A Look Back at the Depeche Mode Riots

Depeche Mode

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots (or Watts Rebellion, depending on your point of view). In that riot, 3,438 Anglenos were arrested, 1,032 were injured, and 34 died. This year (but not today) is also the 25th anniversary of another, less serious uprising, the Depeche Mode Riots, in which five to seven people were treated for injuries.

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Southern California has hosted its share of riots; there was the San Gabriel Mission Riot in 1785, the Chinese Massacre of 1871, the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, the Cooper Do-nuts Uprising of 1959, the Sunset Strip Curfew Riots of 1966, the Black Cat Riot of 1967, the Huntington Beach Surf Riot of 1986, the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, the San Bernardino Punk Riot of 2006, the Anaheim Riots of 2012, and the another Huntington Beach Surf Riot in 2013. Some (most) were exacerbated by the authorities, and several were fueled by civil rights aspirations, opportunism, and/or racism. Only one that I know of was fueled by hormones, Anglophila, and ARP-2600s.

In most of the USDepeche Mode were known only as that band who sang “People are People.” 1987’s Music for the Masses only reached no. 35 on the pop charts and of its four singles, non troubled the Top 40. In Southern California, however, Depeche Mode and Music for the Masses were massive and on the final performance of that album’s tour they played to an audience of 60,000 fans at the Pasadena Rose Bowl — there biggest concert ever. The event formed the centerpiece of 101, a concert film by cinéma direct pioneer DA Pennebaker.

Depeche Mode’s follow-up, Violator, was eagerly anticipated by fans who waited three years for its release.  The electro-glam single “Personal Jesus” provided a tease when released in 1989 and singlehandedly gave birth to the schaffel subgenere. It cracked the Top 40 which meant Casey Kasem and Rick Dees were obligated to play it on their chart shows, which in turn meant even kids in the heartland heard it emanating from the speakers on their school buses.

Enjoy the Silence” reached no. 8 in the charts, at that point their highest placing yet. The stylish Anton Corbijn-directed music video was duly played on syndicated Saturday morning video shows and suddenly Depeche Mode were familiar to anyone under 30. I remember a troglodyte stand-up having a bit about how wimpy (gasp!) and pale (the horror!) they were… and probably something to about how music made on electronic rather than electric music isn’t “real” (a surprisingly common view among idiots of the day). Just don’t refer to their music as “progressive techno-pop.”

Violator was released on 20 March 1990. I bought a copy on compact disc from a music store in the Columbia Mall. I heard about the Depeche Mode riots was from a syndicated tabloid “news” show — probably either A Current Affair or Hard Copy. I remember the subtext of the report was along the lines of “How is it possible that so many kids are rioting over a band that I, a journalist, have never heard of?”

The the newscasters’ discredit, though, they probably would’ve had the same reaction had the band in question been U2, INXS, or R.E.M., but none of those stadium filling bands of the era were English and in Anglophile California there weren’t just Depeche Mode fanatics but Depeche Mode clones like Anything BoxCause & Effect and Red Flag. The band’s sartorial style, too, was suddenly similar to that of the local “rebel” subculture which was the subject of a series of typically exploitive/concerned Chris Blatchford exposés for Fox Undercover.

Depeche Mode were scheduled to do an in-store signing at the Wherehouse on La Cienega in Beverly Grove, to promote the new album and sign autographs. Fans came from other states and in some cases camped out for four days in oder to catch a glimpse of the band. By the 20th, the line was three kilometers long and contained as many as 17,000 hard core fans.

After 90 minutes, the LAPD shut down the event out of safety concerns. The boys from Basildon escaped out the back entrance, and hundreds of mounted riot police and police helicopters tried to maintain control. The stores windows were smashed and all hell broke loose. Aside from the five injuries, most of the wounds were of merely disappointment — something the band and KROQ tried to soothe by giving away a free promotional cassette of an interview conducted by Richard Blade b/w a remix of “Something to Do.”

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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