Prague uncovered: Depeche Mode’s 1988 Prague concert began a ‘revolution’

The British electro-pop band’s first Czech show was a last-minute substitution, and authorities prepared for the worst.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston Published on 27.05.2022 15:07:00 (updated on 27.05.2022) Reading time: 6 minutes

Andy Fletcher, a founding member of the British electro-pop band Depeche Mode, passed away at age 60 from natural causes. While the band has asked people to respect their privacy at this time, we can reflect back on their legacy and their connections to Prague.

While everyone remembers the Rolling Stones coming in 1990, Depeche Mode beat them by a few years for a wildly popular concert that occurred by accident. The band played at Sportovní hala ČSTV (now called Sportovní hala Fortuna) in Výstaviště in Prague 7 on March 11, 1988, over a year before the Velvet Revolution.

Fans who want to remember the late musician can attend the previously scheduled Depeche Mode Live Spirits party at Loď Cargo Gallery on Smíchovská Náplavka on May 28 at 7 pm. It will feature a cover band plus a DJ. Read more here and here.

Originally, Chris Norman of the band Smokie was supposed to come, but he fell ill and had to cancel. Norman’s management offered Depeche Mode to state-run concert company Pragokoncert as a replacement.

Pragokoncert might not have been aware of who the band was, as Depeche Mode’s music wasn’t widely available through official means. Their 1986 album “Black Celebration” and the compilation “The Singles 81→85” were sold at the Polish Information Cultural Center in Prague but were not released on a Czechoslovak label.

Pragokoncert likely assumed it would be soft rock in the same vein as Smokie. But legions of young Czechs knew them, as the music had circulated via bootlegs and was heard in underground clubs.

The band also had other Eastern bloc dates, one in East Berlin and two in Budapest just before the Prague date. Cultural officials in Czechoslovakia tended to be more conservative than those in neighboring countries, though. Rocks stars whose concerts were televised in other countries were denied permission to perform in Prague.

Depeche Mode was touring to support “Music for the Masses,” their sixth studio album. It has the hits “Never Let Me Down Again,” "Strangelove," and “Behind the Wheel.”

When word got out that Depeche Mode was coming, interest was enormous. About 90,000 people tried to get tickets – which cost Kčs 150 – directly from Pragokoncert, and perhaps up to 250,000 sought tickets from authorized vendors. Sportovní hala isn’t that big, and only 15,000 lucky people were able to see the show.

Police became concerned. They warned vendors to be on the lookout for drug addicts and other anti-social types buying tickets and said that security measures around the concert would be extreme.

But in the end, there were no significant incidents. Communist Party newspaper Rudé právo reported there were some aggressive fans before the start of the show, but nothing after that. Likely, it was latecomers trying to get to the front of the stage, as often happens.

Rudé právo added that the band was nothing really new, as German electronic band Kraftwerk was well-known, and German pop band Modern Talking had played in Prague and Bratislava a year earlier. The reviewer did note the black fashions but went on to praise the show.

Review of the 1988 Depeche Mode concert in Rudé právo. Via Depeche.cz.
Review of the 1988 Depeche Mode concert in Rudé právo. Via Depeche.cz.

“The clear and almost perfect sound in the hall space was enhanced by the play of light to the experience, not without a touch of pathetic tenderness,” the reviewer stated.

They went on to say the faces of the audience members after the concert showed something not usually associated with rock music – “a kind of accessibility, tolerance, a mixture of enthusiasm and peace of mind.”

“All those teenagers from Friday night will probably remember the concert long after they stop being so interested in Depeche Mode and popular music in general,” they concluded.

World in Pictures (Svět v obrazech) said that the 90-minute concert was a revolution, and time would tell if we were winning.

“For the first time, we had the opportunity to see for ourselves they are neither before nor behind the pinnacle of their artistic career. Depeche Mode is truly one of the best and most sought after [acts] in the world,” they said.

“And while 27-year-old David Gahan demonstrated professional singing and dancing techniques with a microphone in his hand, the descendants of those who experienced a time when rock music was a forbidden fruit chanted in a busy hall,” World in Pictures said.

They added that officials seeing the need for extra security was odd, as such concerts are common in Hungary and Poland.

Melodie magazine pointed out that the fans knew most of the songs. “Of course, the entire Sports Hall was waiting for ‘Never Let Me Down Again.’ Hundreds of rock depechers [depešáků] sang this and most of the other songs,” Melodie said.

"Depešák" was a term for Depeche Mode fans in Czechoslovakia who wore black clothes and emulated the band’s hairstyles.

“Never Let Me Down Again” ended the main set but there were two encores. In total, 18 songs were performed.

The band returned a short while later for a now-famous photoshoot. The four band members – Andrew John Fletcher, Martin Lee Gore, Alan Wilder, and David Gahan – came with their photographer Anton Corbijn to shoot black-and-white pictures for the 1990 photo book “Depeche Mode: Strangers.”

Fletcher was in Prague in 1991 for the opening of the Czechoslovak branch of Mute records. There was one memorable incident that Fletcher recalled. “Anton's idea was that Martin would get on the tram and go to the next stop while taking pictures from the outside. Martin got on the tram and it took off,” he said, according to an account on a Czech fansite for the band.

“Then a group of several punks came around the corner. There were a few of our fans with us: ‘If they see you, you're dead,’ they warned us, urging us to run. We started to run, but in the opposite direction to the one Martin had taken. Two of the female fans even burst into tears because they feared that Martin might be on his way to the hospital, if not already dead,” he added.

“Fortunately, the next stop was at a school where classes had just ended. We found Martin surrounded by children who recognized him, so he was perfectly safe,” he said.

Andy Fletcher, front, and Depeche Mode at Štvanice.  Photo: © Anton Corbijn.
Andy Fletcher, front, and Depeche Mode at Štvanice. Photo: © Anton Corbijn.

Pictures from the photoshoot show the band at the cafe and waiting room in Prague’s main train station Hlavní nádraží, at Franz Kafka’s grave, and other spots in the New Jewish Cemetery in Žižkov, at the winter stadium on Štvanice, on Charles Bridge, in front of a record store, at the tram tracks on Josefská Street, at a phone booth, and on the steps leading to Prague Castle.

The last time the band was in Prague was in 2018 for their Global Spirit Tour, this time at the larger O2 Arena. The official lineup was now a trio of Fletcher, Gahan, and Gore with additional touring members. Some 17,431 people attended, which was arena capacity with the stage setup they were using.

Video directed by Anton Corbijn for 'Where's the Revolution' from the album 'Spirit.'

The next day, a tour guide was leading two men and a woman on an Eating Europe food tour. People kept stopping them to take their picture. The puzzled guide finally mentioned it was odd, as it normally never happens.

“Maybe they recognize us from the show last night,” one of the men said.

He had been leading Fletcher and Gore plus their manager on a tour without knowing it. But the Depešáky still managed to spot them. (Gahan didn't take the food tour but was spotted by fans at a cinema multiplex, with a bodyguard to keep people at a respectful distance.)

The band has played a total of 11 concerts in Prague, with three of the shows at Sportovní hala: 1988, 1998, and 2001. 

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