Every year when the Summerfest lineup is announced, I look at it with anticipation. I don’t even know what I’m looking for, but I know that Summerfest matters to me and that it can often deliver something I want to see.
Actually, that’s not true. I know exactly what I’m looking for: Depeche Mode, World Violation tour, Marcus Amphitheater, June 30, 1990. Which is to say I’m looking for the perfect show.
In my mind, the perfect show involves a band that I already like (check) playing a bunch of songs I already know (check), playing some current songs that are being played live in the city for the first time (check) in support of one the greatest albums they will ever release (check) and one of the most influential albums of all-time (check). You know, something simple like that.
Shows like that are few and far between. It takes a nearly perfect confluence of events and an all-time band to deliver it. Few will ever experience such a thing in their lives. However, if you were at the Marcus Amphitheater on June 30, 1990, you did get to experience it. If you did, I’m incredibly jealous of you because that just might be the best Summerfest show ever.
That night, Depeche Mode played seven songs off of Violator and every one of them has become a staple of Depeche Mode live shows and greatest hits playlists. That’s a greater hit rate than Buster Douglas had in 1990. At this time, Depeche Mode was definitely a bigger deal in their home country of England than they were in the U.S., but this album and tour would change all of that. Mixing these new, soon-to-be all-time great songs with already established hits from Music For The Masses and Black Celebration proved to be a winning formula on this night and the entirety of their World Violation tour.
The band let everyone in attendance know what this show was going to be about from the beginning, starting off with “World In My Eyes” and following it up with “Halo”—two songs from the new album, neither of which had been released as singles at the time. By beginning with “World In My Eyes,” the band let you know exactly what was to come on this night:
Let me take you on a trip
Around the world and back
And you won’t have to move
You just sit still
Besides the sitting still part, the trip was on and Depeche Mode followed those two Violator songs with three straight crowd pleasers: “Shake The Disease,” “Everything Counts,” and “Master And Servant.” In preparation of this article, I listened to a bootleg of this show, and the crowd was already having a great time. However, it wasn’t until the following song, “Waiting For The Night,” that the crowd fully realized and invested in what the band was doing. One of the slowest songs from the album was met with cheers and applause. Re-listening to this, I was shocked at just how loud the crowd was getting for what seemed to be a slowdown song.
The first time the band let the crowd breathe from the deluge of bangers was more than 40 minutes into the show, when they played “I Want You Now” off of 1987’s Music For The Masses. They followed it up with “World Full Of Nothing” from 1986’s Black Celebration, also acoustic. Martin Gore played these songs with only an acoustic backing, so “breathe” is a bit of a misnomer. Gore’s songwriting is legendary, but he sings only sparingly on Depeche Mode’s discography. Him taking the reins here, letting the songs speak for themselves by ditching the orchestral synth sound for a simplified acoustic presentation, was no breather at all. Instead, it drew attention to the band’s songwriter and showed that these songs were more than a bunch of samples and layered computer noises.
The band returned to their trademark songs with “Clean,” another song off Violator. The song served as a nice primer of what was to come, when Depeche Mode decided they’d had enough of putting on a pretty good live show and decided to go on a run that took the end of the show to another stratosphere. From this point forward, they decided to put on an all-time collection of hits. I mean that with no shade on “Clean”—it’s a fine song, but the five-song journey that Depeche Mode went on after that just might have been one of the greatest runs in Summerfest and greater Milwaukee history. I’d put it right up there with Giannis’ Game 6 in the NBA Finals, the Brewers winning 13 straight in 1987, and closing Wolski’s every night of a four-day weekend.
The run that they went on begins with “Stripped,” considered by songwriter Martin Gore to be one of the band’s best songs and a song perfect for their live show. The song is pure Depeche Mode: it’s catchy yet dark, with a dirty sound that only this band can deliver. Even as a fan of the group, I sometimes hear the beginning of this song with the car sounds and wonder what the hell I’m listening to, but the slow start builds to something much greater that completely reels you in and sets the stage perfectly for what is to come. That’s true in the song itself and that was especially true on this night in the Marcus Amphitheater.
“Policy Of Truth” was up next, a single that had only been out for a little over at the month at the time. A crowd pleaser, sure, but another song that only makes sense if it’s by this band. It’s synth pop that only Depeche Mode can deliver with one of the band’s most pleasing rhythms. Gore’s trademark dark lyrics speak of needing to lie to keep up appearances, a classic Depeche Mode bait-and-switch. Oh, you think you’re listening to a catchy pop tune? Actually, this one’s about emotional betrayal. I love it. Never change, Depeche Mode.
I’ve seen the song described as bluesy and a tribute to Motown for the modern day, which are the kind of descriptions that you can only read in a music review. I admire people who can make those connections, but to me, this song just sounds like Depeche Mode…which is to say that it rocks and I would have loved to hear it live at Summerfest.
They followed that up with “Enjoy The Silence,” which in my opinion is the all-time Depeche Mode song. I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, as this is their biggest hit, but still. The song features some of the best lyrics that Martin Gore would ever write and ones that speak perfectly to the experience of listening to Depeche Mode. When Dave Gahan sings “Words are very unnecessary / They can only do harm,” he might as well be talking about Depeche Mode songs. You can dig into the lyrics and think this band is too dark or that Gore was depressed writing it or whatever meaning you want to put onto it. If you read too much into them, you’re missing the point. The point being, the music is fantastic and this is one of the greatest songs ever created.
In recent years, this has become one of the songs that Gahan just needs to hold up the microphone to the crowd and they do his job for him.
All I ever wanted
All I ever needed
Is here in my arms
The song wasn’t quite there yet in terms of adoration, which is something that seems impossible to think now. If Depeche Mode were to announce a tour tomorrow and they played this song, you would hear every voice in the building singing along to this one. In 1990? Not so much. I will say that in the bootleg I listened to, once this song hit, you could sense a shift in the crowd. The song just hit different than anything they had played up to that point and, while they might not have known just how much they would grow to love it in later years, the crowd reacted accordingly. This was it. This was the moment. This is what you go to Summerfest for. This is why you see live music.
The band had some fun with the music of “Enjoy The Silence,” expanding the runtime to more than seven minutes, and then went right into what Martin Gore lists right beside it as one of their poppiest singles, “Strangelove.” On a personal level, this song will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was the first Depeche Mode song to really grab me. The delivery of “Yes, and I’ll make it all worthwhile / I’ll make your heart smile” perfectly encapsulates the feelings that I wish I could’ve felt at this moment. It was 90 degrees on June 30, 1990. Anyone who has been to Summerfest knows how hot and miserable that can feel, but it would’ve been all worthwhile.
“Personal Jesus” closed out the set, their seventh and final song from Violator of the night. Released as a single earlier that year, peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, it was their biggest hit in the United States since 1984’s “People Are People.” It’s safe to say that a lot of people were there because they wanted to hear this particular song, and Depeche Mode delivered a strong performance, with the crowd singing a back-and-forth “Reach out and touch faith” with Gahan. “Personal Jesus” provided a fitting end to the five-song run as Depeche Mode was able to make believers out of each and every audience member at the Marcus Amphitheater.
After that song, Depeche Mode said goodnight to a loud applause and that was it—but let’s go back to “Cleaner” for a second. Oftentimes when a band plays something off their new album at a concert, it can be a tremendously hit-or-miss experience. Either you are going to hear something that will become a staple of concerts for years to come or a song that you will never hear again. There is no in-between. These are the only two options and the latter usually wins that fight.
Yet, somehow, from “Cleaner” to “Personal Jesus,” Depeche Mode played four of their final six songs from their new album and it worked. It’s a sign of not only how good the material was, but how much they believed in it. They could’ve easily played “Blasphemous Rumours,” “Just Can’t Get Enough,” or “People Are People” during this run, but they didn’t. They didn’t rely on the past. They believed in Violator and that’s what makes this show so special in retrospect. They believed in the songs on this album and they were 100 percent right to do so.
Of course, that wasn’t really it for the show. That goodbye was all a clever ruse by the band to take a short break before coming out to an encore performance and raucous applause. That applause was rewarded by the title of track of 1987’s “Black Celebration.” The song was a perfect choice for the overall Depeche Mode vibe. There are probably few feelings as high as the joyous moment of an encore for a touring band, thousands of fans on their feet screaming for you to please play more music, and Depeche Mode rewarded that desire with a song about doing your best to celebrate at the end of another black, crappy day. I’ll drink to that.
The band followed that up with “A Question of Time,” a great song that I recommend never looking up the meaning of, before teasing another goodbye, and then doing a second and final encore.
The final encore featured two car-themed songs, “Behind The Wheel” and a cover of “Route 66.” The automobile theme was fitting for the Summerfest show because as great as that show undoubtedly was, with all the great music left on the table, it was time to go. After all, we have a curfew.
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