When Depeche Mode first touched down on Eastern European soil in 1985 as part of their Some Great Reward tour, there was no way of judging what reaction they’d get. The British synth band had, for the first time, been able to arrange concerts in Warsaw and Budapest – but with their records banned behind the Iron Curtain, they had no record of sales to judge their popularity. And if anybody did actually turn up to see them live, they wouldn’t even make a profit for their live performances – at the time it was illegal to take money out of Poland and Hungary.
The phenomenal response they received, as illustrated in Trevor Baker’s 2009 book Dave Gahan: Depeche Mode and the Second Coming, completely staggered them. The group were unable to walk the streets in these two cities without being mobbed. In Hungary specifically, groups of fans that referred to themselves as ‘Depeches’ waited for hours for band members Dave Gahan, Martin Gore, Andy Fletcher, and Alan Wilder outside their hotel – dressed exactly like them – and then surrounded them.
At the concerts, the fans sang along to every word. Against the odds, they’d managed to get their hands on copies of Depeche Mode records and had completely devoured them. It helped that the band’s style of synthesiser and drum machine-driven electronic music transferred a lot more clearly than scratchy punk guitars when it was bootlegged. Something was very clear – fandom of the band had become a subculture in its own right in the Eastern Bloc.
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Gabor Suller, a 38-year-old superfan originally from Tiszaújváros in Hungary and now living in Budapest, says he first heard the band’s music as a very young child in 1983. He listened to the song “Work Hard” on a bootleg tape copied by a friend of his older brother, and by his teen years he’d become a “real fan”, translating all their lyrics from English into Hungarian and travelling 150 miles each way with his friends in order to attend Depeche Mode discos put on by the country’s fan club at Petőfi Hall in Budapest – at their height, these attracted over one thousand people.
But why did Depeche Mode’s records speak to him and his friends in Hungary so much? “I’d say we are a little bit melancholic,” he says. “We have always been under some kind of regime, whether it be the Ottoman Empire or the Soviets, so we always look for something else to lead us. The music was such a new sound, unlike anything we had heard before, and Martin (Gore)’s lyrics just touched our hearts and made us happy. It felt like they were supporting us and wanted to inspire us to make our lives better.”
“In my opinion, Depeche Mode became so popular in Eastern Europe thanks to their lyrics, rough sound elements, and aggressive visual looks – leather clothes, bleached and shaved hair, and so on,” 46-year-old Andris Urbanovic tells me. “As their music was forbidden in the Soviet Union, it attracted those who chose to think differently about the situation we were under.”
Urbanovic, who has been a fan since 1986, runs the DM Bar in Riga, a nightclub completely dedicated to the band. There is another, non-affiliated and older club in Tallinn that has been visited by the band themselves. Both establishments are covered in Depeche Mode merchandise (from cardboard cutouts to tour scarves and lyrics scrawled on the walls in different languages) and both put on regular parties playing the band’s music as well as records by other ‘industrial’ bands. “Depeche Mode gigs in Latvia are very well-attended, especially when you take into account the relatively small population – and we get a lot of fans from other Eastern European countries who make a special trip to the bar,” Urbanovic adds.
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