When Depeche Mode introduced electric guitars into their music on 1987’s Music for the Masses, it opened up the English synth-pop pioneers to a whole new realm of possibilities and a more rock-oriented fanbase.
By 1990, however, the simple yet effective guitars played by chief instrumentalist Martin Gore on songs like “Personal Jesus” and “Policy of Truth” helped make their album Violator the band’s commercial and creative breakthrough, establishing them as a crossover success on par with U2 and The Cure, a feat that didn’t seem possible when the band debuted in America with the goofy, bouncy single “Just Can’t Get Enough” just nine years earlier. Violator peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200, with “Enjoy the Silence,” “Personal Jesus” and “Policy of Truth” hitting the top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100.
The guitars have stuck around for nearly every album they’ve released since, most prominently on 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion and the excellent Spirit, the last proper DM studio LP from 2017. And it’s no secret lead singer Dave Gahan has been delving deep into his love for the blues as the de facto lead singer for the English production team Soulsavers (replacing their previous collaborator Mark Lanegan) over the course of the duo’s last pair of LPs. Depeche calling their 2013 album Delta Machine was a confirmation that their roots in Son House are as powerful as their origins at the plastic feet of Kraftwerk.
Violator remains, 30 years on, the band’s most definitive statement. The short documentary released about the making of the album is called If You Wanna Use Guitars, Use Guitars, and that’s precisely what Martin Gore, David Gahan, Andy Fletcher and former member Alan Wilder achieved in the studio with the man they call Flood at the controls on this exceptional crossover pop classic (the 30th anniversary of which is being commemorated by Rhino Records with a collector’s edition deluxe box set containing ten 12″ vinyl discs showcasing the singles, “Personal Jesus,” “Enjoy The Silence,” “Policy Of Truth,” “World In My Eyes” and all the rare remixes and b-sides that come along).
In honor of Violator turning 30 on March 19, Billboard spoke with a slew of recording artists from all across the world to take their temperature on Depeche Mode’s goth-blues maneuvers of 1990 inspiring their listening habits and helping shape the sound of music for future generations. Here’s what they had to say.
I didn’t follow Depeche Mode’s music closely through the ’80s as I was consumed with punk/underground but when I heard Violator, I recall I was surprised by its level of darkness. I think I initially heard it because it’d been released on Mute and I’d check out anything from the label that had The Bad Seeds and Einstürzende Neubauten on its roster. The singles were everywhere on the radio, “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy The Silence” and the future-gloom felt like it had made it to the mainstream. The ubiquitous cover art by Anton Corbijn perfectly symbolized the sound — the image of a flower but filtered to leave only black and red. Gothic and pretty. Flood’s production was very much the sound of that moment: industrial plus pop plus euro-techno. Because much of the music was spacious, it allowed the lyrics for songs like “The Sweetest Perfection” and “Waiting For The Night” to clearly dive into the subjects of addiction, sexuality and despair. In 2003, along with Maxim Moston and Jane Scarpantoni, I recorded the strings on Dave Gahan’s Paper Monsters album. Listening to Violator now I’m more into it than ever. Thanks DM! – Joan Wasser, Joan As Police Woman
Let’s go on a journey back through time. Eighth grade. Marilyn Manson puts out “Personal Jesus” — I am immediately very into it. I’m animatedly singing its praises at school when one of my classmates interjects and says, “Uh, that’s a cover. It’s by Depeche Mode.” Sure, he pronounced their name as “Depetchy Mode,” but he was correct. I’d heard of them, yet somehow one of their biggest radio hits had totally missed my radar. I went home and downloaded Violator on Limewire (those were the days) and listened to it all. I learned that I’d definitely heard “Enjoy the Silence” before. I loved the forthright, brooding declarations of Dave Gahan. And the synth arrangements made me realize that maybe Trent Reznor wasn’t the only person capable of perfectly producing and utilizing those kinds of effects. As an adult, having a copy of Violator on vinyl became necessary as soon as I had a record player. It’s been out for thirty years?! Happy birthday, Violator, you’re a real one. – Rae Amitay, Immortal Bird
I feel like Violator was the perfect gateway record for someone who is largely into guitar-driven music in a sense. I feel like it was the beginning of them showing an interest in a bluesier sound despite the fact it’s a largely electronic record. But it’s something that’s super present now on their latest albums. Some of it is just straight up blues guitar, like on Delta Machine, which fully expands the umbrella of their definition. The thing I love most about Depeche Mode when I go back and listen to their records is how they’ve always served as a barometer for whatever new style of electronic music was at its moment. If you listen to Speak & Spell early on, it’s like all this late late ’70s monophonic synthesizer stuff, and it has such a distinctive sound to it. Then you flash forward ten years later to Violator and it’s all this FM and sample-based stuff, and I can only imagine at the time how cutting edge that shit was. Not even just in technology, but to bring it into the context of what a pop record was and it’s wild to think about now. – Neon Indian
I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. Before the internet… Outside of my grandfather being way into old country, I didn’t have much of a musical family. Fortunately, I had a cousin go off to college which meant I eventually got my hands on one of her mixtapes. This was probably 91-92, so we had The Cure’s “Lovesong,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” etc., and the lone synth band, Depeche Mode. Gore’s songwriting and Gahan’s vocal immediately struck me. Dark, brooding melody wasn’t something I had much experience with by that point. This would eventually become a lifelong obsession and possibly a formula to my detriment as a novice songwriter. Black Celebration through Ultra are still timeless, constant plays in my record collection, but Violator will always be the standard, the gateway, not only to the band’s discography, but to my fascination with the electronic/synth-based genre as a whole. – Jeff Wilson, Chrome Waves
It’s the height of summer, around 34 degrees. Seven bodies laid out on the grass somewhere in Cologne. It’s 2017 and it’s been four days since we lost the keys to the tour bus. Inside the tour bus is all our passports and belongings. We have one phone with charge between us. The phone has no data and the only album downloaded onto it is Violator. When “Sibeling” comes round for the 4th time that day I hear someone mumble ‘I feel like we’re going to die here.’ We all nod in agreement. But then the album replays and we all start enjoying ourselves again. Someone’s made friends with some locals and managed to get us some free beers. We laugh about the fact that the only album we have is Violator and the first words of the first song are literally “Let me take you on a trip.” We’ve made the joke before but it feels wrong not to mention it every time. “Personal Jesus” seems to be our favorite, and some of us get up and dance like something out of Midsommar. Someone returns with a bottle of Campari just as “Blue Dress” begins. Cigarette rations are passed around. Soon “Memphisto” will come round and we will all be aware that the strange journey is about to begin again. I haven’t listened to the album since. – Diva, Jadu Heart
My first real connection with Depeche Mode was prolly hearing Failure cover “Enjoy The Silence” – they did it so well that I found myself easily drawn to the original. Then at some point, I had a cassette copy of Violator that rarely left the tape deck in my car. The demos for this album are also great and very much worth seeking out for a minimalist spin. – Stephen Brodsky, Cave In
I was 12 years old when Violator was first released, but I have a vivid memory of seeing the video for “Enjoy the Silence” on television at the time (probably on The Chart Show). Even at such a young age I remember being mesmerized and it really connected with me. Apart from it being one of the greatest songs of all time, the imagery of Dave as the King wandering in the mountains was a strange mixture of escapism and melancholy which always stayed with me.
When I was in my teens I started to discover Depeche Mode’s album catalogue properly, mostly in reverse order, and Violator was, and still is, a hugely inspiring album for me. I think the synth pop’ tag is often misplaced when it comes to Depeche Mode. Violator is an incredibly soulful album. The intriguing, sometimes provocative, lyrics, the sexiness, the dark euphoria and crisp production, and, of course, the melodies and ‘hooks’ make it a compelling listen from start to finish. It sounds like nothing else that was released in 1990, and much like Dave in the mountains, it stands alone and majestic, transcending the era it was released in. – Maps
To write this story I just put on the Violator album to get back in touch with the feelings I had when I first popped the cassette tape into the stereo of my 1968 green Volkswagen Bug on March 19, 1990. The Bug had a pretty amazing speaker system, my dad had installed it as it was his car before he gave it to me on my 16th bday. He had bought a Delorean and didn’t need the VW anymore! For the record my dad would play Jean-Michel Jarre and Kitaro as we drove in his Delorean down the coastline from San Francisco to Big Sur, and he would tell me how the future of all music would be electronic.
I had graduated high school in 1989, and by 1990 I was completely immersed in my college dreams and getting out of the bay area. This record was the soundtrack to me exploring my future to be. I remember the cassette I bought, it was purchased at Tower Records on El Camino in Mountain View, Calif, now better known as the Silicon Valley. I purchased it on cassette specifically so I could listen to it as I drove around. I had my mall job at Nordstrom, I had my boyfriend in Redwood City, I had my drives over the mountains to Santa Cruz, drives with my dad in his Delorean, (he would play my music). I had my drive in the middle of the night when I would sneak out of my window to meet my friends (“Waiting for the Night”). This album got me into my soon to be adulthood, it gave me the power and the attitude to fearlessly explore myself (“Personal Jesus”), dissolving my insecurities around exploring sexually, (“World in my Eyes”). Interesting fact, Gareth Jones (Depeche Mode, Erasure, Grizzly Bear) would later mix my first EP In the Light. He actually recorded “Stripped,” I didn’t realize that when we covered it. We decided to do a Depeche Mode cover because they’ve always been one of my favorite bands and I don’t think they’ve been given enough credit. When we played a live radio session in for Xray FM in Portland OR, not knowing who they were, EMA the artist was there shadowing the engineer at the studio. We did our “Stripped” cover and Erika (EMA) came running out of the sound booth “OMG, I just opened for Depeche Mode on a world tour, that song is so in me from that tour, I can’t believe you just played it!” I love my connection to them, it feels really magical to me. – Shana Falana
My vocal style ultimately owes more to Dave Gahan than anyone, probably. That little melodic figure in “Clean,” where he dips low on “…what is in my own *hands*,” I end up accidentally jacking that over and over again in my own songs. When I was nine, “Enjoy the Silence” was all over the radio, and it was the first music ever to give me goosebumps. It didn’t even occur to me that I could get the album and listen to the song whenever I wanted. I somehow thought that buying albums was some rebellious thing only badass teenagers could do, something I couldn’t ask my parents about. I thought my only option was to secretly tape it off the air. So I would wait for long stretches for the song to come on Z100, with this tiny red mini-boombox my parents had, my finger on the record button. I couldn’t catch a full take of the song for weeks, and when my parents saw what I was doing, they offered to take me to Sam Goody and get the tape. I was ecstatic. And I wasn’t even prepared for the other eight pitch-black tracks, every one as gripping as “Enjoy.” – Charlie Looker, Psalm Zero
Violator is one of my personal top 5 albums of all time. I was a kid at summer camp when it came out and one of my friends gave me the tape. I had just moved to a new town, very shy, didn’t know anyone, fighting with my mother and in full pre-teen angst mode so this album could not have been more perfect. It was on repeat that entire summer and fall as I sang along with Dave, out of my vocal range, alone in my room. The unique melodies, progressions and arrangements affected me deeper than I was aware of at the time. The lyrics were for the most part mysterious poetry and it didn’t matter if I understood fully the context. I somehow understood the transmission completely. As a whole album it just flows. These songs lay dormant inside me until I started singing, writing music and playing synthesizers years later. I believe I am unconsciously always striving to create music as deep and interesting and essential as the perfection that is Violator. When I listen now it makes me happy to think about how something so creative and somewhat experimental in pop music became so popular. – Monika Heidemann, Phenomenal Handclap Band
Violator has always been my favorite Depeche Mode record. It felt darker and more dangerous than their previous work yet still sleek and keeping their pop sensibilities in place. Violator was a huge influence on my project with James Dewees, Death Spells.” – Frank Iero, My Chemical Romance
Growing up in a very strict religious home where listening to secular music was particularly verboten, Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus” was one of the few massive pop songs that pierced the holy armor and made its way in. It felt like the song’s undeniability reached across all manner of walls and barriers, whether religion or genre, touching everyone from punks to goths to new wavers to rockists to all the regular kids out there not even paying attention, inspiring all kinds of people to get down to the same song in spite of their differences, like a “We Are the World” for a weird generation. – Michael Tapper from Practice
“Silence” is just one of those perfect songs that can’t age. The beat, the lyrics, that haunting vibe that you can’t help but dance to. I remember hearing it for the first time as a kid, my mom blasting it on the car stereo and me just begging her to play it again and again. I think I drove her crazy that summer. – Nicole Mercedes
My first introduction to Depeche Mode was a Depeche Mode 101 VHS lent to me by my geography teacher. I quickly fell in love with the band and their minimal, powerful imagery. Violator was no exception. A truly classic album in every sense of the word. – Matthew “Murph” Murphy of Love Fame Tragedy, frontman of The Wombats
I can’t hear this record without conjuring up images of my parents’ musty basement. Shots of vodka. Cordless telephones. The sentiment of youth. Head out the car window, hair blowing in the breeze down a winding country road. Freedom. It’s sexy nostalgia. Perhaps the perfect make-out record. With an undeniable rhythm that calls to the whole body. Perhaps something I’m always returning to in my own work. – Lou Canon
When I was coming up, I’d go to these new wave dance parties. They always had some dumb name like “Shakin’ To Be” or “Boys Don’t Jive,” that kind of thing. But what’s in a name, you know? What I mean is, whenever they threw one, I was there. For us, they were real-deal heaven, a degenerate Shangri-La, “120 Minutes” with booze and make-outs. It’s where I first heard Violator — more specifically, “Policy Of Truth.” Look, I don’t know if it was drugs or lust or youth, but when you dance to that record in a dark room with someone you really want to kiss, it cracks you in half. And lifts the dust—for a little while anyway. Here’s the thing, if you need it super abridged, listen to :48-1:07. If you’ve got a bit more, listen to 2:54-3:34. But mostly, listen to the whole thing, Side A, Side B, top-to-bottom. When you come back, good and cracked, all this sentimental rambling will make a lot more sense. Or it won’t. Either way, there’ll be a strange ease in your next footstep. Mine, too. – James Alex, Beach Slang
Violator changed everyone’s perception of Depeche Mode, in some ways, it was the beginning for the band. This album gave them a real gravitas, with more provocative, lustful and supposedly filthy subject matters, I think people were shocked into wanting to be that brave and outspoken too. The album stirred people up, the new desire for the band evident in the hysteria and ‘rioting’ at their L.A. signing. This album was the moment their real purpose, importance and worth as Artists’ was cemented. The songs are well-crafted, confidently simple and earnest, and people fed off of that. – Sarah Palmer, Fassine
From a songwriting perspective, Violator taught me the importance of layering melodies, and using sounds differing timbral qualities. There’s this collective feeling of sparseness that sucks you into the rhythm first, but underneath the hood it is this masterpiece of intricate countermelody and syncopation without ever sounding busy. My favorite track is “Policy Of Truth” – it’s one of those songs that can make any house party feel like a darkened gothed-out disco — which is you know, the only way to disco. – Art d’Ecco
My band played many TV shows in Europe in the mid-80s with DM when they were the Dagenham pop band and I kind of lost focus on them as they moved over to the States. The next time I saw them was in Toronto in 1990 and I expected the gig to be in a big club; but oh no….. they were playing the Violator tour to a sold out 30,000-seater Skydome. It absolutely blew my mind at what a huge sounding, rocking mega-band they had become. And this album’s collection of songs sounded massive!
Lastly on a somber note, I saw them play in London in 2017 and on the way home from the show our train was stopped because of an incident; eventually an hour later we were all marched off and discovered that that was the night that there had been 8 fatal stabbings around London Bridge. Violated! – Nick Feldman, Wang Chung
“It was the crack of the nineties that Violator hit the scene, I was just a kid growing up in Australia but still took notice of their exploration into synthesizers and the twang of their guitar. It was mostly those music videos that had the most immediate effect. They would play on “Rage” Sunday mornings (Australia’s equivalent to MTV). It was only later that I realized how much these mornings had rubbed off me in pursuit of my own creative endeavors, whether it be my music or my music videos. Without a doubt, they inspired my sense of urban cowboy fashion, with an eagerness for fringe, leather and a little makeup; I have “Personal Jesus” to thank for that. – Zebedee Row from ZEBEDEE (played Robert Plant on HBO’s Vinyl)
This whole album and the vocalist’s expression reminds me of The Doors and Jim Morrison. Especially “World in My Eyes.” And the lyrics are also very very similar not in a copy paste sense but in a good sense. This album is full of poetry and full of romanticism. It’s strange because I didn’t see this connection before. Of course I don’t know if Depeche Mode are fans of The Doors. The sound of the whole album is like a factory and from pre-Atari period. Now it sounds almost primitive and I think it is its biggest value nowadays, when it is possible do at home a DIY production of great sounds which are ten times better than on this album. But less is more. Technology is not all. Ideas and spirit are the most important. And this is the key value of Violator. So I am listening to this album after many years of not listening and I can hear a mantra repetitive spiritual high quality stuff. I didn’t expect it. In my teenager mind it was all about entertainment and masses. And now I can hear and see real spiritual world full of poetry, full of Philip Glass repetitive solutions and instrumental minimalism almost in a Krautrock manner. And the lyrics. Very, very poetic lyrics. William Blake and Jim Morrison kind but also full of Biblical allusions. Really great work of art. As I wrote earlier: this album in some way sounds like music from an early computer games era. Cause that was this period. It’s tiny but in same time it’s huge. The spirit is huge. And what are the cons? Cause there are some. I really don’t like “Blue Dress” lyrics which is sexist and macho. This is the tone of a mentor and teacher – the man who teaches women how she should behave. I totally prefer the poetic metaphors like “Personal Jesus” instead of this “Blue Dress” macho spirit. Also the song “Dangerous” has got this macho atmosphere but not as intense as on “Blue Dress.” I guess it was in some way the spirit of the time and the same problem is present in some songs by The Doors. – Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, Trupa Trupa
I remember my first AIM screen name I ever chose: EnjoyTheSilence. The first time I heard Depeche Mode was on the radio driving through the deserts of Tesuque, New Mexico as a single-digit child. “Enjoy the Silence” came on, and I was completely consumed by the darkness and subdued quality that resonated within the reverb of the Moog synth against Dave Gahan’s voice and Martin Gore’s amazingly tasteful and reserved guitar notes. Fast forward a few years, 1997 – I was in Mazatlan, Mexico with my family and I saw their music video for “It’s No Good” on Mexico’s MTV. I remember taking my dad (for his birthday) to see Dave Gahan play at the Hammerstein Ballroom with my first paycheck I earned working in a musical instrument store as a 16-year-old. A few years later and my dad bought a guitar (he’s a drummer) and I remember teaching him how to play the guitar lead for ‘Home’ on his shiny new candy apple red Strat. If there’s one thing I learned from Martin Gore, it’s that less can be more, and you can get a great deal of connective musical resonance through fewer notes. Here I am, all these years later, and Depeche Mode still affects the way I write music, be it for personal use or professional for composing. – Jesse Zuretti, guitarist of Binary Code and composer for Marvel Entertainment
Violator is an innovative record made by true inventors of the craft. Hearing “Personal Jesus” more and more as time goes by reminds me that no matter what a band may achieve you always have to write a song the way music is made, sitting down with people you ride or die for and creating something together that only the power of the people combined can make. Watching videos of David command the stage is an intense experience – so much swagger and “it” factor, it’s impossible to not fall in love with everything he is. I learn something new every time I watch a Depeche Mode performance or listen to the records. Being a drummer, I’m always drawn to rhythm. The way they use rhythm as a concept on Violator is an unmatched challenge amongst its peers.
Every spot of sonic atmosphere is occupied and for me it always engages every bit of interest. There’s so much to analyze I’m still bowing down to the execution of all these ideas. Violator is truly a defining record of its time and still stands strong and respected today. – Lars Oslund of New Primals
Violator is the album from my teenager years that I know by heart. But only now can I see why it has been such a big influence on me until this day. Only now, looking back to that Lithuania of the 1990s, just before the country’s independence, to my hometown of Panevėžys, where at that time the local “mafia” was higher than any authorities… There was MTV and David Gahan in that king costume, dragging his chair… And there was me, a teenager in his room… In some way this album was like a preparation for our freedom to come. – Giedrius Kiela, Solo Ansamblis