Monday, April 28, 2008

Bend Me, Shape Me #1: A Broken Frame

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?
- Rob Gordon, High Fidelity

I want a room that looks like this

So begins the film adaptation of Nick Hornby's seminal (for mix-tape enthusiasts anyway) book High Fidelity. I can't recall if this is an exact quote from the book (I haven't read it in 13 years) but it feels like one. I think it raises an excellent question, and to take it in a slightly different direction, I believe wholeheartedly that the music I listened to in my formative years had an enormous impact on what kind of person I became and what sort of aesthetic I developed.

A couple weekends ago I read an interesting article in the NY Times "Arts & Leisure" section on the reformed band Portishead and the release of Third, their first album in ten years. As I read I couldn't stop thinking how much I loved Portishead's first record Dummy (1994), and indeed how much that record altered my taste in music while it served as a soundtrack to my life for many months. In the spirit of Rob Gordon, I decided to make a list of the ten most influential records in my life, and amended the time span to records that came out during the most malleable and impressionable period in a music lover's life (according to me anyway)– the fifteen years from 11 through 25.

So, with no further ado, I want to kick off the ten part series "Bend Me, Shape Me" with the first record on my chronological list: Depeche Mode's A Broken Frame, released September 27, 1982.

"Where is she going?" I wondered.

I didn't discover A Broken Frame until two years after its release. Depeche Mode didn't really achieve a foothold in the U.S. until 1984 and the release of the single "People are People" from their fourth studio album Some Great Reward. In 1984 I was living in Cincinnati for the second time, and fell under the influence of their "alternative" record station 97X (immortalized by Dustin Hoffman's character in RAIN MAN who kept repeating their tagline "97X... BAM... the future of rock and roll"). Having recently left classic-rock dominated Charlotte, I was taken in by the sounds of new bands like The Smiths, Tears for Fears, The Cure, New Order, and especially Depeche Mode.

I loved "People are People" (my very first 12" remix purchase) and Some Great Reward and saved up enough lawn-mowing money to buy the Mode back catalog on cassette, including their second album A Broken Frame. It's hard to say with any precision now, but it felt like I listened to A Broken Frame every day for a year. The first track "Leave in Silence" is an all-time fave and defines the early Mode sound: dubby, echo chamber synthesizer loops, chunky synth bass, spare drum machine with occasional low-end boom, interspersed with glockenspiel-esque chimes and other metallic percussion, and singing that alternates between gothic chanting, deadpan narration and earnest wailing.

For a teenager faced with all kinds of awakenings, the album's overall tone of alienation and matter-of-fact desperation hit the sweet spot for me. Fortunately, like most Mode records, it's also cut with just enough hope to keep you from slitting your wrists.

By far the weirdest (and, naturally, my favorite) track on the album is "Satellite". It opens with a lilting synth reggae mood that creepily belies the lyrics:

Now hear this my friends
I'll never be the same again
Gonna lock myself in a cold black room
Gonna shadow myself in a veil of gloom

I will function, operate
I will be a satellite of hate

Looking at them now they aren't exactly sophisticated lyrics (though quite sensational for a 20 yr-old songwriter), but they were very affecting at the time. What is a "satellite of hate" I wondered... and do I want to be one too? What could another person do to you that could make you feel this way?

Disillusioned, I was disenchanted
Forgot the love that had been implanted

When I first heard Radiohead's O.K. Computer I thought that A Broken Frame was its spiritual predecessor, both records cold to the touch, obsessed with the disconnection of the modern technological world, and yet filled with a longing for something better that really resonates with me.

Perhaps for some of those reasons, Depeche Mode were always huge in the Soviet bloc of Eastern Europe, and the album's striking cover photograph strongly evokes the shadow of communist Mother Russia. I was only just becoming interested in politics at this time, and though I wasn't sure exactly what they were trying to say in songs like "Monument" (later covered terrifically by Gus Gus for 1997's up-and-down Mode tribute album For the Masses), I was pretty sure they had something to do with communism.

So we picked up our tools and we worked in the morning light
With the last stone placed wasn't it a wonderful sight?
But it fell back down and scattered all around
Anything passes when you need glasses

My monument
it fell down

Work all of my days for this kind of praise
it fell down

The synthesizer work is especially ominous in this one, with plenty of creepy horn sounds and spare electro touches. It's also one of the few tracks on the album where both Dave Gahan and Martin Gore sing... their voices are both so different yet they blend together quite unusually here.

yes, I even loved their haircuts

Even the more bubblegummy songs on the record like "The Meaning of Love" and "A Photograph of You" were fascinating to my young mind. I was used to songs that told me what love was, not ones that asked me what it meant.

The only song off this record that seems to be known by the casual Depeche Mode fan is "See You", which is a sentimental favorite of mine. When you're in Junior High, you suddenly feel like childhood is over yet adulthood hasn't begun and you're simultaneously nostalgic for the past and the future. The lyrics here seemed to match my frame of mind perfectly.

Well I know five years is a long time
And that times change (oh that times change)
But I think that you will find
People are basically the same (basically the same)


Anonymous said...

while you were synthing out every day I was listening to this every day...

Listened to it so many times that it broke...twice. maybe double album cassettes are more fragile?

vive la difference, it's what makes friendship more interesting.


Mr. Word Player said...

I somehow never got on board the Van Morrison train... more of a Van Halen, Jim Morrison kid. just read some great reviews on that album, you'll have to put it on the next time we're hangin' together. it was recorded at the Troubador here in LA in 1974, an old-school venue where I've seen some great shows.

dwr said...

I definitely remember you listening to/touting this album. I also recall what I perceived to be your obsession with The Fixx, which at some point I confused with Styx, prompting me to purchase a Styx album, which, of course, led me to really question the "cool" of my supposedly hip older cousin. I think it was my first "how do people like this shit?" moment as a music fan.

Many moons later at a family gathering, in the midst of a music conversation, I realized, "Ohhhhhh... The Fixx! Not Styx!" Whoops.

Mr. Word Player said...

ha ha dwr! nothing against "Mr Roboto", but Styx just ain't my bag, baby. and yes, I was HUGELY into the Fixx for a long while. in fact, as I was creating my list of top ten influential records, "Shuttered Room" made the final 20 but didn't survive the cut to ten.

what was YOUR most important record in Junior High? I know about your mush-rock phase that followed, but know precious little about the formative years...

dwr said...

Junior High saw me evolving out of Duran Duran and synth-pop and moving into the Cure, REM Eponymous, U2 War, and anything by the Police. I had a friend who tried to turn me onto Van Halen, early Metallica, Anthrax, and punk skate-rock (rocking out to such classics as "Yuppies Eat Puppies" and "He Died with His Reeboks On" was de rigueur for us hard-core, skateboarding street toughs), but it just didn't take.

Phish and WSP didn't get their hooks into me until college, during the early post-grunge days.

Now i listen to classical, jazz, and some select indy/electronic rock.

It's funny, but I don't often feel compelled to listen to the music that once so fed and informed my everyday life, like i do with my other favorite art form - movies. As my music sensibilities have changed, I have mostly left what is passed in the past. I think sometimes you listen to a cherished album or song so often that it marks certain moments in your life, and it's almost sad when you listen to it later and it fails to move you in the same ways.