When Depeche Mode’s ‘Violator’ Nearly Caused a Riot: Book Excerpt
Michael Christopher's upcoming book Depeche Mode: All That's Left to Know About the World's Finest Synth-Pop Band digs into the history of Depeche Mode and their rise from New Wave outliers to kings of the synth-pop genre. (The book, which will be published on Dec. 28, is part of the "Backbeat Books FAQ" series.) In the following excerpt, Christopher looks at how a routine record-store signing in Los Angeles almost ended up as a riot following the release of the band's mainstream breakthrough 1990 album, Violator.
Personally, things weren’t going well for the individual band members. Dave Gahan’s marriage had dissolved, and he was at an emotional loss, turning to drugs for support. His anger was becoming an issue, and at one point in Milan, he started a fight with a cadre of locals who just happened to be walking down the street when he was in a mood. Andy Fletcher was suffering from anxiety and depression, which, while he sympathized, raised Alan Wilder’s ire often as he felt Fletch was beginning to get in the way of the recording. The situation was one in a long line of those which put forth the notion that Fletcher wasn’t really that integral to the process, at least in a musical sense.
Regardless of the individual strife during the making of it, the stars truly aligned for Violator, with a combination of a fully matured synth-pop sound, along with a surprising focus on guitar for the hits “Policy of Truth” and “Personal Jesus.” It blasted onto the charts in the United States at just the right time as the first spring of the 1990s began to bloom. The funk, swagger, and sex hit all the right spots, finally breaking the group in America with a unique fusion that the mainstream hadn’t been exposed to at that point.
Violator was released March 19, 1990, and went to number two on the UK charts. It would peak at number seven in the States that May. The record would top the charts in Belgium, France, Greece, and Spain, while landing in the top five in Austria, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland – the last two where it reached number two.
Martin Gore again used his acerbic humor for the album’s title, telling the NME, “We called it Violator as a joke. We wanted to come up with the most extreme, ridiculously heavy metal title that we could. I’ll be surprised if people will get the joke. However, when we called an album Music for the Masses, we were accused of being patronizing and arrogant. In fact, it was a joke on the uncommerciality of it. It was anything but music for the masses!”
The masses turned out though, and in the United States it was clear Depeche Mode had become one of the hottest British musical outfits to ever succeed in the country, evident when the band arrived at a scheduled signing appearance at the record store Wherehouse in Los Angeles on March 20, 1990. Approximately five thousand fans had been camping out in the lead up to the event, with estimates ranging from fifteen thousand to twenty thousand by the 9:00 p.m. start time.
“We thought it was going to be about thirty people,” Fletcher told a local news station news station. “And it turns out it’s about 17 to 20,000—it’s unbelievable.” Private security hired by the music retailer became overwhelmed, and the LAPD had to call out a “tactical alert,” which is used when an unforeseen incident requires them to quickly mobilize. The line stretched down fifteen city blocks and became so unruly that 130 riot police were called in and the band had to be escorted from the premises after just an hour signing. Responsibility for the damages done were eventually assumed by Wherehouse Entertainment, Inc., who paid the city $18,076 to cover costs.
“Depeche Mode is a British band that was here to promote a new album,” one local news reporter said in the wake of the fiasco. “If you didn’t know who they were before, you do now.”
The incident was covered by media outlets across the country, giving some of the best free publicity a band could ever hope to receive. To thank the fans who unwittingly contributed to raising the Depeche Mode profile in the States, Sire Records pressed twenty-five thousand cassette copies of The Wherehouse 3/20/90, and gave them away free to KROQ listeners who sent in a self-addressed stamped envelope to the station. It contained a twenty-minute interview with the group from the day after the aborted signing, and an exclusive song, “Something to Do (Metal Mix Version).” DJ Richard Blade noted during the interview that it had been the biggest in-store record signing in history, “More than three times bigger than David Lee Roth at Tower Records on Sunset.”
Oh, and that Roth appearance? It took place when the then ex–Van Halen singer was promoting his second solo LP, 1988’s Skyscraper. To announce his arrival at the record store he rappelled from a twenty-eight-foot-high replica of the Alpine mountain the Matterhorn, which coincidentally was depicted on the cover of Depeche Mode’s 1983 album, Construction Time Again, with the appearance it was about to be crushed by a sledgehammer. Here it was a new decade and the parallel couldn’t have been more obvious, with the coming collapse of 1980s’ cock rock and emergence of something fresher and more vibrant, led first by the success of Violator, then followed by grunge.
Excerpted from Depeche Mode: All That's Left to Know About the World's Finest Synth-Pop Band by Michael Christopher. Copyright © 2020. Available from Backbeat Books, an imprint of Globe Pequot.