Steel Cage Match: Johnny Cash VS Depeche Mode

steel-cage-cash-vs-depeche-modeRight now I am reading “Johnny Cash: The Life,” by Robert Hilburn and I am almost done with it, so it’s covering the albums he recorded with Rick Rubin. I only have “American Recordings,” so when I read that he covered the Depeche Mode song “Personal Jesus” on the album “The Man Comes Around.” I just had to make this a hat trick of posts related to that least likely icon of Post-Punk, Johnny Cash. Still, he was wearing black before Depeche Mode were glimmers in their parent’s eyes. So it’s not that crazy. I bought a DL of the track by Johnny Cash for the purposes of this post, not having the cash [ha ha] to spring for the full album on short notice.

Sire | US | CD | 1990 | 9 26081-2

Sire | US | CD | 1990 | 9 26081-2

Depeche Mode: Violator US CD [1990]

  1. World In My Eyes
  2. Sweetest Perfection
  3. Personal Jesus
  4. Halo
  5. Waiting For The Night
  6. Enjoy The Silence
  7. Policy Of Truth
  8. Blue Dress
  9. Clean

The appearance of the advance “Personal Jesus” single in 1989 sure set tongues a-wagging when it came down the pike many months ahead of the “Violator” album. I had immediately bought the import CD5 as I was wont to, back in the day. The dramatic appearance of overt guitars in a Depeche Mode song was almost as devastating an occurrence as slap bass samples were in Kraftwerk’s “Tour De France” single, or bass and guitar in the mid-80s Human League period. As if that wasn’t enough, DM had the nerve to use acoustic guitar sounds in their single! And they used a dobro [or a sample] for good measure!

The track itself was typical of the dark-hued songs that Martin Gore wrote, this time using a religious metaphor to describe the dynamics of a relationship. The track reeked of the same techno-western vibe that The Revolting Cocks had more campily mined on “Beers, Steers, And Queers,” but the underlying glam rock stomp was a little more “authentic.” It was not like any previous DM singles and seemed to carve out some new territory for the band after nearly a decade together.

The LP cut had about 90 seconds of instrumental coda that was wisely excised by François Kevorkian for the 7″ edit of the track. On the LP it just sounds like filler to pad the album out. Dave Gahan’s vocals were severely processed with too much reverb on the LP cut I just listened to the other day. I no longer have the CD single, but I do have “The Best Of Depeche Mode Volume 1” and I see that has the preferable 7″ mix. Overall, it’s a good Depeche Mode single that announced that the band were growing beyond synth pop at that stage in the game.

johnny cash - themancomesaroundUSCDA

American Recordings | US | CD | 2002 | 440 063 339-2

Johnny Cash: The Man Comes Around US CD [2002]

  1. The Man Comes Around
  2. Hurt
  3. Give My Love To Rose
  4. Bridge Over Troubled Water
  5. I Hung My Head
  6. First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
  7. ii

  8. Personal Jesus
  9. In My Life
  10. Sam Hall
  11. Danny Boy
  12. Desperado
  13. I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
  14. Tear Stained Letter
  15. Streets Of Laredo
  16. We’ll Meet Again

The song in Cash’s hands is stripped bare to acoustic guitar and piano, with his vocals dry and intimate, right up front. The double irony of Cash covering a song that used ironic religious metaphor instead of being a more typical gospel number is not lost on me. I am surprised that he consented to record the song as suggested by Rick Rubin, who by that time in their relationship had begun to hit the Post-Punk racks in looking for good material to bring to Mr. Cash. It lends the song an ironic ambiguity that is strange bedfellows with the much more straightforward ethos of Cash.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t sound good; his vocal is everything that Gahan’s wasn’t on the track. He commands attention in the song, and by that he brings new emphasis to the lyrics, which are a bit hard to discern in the DM version of the cut. The simple instrumentation is winning. John Frusciante [Ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers] plays second fiddle to Cash on acoustic guitar. But the real winner in the arrangement is Billy Preston’s barrelhouse piano, mixed ever so low in the track, that adds a requisite carnal temporality to the song that brings the fact home that though it sounds like gospel music, and it’s being sung by Johnny Cash – frequent singer of gospel music and pal of Billy Graham, it really isn’t.

At the end of the day, both track bring good things to the table. Depeche Mode started coloring outside of their outlines big time with this track even as I lost interest in them after this album. For Johnny Cash, it’s a great sounding cover version that makes improvements on the original in almost every way. The subtlety of the track stands in direct opposition to the somewhat heavy-handed original. That it managed the neat trick of delivering a greater helping of Post-Modern irony over the efforts of Depeche Mode implies that Cash has come out the winner here. They grew to adopt guitars. He grew to make po-mo artistic statements with a faux-gospel number from the last man you’d expect it from.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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9 Responses to Steel Cage Match: Johnny Cash VS Depeche Mode

  1. Was Johnny Cash one of the Founding Fathers of the USA? He certainly looks the part in that picture you’ve chosen, Monk! But yes, I too call Cash the winner on this match-up. You gotta give points to DM for writing the song in the first place, and managing to write a sexual song with Jesus as a metaphor that’s so damn catchy it gets widespread radio play (no mean feat in the ultra-conservative US radio scene), though.


  2. Tim says:

    Interesting comparison. This is a wildly popular Depeche Mode song and from day 1 (and when the release of this single happened I was a HARDCORE Depeche Mode fan/collector) I have not liked this song. I would go so far as to say it is one of their worse songs in the span between “A Broken Frame” and “Songs of Passive Aggression & Self-Loathing.” The winner for me in the steel cage match is Mr. Cash but if I had to choose I would listen to neither.
    The b-side, however, “Dangerous.” Love that jam. How that wound up as a b-side and not an album cut is beyond me.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – Since I just revisited “Violator” to write the post for the first time in a long time, I have to concur that the “Personal Jesus” single is way out of place on that album. It completely disrupts the flow and should have been a non-LP single. Re: “Songs of Passive Aggression and Self-Loathing,” you are one funny man, sir! You took the words right out of my mouth! That was a big factor in my abandonment of Depeche Mode in the early 90s. That period of their career was so Trent Reznor of them. That sort of tortured, prolonged adolescent angst far past its sell-by date alienates me.


      • Echorich says:

        Many DM fans draw the line at Music For The Masses as being the album that tipped them over, others point to Songs of Faith and Devotion. I find myself in the latter. I lost track of DM until the dissonance of Playing The Angel in 2005 by which time they seemed to get a lot of their solo and personal needs taken care of. There are stand out track on Exciter and Ultra, but they were patchy affairs when I finally picked them up. I wasn’t very satisfied by the most recent release, but the live show was quite enjoyable.


  3. Echorich says:

    I think to take Cash’s Gospel songs at face value is okay, but this is a man who was no religous saint – nor was his “sainted” wife June either. Cash is one of the most troubled and fragile modern musicians. I’m sure gospel brought some levels of comfort to his savage breast, but the singer who recorded Personal Jesus was singing from a place he knew all to well. This is also why NIN’s Hurt and the classic Streets Of Laredo are so filled with emotions and pathos.
    His version of Personal Jesus is stunning. But this is a song that I have also come to enjoy over time more by DM than I probably did when it was first released. Violator was all about Enjoy The SIlence and Policy Of Truth and Halo when it was released. DM did free themselves from the expectations of their fans and critics on Violator and grew a great deal.
    To Cash in a third round on points for me, but this is with the benefit of hindsight on both recordings.


    • Tim says:

      There was an interesting bio of Nick Cave in the New York Times this past week and it hits on some of what is mentioned in the comment above. There are large swaths of both Mr. Cash and Mr. Cave’s careers that I really like but Mr. Cave strikes me as one of those artists whose music I like quite a lot but probably would not like the creator of same very much as a person if I knew them.


      • Echorich says:

        Tim, I’ve had the “pleasure” of getting drunk in a club with Nick Cave and a group of others about 25 – 27 yrs ago – it was Danceteria in NYC – and lubricated with hard liquor, he was a pretty fascinating character. I have to admit that the night before my friends and I had seen him perform with The Bad Seeds at the same venue and left mid show because it was just torturous. For years since I’ve avoided him live even though I really find his recorded music to be quite breathtaking.


        • Tim says:

          I don’t doubt that he is fascinating or interesting, just someone who I would prefer to have a more one-dimensional I really like his music sort of relationship with. He really seems to polarize people. There are one or two people in the comments on the NYT article who say “he has the whole world fooled” and I see that sentiment often in comments online for articles related to him. I’m not really sure what they’re getting at with that.
          There’s albums by him where most of it just misses and then there’s things like “The Boatman’s:Call” which for me should be core in any record collection.
          So here we are on a Depeche Mode thread talking about Nick Cave (who also appears on the Rick Rubin Johnny Cash albums). I think that the common thread here is that there has been some real self-punishment in the front men of both DM and the Bad Seeds and the quality of the offering really is affected by where they are at in sorting out their afflictions. Nick Cave’s arc through his mid-90’s to mid 00’s work is pretty clear whereas the David Gahan Traveling Sideshow is just a mess. Upstream in the comments it was mentioned the deal breaker album and for some it is Music for the Masses which I agree is one of their weaker offerings. Some Great Reward hasn’t aged well, either, though and is fairly disjointed. Somehow they managed the alchemy to make a really solid album and sadly that just wrecked everything. Alan Wilder added some great textures to their sound and his absence was noticed by me, After Violator it is all downhill, it’s been over twenty years now since I was sincerely excited by a new DM offering.

          by the way, here’s a link to the NYT Nick Cave piece for anyone so inclined:


          • postpunkmonk says:

            Tim/Echorich – Thanks so much for your pithy comments. You guys really add a lot to PPM! I owe you all big time for your contributions. The readership here is pretty wonderful and you all have my profound thanks.


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