Reach Out and Touch Faith

As we continue our tribute to the telephone, there’s this, from 1989:

(Official video is NSFW, depending on where you W.)
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Depeche Mode, all Eurotrash attitude and ambiguous sexuality, play “Personal Jesus” like they’re dragging all the weight of the ’80s behind them. And what that gets them is an absolutely fantastic-sounding record, with an irresistibly propulsive bass, an un-contrived darkness, riding on Dave Gahan’s unmusical, deeply expressive vocal.

Dave Gahan has said this is about Priscilla and Elvis Presley or something, but come on. If that was the starting point, that’s not where it ended up:

Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who cares
Your own personal Jesus
Someone to hear your prayers
Someone who’s there

With, of course, phones:

Feeling unknown
And you’re all alone
Flesh and bone
By the telephone
Lift up the receiver
I’ll make you a believer
Take second best
Put me to the test
Things on your chest
You need to confess
I will deliver
You know I’m a forgiver

What this is, sexualized panting and all, is hipsters mocking — not with any particular hostility — what they are pretending to believe that Christians believe. You know, the Magic God and all that, who’ll solve all your problems and forgive all your sins if you just “Reach out and touch faith.” (Hardly any Christians actually believe that or think that way, but it’s an easy enough caricature.)

I don’t know if this is much remembered now, but that “Reach out” line is a reference to an AT&T jingle that was ubiquitous in the U.S. for years, starting in the late ’70s. Obviously the songwriters were aware of it in this phone-driven tune, and any American in 1989 would’ve gotten the reference without a moment’s reflection. It’s probably a jab at Christianity of the televangelist type, with phone numbers constantly scrolling across the screen.

It’s all pretty shallow and obvious perhaps, but the sound of it — it’s unforgettable once heard. But then this happened:

Johnny Cash kills it link.

What a strange song for a man of faith to sing. But Johnny Cash’s take on this, driven by a furious, bluesy, downtuned acoustic guitar, turns this song on its head. Someone suggested to me once that Cash didn’t realize that DP meant it to be ironic, but that was absurd; he wasn’t stupid, and they weren’t subtle.

Cash’s version of “Personal Jesus” is not as widely known, but you can hear him stealing this one, making off with it just like he made off with Trent Reznor’s agonizing “Hurt.” Depeche Mode set out to make, and made, a great-sounding record out of a nasty and sophomoric little bit of religion-bashing. And then Johnny Cash turned it into, of all things, a prayer.

About Bridey

Bridey has been a music nut since falling in love with Elton John's "Caribou" album in grade school (why that one? I was nine). She's a magazine editor by trade who writes regularly about radio, music, and related industries.
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2 Responses to Reach Out and Touch Faith

  1. DM fan says:

    I’d like to address two things: “Dave Gahan has said this is about Priscilla and Elvis Presley or something (…)”. Martin Gore wrote this song, not Dave Gahan. Martin has frequently stated that the main inspiration for this song was a autobiography by Priscilla Presley that he was reading at the time, and in it, she had written that she saw Elvis as a “Personal Jesus”. Martin said that he found this a very scary thing, to regard another human being as some sort of God (or Jesus, to be more precise). So the song is not about DM mocking christianity, it’s about the dangerous believe that someone else is a Jesus for you instead of just a fallible human being.
    ” (…) that “Reach out” line is a reference to an AT&T jingle that was ubiquitous in the U.S. for years, starting in the late ’70s. Obviously the songwriters were aware of it in this phone-driven tune (…)” DM are from the UK, not from the US. In the late ’70s, DM were just 18 years old and up until 1989 they had only been in the US for touring and doing promotions, so depending on how much American TV Martin watched while they were on tour, I don’t think he would have known this commercial. Personally I think that the “Reach out and touch faith” is more of a line that has a double meaning, meaning that you cannot only “reach out” in the sense of asking for help, but also physically reaching out and touching that person which you regard to be your Jesus, which makes the song all the more sexual. But that’s just my interpretation.

  2. Bridey says:

    Thanks for the reply, DM fan. I know who wrote the song, but I saw that quote attributed to the man who sang it. Though I’m sure you’re right that it was misattributed; that does make more sense.

    I also knoon, w that DP are British — I mean, how could they possibly not be? But regardless of how long they’d been in America, the fact that they quoted a hugely well known phone-company jingle in a song centered on phone-based imagery seems very unlikely to have been a coincidence. That they were new to America seems neither here nor there — that silly jingle was everywhere. Which doesn’t invalidate your further interpretation, of course.