Depeche Mode – “Master and Servant”

I mentioned in my review for Nouvelle Vague’s 3 that I found the French pop group’s cover of the 1984 Depeche Mode single “Master and Servant” lacking. Now, I don’t really want to rag on Nouvelle Vague (I do like the group’s music), but there’s simply no way that anemic faux-blues version could ever stand up to the source material. The original “Master and Servant” features the members of Depeche Mode in their musical prime, partway between their awkward early teen idols years and on the road to fulfilling their destiny as gloomy stadium gods. It’s also a song that shouldn’t be toned down into some easy listening version. After all, this is a tune explicitly about BDSM, a topic the group addresses both lyrically and sonically with full gusto. It’s no wonder that when Depeche Mode was creating this record, its chief inspiration was “Relax”, the innuendo-laced smash hit by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Ah, “Relax”: quite possibly the greatest dance track of the 1980s. The result of the occasionally inconsiderate creative drive of producer Trevor Horn (who was so intent on crafting a megahit for his label ZTT he didn’t even let the band play its instruments on the record), it’s a dancefloor masterpiece built upon an urgent, pounding bassline in the key of E and hooks that hit the listener with the force of a cinderblock. Oh, and its suggestive delivery (not to mention its promo material, the record sleeve, the original music video…) contained more than a few winks to the subject of hardcore homosexual sex. Despite a belated BBC Radio ban due to its content, “Relax” became a trans-Atlantic blockbuster and an inescapable pop culture phenomenon, exemplified by those legendary “Frankie Say Relax” T-shirts. To this day few dance songs can match its sheer power. Obviously somebody had to try and top it at some point. Enter the boys from Basildon, England.

A cursory glance through Depeche Mode press photos from the 1980s will reveal many glimpses of the group’s songwriter Martin Gore sporting bondage gear and/or leather dresses. As the band’s career progressed, Gore’s ensembles grew more outrageous, all while he publicly refrained from discussing the rationale behind his wardrobe. Truth was, he just got a big kick out of doing something he was wasn’t “supposed” to do. Drawing more than a few curious glances from the public, it was also a phase that drew choice remarks from Gore’s bandmates Dave Gahan, Andy Fletcher, and Alan Wilder, who were never comfortable with his fashion eccentricities. Gore’s provocative style of dress was accompanied by sojourns into Berlin’s kinkier nightclubs, which catered to tastes ranging from transvestitism to sado-masochism.

Transgressive sexuality wasn’t the only realm Gore was exploring in the early ’80s. The songwriter also became acquainted with the music of industrial acts such as Einstürzende Neubauten and SPK. That metal-clanging experimental sound informed much of Depeche Mode’s early ’80s output, culminating with the 1984 release Some Great Reward, the album that yielded “Master and Servant”. However, instead of creating confrontational musique concrete like many of his inspirations, Gore was adamant about fashioning his new influences into a pop context.

Drawing from these sexual and musical threads, “Master and Servant” became Depeche Mode’s latest salvo in the group’s enduring mission to dispel its image as wimpy synthpop fops. What better way to do that than to mix risqué content with a symphony of steel? Appropriately enough, the execution of the song is downright domineering. “Master and Servant” is a dense jungle of clanging industrial-tinged samples that were rammed into a Synclavier synthesizer and arranged into a series of call-and-response hooks that pummel the listener with such weight you’d think your speakers were trying to murder you. Meanwhile, whips crack and hiss incessantly (vocalized by none other than Daniel Miller, the boss at Depeche Mode’s record label, Mute) while the title phrase is boomingly intoned in such an ominous manner you’d think it was the voice of God commanding you to go out and purchase some bondage wear.

Like with its predecessor, the anti-violence anthem “People Are People”, Depeche Mode pulled out all the production stops on “Master and Servant”. Much of the credit should rightfully go to token Londoner Alan Wilder, the fourth man in Depeche Mode from 1982 to 1995. Wilder’s chief role in the group was acting as its arranger, using his formal music education to fashion Gore’s songs into tightly-honed pop constructs. “Master and Servant” is quite artfully arranged, relentless in its assault but never allowing the barrage of sounds to become a cluttered mess. The song starts of in a disarmingly lightweight manner as the band members bandy the phrase “It’s a lot” back and four in alternating high and low vocal registers, but as soon as lead vocalist Dave Gahan utters the words “Like life”, the colossal synthesizer riffs enter and aural punishment reigns. For every high note, there’s a crushing low-end sound to contrast with it, culminating with the breakdown section where the intro vocal parts are reprised amid a flurry of jackhammer-like percussive samples. After several minutes of potent dancefloor industrial, the song closes on a fade-out skipping beat that stumbles out as if reeling from the preceding onslaught.

Although there are lines like “It’s a lot like life / This play between the sheets / With you on top and me underneath / Forget all about equality”, in the end the subject matter is mere window dressing, and the song’s meaning never progresses beyond “Sex is like life, innit? Deep, huh?” In contrast, the group’s chief priority with “Master and Servant” was to replicate the “fat, round bass sound” of “Relax”. Let there be no mistake: “Master and Servant” is at its core a dance song. Its intention is to grip the body and make it contort, stretch, and give itself up to ecstatic abandon. The song’s bouncy eighth-note bassline sounds a little silly on its own, but it’s an essential element of dumb catchiness that, in concert with harsher elements, makes the song compulsively danceable. Regardless, the band wasn’t completely sure it hit the mark. Alan Wilder noted that in Depeche Mode’s quest to craft the perfect club track during the protracted seven-day mixing sessions, it somehow managed to omit the snare drum sound. The fallout of this grievous error was evident when one night Daniel Miller and Some Great Reward co-producer Gareth Jones asked a DJ at a Berlin nightclub to play a test pressing of the single, only for the dancefloor to clear completely after the song followed—of all things—“Relax”.

Maybe Wilder is right and that’s why the song wasn’t as big a hit as it should’ve been (and therefore isn’t as fondly remembered today as contemporary tracks). While “Master and Servant” reached number nine in the United Kingdom, the song flopped in the United States, peaking at number 87 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. This is unfortunate, especially given the production and grooves of “Master and Servant” are easily the equal of “Relax”. And unlike “Relax”, “Master and Servant” narrowly escaped a BBC Radio ban (rumor has it it was because the one employee who objected to the song’s lyrics was on vacation when the BBC voted on the matter). Still, the lyrical subject matter likely limited the song’s pop appeal. Despite its leery come-ons and eye-winking enunciation of phrases like “Relax, don’t do it / When you wanna come”, the actual lyrics to “Relax” are fairly tame, due to the fact that the song wasn’t about sex at all until the innuendo was added later. It’s all in the delivery, and never put it past your average record buyer to completely miss the not-so-subtle hints (the twelve-inch single’s sleeve features an abridged pornographic novel on the back cover, for Christ’s sake) if nothing is explicitly stated in the song itself. In contrast, the words of “Master and Servant” make it quite clear what Martin Gore liked to do in his free time (the word “domination” kicks off the third verse, for one). Not as much is left to the imagination, and while it’s easy to dance to “Relax” without associating it with gay sex, “Master and Servant” ensures its listeners never forget for an instant that sexual power play is the game at hand. I love the song to death, but definitely one of the first thoughts that pops into my head whenever this tune starts playing is, “Wow, Martin Gore sure had some weird hobbies”.

The single’s music video couldn’t have helped matters. Depeche Mode largely dismisses its video output prior to its long-term collaboration with director Anton Corbijn for the quite valid reason that it was by and large crap. The “Master and Servant” video isn’t the group’s worst, but it certainly doesn’t do the band’s image any favors. The band members look like they have an average age of about 14 in the clip (which ends up making Martin Gore’s leather boy ensemble come off as completely hilarious), and they still hadn’t quite figured out how not to embarrass themselves in the medium (Gaze at the group’s awkward choreography! Marvel as the band members are bound and dragged back and forth across the ground! Recoil in horror at Dave Gahan’s ungodly combination of blonde highlights, a flat top, and a mullet!). Simply put, those words coming out of Dave Gahan’s mouth do not work with that imagery. Personally, if I ever happen to catch the promo on TV, I turn up the sound and try not to look at the screen.

But forget the dopey video: “Master and Servant” is a record for the ages. It’s fantastically constructed and hits as hard as the music that inspired it. Above all, you’ve got to appreciate a dance song that requires the band to bash sheets of metal on stage to perform it in concert.