Watch Depeche Mode pioneer a guitar-free rock show at The Spectrum in June of 1990
Rockist sorts love to wallow in the gloom-and-doom idea that we’re supposedly existing in some sort of cultural dark age because major concerts no longer feature guitar as the front-and-center primary means of expression. As though artists like CHVRCHES, Bastille, Lorde, and Imagine Dragons are incapable of “rocking” with their pulsing, beat-forward aesthetic. As though super trad acts Kings of Leon and Foo Fighters aren’t still packing arenas, with next-gen modern rock acts like The Wonder Years not too far behind, selling out numerous nights at theater-size spaces.
And most crucially, as though guitar-free rock hasn’t been a thing for going on thirty years at this point. Exhibit A: this vintage VHS bootleg of Depeche Mode performing at The Spectrum in South Philadelphia, recorded on June 14th, 1990.
This concert took place on the band’s tour for Violator, one of the most essential rock records of the 90s. Sure, it’s different from “rock” in the 12-bar blues derived way of the genre’s early history, its mod/psych/rockabilly modes. But considering the tonal evolution Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Rechter experienced since the bright and buoyant synthpop sound of their ’81 debut Speak and Spell — and even that record had moments that were lyrically intense to say the least — Violator and its predecessor Music For The Masses packed a powerful punch.
In this performance, Depeche Mode holds court at the Spectrum effortlessly. Look at Gahan striking a Jesus Christ pose on the hammering opener “World In My Eyes.” Watch him bust some wild dance moves as “Master and Servant” gives way into “Never Let Me Down,” especially when the beat drops on the latter. Bathed in purple light, the stage is spacious and sanctuary-like, with two keyboard stations atop circular risers and lots of minimal space around the scene otherwise. Those keyboards are practically the only instruments played, save for Gore donning an acoustic guitar for a mid-set dyptich of “I Want You Now” and “Sweetest Perfection” (presumably a chance for Gahan to slip backstage at The Spectrum, catch his breath, and re-hydrate). And the intensity contained in the slow and sinister sound of “Clean”? Just wow. This video (admittedly rough at points, but still watchable) captures a performance that is hard-hitting, aggressive, captivating, and electrifying…and aren’t those qualities the things we talk about when we’re talking about rock?
Depeche Mode was truly a band ahead of its time. In 1990, it saw a future where music could be driven by emotion moreso than instrumental virtuosity, where songs and styles don’t have to exist in a narrowly confined box, where the idea of connection with crowds could be a more inclusive experience. Watch the gig and check out the setlist below.
World in My Eyes
Shake the Disease
Master and Servant
Never Let Me Down Again
Waiting for the Night
I Want You Now (Acoustic)
Sweetest Perfection (Acoustic)
Policy of Truth
Enjoy the Silence
A Question of Time
Behind the Wheel
Route 66 (Bobby Troup cover)