March 1990: Depeche Mode Release VIOLATOR

Tuesday, March 19, 2024
DM Portrait

With the release of Violator, the rest of the world finally caught up to Depeche Mode and the band’s already massive fan base. Having built up a large and dedicated audience over the course of the group’s first five albums of electronic music, Depeche Mode’s sixth studio effort, Music for the Masses, propelled them to the top of the burgeoning alternative underground when it arrived in the fall of 1987.

Powered by synthesizers and drum machines, Depeche Mode’s tuneful tales of existential angst and debauched escapism had connected with a certain swath of disaffected American youth in a very big way. Already attracting enough fans to pack U.S. amphitheaters over the summer of 1986 on the back of fifth album, Black Celebration, the release of Music for the Masses had culminated in the band selling out the mammoth Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena, California, in June 1988.

Depeche Mode’s triumphant Rose Bowl concert was the source of the band’s first live album, 101, which was accompanied by an ambitious road movie/concert film of the same name. The once twee synth-pop act out of Basildon, England, had grown and evolved into an arena-filling electronic music juggernaut that still had yet to cross over into the mainstream. That would change with the release of the Violator album on March 19, 1990.

“Over the last five years I think we’d perfected a formula: my demos, a month in a programming studio, etc, etc. We decided that our first record of the ’90s ought to be different,” band member and primary songwriter Martin Gore told NME in 1990. “We knew it was bound to still be Depeche Mode because my writing style is so characteristic and inherent to the songs.”

One of the biggest and more pronounced changes in the Depeche Mode sound on Violator was the addition of guitars to the mix. Having first dabbled with guitar sounds on Music for the Masses, the six-stringed instrument played a much more prominent role on Violator, with guitar lines defining tracks including “Personal Jesus” and “Policy of Truth.”

“Personal Jesus” served as the album’s first single, charging up the UK Singles Chart to peak at #13. In America, the song was the band’s first to crack the top 40 since 1984’s “People are People,” reaching #28 on the Hot 100 in March 1990. It was also the band’s first U.S. single to achieve gold certification.

The second single from Violator, “Enjoy the Silence” was an even bigger hit, soaring to #6 on the UK Singles Chart, and crashing the top 10 in America to peak at #8 on the Hot 100.

Third Violator single “Policy of Truth” has the distinction of being the only Depeche Mode track to chart higher in America (#15) than it did in England (#16). It was also the first DM tune to reach #1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart.

The release of Violator was cause for celebration around the world, particularly in Depeche Mode’s hotbed of popularity, Los Angeles. That’s where a planned record-signing at Warehouse Records on March 20, 1990, devolved into a full-fledged riot after upwards of 20,000 fans descended on the location, causing the band to flee the premises as the mob shattered store windows and required LAPD intervention to quell the violence.

All of that energy directed towards Depeche Mode’s Violator album propelled it up the charts, with the LP peaking at #7 on the Billboard 200 for the week of May 5, 1990. In England, the album peaked at #2.

“We called it Violator as a joke. We wanted to come up with the most extreme, ridiculously Heavy Metal title that we could,” Martin Gore chuckled to NME back in 1990. “I’ll be surprised if people will get the joke. However, when we called an album Music For The Masses, we were accused of being patronizing and arrogant. In fact it was a joke on the uncommerciality of it. It was anything but music for the masses!”

Violator has always been my favorite Depeche Mode record,” Frank Iero of My Chemical Romance told Billboard in 2020. “It felt darker and more dangerous than their previous work yet still sleek and keeping their pop sensibilities in place.”