Rock: Songs of passion, depth and eeling

The Eels Royal Festival Hall Depeche Mode Wembley Arena

Nicholas Barber
Sunday 04 October 1998 00:02
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If we disqualify cartoon dogs and legendary outlaws of the old West, then I know of only two people who answer to the name of Butch. And they're both bearded drummers in award- winning American post-grunge bands. Just a little something for you to ponder. Anyway, the Butch at the Royal Festival Hall on Monday was one third of the Eels. He's a hulking fellow who towers over a tiny kit, but who leaves the audience in no doubt that, where drums are concerned, it's not size that matters, it's what you do with them. Unlike most rock drummers, he has a triangle, which he tings at appropriate moments. And unlike most drummers, his triangle is hanging from an oddly-shaped stand: it's the statuette the band won as Best Newcomers at last year's Brits.

This is typical of the Eels' wry humour, as formulated by their leader, Mark "E" Everett. Like his two compadres, he wears a waistcoat and tie, and his wire-rimmed specs and sideburns complete the look of a mild-mannered bank clerk who might find himself looking down the barrel of Butch Cassidy's six-shooter. He is the closest equivalent America has to Jarvis Cocker. At the end of the set, he thanks us for being a "great group of youngsters" and tells us it's time "to get on with the business of living your lives". We roar our protest. "Are your lives really that bad?" chuckles E.

The only answer is: not as bad as yours. Never mind a childhood upended by drug addiction and therapy, E has more recently had to deal with his father's fatal heart attack, his sister's suicide and his mother's terminal cancer. Hence the Eels' new album, Electro-Shock Blues (DreamWorks), boasts the highest number of miserable song titles ever printed on one record sleeve. Nothing wrong with that, of course, especially when the subject matter is twisted into such odd, uplifting shapes, but that's not the only reason why Electro-Shock Blues requires a few listens to get into. While the group's debut, Beautiful Freak, is packed with memorable, stand-alone tracks, the follow-up is more of a concept album of unresolved, two- minute snippets. The Eels have to play only a few notes of any song from Beautiful Freak, and the audience breaks into spontaneous cheers of recognition. The new songs just aren't as distinctive, and the group have to rely on a flashing APPLAUSE sign, liberated from a game-show studio somewhere, for the same effect. We can be fairly sure that nothing from Electro-Shock Blues will ever feature on the hum-the-intro round of Never Mind the Buzzcocks.

Still, in concert, no Eels song is entirely familiar. The band's unspoken motto is that if you want to hear a track exactly like it is on the album, put on the album. Come to a show, and you'll hear E playing a bass-line on the organ while Adam (the Eels aren't big on surnames) plays lead guitar on a fuzz-bass, for instance. "Going to Your Funeral Part I" becomes the finger-clicking sound of the Sharks squaring up to the Jets. "Hospital Food" showcases E's aptitude on the bongos. "Cancer for the Cure" (told you about those song titles) is a Doorsy funk rumble. Their breakthrough hit, "Novocaine for the Soul", is a twangy surf romp with a Spanish twist. And "My Beloved Monster" segues into the Temptations' "My Girl". "I've got sunshine," coos E, "on a cloudy day ..." And he does.

Seeing Depeche Mode the following evening, you can't suppress a twitch or two of contempt. E's relations are dropping like the President's flies and he manages to finish his album with the words "maybe it's time to live". Whereas Depeche Mode wear their existential gloom as a fashion accessory to match their leather trousers. Dave Gahan sings lyrics about the nobility of his suffering, but in his interviews he speaks with pride of how his excessive lifestyle nearly killed him. As if copying Michael Hutchence's haircut and sound weren't cheeky enough ...

Like the late Hutch, Gahan comes across as someone who doesn't blow his nose without checking how it should be done in the "How to te a Stadium Rock Messiah" manual. When he took to the stage at Wembley Arena on Tuesday, he did some majoretting with his mic stand, then led the crowd in some hearty synchronised arm-waving, so the floodlit Arena looked like a bed of hungry sea anemones. And he kept showing us his nifty Elvis hip-swivels: he certainly has a healthy spring in his Cuban-heeled step for a former critical case.

Martin Gore, who has persevered all these years with a hairstyle squeezed out of an icing bag, has been studying a different manual. If Gahan is the crotch of Depeche Mode, Gore is its heart and mind. He writes all of the songs, and their booming, robotic severity is completely at odds with Gahan's thrusting-rock-behemoth self-image. More often than not the contrast between singer and song makes both seem ridiculous. Certainly, no one could take Depeche Mode as seriously as they take themselves.

Well, maybe the buyers of 40 million albums would disagree. The group's current tour is promoting a compilation album of their singles from 1986 onwards, and, to be fair, it does indicate that they've kept the quality consistent over the years. And even if their mood has been a little too consistent, the style of their music has kept moving on with sufficient momentum to resist the pull of the Eighties-nostalgia-tour black hole which has claimed Culture Club and the Human League. But let us move to more noteworthy matters: you'll never guess who I spotted in the audience. Are you ready? It was Gary Lineker! Yes, really! Gary Lineker at a Depeche Mode gig! Just a little something for you to ponder.

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