When bands achieve a certain level of fame and exposure, it becomes hard to know which direction to go in. Do you double down on the formula that brought you that fame to try to retain your fanbase as you go forwards, or do you change things up to avoid being pigeonholed? Few artists actually hit these rarefied peaks of commercial success and genuinely have to answer this question. Of those that do attempt to do so, not all of them manage to sustain their popularity, and even fewer manage to keep pushing themselves in creative terms while maintaining it. Depeche Mode have been doing it for so long by this point that it’s easy to take them for granted, but they represent a textbook case study in the art of being famous pop stars.
seemed for a long time that they’re now just churning out albums every four
years so they can go out on tour again and rake in millions. Firstly, though,
they’ve earned it, and secondly, their latter-day albums (mostly) aren’t merely
marking out time. Martin Gore and Dave Gahan have never lost the knack of
crafting dark yet catchy pop songs, and while they may not be quite as
consistent as they once were, the likes of 2017’s Spirit
– at the time of writing, their most recent album – contain some of their
most urgent and vital tracks in many years.
commercial and creative high water-mark for Depeche Mode, however, was at the
moment the Eighties turned into the Nineties. Having been chart mainstays in
their native Britain and mainland Europe for many years before crossing over
into the American mainstream, where they had been earmarked as a
new-wave-inspired college rock outfit, Gore’s lyrics smuggled some of the most
darkly subversive subject matter that prime-time radio had ever heard, and ones
which in some parts of the world became a catalyst for profound social change.
For instance, countless testimonies from fans across Eastern Europe, still
under communist rule at the turn of the decade, confirm that Depeche Mode
became a marshalling point for resistance and for underground,
anti-authoritarian spirit. A massive coalition of people from all kinds of
walks of life could identify with the band’s aesthetic and imagery, and with
Gore’s lyrics that ranged from religion, sex and politics (and even sexual
politics) to more introverted reflections on loneliness.
Top 200 Albums of the 1990s
Mode was formed in Basildon, Essex in early 1980 when singer Dave Gahan was
recruited by instrumentalists Vince Clarke, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher, the
three of whom had gradually coalesced over the previous three years playing in
an array of synth-inspired bands. Naming themselves after a French fashion
magazine whose title translated as ‘fashion report’, things happened quickly
for the fledgling band. They found a temporary home on the Some Bizzare imprint
and recorded their first demos, before reaching a handshake agreement with
Daniel Miller’s independent Mute label and releasing their debut single, ‘Dreaming Of Me’, in December that year. 1981 brought
significant chart success, with their next singles ‘New Life’ and ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ reaching no.11 and no.8
respectively in the UK.
that year saw the release of Depeche Mode’s first album, Speak And Spell, an impressive commercial success as well. But
primary songwriter Vince Clarke was growing wary of the group’s direction, and
just a month later announced his departure, going on to form Yazoo with Alison
Moyet and then synth-pop titans Erasure with Andy Bell, establishing him as one
of the Eighties’ most prolific and successful pop writers. This left Depeche
Mode in what initially looked like a terrible position, with their chief
creative hub gone and Martin Gore suddenly forced into sole songwriting duties,
only having written two tracks for the group by this point, one of which had
been an instrumental.
experience steeled the band, and they were determined to make it without
Clarke’s considerable talents. Depeche Mode’s first single as a trio, ‘See You’, outperformed all of their previous singles in
the charts, and 1982’s A Broken Frame showed them tentatively defining the terms of
their new existence. They recruited a second keyboardist, Alan Wilder, in early
1983, someone who was to be hugely influential in shaping their future
aesthetic direction, and later that year released the impressive Construction Time Again, a record that saw them experiment
with technology to an extent that many of their contemporaries were not. It
also yielded the huge hit ‘Everything Counts’, which remains in Depeche Mode setlists to
1984’s Some Great Reward saw the group continuing to evolve, away from
the melodic, teen-orientated pop of their first releases and towards something
darker and deeper. Its lead single, ‘People Are People’, became a massive pan-European hit. Their
first hits compilation, Singles 81->85, provides a great document of this
gradual transition, but it wasn’t until 1986’s Black Celebration that the new aesthetic would become fully
fleshed out. America, which had been ahead of the curve in how they perceived
Depeche Mode in comparison to the UK and the rest of the world, where the band
was snobbishly written off as teen idols, went for Black Celebration in
a big way. Highly textured and atmospheric, this gothic, industrial pop album
laid the foundations for the template that Depeche Mode have, more or less,
followed ever since.
album, 1987’s Music For The Masses, travelled even further in this
direction, and the corresponding mammoth world tour culminated in a huge,
60,000-capacity gig at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, documented in the D.A.
Pennebaker concert film 101 the following year. At the same time, Depeche
Mode had established huge followings in Eastern Europe, performing in many
then-Communist countries where Western groups were not usually allowed.
Mode’s next album, Violator,
was where all the hard work paid off. Considered their artistic zenith, it was
a colossal success in commercial terms too, selling nearly five million copies
in the U.S. and yielding two global hit singles in ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘Enjoy The Silence’. The latter won the BRIT Award in 1991 for
Best British Single, and well over a million people saw the world tour that
followed. For a short time, Depeche Mode were the biggest – and arguably best –
band in the world. Despite often not finding favour with the rock critics, more
often in columns of Smash Hits in their early years, Gore had willed himself to
greatness, earning the group a fanbase because of his knack for a melody and
his tendency to tackle subjects a few shades darker than those melodies might
last too long, however, as the group was beginning to show signs of serious
internal strain under such pressure. 1993’s well-received Songs Of Faith Of Devotion took inspiration from grunge, at that point the
new fashion in alternative rock, but the following world tour took its toll,
famed as one of the most debauched tours in music history and which took in an
incredible 159 performances over 14 months. Dave Gahan was so ravaged by heroin
that he required cortisone shots simply to get on stage and perform; Martin
Gore struggled with alcohol and suffered two stress-induced seizures; Andy
Fletcher suffered a complete nervous breakdown and had to be replaced mid-tour
with the band’s P.A. Daryl Bamonte; and Alan Wilder announced in the summer of
1995 that he was quitting Depeche Mode, feeling his role had been undervalued. Reconvening
to record once again in early 1996 as Gahan commenced a rehab programme, Gore
very seriously considered breaking up the band.
context, it’s a miracle that 1997’s Ultra even came to pass, let alone that it ended up being as good as it was.
Influenced by hip-hop rhythms and contemporary electronica, it housed some of
their finest singles, notably the serene ‘It’s No Good’. The group elected not to tour Ultra,
however, focusing on getting better and going to ground to plot what stands as
their most ambitious record to date. Exciter, released in 2001, was orientated around IDM,
glitch and techno, highly modern and a drastic departure from the gothic, heavy
and dark music that had established their fame and which divided their fanbase.
solo albums for both Gahan and Gore in 2003, Playing The Angel was a corrective, in this context, centred
around stadium-filling electronic rock and gothic pop. Notable for ‘Suffer Well’, the first Depeche Mode single to be written by
Dave Gahan, the resulting world tour in the mid-Noughties saw them re-connect
with their fanbase in a way they hadn’t since the early Nineties and proved to
be the most enjoyable live shows the band had ever done, in Gahan’s words.
Depeche Mode have essentially hardened into a dependable musical institution.
They’ve released three more studio albums – Sounds Of The Universe (2009), Delta Machine (2013) and Spirit (2017) – which are the acts of a band who know
their audience and deliver what’s expected of them: entertainers, in the proper
sense of the term. Every four years, with the regularity of elections or
international sporting competitions, they release an album of reliable quality,
roll through your part of the world and put on one hell of a show, then retreat
to do it all again. While that might strike some as conservative or lazy, it’s
more that Depeche Mode are now a band that’s happy with its place in the
landscape, having endured more than their fair share of travails and traumas
over the years and earned their megastardom the hard way, but have come too
close to losing it all to raise the stakes too high ever again. Besides, if you
were going to rest on your laurels, you’d want to do so as the most successful
electro-synth act of all time.
single one of their studio albums have charted in the UK Top Ten, along with no
fewer than 35 singles hitting the UK Top Twenty, is testament to their impact
on the public’s consciousness. But then, of course, there’s their incredible
influence and resounding legacy. Virtually every single stadium-sized modern
act you can think of that at least involves synthesisers and/or guitars – from
Muse and Arcade Fire to Lady Gaga and La Roux, even Rammstein – has been
influenced to some extent by Depeche Mode, and the gravitas, grandiosity and
power they can generate in a live context.
To mark their 40th anniversary of their formation in 2020, here’s a Spotify playlist offering a brief overview of Depeche Mode’s career, with a brief whistle-stop guide to their 14 studio albums on the next page [scroll below].
INXS, Nine Inch
Nails, Moby, Marilyn Manson, No Doubt, Deftones, Rammstein, Placebo, Muse,
Coldplay, Linkin Park, Interpol, The Killers, Arcade Fire, Goldfrapp, Lady
Gaga, Hurts, La Roux, Chvrches
by: David Bowie,
Iggy Pop, Sparks, Kraftwerk, Talking Heads, Joy Division, Bauhaus, Siouxsie
& The Banshees, Cabaret Voltaire, Art Of Noise, The Cure, Echo & The
Tags: A Broken Frame, Alan Wilder, Andy Fletcher, Beginner's Guide, Black Celebration, Construction Time Again, Dave Gahan, Delta Machine, Depeche Mode, discography, Ed Biggs, Martin Gore, Music For The Masses, Playing The Angel, Some Great Reward, Songs Of Faith And Devotion, Speak And Spell, Violator
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