Whiplash noises, lyrics ostensibly about S&M, and a 12″ version entitled ‘Slavery Whip Mix‘: it’s little wonder my rather naive, sheltered 15-year old self became pruriently obsessed with Depeche Mode’s eleventh single, because whilst I didn’t quite understand it, I knew there was something pretty saucy going on, and the fact that they’d set it to their sonically heaviest arrangement yet made me love it even more.
Like Bowie (The Velvets, Brel, Iggy) and Marc Almond (Brel again, The Velvets again, Scott Walker) before them, DM had a knack for introducing obscure left-field artists to teenage audiences, and ‘Master & Servant‘ took the industrial heft, musique concrète and leather bar imagery of the likes of SPK, Neubauten and DAF (along with the hook from The Cure‘s ‘Let’s Go to Bed‘), built an exhilaratingly muscular pop tune out of it, and took it into the top 10. Seeing these once fresh-faced young boys performing it on Top of the Pops, looking like they’d just been thrown out of a Berlin swingers’ club for overstepping the mark, was utterly thrilling, and for me the moment when I decided that this was my band.
Of course, it’s not really about sex at all: the Mode were well into their agit-pop phase by then and the song is essentially about class struggle, about how voluntarily submitting to the slavery of the 9-to-5 is like is like sub-dom sex, the difference being that only one of them is good for you – “In bed or in life, they’re both just the same/Except in one you’re fulfilled at the end of the day”. You were supposed to free yourself from chains, not sign up for them. A metaphor that went way over my 15-year old head at the time obviously, but which has since become only too close to home. The 9-to-5 part anyway.
‘Master & Servant’ was a real landmark for DM; it marked the point when they moved away from being a Smash Hits/TOTP band and began to be taken to the hearts of angst-ridden, black-clad teenagers, particularly in Europe and the US, and within a few years they were filling stadiums, selling squillions of albums and taking industrial quantities of drugs. That journey started here, with those whip noises, and as that gloriously sleazy glam rock coda kicks in (‘Personal Jesus‘ 5 years early), the band’s future is laid out for them.