In our series assessing the impact of Depeche Mode, the renowned British music writer and critic—the author of such books as Retromania, Rip It Up and Start Again, Energy Flash, and more—ponders Depeche Mode‘s development from innocuous pop to a group of substance. Photo by Michel Meeuwissen.
I think I became aware of Depeche Mode with their first hits like “New Life” and “Just Can’t Get Enough”. They seemed a fairly slight and innocuous outfit at that time. It was when there were a lot of synth-pop bands around: Human League had had their really big breakthrough, there was John Foxx, Soft Cell, Japan. Gary Numan had already been huge. Compared with any of these outfits, Depeche seemed lightweight at first. They were successful, they kept having hits, but they didn’t have respect. For a lot of people, they were considered part of the johnny-come-lately synth-pop wave. They didn’t seem like they were pioneers, they weren’t edgy, particularly. They were a bit pretty boy. They weren’t considered a group of substance. There was a live review of them Paul Morley did in the NME which was basically a defence on the grounds that they were just harmless teenybop fodder and there was nothing wrong with that. He was making a big point about the pleasures of disposable pop, a polemical argument, but using Depeche Mode as a signifier of inanity, really [laughs]. So, no one had any great expectations for Depeche Mode. You’d have no sense then that they’d go on to be such an interesting or long-lasting group.
You could say the catchy, somewhat vapid side of Depeche left with Vince Clarke, but at the time everyone assumed that he was the talent and the group would just fade away, in the same way that when Nick Heyward left Haircut 100 they tried to carry on without him, but just faded away. I don’t know if anyone thought about it much, they were just part of the chart action of the time. But then there was a single off of A Broken Frame—probably one of the first Martin Gore songs, maybe it was “See You”—which seemed to have a more subtle melody, minor keys, was more haunting, and you thought, “Well, actually these guys ARE quite talented.”
Still, they seemed like a group in the business of synth-pop love songs; you would have had no intimation that they would soon be doing songs about sadomasochism, anti-God songs, anti-Thatcher songs. Even though they were on Mute, a label that had so many interesting bands on it. They kind of really surprised people, I think. It was when they did “Everything Counts”—and NME put them on the front cover—that people started to say, “They’re growing up in an interesting way.”
That said, “Everything Counts” and “People Are People”, I actually found at the time to be quite clunky as political statements, a bit too literal. But I admire them much more now, especially because there weren’t that many pop songs that were dealing with those issues. Thatcher had just been re-elected, unemployment was getting worse and worse. It was quite bold of them. While I was writing Rip It Up and Start Again, through reading about them and re-listening to their records, I thought, “Wow, they really were quite brave, and quite an interesting group.” Especially when they started getting influenced by the metal-bashing groups like Test Dept and Einstürzende Neubauten, sampling the sounds of metal and stone and re-deploying that in a pop context. I thought it was really cool to bring those ideas into the pop arena.
I probably didn’t even notice at the time that “Master and Servant” is quite a funny song, lyrically, in a dark way. It throws out a political parable—is it talking about bondage or is it talking about the political situation and authoritarianism? Or take “Love, In Itself”: it’s almost like a Gang of Four song rendered as synth-pop. The idea is that the character had been obsessed with love and thought that love was the solution to all of his problems, and then realized that actually it’s not enough. It was basically a critique of the idea of romantic love as a form of utopia or solution. “Love’s not enough, in itself”—that’s a clever thing to get into a song that’s in the top 20, on the radio. That was one where I felt even back then, “Oh, these guys really are smart.”
It’s quite an achievement to come across as alternative and underground but be so popular. The achievement seems more precisely because they are so big. If they were a minor group operating in an indie context, the messages wouldn’t have had the power they did. For someone like me, “Blasphemous Rumours” wasn’t going to be a big revelation because I was brought up in an un-religious environment, but for someone growing up surrounded by intense Christianity, the sentiment of that song might be very liberating—this song entertaining the idea that God might be some kind of sadist or something, if he even exists. It’s quite a radical concept. And when I listened to that song again, it’s a really beautiful piece of electronic music.~
Simon Reynolds’ Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music and Dance Culture receives its third publication this summer with added chapters, via Faber & Faber.