Depeche Mode – a buyer’s guide to the dark synth pioneers


Depeche Mode Buyer’s Guide

From electro pioneers to one of the world’s biggest bands, Depeche Mode’s 40 year catalogue is explored by Getintothis’ Keith Ainsworth.

Think of a British band with 14 studio albums behind them, where each one reached the UK chart top ten, two were US number one albums, they have a career of nearly 40 years and a fan base that sells out every live gig they perform.

That band is Depeche Mode.

They have an incredible story to match the music, taking in a career as electro pioneers, singer Dave Gahan flat-lining in an LA Hospital and becoming one of the biggest bands the world has ever seen.

And they achieved this while signed to an indie label, Mute Records.

The stroke of luck Depeche had in being signed to Mute cannot be overestimated, label boss Daniel Miller had always dreamed of a pop group playing only synthesisers and here they were.

Under Miller’s wing they were allowed to develop their sound the way the deemed best. Their deal was 50/50 split of the profits with full artistic freedom for the band.

Unusually for a synth band they had first made their name playing live. One of the advantages of the small synths they used is that they could take them to gigs on trains.

The band never had a traditional manager, although Miller advised and guided them, as well as producing their first five albums.

When their first single Dreaming Of Me was released everyone in the band was 18 or 19. The song charted at no.57 (still a success for a small indie) but the second single New Life cracked the top 20, reaching number 11.

Only when they appeared on BBC television’s Top Of The Pops did two of the members nervously quit their day jobs and became full time superstars in waiting.

So, let us take a look at the music they recorded as all of this unfolded.

Depeche Mode: Speak & Spell (1981)

The band then began work on the first album, Speak & Spell. It is a true pop music gem. This was the sound of a young band making music for the moment.

Vince Clarke used the monophonic synths to create multiple interlocking melodies. Even if their synths could have played more than one note at a time the band had the attitude that playing chords was cheating.

There are many pop nuggets among the album tracks.

Photographic matches a driving beat to an insistent bass line and tumbling riffs. Any Second Now shows us Martin Gore’s voice for the first time.

Gahan was always the main vocalist of the band but Gore would often sing the ballads which seemed to suit his voice.

Nodisco is the ultimate Germanic dance tune to test your speakers. The lyrics are, if we’re being honest, largely complete tosh, but with pop hooks like these you won’t care.

Third single Just Can’t Get Enough will be familiar to most and once again brought chart success. If you don’t sing along to this great collection there is no hope for you.

All this success could have come to an abrupt end when Vince Clarke the main songwriter of the band announced he would leave at the end of their first national tour.

He decided it was only fair to offer them one last song. The band declined it preferring a clean break.

The song was Only You, made no.2 when Clarke recorded it himself months later as the newly formed duo Yazoo, thereby launching a second sucessful pop career.

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Depeche Mode: A Broken Frame (1982)

Having written only two tracks on the first album Martin Gore was throown inat the deep end when he became by default the new songwriter on second LP A Broken Frame.

Proving the doomsayers wrong he stepped up with See You, a beautiful track he’d written at 14. This was a hit but the challenge of a whole album would prove trickier.

The album can be a bit schizoid, one moment it can be overly pop (The Meaning Of Love) and the next have a heavy atmosphere in tracks that wouldn’t seem out of place later on in their career like Leave In Silence.

Instrumental track Nothing To Fear is a highlight, along with The Sun And The Rainfall with its interlocking keyboard parts and vocal harmonies.

Depeche Mode: Construction Time Again (1983)

1983’s Construction Time Again was the third album and one very much of transition.

Alan Wilder had been recruited to play live with the band and now became a full time member. Both his arranging and technical studio abilities became a big part of Depeche Mode. He even wrote two songs that make the cut on the album, easing the strain on Gore.

This era sees their first use of sampling technology. Armed with microphones Depeche would sample everything around them creating new textures and many rhythmic elements.

Taking their lead from German noise fiends Einstürzende Neubauten, the band expanded their palette of sounds.

Lyrically the band was looking outwards at the world. From the injustices of world politics to the ecology theme of The Landscape Is Changing these were new themes for the band.

However the atmosphere and tunes only work on half the tracks.

Highlights include Shame which matches the unsettling music with a tale of desperation and the single Everything Counts which give us the classic refrain”the grabbing hands grab all they can“.

Two Minute Warning is mix of nihilism and cold war threat. Told Me So has an undercurrent of revolution “bring me my gun of itching desire“.

Depeche Mode: Some Great Reward (1984)

Fourth album Some Great Reward saw them growing in reputation.

Recorded in 1984 at Berlin’s famous Hansa studios this showed darker themes and an improved image for the band. It also brought them two UK top ten singles, People Are People and Master And Servant.

The lyrics showed a jump in quality, tackling urban ennui, racism, the bleakness of modern life and relationships. There was now also a sexual undercurrent to many of the lyrics.

As a teenager in a local record shop this writer asked for the 12″ single of Master And Servant. As there were two versions and the owner asked me which one I wanted. To which I had to reply I think it’s called the Slavery Whip Mix. Sigh.

Away from the singles the tracks Lie To Me and It Doesn’t Matter are two standouts.

The album is rounded off with the darkest cut, Blasphemous Rumours, which revels in a chilling synthetic vibe and bleak suicide lyrics to match.

Smash Hits magazine review described the song as being “where God is given a severe ticking off“.

The review was by writer Neil Tennant. I wonder what became of him?

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Depeche Mode: Black Celebration (1986)

Black Celebration started a run of albums that most fans agree to being Depeche at their peak.

Back in Berlin for the recording the band would now be seen exclusively in black leather jackets (and in the case of Martin Gore a black leather harness).

The title track lays out the mood of the album. A Question of Time has a driving almost head banging rhythm and a fine vocal from Dave Gahan. The song also gained a video shot by key future visual collaborator Anton Corbijn.

Stripped starts with the slowed down sound of an idling motorbike and then adds explosive drums. It is melancholy ear candy.

Dressed in Black shows off Gahan in soaring form enjoying the natural reverb of Hansa’s large studio.

Gore has plenty of quality songs particularly the achingly lonely World Full Of Nothing in which he sings, “Though It’s not lov, it means something“.

The album finishes with the driving bass line of New Dress contrasting the media reporting of the horrors of the world and the newsreader finishing with “Princess Di is wearing a new dress.”

Depeche Mode: Music For The Masses (1987)

As they felt their music would never be mainstream they jokingly named their next album Music For The Masses. Little did they know this would be a breakthrough around the world.

Lead single Stangelove was a wonderful track that set the flavour of real widescreen epic songs. One that would work as well played live as on the radio. “I give in to sin, because you have to make this life liveable“.

Shock horror, Martin Gore now played the odd guitar riff. Being Depeche these were sampled and processed, but they were guitars never the less!

Never Let Me Down Again started with such a guitar riff and huge Led Zeppelin drums. There are gentler moments to provide the light and shade such as The Things You Said.

Here Gore’s plaintive voice reflects on a relationship gone wrong.

Taking unusual influences from Philip Glass and Michael Nyman songs like Little 15 and Pimpf were very striking for the mainstream.

Behind The Wheel could be the perfect song from this era.

Starting with sampled rattling pans we get an insistent driving bass line, a simple guitar figure and a lyric where the author submits himself to his partner “I hand myself over on a plate“.

Songs like I Want You Now would lead to Smash Hits from now on referring to Gore as Martin ‘Kinky’ Gore. The album overall mixed three superb singles with deeper cuts of tremendous ambience and sonic impact.

The album took hold in the US being played on alternative radio along with The Cure and The Smiths.

The last date of the Music For The Masses tour in June 1988 was a stadium gig recorded and filmed by documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker and later released asthe film and live album 101.

Depeche Mode: Violator (1990)

Violator is universally praised as Depeche Mode’s finest album.

This was also where the four piece synth pop group from Basildon broke America.

Personal Jesus was the first single with its stomping glitter beat and a guitar riff that lodges in the mind and refuses to leave.

Gahan delivers its evangelistic message in his rich baritone. He was now part Jim Morrison, part Dave Vanian. A swaggering god of the stage.

Second single Enjoy The Silence was a huge hit with beats, sweeping choirs and melodies in excess. It’s topped off with a strong, sincere but ambiguous lyric, “All I ever wanted, all I ever needed, Is here in my arms“.

The song won a Brit Award. Anton Corbijn’s video of Gahan dressed as a king roaming huge landscapes carrying a deck chair is now one of the band’s strongest images.

Halo is a tremendous track that just builds and builds. The songs from this period create magical worlds that envelop you.

Even quieter tracks like Waiting For The Night use pulsating synths and baleful vocals to capture the listener totally.

Policy Of Truth takes on the dichotomy of truth and lies in the modern world.

Blue Dress sees Gore plead for his fetish to be satisfied “because when you learn, you’ll know what makes the world turn“.

The epic Clean rounds off the album hinting that recently Gahan may have been struggling with his indulgences. Sometimes.

Violator sold 1 million copies in the US and 7 million worldwide.

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Depeche Mode: Songs Of Faith and Devotion (1993)

Gahan got married again, moved to Los Angeles and immersed himself in all the rock scene there had to offer.

For the next album everyone agreed they must not just make another Violator but find a new sound. However the recording of this album was to be a battle with every decision fought over.

Martin Gore and Alan Wilder came up with an electronic blues sound with more guitar than before and real drums. This would let Gahan indulge his rockier side on stage.

Walking In My Shoes was a clear single bringing together all the elements the band had learned up to that point.

Condemnation has a career best vocal from Dave Gahan. If it seems on the point of breaking at times that only makes it more emotive and meant.

Gore wrote songs that would have huge resonance and increased meaning when coming from the mouth of Gahan. Gore’s lyrics about his struggles with alcohol could equally apply to Gahan’s problems with drugs.

In Your Room sounds like a proper band with a real drum kit and raucous guitar.

Rush is another dark dense track. The highlight here is the breakdown in the middle of the song and the way it comes back in on an epic scale.

Songs Of Faith And Devotion was a number one album in both the UK and US, but success on this scale would take its toll on the band.

After a tour of famed debauchery long time member Alan Wilder would decide to leave the band.

Citing lack of appreciation of his studio work this was a tremendous blow for the band. His efforts would be replaced by a team of four in the studio and many outside guest musicians would be brought in to play live.

Depeche Mode: Ultra (1997)

Ultra was the album that many thought would never happen.

Dave Gahan’s drug habit had caught up with him in the form of an overdose from a speedball, an injected mix of heroin and cocaine.

He described medics giving him the full Pulp Fiction treatment and then saying “I think we’ve lost him” before he came around.

Initial sessions were slow and painful with Gahan’s voice nearly gone. One result from the first sessions was Sister Of Night were his vulnerable condition helps convey the emotion of the lyric.

Gore sings a future staple from the band’s live set named Home. He provides a soaring vocal and the track has a nice arrangement with an unusual coda.

Yet another fine song with a Gore vocal, The Bottom Line, even has a countrified lap steel guitar.

There were fears with Gahan’s absence the project could turn into a Martin Gore solo album. However after taking vocal lessons and pulling his private life together six months later Gahan was able to complete the album.

His work on It’s No Good provides a nice bit of propulsion and deserved its release as a single. Mixing dark melancholy with a solid melody the song is a stand out.

Against the odds Ultra was completed and released in 1997. But the band didn’t tour the album, wisely thinking the stresses and excess of the road would be too much at that time.

Depeche Mode: Exciter (2001)

2001’s Exciter was the product of a more settled band.

The decision was made to be more electronic on this album yet add in several acoustic instruments. Folktronica if you will.

The album gets off to a good start with Dream On. This blends acoustic guitar with electronic beats.

Shine features a nice vocal from Gahan with a message of positivity.

Indeed the overall vibe of this album is more relaxed and chilled. Even the single Freelove is really mellow.

Only I Feel Loved (different song, similar title) gets the blood pumping. Goodnight Lovers is a great way to round off the album.

The production is very crisp and hi-fi but the times when the actual song writing grabs you are few.

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Depeche Mode: Playing The Angel (2005)

Dave Gahan gradually began to stretch his wings musically and in 2003 produced a solo album.

This meant that when returning to the next Depeche project he wanted song writing input. For Playing The Angel released in 2005 Gahan would contribute lyrics to three songs, the music being written by Gahan’s solo collaborators and not Martin Gore.

First single Precious was a proper hit, reaching number 4 in the UK and propelling the album to be a solid seller.

Precious has a excellent vocal from Gahan with long soaring yet delicate notes. The music mashes the now familiar grungy guitar against the classic high synths.

Suffer Well has an excellent driving rhythm that comes alive as the chorus soars, “Just hang on..

Gahan‘s lyrics reflect his recent struggles, “An angel led me when I was blind, I said take me back, I’ve changed my mind“.

A Pain That I’m Used To is another great track (and single) that opens with a wonderful klaxon like riff from an analogue synth.

Nothing’s Impossible (one of Gahan’s tracks) blends an ominous atmosphere with positive lyrics.

Lilian gives us a the low down on a tortured relationship, “Pain and misery always hit the spot, knowing you can’t lose what you haven’t got“.

Playing the Angel was a real return to form. It is more cohesive and has better melodies than the previous two efforts.

New producer Ben Hillier would stay with the band, working on three successive albums.

Depeche Mode: Sounds Of The Universe (2009)

Sounds Of The Universe was another success for Depeche Mode.

In Chains starts the album well with a tale of another tortured relationship, featuring a dynamic arrangement that captures the attention.

Fragile Tension is a tremendously hooky track that rises into a fantastic chorus. The opening lyrics could sum the band up, “There’s a fragile tension, that keeps us going, it may not last forever, but oh when it’s flowing“. That’s what we want from a band!

Peace is based around an evocation – “Peace will come to me, it’s an inevitability“. All gurgling synths and sing-along vocals it was a great pick for a single.

Miles Away has modern sonic qualities over a rootsy underpinning.

Corrupt finishes the album with a dirty strut of a rhythm. This matches the lyrics that have the singer struggling with the morality of the choices in front of him.

Sounds Of The Universe was another solid album that reached number 2 in the UK and was nominated for a Best Alternative Album Grammy.

Depeche Mode: Delta Machine (2013)

Working again with the same production team, the band hit the ground running with a fine selection of songs.

Welcome To My World is the dramatic opener. We are back in Depeche’s bleak industrial electro world. Gore and Gahan are both in fine voice harmoniously singing together. Welcome indeed!

Heaven has the languid tempo of a ballad but the instrumentation of the delta guitar and ring modulator dissonance steer it in another direction altogether.

Martin’s Gore shows off his almost operatic high backing vocals here.

Broken is a beauty with an intimate effort from Gahan and some nice slide guitar. The Child Inside is a sweetly sung track from Gore.

However this twisted ballad seems to have been orchestrated by a haunted 1970’s children’s TV programme. Wonderful unsettling stuff.

Soft Touch / Raw Nerve is classic synth pop head banging. It has a thoughtful redemptive lyric, “Why protest when your success is my prize“.

Sooth My Soul has a touch of the classic Violator sound to it. A great pop song and I think we can all figure out how Gahan wants his woman to sooth his soul.

Delta Machine was a quality album and one of the best from the second half of their career.

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Depeche Mode: Spirit (2017)

Spirit emerged in 2017. It takes until track nine until any song really grabs the attention. So Much Love gives us an almost Velvet Underground style keyboard plus a decent guitar hook.

All the usual elements are there but this time they don’t coalesce.

The lyrics reflected their distaste for the political climate. While commendable I do miss the days when all Depeche wanted to do was corrupt the listener.

And some tunes. Tunes would have been nice.

Today Depeche Mode are known all around the world. Their recent Spirits In The Forest documentary featured fans from Brazil, Romania, Columbia and Mongolia!

Depeche Mode were a band many of us grew up with, a band whose universal story reflects many a life.

Immerse yourself in their music.

Photos by Getintothis’ Keith Ainsworth