Songs of Faith and Devotion was a huge success for Depeche Mode but it came at a cost. Dave descended into a drugs hell, Martin was drinking more and more, Fletch had a form of breakdown and Alan was left doing all the actual musical work. Come the end of the USA 94 tour the band was in a mess basically. 1995 wasn't really a lot better. Dave had many well publicised drug problems ending with a near fatal overdose in LA meaning that any studio work in 1996 was a struggle as he could barely sing at times. Alan meanwhile shocked the DM world by leaving on 1 June 1995. He felt that his work within the band wasn't appreciated enough and that he couldn't go on - understandable given his incredible contributions to the likes of Violator and SOFAD. All this meant that when Martin finally got some songs together the band went into the studio as a three piece as they did in 1982 for A Broken Frame following Vince's departure albeit this time they had a barely functioning lead singer, a songrwriter on whose shoulders the entire musical burden had been placed and no See You type song for Fletch to at least play bass. Surely this couldn't end well.
Well it did end well. It gave us Ultra, an in places sparse, in others majestic album that is essentially the sound of a hangover and here's how it all came about.
The first sniff of what was to come came on 3 February 1997 when the band's comeback single Barrel of A Gun was released. This was quite an ear opener (is that a phrase?). The song starts with some electronic pulsing and whirring and then the drums blast in. Dave starts snarling, Martin plays a wah-wah ish guitar line and we're off. It's an incredibly striking, hard sounding song with lyrics that Martin insists weren't written with Dave in mind but you have to doubt that. Tim Simenon's production really suits the track too as does Anton's wonderful, colourful in places video which as ever seems to bare no relation to the song. I still remember hearing BOAG for the first time with a mixture of sheer joy (DM are back! Woohoo) and surprise (how heavy does that sound?). The song reached number 4 in the UK equalling DM's best ever chart showing (People Are People 1984). Format wise we had a standard 12" and cd single (right - 12BONG25 and CDBONG25 each having the same artwork) each featuring a mixture of tracks. The 12" comes in a marvellous glossy gatefold and has 5 versions of the title track. In order we have the standard version (great - see above), Underworld Hard Mix (No. Seriously. No. Why? I mean WHY??), 3 Phase Mix (rather nice), One Inch Punch Mix (Version 2)(good - why not version one though?) and the Underworld Soft Mix (much better). The Underworld Hard Mix is a crime, it really is. The CD single for BOAG, as with all other Ultra single releases came in a bizarre back to front box which is really hard to describe as I don't have it in front of me at the moment. Looking at the picture above, you would think that the case would open to the right as usual. It didn't however - you had to turn it over to open it or something. Wierd. Anyway, we had 4 tracks on the CD - Barrel of A Gun in its standard, Underworld Soft and One Inch Punch (version 1) guises and a new b-side called Painkiller. It's a beast of a track running to around 7 minutes. It's instrumental but really really good.
Limited editions were soon to follow with a 12" (L12BONG25 - left) and CD single. The 12" comes in a lovely silver cover and runs with Painkiller as its' A side which was a first for Depeche not to be repeated until The Darkest Star remixes were released on their own as part of the Suffer Well single campaign (see future blog which at my rate will be around 2013). The four tracks on the record are Painkiller (Plastikman Mix), Painkiller, Barrel of A Gun (One Inch Punch Mix (v1)) and Barrel of A Gun (United Mix). Both new mixes here are good - Plastikman has a nice take on Painkiller and the United Mix of BOAG may well be my favourite mix of the BOAG lot. The Limited CD (LCDBONG25 - right) gave us the Plastikman mix of Painkiller and the United and Underworld Hard mixes of BOAG. All in all a decent enough batch of mixes but the less said about the Underworld attempts the better really. The band even hated the Hard mix at first and had Underworld re-do it. I dread to think what the first attempt sounded like. Fans of facts will be delighted to learn that the L12 here was the only L12 of the Ultra campaign. Fancy that. Actually, here's another fact for you - when they played on Top of The Pops Anton played drums on stage.
After the sonic slap in the chops of Barrel of a Gun we were then treated to what can only be described as one of the all time great Depeche Mode singles It's No Good. As well as having all the elements of a classic DM (the bass line, the melody, the genius lyrics) it also came with one of their best ever videos with Anton setting the band up as a hotel bar band down on their luck playing for cash. You have to see it. In my perpetually changing All Time Depeche Mode Top Ten, It's No Good will always be top 5 - it's just bloody brilliant (which would have been a more accurate title). The song reached number 5 in the UK on its release on 31 March 1997 which was a really good effort giving DM four UK top ten songs in a row (Condemnation, In Your Room, BOAG and ING) for the first time ever.
We had four formats to play with this time including the first cassette single of the Ultra lot CBONG26 (right) which featured two tracks - It's No Good and Slowblow. The latter is a slow ish instrumental which never really goes anywhere or does anything. It's not in the same league as Painkiller put it that way. The 12" contains 5 remixes of It's No Good with none of them at all coming close to the brilliance of the original version of the song. 12BONG26 (left) offers us the Hardfloor, Speedy J, Motor Bass, Andrea Parker and Dom T mixes of the songs. Only the Andrea Parker and Speedy J mixes work for me really. The rest are all a bit bland and do nothing for me at all. We had two cd's too - CDBONG26 (same cover as 12BONG) and LCDBONG26 (left) both of which came in the frustrating cd cases. The standard CD had the standard version of It's No Good together with the Speedy J mix, the Bass Bounce mix (one of the better mixes here) and a Darren Price remix of Slowblow which again is pretty poor. LCDBONG had the Hardfloor, Andrea Parker and Motor bass mixes from 12BONG and the original mix of Slowblow. All in all fairly unsatisfactory which is really disappointing when you consider the quality of It's No Good.
As good as the singles were the real interest was in the album and whether or not Depeche could pull off an album in keeping with their usual quality without Alan's input and despite their by now well publicised issues (see all the press from that time and from then until now). Ultra was released on 14 April 1997 and did not disappoint. Brilliantly produced by Tim Simenon and released on LP (STUMM148), cassette (CSTUMM148) and CD (CDSTUMM148 - all sleeves the same and on the left) the album reached number 1 in the UK and an equally impressive number 5 in the US. Depeche were clearly still a very big band. The album's tracks are - Barrel of A Gun, The Love Thieves, Home, It's No Good, Uselink, Useless, Sister of Night, Jazz Thieves, Freestate, The Bottom Line, Insight and Junior Painkiller. Three of these are instrumental link things - Uselink (featuring Daniel Miller on System 100M modular synth), Jazz Thieves (Christ - why?) and Junior Painkiller which is just a snippet of Painkiller.
Singles aside (See above and below) their are some amazing and frankly classic Depeche songs here. The Bottom Line is one of the greatest Martin sung songs ever if only for its rather marvellous DM take on country music. Sister Of Night is phenomenal and features some fantastic noise in its middle section. Insight is a beautiful song and was hugely welcome when Martin added to his "Songs that ever Peter Gordeno's piano twattery can't ruin" section on the SOTU tour. Then we have The Love Thieves which slightly nonsensical lyrics aside is a great track. Oh yeah - finally there is Freestate a song so erm...not very good that it would have souned fine on Exciter. I don't like, never have and never will. That apart though Ultra is a fantastic album. I would love to have seen it without Freestate, Jazz Thieves and Junior Painkiller as that would have made for a nigh on perfect release but what can you do?
The band chose not to tour Ultra which was wise given the fun and games of 1993/94 althought they did play release parties in Los Angeles and London where they played the album's four singles and Never Let Me Down Again with Dave Clayton on keyboards. The lack of a tour meant that album and its singles lost some impetus which explains why Home, the third single from Ultra reached a poor UK number 23 on its release on 16 June 1997. Home is a Martin sung song and is easily one of his best. It's almost perfection and no matter what version he plays live (full, remixed or piano) it's always a highlight of a set. It's one of the songs that I've discovered is liked by a lot of people who don't really know or like much DM. It really should have done better on release.
The single came in four formats all featuring artwork by Anton's daughter who was 5 or so at the time. I presume he shared his fee with her. The cassette single (CBONG27 - right) featured the standard version of Home and a decent live version of It's No Good from the London Ultra Party on 10 April 1997. Two CD singles were again available in the same oddball cases. CDBONG27 (left) featured 4 versions of Home. The standard one we all know. Next we have Air "Around The Golf" Remix a remix by the then fashionable French retrochaps Air. It's a brilliant 7" length remix which is a joy to hear. DM liked it so much that Martin incorporated it into the version of Home on the Touring The Angel tour. Track 3 is the LFO Meant To Be mix by LFO. It's fine but is a bit tinny really. Finally we have The Noodles and The Damage Done of which the title is the best thing. It's pretty crap. LCDBONG27 (right) kicked off with the Jedi Knights Remix (Drowning in Time) which is quite cool and has loads of neighbour annoying noises. Next up we have the Grantby Mix which is again fairly short but isn't too bad. Barrel of a Gun (excellent) and It's No Good from the Ultra party end proceedings. The 12" (12BONG27 -same sleeve as CDBONG) had 4 mixes - Jedi Knights, Air, LFO and Grantby. All in all a more satisfying package than the It's No Good one. The video features the band hanging around hotel rooms looking moody whilst various other people mooch about. Not a classic.
The final single was Useless which arrived on 20 October 1997 stalling at a poor number 28 in the UK. The video is great. It features the band hanging around in a disused quarry shouting a the poor woman who is apparently filming them. Martin has a rather off haircut in it. We only got three formats this time. First up we had CDBONG28 (Left) which had three tracks and - holy technological breakthrough Batman! - the Barrel of a Gun video. Stick the cd into your PC and there it is. This was something quite fancy at the time. The main track and indeed the version that was infrequently played on the radio is Useless (remix) a much improved version of the album track. It's just feels faster and louder though it probably isn't. Track two is Useless (Escape from Wherever: Parts 1 & 2) which is 7 minutes 17 seconds of tedium really. The final mix on the package is the Cosmic Blues Mix which is ok. LCDBONG27 (right) gave us two remixes, a live track and another video this time for It's No Good. The live version of Useless from the Ultra party featured and is again pretty good. Remix wise, the real winner here is The Kruder and Dorfmeister Session which comes in around 9 minutes long. It's a totally new take on the song featuring samples from the likes of Policy of Truth and is well worth hearing. Finally we have CJ Bolland's Ultrasonar mix which is very good but not quite as good as the K&D mix.
The 12" (12BONG27 - left) adds two new mixes. Firstly there's another CJ Bolland mix this time called the Funky Sub Mix. It's a bit more jungly/drum and bassy than the other mix as was teh musical fashion at the time. Certainly seems like that to me anyway. Next is the Air 20 Mix which starts off like Erasure but develops into something pretty decent. The K&D Session rounds off the 12". Overall the mixes here are really interesting as the band let the artists remix the tracks how they wanted and that paid off.
So that was that. A band that many people thought they wouldnt see again came back with an album of excellent quality and a number of songs that have become Depeche Mode classics. No doubt delighted with the results the band would reconvene in 1998 for a Singles compilation and their first world tour in four years. Once I get Christmas out of the way I'll write about that. Thank you once again to depechemode.com , depeche-mode.com and depechemode.tv for information and pictures and thank you for reading. Have a good Christmas and I'll see you in 2012.