"Blasphemous Rumors," a song by the avant-garde English band Depeche Mode, makes many people furious. It bulldozes through sacred ground, boldly questioning the existence of God.
This provocative pop epic boasts a haunting refrain (see accompanying lyrics).
Utter blasphemy, charge the outraged critics of Depeche, which will be playing its pithy synthesizer pop Saturday at the Hollywood Palladium and Sunday at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. But the band has a cult following of young music fans who find tawdry appeal in the abrasive cynicism of songs like "Blasphemous Rumors," which is on the band's "Some Great Reward" album on Sire/Warner Bros. Records.
Commenting on the controversy generated by "Blasphemous Rumors," Depeche's Alan Wilder observed: "Religion is a more sensitive subject than sex. You've got to be careful with it. In that song it's handled tastefully."
Then he added curtly: "Talking about something dealing with religion that's offensive, I've watched American religious TV programs. If anything is sick, they're sick. Anything we sing about is tame compared to those shows. Americans who complain about us should be complaining about those shows."
Depeche Mode also stirred controversy with another song from the "Some Great Reward" album, "Master and Servant," a sinister exploration of relationships in sadomasochistic terms.
Defending the lyrics by Depeche's songwriter, Martin Gore, Wilder insisted: "Strong lyrics are necessary. It doesn't matter if they bother people. Who wants to hear bland, meaningless lyrics? This band doesn't do songs like that."
Depeche isn't always rabble-rousing, however. "People to People," which raps racism, is incisive but subdued social commentary. "Somebody" and "It Doesn't Matter"--also from the latest album--are simple romantic songs. But the band really is at its best when it is cynically probing delicate subjects.
This isn't some obnoxious new-wave band that's so hell-bent on irreverence that it forgets to make its music listenable. The songs are hummable and often danceable. Frequently, they merge seemingly incompatible elements. Like such bands as Einsturzende Neubauten and Test Dept., Depeche integrates clanging, banging industrial noise into its synthesizer music, making some of its songs sound as if they were recorded in a steel mill.
As good as its five Sire albums are, Depeche Mode still doesn't sell many records in America. According to Wilder, the last album, "People to People," sold about 80,000, and the current one, "Some Great Reward," barely reached the 100,000 mark. But the band is surviving quite well because it's big in other countries, particularly England and Germany.
Unlike other European bands that often gear their music to America, Depeche refuses to compromise. "We're not going to alter our music to fit American tastes," he said. "Then it becomes American music. We're not desperate to have a hit in America. We consider our music very European, and we intend to keep it that way. We don't want lose our identity.
"We don't do music to fit any market. We do music for ourselves and hope that people like it."
But, unless it changes its music, Depeche Mode isn't likely to make it big throughout America. Its music--all synthesizer and no drums or guitar--seems just too offbeat for pop radio. Building an audience without extensive pop-radio air play is very difficult.
Still, through minimal air play and word of mouth, Depeche has managed to build a sizable American concert audience, particularly in California, its biggest U.S. market. The band is very popular locally. The Palladium show, part of a short U.S. tour, mainly in small halls, sold out instantly.
Wilder couldn't really explain how Depeche has accumulated a large concert audience with such meager record sales: "People ask about that all the time. I don't know the reasons. Sometimes you hear of artists selling records and not doing well in concerts. We're doing it the other way around. Nobody does it that way."
Sex appeal is at least part of the answer. Keyboard players Wilder, Gore and Andy Fletcher and singer Dave Gahan are all in their early 20s and attractive. "We realize the sex appeal is there, but we don't play on it," Wilder insisted. But he did admit that "in the concerts, we do get quite a lot of girls down in front."
Depeche Mode, which in French means up-to-the-minute in fashion, has had its ups and downs in England, where it originated in Basildon, Essex, in 1980. Daniel Miller discovered the band and signed it to his small independent label. After a promising first album in 1981, founder Vince Clarke, then the principal songwriter, decided to leave the band. The general consensus was that the remaining members--Gore, Fletcher and Gahan--didn't have to talent to keep Depeche afloat.
"He was thought to be the only one with talent, the creative force," said Wilder, Clarke's eventual replacement. "The other guys wanted to prove they could carry on without Vince."
Gore, Fletcher and Gahan worked on the second album, "A Broken Frame," excluding Wilder, who was angered at being left out.
"They wanted to do it on their own," Wilder said. "I did TV and live shows, but I wasn't on the records; I was just a part-time member. I was disappointed I wasn't included in making the album."
The way "A Broken Frame" turned out, Wilder may have been glad he wasn't involved. "The press ripped it apart," Wilder recalled. "The band went through a rough period for a year after that."
Though too diplomatic to blatantly rap the album, Wilder said he agreed with the negative critical reaction: "Maybe the album wasn't so great. It's not my favorite of the band's albums."
Depeche rallied with its next album, "Construction Time Again," which includes one of its finest songs, "Everything Counts," and has been on the rise ever since.
"I'm not sure where this band is going," Wilder concluded. "I hope we'll get more popular. I know that we'll continue to do songs that are different and interesting. And I'm sure there'll be some more controversial songs, too."