40 years ago today, which'd be Friday 20th February 1981, Depeche Mode released their debut single. It was called Dreaming of Me and featured all the twiddly synth you might expect. It never troubled the Top 40 but it earned plenty of airtime on early evening Radio 1 which is where I heard it and loved it, and I've been following the band ever since. The song also failed to make an appearance on the band's first album so I eventually forked out and bought the 7 inch, which I still own despite having no means of playing it.
For today's anniversary I've made a pilgrimage to the studio where that debut single and album were recorded, a former church in Southwark, which is fortuitously within walking distance of home. But first I headed to the pub where Depeche Mode were first signed - long demolished, but it turns out I've been walking through it on a regular basis recently and never realised.
This large Mock Tudor hostelry was the first building passed by drivers after crossing Bow Creek and evolved into a major music venue in the late 1970s. Nobody lived nearby, the area round the station was all wharves and goods depots, so packed-out late-night gigs were no problem. Owner Terry Murphy attracted an impressiveroster of artistes to the Bridge House including Jeff Beck, Secret Affair, Squeeze, Eurythmics, Lindisfarne and the Stray Cats. The Blues Band, Chas and Dave and Iron Maiden performed regular residencies. U2 played their first UK gig here in front of an 18-strong crowd. Dire Straits appeared before they were called Dire Straits. The pub even had its own record label with a logo featuring the pylon that stood alongside... and still has its own website.
Depeche Mode played the Bridge House seventimes in 1980, invariably hired as support for another band. It would have been an easy drive from Basildon and a good chance to be seen by A&R. On November 12th they played an eight-song set supporting Fad Gadget, whose manager Daniel Miller was impressed enough to go backstage afterwards and suggest putting out a single on his Mute label. Promoter Stevo had already offered a record deal, dangling the carrot of a tour with Ultravox, but Vince and the boys shook hands with Daniel instead after he returned the following week to watch the band again. Without the Bridge House, the path to world-conquering stadium rock would have stalled early.
The pub closed in 1982, putting an end to Canning Town's days at the heart of East London's live music scene. The building lingered on, eking out its last years as a hostel for homeless families, until it was finally demolished 20 years ago as part of the widening of the A13. What had been a two-lane flyover needed to become three with a slip road leading down to the roundabout, and it's that slip road which now slices through half the pub's original footprint. The other half lies within a locked service yard, now stacked with containers and overridden with buddleia, which likely contains the spot where that crucial Mode handshake took place. If you're seeking the location yourself then look for the pylon on the corner with Stephenson Street, where twin arrows painted on the roadway mark what used to be the back of the bar.
An alternative venue called Bridgehouse2, with a much lowlier roster of bands and throwback discos, exists a short distance away up Bidder Street. It's housed in a grim industrial unit, and surrounded by far worse, so unlikely to be the musical crucible its predecessor was.
At the end of 1980 Depeche Mode arrived at Blackwing Studios in SE1 to record their first single. The studios were located in a deconsecrated church on Copperfield Street off Southwark Bridge Road, not far from the railway viaduct. All Hallows had been heavily damaged in the Blitz, its south aisle subsequently demolished to become an open space and its north aisle retained for private use. Daniel Miller picked Blackwing because it had a large control room with sufficient space for setting up synthesisers, plus a sound engineer called Eric Radcliffe who was keen to give tinkering with electronica a try. The studios were on the first floor, a set-up later referenced by Vince Clarke in the title of the first Yazoo album... Upstairs At Eric's.
Depeche Mode came back to Blackwing in spring 1981 to record the rest of their debut album. Two of the band still had day jobs at this point, while Dave was at technical college in Southend and Vince was on the dole. Vince did most of the work, juggling songwriting, arranging and equipment-fiddling, while the others dipped in as necessary. The backstreets of SE1 wouldn't have had a cutting edge vibe in the early 80s so the number of local distractions was low. The first track to emerge from the recording session was the follow-up single New Life which earned a Top of the Pops performance, sold half a million copies and immediately propelled the Basildon lads into the big time.
The former studios are now occupied by a housing collective, as evidenced by the food waste recycling bin on the doorstep and the handwritten note for the attention of a Hermes courier stuck to the old church door. Meanwhile the space alongside has been transformed into All Hallows Community Garden, a tranquil spot with benches, raised beds and a well-tended lawn. It's been here 50 years so would have been available to bands for lounging around, indeed there are photos showing Depeche Mode looking moody while standing in the stone arch by the main entrance. The former church noticeboard has been repurposed as a heritage display... and Ian Visits fortuitously visited last week so you can read a much fuller account here.
Obviously what I did was pause awhile in the garden and fire up Dreaming of Me on my phone, musing on the fact it was recorded on the other side of the wall. The world of music has moved on massively since 1981 but the electronic melodies still sounded fresh and clear as they tinkled through my headphones. Next I played my favouriterecord of all time, which was also recorded here four decades ago, and finished off my Blackwing medley with a burst of Only You by Yazoo, ditto. Every band has to start somewhere, be that in a bombed out church or in a pub beneath a fizzing pylon.