As I mentioned in a comment on Facebook last night, “Personal Jesus” is now 25 years old. (The actual anniversary of release was last Friday.) The comment followed a discussion a few of us had when I noted that 1989 was also the summer of the Cure’s “Love Song” going to number two and Love and Rockets’ “So Alive” going to number three — as others noted, that year was a weird/good one, above and beyond my nostalgia fixes. (Prince’s “Batdance” goes number one, the Fine Young Cannibals turned into a monster act, the B-52’s break through fully to the mainstream, the song that kept “Love Song” off the top of the chart was Janet’s “Miss You Much, New Order releases Technique and tours with PiL and the Sugarcubes, Madonna releases Like a Prayer, and this all really scrapes the surface.)
My larger observation if I have one is that this year for me heralds a three year bleedover period that wasn’t the eighties entirely but wasn’t the nineties either, as suffused/dominant cultural memory would have it. And the impact of this song in particular was kinda ridiculous. HUGE, in LA terms; pretty much KROQ started playing it as soon as they could and it pretty much ate the station for the rest of the year, to the point where the actual B-side “Dangerous” got plenty of play as well as an acoustic version. It still couldn’t bust through fully on the charts as it probably could/should have done but it was one of the top selling 12” singles in the Warner catalog when all was said and done, possibly the top one at that point in history. All this was partially due to the fact the album didn’t come out until a full half year later, at which point “Enjoy the Silence” took what had been built up, ran with it and there ya go.
As for the song itself, looking back on it makes you realize what a perfect goddamn glam song it is, one of the biggest and most monstrous then created and still, for that matter. (The fact that it hit LA so hard right when that era’s glam metal scene was cresting is not unrelated I think, but generally LA metal did NOT want to know from Depeche and as a result kinda missed how they’d been undercut.) Martin Gore has always been a total and admitted glam fiend, covering Sparks and all that, but it’s pretty obvious what the model is here: Gary Glitter/Mike Leander. There’s barely anything to the song lyrically — two verses, one massive chorus line over and over — and it’s all about that ridiculous beat, the production, the massive echo, the chant/shoutalongs. The rhythm was created by stomping on garbage bins, the keyboard bass line is a minimal but huge drop, the guitar line is one spiralling line simply repeated. You can hear history backwards — I was partially reminded of this anniversary thanks to Norman Greenbaum’s very glam avant la lettre "Spirit in the Sky" as recently reheard via Guardians of the Galaxy — and forwards, thinking of schaffel and its impact on pop in the last decade, plus some outright samples. Not to mention cover versions from Johnny Cash to Sammy Hagar to Tori Amos to Nina Hagen.