Get the Balance Right: A Depeche Mode Retrospective
Listen to the playlist as you read along.
- Just Can't Get Enough
- See You
- Get the Balance Right
- Everything Counts
- People Are People
- Blasphemous Rumours
- Shake the Disease
- Fly on the Windscreen
- Never Let Me Down Again
- Personal Jesus
- Enjoy the Silence
- Policy of Truth
- I Feel You
- Walking in My Shoes
- It's No Good
- Where's the Revolution
This month Depeche Mode announced a concert in Toronto this summer. They are one of many bands from the 80s and 90s making the rounds, cashing in on their legacy in many ways bigger than they did in their heyday. This is less the case for Depeche Mode, one of the rare first generation New Wave and Synth Pop bands to achieve widespread, mainstream success. They started in the late 70s and were one of the first bands to produce all electronic music using the primitive technology at the time. What set them apart were hugely catchy melodies and a pop-dance sensibility that brought synth music to large audiences for the first time. While it took them a while to get there, by the end of the 80s they were the biggest synth band in the world.
The band was formed primarily by Martin Gore, Vince Clarke, and Andy Fletcher who had come together from various bands trying their hand at post-punk music. Inspired by what they were hearing from the movement of electronic bands such as OMD and The Human League, they switched to synthesizers and with the addition of Dave Gahan, were a pure synth band by mid-1980. They named themselves after a French fashion magazine, which translates to ‘Fashion News (or update).’ They caught the ear of Daniel Miller, a pioneer himself in electronic music and who had formed Mute Records to promote the burgeoning sound, and Depeche Mode fit perfectly into that mold.
Shout \ B-side to “New Life” (1981) - 'Dreaming of Me' was their first single followed by 'New Life'. 'Shout' is the B-side to 'New Life' and is a good intro to their early sound. The band was young and the lead singer, Dave Gahan, looked about 15 years old. They came from a rough area of England south of London and there is a sparse, dark tone to their early songs that reflect their tough upbringing. Synth music was an offshoot of punk and new wave and was influenced by artists like the German synth pioneers, Kraftwerk. The limited capabilities of the equipment meant the songs had to be simple, but there was still lots of opportunity to experiment, and that was the nature of early synth bands.
Just Can't Get Enough \ Speak and Spell (1981) - This was the single off their first album that launched them into popularity in England (North America would be much later aside from people like me and my friends that listened to a lot of Brit music in the 80s), reaching the top ten for the first time for both this song and the album. They would never again embody the pure dance-pop brilliance of this song most likely because of the departure of Clarke. This is a song that captured the hope and enthusiasm of the early 80s' youth that would quickly sour as a recession took hold in 1982.
See You \ A Broken Frame (1982) – Before their second album primary songwriter Vince Clarke left the band (he went on to form hugely successful acts Yazoo and Erasure) and was replaced by another keyboardist, Alan Wilder. Martin Gore took over as songwriter and proved they wouldn't lose a step by providing a solid mix of melodic, pop-sensible synth songs. “See You” topped “Just Can’t Get Enough” by reaching #6 on the UK chart, while the album topped out at #8.
Get the Balance Right \ non-album single (1983) - This between-album single provided another classic for the band’s growing discography. Eminently listenable and more polished, their sound was filling out. To this day 'Just Can't Get Enough', 'Get the Balance Right' and 'Everything Counts' are huge fan favourites and easily considered some of the best and most recognized synth songs of the 80s. This single failed to crack the top ten, peaking at #13 in the UK.
Everything Counts \ Construction Time Again (1983) - The third album revealed these young lads were more than a fluke and had a knack for super catchy songs. As synth songs entered the mainstream thanks to hits like “Cars” by Gary Numan, DM were poised to break it big. If 'Just Can't Get Enough' captured the youthful energy of the starting decade, just two years later 'Everything Counts' reflected a darker mood, noting the greed and materialism that had come to mark the Reagan-Thatcher 80s. Listen to the chorus: "The grabbing hands / Grab all they can / All for themselves / After all / It's a competitive world / Everything counts in large amounts."
People are People; Blasphemous Rumours \ Some Great Reward (1984) - An interesting aspect of DM's sound was their fascination with manufactured sounds. Their use of electronics was deliberate since they loved to experiment. They would record sounds by banging on things, rolling rocks on metal, etc... and then use the recordings to twist the sounds into music. Construction Time Again and this album, Some Great Reward, show this aspect of them best. The idea of 'industrial' music eventually became defined as heavy, dark electronic music, but DM were an early progenitor of this sound though not generally recognized as an Industrial artist. Some Great Reward would feature “People Are People,” their first hit in North America reaching #13 on the US charts, and other popular songs like “Somebody,” “Lie to Me,” “Master and Servant,” and “Blasphemous Rumours.” By 1985 girls across the world had posters of DM on their walls and would swoon at high school dances to songs like “Somebody” (at least the girls I knew did). “People are People” also became a protest anthem of sorts against the Cold War and the US-Russian chess game being playing in Europe, Africa and southeast Asia: "So we're different colours / And we're different creeds / And different people have different needs / It's obvious you hate me / Though I've done nothing wrong / I never even met you / So what could I have done / I can't understand / What makes a man / Hate another man / Help me understand." “Blasphemous Rumours” was also an indictment of religion, showing the band wasn’t afraid to step into any sensitive category.
Shake the Disease \ non-album single & Singles 1981-1985 (UK) / Catching Up with Depeche Mode (US) compilations (1985) - an odd aspect of DM was that through the 80s their music got darker, with moody and broody sounds and lyrics - and yet became more and more popular. Maybe they captured the mood of the times, but undoubtedly the melodies drew people in. “Shake the Disease” was a single to accompany singles compilation releases and is a lovely example of how the band was blending impeccable melodies with simple and elegant electronics to create deeper, engrossing soundscapes.
Fly on the Windscreen \ Black Celebration (1986) – Their fifth album continued their darkening turn of music, but the accompanying tour saw them move from clubs and small theatres to arenas and amphitheatres. In Toronto after playing Massey Hall (2,750 capacity) in 1984 and selling out in 15 minutes (by lineup and phone only - this was the only time I tried to get tickets to see them and came up empty) they played at The Kingswood Music Theatre at Canada's Wonderland for this tour (15,000 capacity). Like the three prior albums this cracked the top ten in the UK but #1 remained an elusive goal.
Never Let Me Down Again; Strangelove \ Music for the Masses (1987) - This album was a breakthrough for DM led by the single, “Strangelove.” Though it only reached #10 in the UK, it peaked at #35 in the US, their best showing yet. They were now legitimately one of the bigger bands in the world, cultivating a die-hard audience over a massive tour that culminated in an accompanying movie, 101, featuring their tour ending show at The Rose Bowl with over 60,000 in attendance.
Personal Jesus; Enjoy the Silence; Policy of Truth \ Violator (1990) - Personally, I had stopped paying attention to DM as their popularity grew and I felt their music was getting boring and repetitive (I also was going through a hippy, 60s music stage so electronic music was not 'my thing' during that time). So when the album Violator came out in 1990 featuring these three successive, standout singles - I was floored. “Enjoy the Silence,” is in my opinion the most elegant and best song they've ever done. This album was the perfection of the Depeche Mode sound. The full realization of their synth sound that cast off the posturing, immaturity and broodiness of their earlier work and revealed a fully formed, mature, band at the top of their craft that embodied all their elements in perfectly assembled songs. There isn't a bad note on this album. It almost brought them their first #1, peaking at #2 in the UK and cracking the top ten in the US for the first time, and “Enjoy the Silence” would deliver their first top ten single in the US (though #1 was still not achieved in the singles category either). “Policy of Truth” brings back vivid memories of the summer of ’90 and listening to a new era of great music. Violator was one of the first batch of seven CDs I bought on the same day I bought my first CD player. I listened to this about two hundred times that year - does anyone do that anymore?
I Feel You; Walking in My Shoes \ Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993) - Along with their success came the usual trappings. Singer Dave Gahan, by the early 90s, was a struggling drug addict and the band was straining. Ironically along with the release of their consummate synth album in Violator, the focus of mainstream music turned to rock with the rise of Nirvana and grunge and the rise of retro, trippy Manchester music and alt-electro music that came with Rave culture. This album startled many when for the first time their music featured guitars, drums and other 'normal' instruments along with the electronics. Gahan appeared with facial hair (though still had a babyface) like all the good grunge boys of the time. Depending on the sound you like, there are many DM fans that declare this as their best album, and that would be supported by it finally achieving them the #1 spots in both the UK and the US.
It's No Good \ Ultra (1997) - By the release of their ninth album the band was barely hanging on and was struggling to get any work out of Gahan. Alan Wilder left the band in 1995. These issues came to bear as I felt there was a fall in quality with this album, and though still successful, marked the end of DM's productive career. It would seem most agreed as they were never again able to fill a stadium, though their albums continue to this day to crack the top ten in the UK and the US. Now relegated as yesterday's band and pioneers of a sound that had been adopted and surpassed by many more, DM eased up as Gahan got cleaned up. They released albums in 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013 and tour to the usual nostalgic draw of their now grown fans. I haven't listened to any of the subsequent albums.
Where's the Revolution \ Spirit (2017) - I'll throw this in just to cap things off, as it's the first single of their new album that will bring them to town for the second year in a row at the Air Canada Centre, after playing the Amphitheatre in past visits. With the 80s nostalgia in full force these days DM is having a deserved renaissance and we'll hear a lot about how big they were back in the day, and all the current bands will pay tribute and talk about how influenced they are by DM - all of which is legitimate, they're one of the most successful and influential bands of the past 35 years.