Tomorrow the Jeremy Deller retrospective ‘Joy in People’ opens at London’s Hayward Gallery. Part of the exhibition will engage with ‘Deller’s interest in the social character of pop music’ and ‘the enthusiasms, rituals and passionate loyalty of fans [which] have all provided the artist with inspiration.’ Included here will not only be ‘The Uses of Literacy’ (1997), a display of art and poetry by Manic Street Preachers fans, but also a re-edited version of The Posters Came from the Walls, Deller and Nick Abrahams’ documentary about Depeche Mode fandom around the world. Re-named as Our Hobby is Depeche Mode, this is a film which engages with the role music can play in identity, and it provides an insight into a fan culture like no other. Catch it if you can.
Depeche Mode are of course known for their roots in Basildon, Essex, and attention has recently been turning to the music scenes of south east Essex’s past. Oil City Confidential , Julien Temple’s 2009 film about pub rock band par excellence, Dr. Feelgood, fired up an interest in the music culture of this part of the world, and Deller’s retrospective coincides with a series of events on, and in, my own south east Essex.
In April Southend’s Focal Point Gallery will be showing ‘Thames Delta’ (a phrase inspired by Oil City Confidential), looking at the music that has emerged from Southend, Canvey Island and Basildon since the late 1940s. Meanwhile, ‘Listen to This’, a series of events organised by arts organisation Metal Culture, and hosted by music journalist Daryl Easlea and academic Andrew Branch, will be ‘centred on the importance of popular music to the formation of people’s identities and sense of place’. The first event, this Friday, looks at social space and Southend’s music scenes and will feature cultural historian Dr Andrew Calcutt (University of East London), Ian Dury biographer Will Birch, and legendary Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. On 20th April subcultures become the focus, with discussion of the ‘futurist’ scene at Crocs nightclub, Rayleigh (of which Depeche Mode were a key part in the early eighties), and Dean Chalkley, who currently has an exhibition of his music photography at the White Wall Space Gallery, Leigh-on-Sea, will be the special guest. See the website for other events in the ‘Listen to This’ series.
I wrote about The Posters Came from the Walls for The Quietus back in October, where I also talked about the ‘black swarm’ of Depeche Mode fans that descended on Basildon last summer for Bas I - a fan convention-meets-music festival organised by Deb Danahay, friend of the band and founder of the first Depeche fan club. Since then I’ve been doing some research into fan cultures and Basildon’s history in particular as a cradle of popular music, with its origins as a post-War New Town, its architectural innovations, its 1980s history as a barometer of general election results, and status as a symbol of regional identity forming a backdrop to this. Simon Spence’s recent book on the band, Just Can’t Get Enough: The Making of Depeche Mode, provides an excellent introduction to all this, and is highly recommended.
My own interest in fan cultures and music scenes, however, is informed by my research as a historian of popular religious culture. In the past I have studied modern Catholic cults, and the ways in which religious devotion has been played out in commercial spaces, and both represented and experienced through images. This is the background I’m bringing to this project, and it raises some intriguing questions. Might Depeche Mode fans’ ‘devotion’ to the band (who have themselves used religious imagery and language extensively in their work) be seen as a kind of secular popular devotional cult, complete with ‘pilgrimages’ made to Basildon and rituals of ‘worship’? How can the methods applied to the study of religious devotional culture be applied to the study of musical fan cultures? We’ll have to see how things develop…
In the meantime the Depeche Mode fan cult can be seen in all its glory at Bas II, to be held in May, building on the success of last year’s event (see the forthcoming Bas Productions website for more details). There’s plenty of material for those interested in fandom, local music scenes and the role of music in identity in the offing then, and more on these themes will appear here as insights are gained from these events and their contributors.