The Depeche Mode Journey

The story of Depeche Mode remains one of the most unlikely ones in modern music. Anyone who had predicted at the end of 1980 that the sweetly gawky and very young men from Basildon, Essex playing a slew of synthesizers, a band who had just signed to a buzzy independent electronic music label in London, would a decade later have comprehensively rewritten the rules of what pop could be, both on the charts and in numerous subcultural ways, and have the worldwide success to show for it, would simply have been laughed at or ignored. It ultimately led to decades’ worth of hit albums and songs and tours and a story and sound fully woven into pop’s lingua franca. Such was the story of that remarkable act, whose key songwriter Martin Gore once supposedly said, regarding the possibilities that a simultaneously broad-minded but relentlessly catchy approach could provide, that if you call yourself a pop group, you can get away with murder. 

Gore himself wasn’t the key band figure initially, with Vince Clarke serving as the main songwriter for their first singles and debut album for Daniel Miller’s groundbreaking Mute label, Speak & Spell, which contained their first stone-cold classic, the breezy bubbling pep of “Just Can’t Get Enough.” Fielding a lineup of Dave Gahan on vocals and Clarke, Gore and Andy Fletcher on keyboards, they suddenly seemed to be at a loss when Clarke quit the band to pursue his own path, first leading to Yazoo and eventually Erasure. But Gore stepped up as songwriter, with their next single “See You” being an even bigger hit in the UK than “Just Can’t Get Enough.” Meantime the trio soon recruited an already established keyboardist, Alan Wilder, to fill out their touring commitments, leading them to invite him to become a full band member. From there, Depeche combined Gore’s incessantly catchy and lyrically intense songs with Gahan’s increasingly rich vocals, often with Gore as a contrasting or harmonizing singer plus occasional lead turns. Meanwhile, Wilder’s growing ear for arrangement possibilities and technically accomplished performances on new generations of synths and samplers, as well as Fletcher’s knack for essentially managing the band while serving as a good set of ears for what worked best out of their compositions, positioned the group to embark on an amazing run of singles and albums.

Initially they pretty well invented industrial-pop via Construction Time Again and Some Great Reward – the latter including their epochal single “People Are People,” a number one German smash and the band’s first fluke American hit – then shifted to increasingly darker but, almost contradictorily, more and more popular albums, playing with rock textures amid the electronics on Black Celebration and Music for the Masses. The worldwide tour for the latter ended with a monumental show at the Rose Bowl in Southern California; documented by both a live album and a D. A. Pennebaker film called 101, it underscored, in some cases to the real surprise of listeners in their home country, just how huge the band had become elsewhere. All the while there was a concurrent impact on scenes ranging from the Detroit techno innovators that began to show what 90s electronic music would be to the US industrial underground which would eventually spawn Nine Inch Nails to a thriving German electronic music community that reached beyond into eastern Europe and the soon-to-be former Soviet Union, where the band would later quickly become post-Cold War superstars. 

Even as Wilder, with his Recoil project, and Gore with an initial covers EP, Counterfeit, had already started formal solo careers on the side, Depeche in combination with producer Flood and disco production legend Francois Kevorkian on mixing created a worldwide monster of a release with Violator, containing what ultimately proved to be their two signature songs, the walloping glam-twang of “Personal Jesus” and the sweeping, beautifully melodramatic pulse of “Enjoy the Silence.” By the time of Songs of Faith and Devotion, however, that album’s intriguing sidestep into overt rock dynamics and sounds was overshadowed by Gahan’s growing drug problems and fractured band unity overall, exacerbated by a punishing world tour that, in combination with personal family losses, caused Fletcher to have a nervous breakdown. All this and much more led Wilder to quit the band by the mid-90s to focus on Recoil full time, while Gahan suffered near-death experiences and a long but successful recovery and new sobriety, with the band reorganizing under new management by Jonathan Kessler to look to the future.

The resultant sleek late-night vibes of Ultra presented a striking path forward for the band, now further musically informed by the series of producers they worked with from that album forward, but also centered on a balance between Gahan’s singing, with him showcasing a new and active interest in vocal training, and Gore’s ever more intensely personal songs. The early 2000s, however, brought a new tension between the two, as Gahan’s first independently-written songs didn’t get included on a Depeche release. This eventually led to solo efforts by both Gahan and Gore, the latter with a new covers collection, Counterfeit², as the band’s existence seemed in question again. With Fletcher and others helping to smooth the waters, the result was a striking new success in Playing the Angel, heralding an accomplished elder statesman phase for the band’s career. Gore and Gahan also continued concurrent solo work, with Gore exploring instrumental albums, including a notable, unexpected effort with former bandmate Clarke, while Gahan struck up a partnership with the duo Soulsavers that led to two full original albums as well as an all-covers album.

Supplemented by archival rereleases plus a continuing series of concert and documentary films and other collections, Depeche Mode continued to be a reliable recording and touring standby through the 2010s. Their 2017 album Spirit found the group tapping into the new sensibility of global unease with parallels to their 1980s work. Tragically, that strong album sadly proved to be the last for Depeche Mode as a trio of Gore, Gahan and Fletcher when, following a wider pause in new group activity due to COVID, enjoyably broken up by their election to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2020, Fletcher suddenly died in May 2022. As of that date the exact future of Depeche Mode remains unknown, but the worldwide reaction to the news, with generations of fans and musicians sharing grief and shock with each other, underscored how successful and beloved that seemingly unlikely group had become, the one-time kids messing around with cheap late seventies synths who reshaped the sound of music.

Speak and Spell cover

Given the arc of musical history it’s more accurate to say that Depeche Mode’s debut full-length is more than anything else the first key album by main songwriter Vince Clarke, who left the band soon after its release to start his run with such acts as Yazoo and Erasure. But that’s precisely why it works — if Depeche never returned to quite this level of bubbliness, they made it count then, with the all time “Just Can’t Get Enough” matched with peppy songs like “New Life” as well as moodier explorations such as “Photographic,” hints of what was yet to come.

Construction Time Again cover

With Alan Wilder now firmly part of the Depeche Mode dynamic, the band shifted past the transitional explorations of A Broken Frame to almost literally invent the concept of industrial pop music, taking the artistic innovations of bands like Einsturzende Neubaten in combination with early sampling techniques to create songs with hooks that sounded like nothing else. Dave Gahan’s more assertive singing and Martin Gore’s strong songwriting base did the rest, and songs like “Everything Counts,” “Pipeline” and “Told You So” demonstrated the dividends.

Some Great Reward cover

The pinnacle of their industrial pop approach, on Some Great Reward Depeche Mode had transformed over just three years from precious synth-pop kids to a brawling, blasting outfit that always kept just enough sugar — Dave Gahan and Martin Gore’s vocal blend alone is a not so secret weapon. From the sweet late night love-conquers-all ballad “Somebody” to the knowing dynamics of “Master and Servant,” there’s a string of high points throughout the album, none perhaps more powerful than their initial breakout US hit, the frenetic “People Are People.”

Black Celebration cover

Depeche Mode entered a new phase with Black Celebration, beginning to ease back from the technical hyperdetail of Some Great Reward to sounds that embraced darker, more open atmospheres, stretching electronics and sampling to fill the bigger venues they were starting to play. Martin Gore’s lyrics followed suit while Dave Gahan’s vocals hit even darker croon levels, and they just kept building a now near-rabid fanbase, with songs like “A Question of Lust,” “A Question of Time” and especially the walloping roil of “Stripped” entering their canon.

Music for the Masses cover

It was an outrageous title, meant to be a joke at just how things seemed to be going for them, but by the end of the Music for the Masses tour Depeche Mode filled the Rose Bowl, as documented in the famed D. A. Pennebaker film 101, and it was increasingly clear they were arena bound. The music reflected that, bigger than they ever had sounded on “Never Let Me Down Again” and “Behind the Wheel,” moodier and more haunted than before on “The Things You Said” and “To Have and To Hold,” and hitting twisted grooves with “Strangelove.”

Hydrology cover

Building on his first Recoil album, Alan Wilder contained his lengthy instrumental approach on 1988’s Hydrology, consisting of three compositions often echoing the obsessive repetition of contemporary Depeche Mode tracks. “Stone” was the most striking of the three, feeling like a miniature movie soundtrack in several parts, part action flick, part dystopian science fictions, but the steady build of “The Sermon” was equally enjoyable. The CD version of the album contains the earlier 1+2 release for a good general summary of Wilder’s earliest solo work.

Violator cover

It all came together for Depeche Mode with Violator, capping off a retrospectively unstoppable decade starting as club favorites in their Essex home base to filling stadia worldwide all while having a series of electronic hits on the charts, music video channels and the radio. With the twangy glam-tinged smash “Personal Jesus” and the vast, soaring “Enjoy the Silence” they had an astounding one-two on that pop front, while deeper cuts like the serene-in-vast-space float of “Waiting For the Night” and the blood-drenched drama of “Halo” hit just as hard.

Bloodline cover

For Recoil’s third album, Alan Wilder worked with a series of vocalists for the first time, resulting in a collection of generally shorter songs built around his carefully focused electronic arrangements. Curve’s Toni Halliday did striking turns on two cuts and Nitzer Ebb’s Douglas McCarthy did the honors on a cover of Alex Harvey’s “Faith Healer.” Another guest, Moby, famously took inspiration from Wilder’s arrangement on “Electro Blues for Bukka White,” using the vocals of the late blues singer, as the basis for his own later commercial breakthrough, Play.

Songs of Faith and Devotion cover

Guitars weren’t unknown in Depeche’s world in the least by the time of Songs of Faith and Devotion, but hearing Martin Gore peel out the main lick underpinning the overt swagger of “I Feel You” in 1993 created a lot of “Have Depeche Mode gone grunge?!?” reactions. (Answer: no.) While the band’s absolute dysfunction both in studio and on tour was its own mess, Songs still hit and hit hard, with other singles like the melodramatic “Walking In My Shoes” and the near-silent-to-near-apocalyptic build of “In Your Room” adding to their now deep catalogue.

Ultra cover

Depeche spent the mid-90s in a hazy state of existence — almost literally, in the form of Dave Gahan’s well-known drug-induced medical disasters — while with Alan Wilder’s departure their key internal arranger was also gone. Somehow the remaining trio got it back to together and with producer Tim Simenon’s help created Ultra, a remarkable comeback that showcased not only Gahan’s audible vocal lessons, his singing now more delicate and smooth than ever, but remarkable new songs like “It’s No Good, “Barrel of a Gun” and the Martin Gore-sung “Home.”

Unsound Methods cover

Recoil’s fourth album was also the first one from Alan Wilder after his departure from Depeche Mode, but in an instance of parallel aesthetics, it has more than a passing resemblance to Depeche’s post-Wilder album Ultra. There’s a similar interest in a general trip-hop vibe in particular between that and Unsound Methods, but Wilder’s specific sense of structure and arrangement can clearly be heard. Douglas McCarthy returns for two guest vocals while American spoken word artist Maggie Estep provides two notable performances in turn as well.

Counterfeit² cover

A sequel to 1989’s Counterfeit EP, Martin Gore’s first full solo album continued the general approach, interpreting a variety of songs by other artists filtered through his musical lens. Restrained, almost skeletal synth arrangements predominate with touches of guitar here and there, with striking elements emerging like the dramatic small percussion bursts driving “I Cast a Lonesome Shadow.” Gore’s vulnerable quaver suits much of the chosen material, including work by Julee Cruise, Brian Eno and, winningly sung in the original German, Hildegarde Knef.

Playing the Angel cover

Following another period of intra-band angst in the wake of Exciter, with both Dave Gahan and Martin Gore releasing solo albums and various other rumblings about the future, everyone came back together with the help of a new producer, Ben Hillier, to produce one of their strongest albums. Playing the Angel hit a new level of maturity in the form of “Precious,” Martin Gore’s lyric covering the impact of divorce on his children, but there was just a fresh kick to the sound all around, an accomplished blend of electronics and their strong live band punch.

Hourglass cover

While Paper Monsters had been an okay enough toe in the water for his solo career, Hourglass was an even better showcase for Dave Gahan’s singing and songwriting. Working with touring Depeche Mode member Christian Eigner as one of his coproducers and with guests like John Frusciante and Tony Hoffer, Hourglass explores a general electronic/rock fusion — Depeche adjacent but not a clone — that finds Gahan singing with sweeping ease from moodier songs like “Saw Something” and “Miracles”  to more crunching numbers as “Kingdom” and “Use You.”

Ssss cover

The initial news that Vince Clarke and Martin Gore were working together for the first time in thirty years after the former’s departure from Depeche Mode was intriguing enough. But what was even more remarkable was that Ssss was a hard-edged instrumental blast of catchy but not stereotypically poppy electronic dance music leaning in to early synths in particular. At once a tribute and feeling like the future, Ssss’s best songs like “Lowly,” “Spock” and “Recycle” manage to sound neither like Gore’s or Clarke’s bands, but simply their own enjoyable creations.

The Light the Dead See cover

After two releases featuring Mark Lanegan, for their next album Soulsavers turned to a new guest singer: Dave Gahan, who had met the duo when they supported Depeche Mode on tour. The Light The Dead See feels like a concept album soundtrack to an unfolding spaghetti western, with orchestral, gospel, rock and folk elements winningly blended, while Gahan’s vocal and lyrical approach throughout the album sounds just as perfectly suited for the duo’s music as did Lanegan, who himself briefly returns to add backing vocals on “In the Morning.”

MG cover

Following the fast-paced drive of his collaboration with Vince Clarke as VCMG, Martin Gore’s next non-Depeche Mode effort, titled as and released under the guise of MG, continued his explanation of instrumental work. A song or two like “Crowly” aside, MG takes a definite turn for shorter, often subtler and more mysterious numbers; songs like “Pinking” and “Featherlight” have pep and a bright edge to them, while a steady, slightly melancholic effort like “Europa Hymn” shows Gore retaining an easy ability to create elegiac pieces that gently stir up deep emotions.

Angels & Ghosts cover

After The Light The Dead See, Soulsavers and Dave Gahan turned into a fully credited partnership for Angels and Ghosts, a canny enough move  for anyone who had missed Gahan’s work on the earlier album. Shorter and a touch more focused in comparison, Angels and Ghosts really feels like Gahan’s settled into a key non-Depeche Mode space, with Soulsavers’ blend of various American roots musics with a touch of electronic rigor letting him comfortably rip on songs like “Shine” and “Don’t Cry” and aim for tenderer approaches on “One Thing” and “Lately.”

Spirit cover

Reflecting, in broad but clear terms, the broader sense of unease in the wake of various mid-2010 political decisions around the world, Spirit was both a new thematic shift for Depeche as well as a chance to take a new producer on board in the form of James Ford. “Going Backwards” made for a strong, pointed start to the album, both Dave Gahan and Martin Gore in excellent voice, while other songs like the Gahan-written ballad “Cover Me” and deeper cuts like “So Much Love” and “No More (This Is The Last Time)” found the band in good creative health.

Imposter cover

For their third album together, Dave Gahan and Soulsavers took a different turn, with Imposter being a collection of cover songs. A logical comparison can be drawn to Gahan’s Depeche Mode bandmate Martin Gore’s Counterfeit releases, but Imposter is more self-consciously stately sonically, in keeping with Soulsavers’ interest in older classic American music styles. The song range, meanwhile, is quite sharp, from standards by James Carr, Elmore James, and Eartha Kitt to more recent efforts by Mark Lanegan, PJ Harvey and Cat Power among others.

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