Imagine growing up in staid Britain, hearing the primal beat from across the sea and knowing that it can never truly be yours. Imagine hearing that insistent rhythm on the radio and in the clubs and wondering about the country that produced this galvanizing noise, perhaps even sitting in drab London suburbs like Basildon or Chelmsford and sighing: If only I lived in ... Germany.
England still has plenty of pop musicians who make their living recycling Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley riffs, of course, but the Teuton-throb of mechanistic German bands such as Kraftwerk and D.A.F. has become a major influence on British dance music. Though Depeche Mode's new album was made in Paris and London, the synth-pop hit makers have frequently recorded in Berlin. Nitzer Ebb, the British duo that will open for the Mode Dec. 17 at the Patriot Center, mixed part of its debut album there and has emblazoned the cover with a mock-German declaration of content, "Nitzerebbprodukt1987." Even the Pet Shop Boys, whose wry, revisionist disco is derived more from American dance music, owe a debt to the Prussian pulse.
Depeche Mode: 'Music for the Masses'
Under the guidance of original songwriter Vince Clarke, Basildon's Depeche Mode made bright, bouncy singles -- silicon-chip bubble-gum music, basically -- like "Just Can't Get Enough." Clarke departed after the outfit's 1981 debut (he's now with Erasure), and his successor, Martin Gore, quickly darkened the quartet's sound.
On songs such as "Master and Servant," Gore's brooding soundscapes were energized by clanging, synthesized percussion -- the Mode's liveliest tracks sounded like the group had dragged a Ruhr Valley foundry into the studio with it. The new "Music for the Masses" (Sire 9 25614-1), however, continues the move toward a quieter sound begun by last year's "Black Celebration," while also abandoning the simplistic but appealingly earnest social comment of such songs as "People Are People," a left-field American hit.
In accordance with its disco roots and dance-floor orientation, Depeche Mode is essentially a singles group -- it frequently accomplishes more, through various remixes, with a single cut than it does with an entire album. As expected, this album's singles, "Strangelove" and "Never Let Me Down Again," are the highlights: stark, moody and insinuating segments cut from the band's ongoing minimalist groove. Still, among the new tracks the only serious embarrassment is the album-closing "Pimpf," a feeble attempt at modernist choral music that recalls "Black Celebration's" Philip Glass rip-off, "It Doesn't Matter Two."
In its low-key way, "Music for the Masses" is perhaps Depeche Mode's most consistent album (not counting two greatest hits packages). Fans of the band's earlier work, though, may wish Gore and company had traded some of their control for a rowdier percussive wallop.
Nitzer Ebb: 'That Total Age'
Such fans needn't look any farther than the opening act on Depeche Mode's current tour. The members of Nitzer Ebb, dedicated followers of D.A.F.'s tribal electrobeat, have loosed some of the year's most ferocious synthesized rhythm on "That Total Age" (Geffen GHS 24155). Label-mates in Britain, where both record for the pioneering synth-label Mute, Nitzer Ebb makes music that pounds with a fury the tidy Depeche Mode has never approached.
The Chelmsford accent of singer Douglas (first names only, please) makes it rather difficult to decode the lyrics behind such sensationalistic song titles as "Murderous" and "Warsaw Ghetto." The current club hit "Join in the Chant" repeats phrases like "guns, guns, guns," "muscle and hate, muscle and hate," and "fire, fire, fire" shouted over a martial electronic parade-rhythm.
The muscularity of such music could be seen as crypto-fascist intimidation, but Douglas has told interviewers that's not the intention. "It's not a matter of strength as dominance," he explains. "It's a matter of saying, 'We're all strong.' It's supposed to be uplifting."
Uplifting maybe -- but energizing definitely. Though produced entirely by chips and circuit boards, Nitzer Ebb's Eurobeat is intensely physical. "Let Your Body Learn" is the message of an early single included here, and that could serve as a motto for the album, which plugs digital technology into the primal pulse that is the largely forgotten source of all music. Where Depeche Mode's technopop is a little chilly even at its most rhythmic, "That Total Age" is unmistakably hot-blooded.
'The Pet Shop Boys, Actually'
In English pop circles, much has been made of the fact that vocalist Neil Tennant is making no attempt to stifle a mammoth yawn on the cover of the Pet Shop Boys' second full-length album, "The Pet Shop Boys, Actually" (EMI Manhattan ELJ-46972). Tennant, formerly a writer for the British pop music magazine Smash Hits, and partner Chris Lowe do seem rather blase' -- in their gently irreverent tweaking of London subcultures, gay and otherwise, they come on like a pair of latter-day Oscar Wildes with a drum machine.
"Shopping," for example, equates insider trading in London's financial markets with cruising the city's boutiques, and it seems unlikely that the song's mocking viewpoint would be any more sober had it been written after the October Crash. In "Rent," the deadpan Tennant takes on the role of a young hustler: "I love you," he sings, "you pay my rent."
"Rent" is a hit in England, but its prospects are dubious here. American radio prefers subtler provocations such as "It's a Sin," the dance dirge that's become, somewhat surprisingly, a Top 10 record. It's an adequate follow-up to the wonderful "West End Girls," which finally became an American success last year after a belated remix, but it doesn't have that song's melodic shimmer.
Few Pet Shop Boys tracks do, actually. Most offer little more than a midtempo electronic beat, though "One More Chance," "I Want to Wake Up" and "Heart" do so exceptionally well. Contrasting that robotic pulse and dry sensibility with a human, melodic touch was the secret of "West End Girls," and here the Boys go that song one better by employing an actual singer, '60s pop-rock veteran Dusty Springfield, on "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" An inventive marriage of '80s postdisco and '60s pop, it's an exquisite track. If the Pet Shop Boys could produce music like this consistently, no pop fan would be likely to yawn in their vicinity ever again.