Early Depeche Mode

For the melomaniac. Feel free to talk about all music, popular and unpopular! It's all welcome here: from Al Bowlly to Cabaret Voltaire.
Post Reply
User avatar
Site Admin
Posts: 81
Joined: 19 Oct 2023, 23:45
Location: British Columbia

Early Depeche Mode

Post by sharoma »

I am into early 'Mode again and want to state how utterly amazing I still think they are. When I first discovered them, it was thanks to Discovery Records in Bradford. Back then, LPs were yet to make a comeback and their nadir phase pricing was 99 pence for synthpop acts. I acquired all Depeche Mode's early albums and the gatefold Singles 81→85 collection, the latter of which was two quid. Here are some thoughts:

Speak & Spell (1981)

I liked it originally and still do. It is in some ways a Vince Clarke (The Great) solo album, in vision and execution. It has one of synthpop’s defining early tunes, “Just Can’t Get Enough”. “New Life” is also an excellent single. To compare this album with the contemporaneous Dare! by The Human League, you will hear that different levels of warmth can be given to cold, simple beats programmed by the early synthesizers. I think Speak & Spell is the more technically interesting of the two, with superior melodies and lyrics.


A Broken Frame (1982)

My first impression was of a lower fidelity production but a touch more warmth. Much is said of the departure of Vince Clarke. “See You”, a standout track, is clearly the band trying to continue his execution; they achieve it admirably. With “The Meaning of Love”, they lean more into VC, to their detriment. In my first DM phase, I couldn’t quite get into this album as much as the next one. This time around, I prefer it. It has a remarkable tone, in which simple electronics can be matched to a striking album cover which feels very 'of the earth'. “Monument” is excellent, as are the final two tracks. Overall, a haunting and interesting journey which rewards repeated listens.


Construction Time Again (1983).

In my opinion one of the absolute finest albums made with the Synclavier. After buying it for 99p and admiring the striking cover of the LP, I placed it on the turntable and was met with a medium amount of crackling. It was fairly worn but had plenty of life left. This was the album that had me instantly hooked. Although I’d heard “Just Can’t Get Enough” since childhood, this album was my first proper introduction to Depeche Mode. It didn’t disappoint. I was looking for a cold, electronic sound, with mild industrialism, repetitive rhythms; basically a poppy Cabaret Voltaire. Although the Cabs did release the synthpop album The Crackdown in this year, Construction Time Again beats it. They have the pop authority with a more brooding atmosphere. CTA is leftwing and brutal. The themes and sound are not disguised. The tunes are excellent, the production is supreme. When I first began reading about Depeche Mode back then I found out that this was usually seen as their worst album. My tastes haven’t changed much. I still think it’s excellent. “Everything Counts” is one of their career best singles.


Some Great Reward (1984)

I originally didn’t feel as strongly about Some Great Reward. The production has become faster, darker, and more intense. They begin to establish the image they maintained for most of their career. I felt that abandoning the tidy socialist stance of Construction Time Again, while growth for the band, was not what I had personally wanted. The production moves into a busier, louder phase. The album opener is accessible and won’t disappoint. “Lie to Me” is a personal favourite. "If You Want" is an amalgamation of all their techniques since the first album. “People Are People” highlights the excess of sound over the previous album and sounds very similar to the nightclub song in RoboCop (1987). In “Master and Servant” there can be too much going on:
The production and mixing process of "Master and Servant" are remembered by Alan Wilder, Daniel Miller, and Gareth Jones, as among the longest that Depeche Mode ever endured. One famous story about the song includes a mixing duration of seven days, and after all the reworking and final mastering of the mix, they realized they left the channel with the snare drum muted during the last chorus. Some of the sounds on "Master and Servant", such as the whip effect, are based on Daniel Miller standing in the studio hissing and spitting. According to the band, they tried to sample a real whip, but "it was hopeless".
In Violator the band would seemingly master the art of using found objects as instruments. Also, I still don't like the song "Somebody".


The Singles 81→85 (1985)

One of the best compilations from the synthpop era, if not the best. Up there with New Order’s Substance 1987. Vince Clarke has the first three tracks. “Dreaming of Me” is one of my favourite DM songs. It is in many ways the zenith of minimalist synthpop of the first wave (1978-1982). The singles are all featured, obviously, and there isn’t a weak track.


Black Celebration (1986)

This album returns to the warmer darkness of A Broke Frame, with all the band’s confidence and progress added. It is a late-night listening session album; over headphones was how I originally discovered its deeper charms. The anthems themselves are enough to bring you casually in. The title track, “Fly on the Windscreen – Final”, “A Question of Time”, and “Stripped”. “It Doesn't Matter Two” has definite similarities to Philip Glass’s work on Koyaanisqatsi. Like The Clash’s Combat Rock, I find the final part of the album to be very evocative and rewarding of repeated listens.


Music for the Masses (1987)

The stadium album. It has great merit, but the early phase is disappearing fast. The album opens with another fine anthem. Track two, “The Things You Said”, was always a personal favourite. I find the slower, more subtle numbers to be less effective than similar efforts on the previous album. To me the whole album sounds a bit disjointed. The production has evolved again, however, with a smooth, clean warmth on tracks such as “Behind the Wheel”, foreshadowing the next album.


Violator (1990)

The final death of Early Mode. A masterpiece and one of the best produced albums of the CD era. Although I love it, obviously, it does not interest me as much as A Broken Frame, Construction Time Again, or Black Celebration. Still, amazing. Personal favourites are “World in My Eyes” and “Blue Dress”.


Average score: 9.25/10

Depeche Mode were pretty good for their first nine years, eh? Probably the best synthpop band! Now, I shall give the rest of their career another proper listen.
Robin Sharrock
Post Reply