childhood, if not life.)

They are coming back to the NEC. I have this information before my sister, and ponder how I should broach the subject with my parents. Critically, I hesitate. The moment has passed and the tickets are bought. I am once again denied the single thing I want more than anything in the world. It hurts. I swear it hurts almost PHYSICALLY. The sense of injustice threatens to overwhelm me. There is something about being thirteen that amplifies even the most petty of grievances to the level of world ending nuclear armageddon, and I’m feeling it. 

Friday January 15th, 1988. The day of the show. Off goes my sister, collected by a friend’s dad. I sulk in my bedroom, of course. My dad has agreed to collect them after the gig, and at about 8.30pm he shouts up the stairs. With every fibre of my being, I want to ignore him. But due mainly to the fact that my dad really isn’t the kind of person you either can or should ignore, I morosely shuffle to the landing and say ‘what’ as quietly as I can.

Martin onstage 15 January 1988 - Picture courtesy of Depeche Mode Classic Photos & Videos Facebook Group (picture taken by Wayne Kisbee)


He asks me if I want to go with him to collect my sister and her friends. At first I can’t see the point, and I don’t even understand why he thinks I’d want to come. But then he says something about being able to hear the last few songs from outside, and I’m already in the car. 

And so that’s how, at the age of nearly thirteen, the best experience of my life to date was standing in the foyer of the NEC in Birmingham listening to Depeche Mode play their full encore. You might imagine that it was like a form of torture, being able to hear but not to see. But it wasn’t. It was incredible. It almost didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was in the same building as Depeche Mode. What mattered was being able to hear Dave Gahan, DAVE FUCKING GAHAN, whip the crowd into a frenzy. What mattered was hearing Everything Counts. The sheer joy that you feel when the music bypasses all logical thought and drills straight into your soul. Here it is. 

Ah, Birmingham. The often-mocked second city. The accents. The, er… Well, to tell you the truth there is a lot to like about Birmingham. Just ask Telly Savalas. Walking around the city centre these days and you could be forgiven for the thinking you were in a different place. It’s certainly a lot smarter now, but I think it’s lost something. The old Bull Ring wasn’t much to look at, but I preferred it to the orgy of glass and chrome that sits in its place now. In 1990, Birmingham was vibrant, loud and grubby. (Not unlike my teenage self, minus the ‘vibrant’ part.) The train stopped at Moor Street, from where we would generally head for the closer of the two (two!) HMV’s on New Street, in one of which my sister met the band and got her copy of 101 signed. Because yes, in those days, Depeche Mode did record signings. In Birmingham.

I never really understood why HMV had two stores a few hundred yards apart. The larger one could generally be guaranteed to stock all the latest Depeche Mode 12” records, whereas the smaller store often contained things we didn’t even know existed until we found them: the FrontDepNitz and On U-Sound Megamixes, to name a couple. From there it was up to Virgin Megastore, which was pretty vast. It was between these three places that I bought 90% of my Depeche Mode vinyl. There was never any need to find some cool little independent record shop, because the Mode were everywhere back then.

(To be honest, it was nothing compared to record shops in Germany, which seemed to exist solely for the purpose of shifting as many Depeche Mode records as possible. I can recall feeling absolute disbelief at seeing the sheer volume of DM vinyl in a record shop in Wuppertal, which was surpassed only by the anguish that I couldn’t afford to buy it all.)

Violator was on the way. Personal Jesus had already changed my life, in the same way dozens of other DM songs already had. A tour, a tour that I would actually be able to attend, was within touching distance. Information was sketchy in the pre-internet age. I didn’t subscribe to Bong, so it was left to either the NME or Melody Maker to break the news. I can’t remember how we actually found out about the first Birmingham date. All I remember is that it was in the school holidays, and I was at my mate’s house. I phoned my mum in a panic and asked her to call and buy tickets, we’d give her the cash. She said something like, ‘I’ve just got to finish this ironing’, which elicited from me a sound like a pig being throttled. She got the point. I rang off, and we waited an agonising five minutes for her to call the box office. (Because that’s right kids, back in the olden days we could just call the venue and buy tickets. We could even just go there and buy them from a human.)

She called back. The tickets were secured. There then followed a delirious minute or two of me and my two friends jumping up and down whilst whacking the keys of an upright piano and shrieking. You made your own entertainment back then.

Dave onstage 22 November 1990 - Picture courtesy of Depeche Mode Classic Photos & Videos Facebook Group

Thursday the 22nd of November, 1990. It was fucking freezing. We got into the NEC early, and spent a glorious hour or so just wandering round the concourse and soaking it up. So much leather and hair gel. I don’t know if I can adequately describe the anticipation I was feeling. I was so excited, it felt like the culmination of a life’s ambition. Which it was. We took our seats to the left of the stage, near the front. Thanks mum. 24 years later, I would sit with one of the same friends and my daughter in almost exactly the same spot.

Electribe 101 were great, although in the tradition of Depeche Mode’s supporting bands, largely ignored by the audience. Off they went. By the time Kaleid started up, the crowd were going absolutely fucking mental. I’m sitting here now in my office at home, writing this with the dog at my feet and the When Worlds Mix version playing. I swear if someone asked me a question right now, my voice would stick in my throat. It’s all there; those memories are so strong. By the time World in my Eyes started, I am finally understanding what what was going on when I watched The Rock’n’Roll Years with my parents, and all those women would be screaming at The Beatles. I’m not screaming, exactly; I’m bellowing. I feel like the top of my head is coming off and my heart is about to explode. 

And when Dave runs on, I can’t breathe.

Can’t. Fucking. Breathe. 

I’m paralysed, rooted to the spot for a good ten seconds. I finally manage to get a hold of myself and the concert is, obviously, like heaven on earth. Five days later we’d be back for the final gig of that tour, standing a couple of rows from the front on a night that somehow topped the untoppable. At the end of that final show, as the lights came up after Behind The Wheel/Route 66, we spotted a guy who was a couple of years ahead of us at school. I remember just looking at him with my mouth hanging open, as he did the same. It was, and always will be, the best gig I’ve ever been to. Suddenly, the fact I’d missed the two previous tours didn’t matter, because this was it. This was the BEST. (That feeling didn’t last by the way, I went back to being pissed off about it within a week.)

Martin onstage 27 November 1990 - Picture courtesy of Depeche Mode Classic Photos & Videos Facebook Group

I’d love to be able to provide a proper review of that gig, but it was a long time ago. The main thing I loved about it, and the reason why World Violation is for me their strongest tour is that they still had a foot in that Music For The Masses show. To hear a full version of Shake The Disease is a wonderful thing. To hear Dave do some of the same shouts and ‘ALRIGHTS’ between lines as he did on 101 made me feel as if I’d been there after all. Three sold-out nights: Birmingham loved Depeche Mode. I felt a mixture of euphoria and slight bewilderment. If you’d have asked me then when I thought I’d be back there for a Depeche Mode concert, I’d have said two years, three year tops. It would be ten years, and the experience would prove very different. 

So let’s skip past the Devotional Tour. I was at Crystal Palace and Sheffield for that one, and perhaps I’ll write something about those shows and foist it onto David in the future. I missed the Singles Tour, because it came at a time when my head had been surgically positioned up my own arse, making it difficult to hear about new gigs and albums. I was living in Brighton at the time, and was flailing about in a sort of drum & bass vortex, although I still listened to DM daily. I had loved Ultra, but wasn’t even aware they’d released a new singles compilation until my mum put it on in the car. (I remain suitably embarrassed about my mum being more up to speed on DM releases than me.)

To be honest, even if I’d know about the Singles Tour, I may not have gone. Alan leaving the band was A Very Big Deal to me and I was (am) a petulant bastard. I know almost nothing about that tour so let’s move onto 2001, which I think really kicked off phase two of my thing for Depeche Mode. 

Exciter was the first album that had a few songs that I didn’t like. Consider that. From Speak & Spell through to Ultra, I would not have told you that there was a single song I didn’t like. Still wouldn’t. You can throw anything at me. I can remember singing A Photograph of You when I was a little boy. I can remember being eleven and lying in bed reading 2000AD and singing along to What’s Your Name. It doesn’t matter to me that they aren’t considered to be “great” songs, or even good songs; what matters is how they resonated with me at a certain point in my life.

But I still listened to Exciter an awful lot, and I know all the words to each song - which is either an indicator of quality or my rabidness as a fan. I was excited (HAHA) as ever to be back at the NEC in 2001, standing in more or less the same spot and feeling the same anticipation as I had a decade previously. 

All I can really say is that this was my period of adjustment. This was the concert when I realised that Depeche Mode were not quite the same as before, that I was watching a band that were coming at things slightly differently, living their lives on the road slightly differently. (Or very differently, depending on who you’re thinking about.) It wasn’t bad, it was just… Different. I wasn’t prepared for it. I don’t want to appear to be down on them, and the Birmingham crowd was in good voice, but I had naively thought that I’d have essentially the same experience as I’d had at my last Depeche Mode concert, in Sheffield in 93. Having missed the Singles Tour, it was all a bit jarring. I came away disappointed, but not really disappointed with the band. I was disappointed that I’d lost touch, that I hadn’t realised that the band had moved on. I needed to move on with them. 

The next three tours, Touring The Angel, Tour of the Universe and The Delta Machine Tour would see me (and the same friends) attend multiple concerts across the UK, but always in Birmingham. Over that time, the NEC got a much needed facelift. I’d adjusted to this new iteration of Depeche Mode, and whilst there may have been aspects I didn’t care for (STILL NO FUCKING ALAN), a choice between a different live show and no show is an easy choice to make.

Birmingham NEC Walking In My Shoes 31 March 2006 by me

The Delta Machine Tour at Birmingham was a memorable night for me, as it was my daughter’s first concert. She was eight at the time and, well… It was a moment. But I remember noting that the NEC (or whatever it was now called) wasn’t full. This was new to me. It didn’t have a detrimental effect on the gig, in fact it was one of the most enjoyable shows I’d seen for a while. The band appeared to be having a blast, but what had happened to the Birmingham audience? From three sold-out nights in 1990 to this? Various members of the band have criticised Birmingham shows in the past, which I thought was unfair. Some of the least vocal crowds I’ve ever been a part of were in London, although not so much these days. But would the Global Spirit Tour be the moment that Depeche Mode finally gave up on Brum? 

Of course not, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this, would I? You bloody idiot. 

And so, again, to Birmingham. Only this time, it’s not the NEC. (Sorry marketing tossers, it will always be the NEC. Not the Genting Monstrosity. Not the LG Eyesore. The NEC.) A word of thanks here to Adele Mitchell who informed me, via the Twitters that you have nowadays, that this gig was being held at the NIA (OR WHATEVER IT’S CALLED NOW). I had managed to look up the show and purchase my ticket without actually noticing this, and would have absolutely turned up at the NEC with a confused look on my face. 

The NIA then. Hmm. Well, it’s in the city centre, which is good. The area around it is stuffed with bars and good places to eat, which is also good. Despite the fact that I’ve been there a few times and seen it with my own eyes, I’d always assumed it had a smaller capacity than the NEC. But it turns out to be slightly larger by a few hundred. So that’s also good. But the sound is terrible. It always has been. It was terrible when I saw Prince there in the early 90s and it’s terrible now. Okay, it’s not quite as terrible as the almost impressively terrible Wembley Arena, but it’s still pretty terrible. 

Anyway, after a solid five hours of drinking mojitos in a bar where the staff were all younger, better dressed and better looking than me, we staggered into the venue. Bought a beer and headed into the standing section. And then headed straight back out again. Yes, that’s right: the support band was playing. I say ‘playing’. It was difficult to tell what was going on, as the sound from the stage was like a couple of donkeys trapped in a well and being pelted with cymbals. They were called ‘Re-TROS’, it says here. In fairness to them, it can’t have been all their fault. And it may have sounded better down the front; at the back of the venue it was frightening. But in that great tradition of Depeche Mode warm up acts, they left the stage and the mood brightened considerably.



We pushed our way towards to the front. Please don’t misunderstand - I am unfailingly polite. I’m the kind of person who will apologise to a stranger for having the temerity to put my arse in the way of their foot. So I’m not one of those people who just barges through. I slither through, slowly. Like a devious black-clad worm. We found a decent enough spot with perfect timing. Lights down, show starts. 

Going Backwards is a perfectly fine song. Not my favourite song on Spirit, but I like it. Like so much of what they do, it’s not a song you could imagine any other band putting out. With the best will in the world, it is not a great way to open a concert. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t think it does justice to the anticipation levels in the crowd. It was the same with Welcome To My World last time around. As Roger Taylor (the Queen one, not the one out of the most overrated band in the universe, Duran Duran) put it, the object of the first few songs is to blow the audience’s bollocks off. I presume that’s a metaphor, although I wouldn’t have put it past Queen to use a bit of live ordnance in their sets.

So not only do we kick things off with Going Backwards, we then get It’s No Good and Barrel Of A Gun. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad start per se. The first three songs all sound great, although I’ve never really cared for Barrel Of A Gun live. It’s fine. But that’s all it is. Fine. My bollocks remained intact. They continued to remain intact through A Pain That I’m Used To, even more so considering it’s the Jacques Lu Cont version. Almost as much of an aberration as Butch Vig’s In Your Room atrocity. But hey. It’s fine. It’s FINE.



Don’t panic. This is not a bad review. (It is a badly written review, but that’s different. I’ve been paid for my services in the form of a small piece of cardboard, so stop moaning.) I thought the London show in the summer suffered from the same thing - a bit of a lacklustre first 15-20 minutes. So let’s put it behind us and talk about my bollocks again. 

Useless and Precious, and they are now starting to twitch. But full ball bag detonation does not occur until World In My Eyes. It’s a belting version, and whilst I appreciate they can’t really start the set with it THEY BLOODY SHOULD. From this point onwards, they do not put a foot wrong. Cover Me (my favourite from the album) is wondrous, special. A brilliant song presented and performed brilliantly. And then they’re coming thick and fast and bloody hell. Bloody HELL. 

Cast your mind back to a few months ago when I was talking about the excitement of seeing Depeche Mode. It’s still there. Okay, so tonight it took me a little time to warm up, and I’m not sure anything is quite as exciting to a fat, jaded 42-year-old as it is to a 16-year-old, but still. I’m grinning like a mental. This is it, this is why I still love Depeche Mode. Much later that evening, I tweeted about how pointless it is to make comparisons between DM now and DM of past decades. They’re here in the same room as me, and I’m having a brilliant time.

A brief note about farting. Do not fart at concerts. Don’t do it. Don’t be that absolute beast. I don’t know who it was, but Christ almighty. Someone in my vicinity was dropping the most eye-wateringly vile guffs, and I would have happily kicked him to death if I could have. (Because let’s face it, it was a him.) I can’t really link this passage to anything that was happening on stage, but I needed to get it off my chest. Don’t. Fart. At. Concerts. Back to the show.



Insight and Home are both lovely, although the miserable bastard in me could live without the ‘spontaneous’ crowd singalong after Home now. (Marvel at my hypocrisy in a couple of paragraphs when I laud the Everything Counts crowd singalong.) In Your Room is great, and I was one of the many happy people to see the proper version restored for this tour. It’s a great example of how unfathomable it is to me how some songs work incredibly well live, and some don’t. In Your Room could easily be a difficult live track. It’s fairly slow, but it builds and builds… For me it acts as an homage to Devotional-era Depeche Mode, and it’s all the better for it. An interesting thing happened when In Your Room started. There was a young couple near me, perhaps in their early 20s. When the song started, they conferred briefly and decided that now would be a good time to go to the bar. He actually offered to go by himself, but it turned out she didn’t like it much either. Jesus wept. This happened on a previous tour as well. Perfectly turned out hipster fucked off to the bar when Stripped started. I ask you.

Right, I’ll be honest. I was pretty hammered by this point. Lost both my friends. I was getting text messages from one of them saying that he’d found a kindly security guard who was letting him smoke a fag indoors, but he was so drunk that he couldn’t remember where I was. The other one was AWOL. So perhaps I was a bit preoccupied/bladdered, but I didn’t even notice that the screen was buggered for Where’s The Revolution. At some point during the evening it came back on, but with one panel missing. Shout out to all my OCD brothers and sisters who spent the next 35-40 minutes staring at it. 

The last four songs in the regular set were blinding. Everything Counts (with the obligatory and amazing crowd singalong, told you) is stunning. Stripped, Enjoy The Silence, Never Let Me Down Again… It seems almost pointless to try and use words to describe the brilliance of that particular quartet, particularly when I’m almost certainly preaching to the converted. In my opinion, that’s a stronger four songs than those in the encore. The end of Never Let Me Down Again should be the end of every gig, ever. Even ones by different bands. It’s the perfect ending. It ended the regular set but I think they should swap it with Personal Jesus. And because I effectively pay their wages, I demand that they listen to me.



After a refreshing break of about 35 seconds, Martin returned to give us an acoustic version of Strangelove. It was nice, but I selfishly wished it had been a full performance. Walking In My Shoes was as majestic as ever, but I think it’s better employed earlier in the set. I missed most of A Question of Time as I was on WhatsApp trying to track down the more errant of my two friends. Some sample messages from him: 

‘i just egging’

‘The last thing i ever wanted to do is make you lie to me’

‘Don’t try and hide’

‘Kismet’

‘How can I help you?’

Most of my messages in between followed a common format: 

‘WHERE ARE YOU YOU FUCKING BELL END’

This is what I’m up against. 


But we’ve almost made it. Personal Jesus might be the best song Depeche Mode have ever released. (It isn’t, that’s World In My Eyes. But you might think it is.) It’s a worthy ending to the show, but again, I’d personally prefer it a little earlier. But no complaints, they could probably belt it out whilst in a drug-induced coma (as Fletch appeared to be for much of the evening), but it’s still an awesome sight. And, er, sound. 

So let’s wrap it up with some words about the guys themselves. There was a point, a few tours back, when I used my finely honed abilities in reading body language to infer that Martin wasn’t enjoying himself much. These days he barely stops smiling, the smug bastard. Dave too, he looks like he’s having the time of his life. Because I’m an arsehole, I like to study them both in the hope that I’ll see some cracks in the facade. That maybe Martin’s smile will briefly fade and he’ll do the wanker sign behind Dave’s back. Or Dave will appear from the wings during Martin’s solo stint and pretend to throttle himself in the background. Hasn’t happened yet. I can only conclude that they’re having a ball. Makes you sick. 

Fletch. Fletch. I love Fletch. I once organised a friend’s stag weekend so that I could be in Barcelona when he was DJing there. Stood resolutely by the decks all night, fighting off smaller, less English and less aggressively drunk people for my spot. Stood there for hours and was rewarded with a few words and a handshake. He’s brilliant, and I suspect he’d be a good laugh to have a pint with. So this isn’t a criticism, but when Dave and Martin look so happy on stage, why does Fletch look like someone’s just pissed in his pocket? Give us a smile and get down the front to shake someone’s hand, see if you can still make people faint with the power of touch. Even better, kick Dave in the knackers and sing Mouldy Old Dough during the finale. 

Anyway, the lights came up and I eventually managed to locate my missing friends. We made our way back to my mate’s house, whereupon we spent the next six hours in his studio playing with Alan Wilder’s EMAX sounds and making lots of appreciative ‘oof’ noises. A fine end to a great evening. At around 5am, it occurred to me that I’d told David I’d cobble a review together, at which point I began to sweat. So David, I’m sorry I wasn’t a bit more thorough about the gig itself. Those mojitos were a bit moreish.

Well, if you got this far then thank you for reading. It looks like my mission to get tickets for the tour finale in Berlin is down the toilet, so that’s it for a few years at least. I fucking love Depeche Mode. Over and out.

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Thanks Shaun! 

3 comments:

  1. You weren’t alone. We’d booked a table for food at resorts world & only realised a couple of hours before the gig it wasn’t at the nec. Old habits......

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  2. Brilliant review,proper chuckles throughout, thank you! I was also in Brum November 19th 2017.

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  3. Miss the old DMTV.See the Tonmeister has lost none of his wit.So you are only 42 Shaun,lucky bugger.

    ReplyDelete