18 April 2006

Pain and suffering at Wembley

3rd April, 2006. We get to Wembley Arena early, because we have to get the tickets from the box office and I was paranoid that something would go wrong. After my special moment with an
actual Depeche Mode ticket, I entrust the ticket to Wendy's bosom - the only pocket amongst four people to have a zipper. There's nobody else around yet. The doors open at 18:30. Fiona suggests we go to IKEA to look at el cheapo Swedish furniture. We look at lamp shades and bath mats. I find an ash veneer breakfast table with four bent plywood chairs that I really like and consider the logistical nightmare of getting it back to South Africa. We shop for provisions (read doughnuts) at Tescos and get back to the South Eastern Entrance of Wembley Arena to find a small queue of devout followers already forming. We join it.

Behind me is a Spanish dude and his girlfriend. In front of us are two interesting Goth-ish women. Wendy reads the newspaper over the one girl's shoulder, a full page review of last night's show. Half the page is taken up by a photograph of Dave Gahan. The chick introduces herself as Nicole and her friend as Maddy. When I tell them I've never been to a dM gig before, Nicole says 'Oh, you're in for such a treat. They're the best live act ever.' They show us all their dM concert bracelets which they haven't taken off: one from Birmingham, one from Manchester, one from Rotterdam, a couple of French ones. It just makes me want to live in Europe, where you can go to
amazing events simply as your Friday evening entertainment. In South Africa it's nearly a public holiday if Robbie Williams plays Loftus. We tell Nicole and Maddy that we're from South Africa and they ask us if we're on vacation. We say yes, but that we made this journey specifically to be here at this concert. 'Respect, people!' they tell us. 'Respect! That's real devotion, to travel 12000km for a Depeche Mode gig.' This is how you get invited into the clan.

Across from the queue stands an Italian guy we lovingly dub Raccoon Boy for his heroin chic eye makeup. He is a Dave clone circa 1993, with goatee, white vest and (this is incredible)
exactly the same tattoos as Dave. Hero-worship gone too far, methinks. Karen has a nice time oggling him as he drinks red wine (a cheap brand, Maddy tells us) out of a glass he conjured from nowhere. Later on, Maddy will let him borrow her compact so that he can adjust his eyeshadow.

Scottish Newspaper Woman comes from the front of the queue and chats to Nicole and Maddy. On her newspaper she kindly draws us a diagram of the stage, instructing Nicole and Maddy to keep to the right of the catwalk (they're Fletch fans) and telling us to avoid the left because 'there's absolutely nothing here to see, absolutely nothing going on' (she wants Martin Gore all to herself). Initially I assumed she was Wembley Arena staff, being so knowledgeable. Actually, she's just a very normal-looking, but totally insane groupie. She even has different coloured pens that she carries around, to number the people in the queues at each entrance (she was SE2) so that you could go to the shops or the bathroom and return to find your place in line open for you.

Finally the doors open and the crowd lurches towards the entrance. My ticket gets taken away from me and I'm given a lumo-puke pink bracelet. Wendy, Fiona, Karen and I have a plan to get to the optimal standing position, to the left of the catwalk, just outside of the crush zone. But Wembley staff prevent people from running, so it's a brisk walk to the front of the Arena, about five bodies from the stage. And it's beautiful. Retro-space age, a 1970s movie based on a Jules Verne novella. Intelligent and simple stage design by Anton Corbijn (who we will see after the show, just before running to the merchandising stalls), with a huge silver ball displaying messages and six floating projection screens.

Finally the lights darken and The Bravery come on. An unusual band from New York (possibly chosen by Dave, who lives there) combining guitars and electronics to good effect. They sound a little like The Killers, maybe. The vocalist is terrible though, and ruins a lot of the songs for me, trying to sound like a would-be member of Bloc Party that didn't make the cut. I enjoy looking at the kooky keyboardist, who seems to enjoy the gig more than the others. The Bravery vacate the stage, the lights go back on, and we wait for 21:00. An annoying American woman in a bright pink down-filled jacket turns her lipsticked head to me and asks: 'What is your favourite Britney Spears song?' upon which I respond with an impolite 'Huh?' Apparently this was a good response, to which she replies 'Ah, yeah! Don't you just love
this kind of music?' So it was a test to make sure none of the bubblegum crowd had infiltrated this dark gathering. Apart from Fiona (who doesn't know any of the new songs) she is the only creature wearing pink to a Depeche Mode concert, possibly in all of history.

The lights darken and the band appear, without much pomp or, indeed, circumstance. They start to play, and it's the most perfect set, tailor-made almost, playing everything I wanted them to, with so much energy and emotion, with a sense of humour and so much joy. And all my worrying and anxiety dissipates. Never has pain and suffering been this glorious.

The set list:
  • A Pain That I'm Used To
  • John The Revelator
  • A Question Of Time
  • Policy Of Truth
  • Precious
  • Walking In My Shoes
  • Suffer Well
  • Macro
  • Home
  • I Want It All
  • The Sinner In Me
  • I Feel You
  • Behind The Wheel
  • World In My Eyes
  • Personal Jesus
  • Enjoy The Silence
  • Shake The Disease
  • Just Can't Get Enough
  • Everything Counts
  • Never Let Me Down Again
  • Goodnight Lovers
And there's nothing much to tell you, really, because I feel like I'm watching a DVD, because I'm that close, there's a sea of tiny girls in front of me and I can see everything so clearly, from the drummer's feet to Martin's hand sliding over that fabled green guitar, to Dave jumping around, flashing the crowd that wolfish grin, to Fletch clapping his hands behind his keyboard instead of playing it, the sound is that good, the crowd is that alive; and, at the end, when I'm waving my hands to Never Let Me Down Again as countless people have done at Depeche Mode concerts past, I finally am that person.

Mute pilgrimage

So here's Wendy and I getting off the Underground at Edgware Road, because we don't know where in Harrow Road this place is. All my life I've had LP's, CD's, VHS cassettes and DVD's with the words:

429 Harrow Road, London, W10 4RE, England

on them, and a feeling in my stomach that this place might be something special. And therefore we need to go. So we start walking by the Harrow Flyover, past a police station and a churchyard. No numbers yet. Finally the numbers on a block of flats reveal that we've started at the very beginning of this road that cuts across several pages of maps in the AA KeyGuide. We walk past Pakistani greengrocers and shops selling kitchen appliances spilling out onto pavement. My feet are killing me and we stop at a little shop with a name in Arabic, so I can buy a Coke. We walk some more. The area seems cosmopolitan, which is a politically correct term for unsafe. But we carry on nevertheless, Wendy joking that I attract violence, and me arguing that I emit fear and that there's a distinct difference. But all goes well, and soon we hit the high 300's. On the opposite side of the road, the numbers are still in the 200's, which is worrying. Where is this place? On our side of the road the numbers climb into the 500's, with the opposite side lagging behind at the 300's. So much for urban planning. Suddenly amid all the shops and blocks of flats on the opposite side there is a small design studio, where you can have wallpaper printed to your specifications. I started wondering why the studio would have a Depeche Mode display in one of its windows, but then realised that Mute Records is right next door. There is no indication that these are the offices of the world's largest independent record label. It just looks like a shabby little office, estate agents maybe, or a business fixing broken dishwashers.

We go in and find two ladies behind the counter. We're told that there really isn't much to see, apart from the catalogue for Mute Bank, the online shop. I don't need to see a catalogue. I ask if I can buy some singles, and they make me wait for the woman who runs the online shop. I explain what I want. I'm informed that she might be gone some time, as she has to run down to the warehouse in the basement to get all of it. While I wait, I see framed multiple platinum discs for Moby's Play behind the counter as well as for Depeche Mode's The Singles 86>98. They're still wrapped in plastic, just leaning against the wall; not even put up yet. There are boxes and things lying all over, it's like a mail room floor. I see many things addressed to Daniel Miller, the head of Mute and feel a thrill of excitement. I am such an anorak. The woman returns with a box full of discs - all the Goldfrapp and Recoil singles, this wealth of superior electronic music, singles you just cannot find in South Africa, where nobody listens to vinyl, buys singles or can enjoy un-playlisted radio shows. How many people in South Africa even know what a B-side is?

The people working at Mute are the friendliest, warm people I met in London and they even got the guy who runs the Erasure Fan Club to give me a promo for Union Street, their new acoustic album. Wendy bought the three new Depeche Mode Remasters, I bought all the singles I asked for (they gave me limited edition paper slipcases for some of them) and we had such a nice time just standing in an office. But it's an office out of which has flowed some of the best electronic music, by artists that produce the theme songs to my life. It would be unimaginable without it.

London dreaming

Everything in the city is viewed as if underwater. Icy spring winds hit you as you round the corners of buildings. We avoid the tourist traps and focus on museums. Walk around Kensington Gardens, watching Londoners taking their hounds for constitutionals. Have a birthday pint at the Prince Alfred in Bayswater - the barman makes a four leaf clover in the foam. The British Museum cannot be experienced in a single day. Get annoyed at a random little old lady who keeps correcting me when I say that Cleopatra's sarcophagus has distinct Greek features ('Egyptian, dear, it's Egyptian.' I know this, it's not like it's not signposted everywhere in the damn building. But what the hell, I'm a tourist so I must be ignorant.) For the record, Cleopatra was Macedonian, so there. Museum staff start closing the doors of galleries just when I discover a room full of Greek vases depicting the twelve tasks of Herakles (that's Hercules to you and me). I get art attack in the National Gallery. Holbein's The Ambassadors is much bigger and much more colourful than expected. Wendy and I get lost in the middle of the night by walking to Kensington Park Gardens instead of Kensington Gardens Square, where the London House Hotel actually is. Bunk beds have mattresses (apparently) filled with passion fruit vines bearing an uncomfortable crop. Walk down Oxford Street to buy shoes and CD's, as well as some Polaroid film for Matt. The hallowed grounds of Kew Gardens are visited on a bright, sunny day and I welcome the quiet open spaces. Have an overwhelming sense of the past and human achievement in the Palm House. Try to suppress the desire to frolic in the daffodils planted around the Chinese Pagoda. People are watching. The Victoria cruziana in the Waterlily House has only sprouted one leaf this early in the season, and its anything but gigantic. Walk by the Thames in the bloody cold to see Cleopatra's Needle and some bridges and photograph a paver with T.S. Eliot on it. Eat ginger chicken udon at wagamamas and walk over Tower Bridge at dusk to the Bang Bar at St. Katharine's dock. Want to visit the Saatchi Gallery, only to find that it has been evicted from County Hall and will reopen in Chelsea in 2007. No Jeff Koons bunnies for us, then. Visit St Paul's and wonder about the seemingly 300 year-old graffiti by its large doors. The scary Ukrainian woman at the London House Hotel makes mounds of toast for breakfast and has spiky red hair. Find an escalator in the Underground like the one in Late Night Shopping. Most of the buildings are colourless but graceful, proud but tired. Go to buy cheap tickets for Stomp! at Leicester Square and feel like a tourist. Go to Harrod's and feel indifferent towards all the gaudy decorations and designer suits, shoes, handbags, teabags, mop handles, toothbrushes, clipboards, etc. etc. The Dodi and Diana fountain at the bottom of the escalators is just too much. Wendy buys an apple for about £1,60. It wasn't nice. Listen to some unsigned bands play awesome funk and soul during YoYo at the nottinghillartsclub. Chinatown looks like a construction site with ornate gateways; I photograph a stall selling Dendrobium cut flowers next to some durian fruit. Get really tired of toast for breakfast. Large parts of the Tate Modern are closed off for refurbishing, but get to see another Monet, as well as some MirĂ³ and Bacon. Pollock is not art; Picasso is a genius. Rothko is what it looks like: restaurant decor. The Natural History Museum is a grand building with displays mostly for children; disappointed not to find more extinct fish and double-headed lizards in formalin like at the Natal Museum. In the V&A Museum, find a Muslim girl on her knees, sketching with great care, pausing now and again to adjust her position around a Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair. Camden is full of beautiful Goths playing Depeche Mode and Sisters of Mercy in their shops full of boots with secret compartments in the heels and more spikes than Vlad Tepes would know what to do with. Buy sunglasses like the ones I lost in the sea at Tarragona (street vendor; £6,00). Portobello Road is a tourist trap.

A beautiful place filled with efficient, albeit sometimes abrupt people. So much history and culture. So much art and architecture. So much to see and do. So much damn shopping. So little time. I will be back someday.