Music

’60 songs’: Depeche Mode, the synth-pop gods who shaped the decade

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the 90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era – and why does it still matter? 60 songs that explain the 90s is back for 30 more episodes to try and answer these questions. Connect Calling music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he wanders through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In section 86 of 60 Songs That Explain The 90s—yes, you read that right – we’re exploring Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”. Below is an excerpt from this episode’s transcript.


Depeche Mode was formed in the town of Basildon, in the county of Essex, in the east of England, in 1980. Original lineup: Vince Clarke, Andy Fletcher, Martin Gore and Dave Gahan. Original concept: What if punk rock, but with synthesizers? I’m paraphrasing. I’m exaggerating. It’s disgusting to say the least. But at least Depeche Mode in 1980 is confrontational in spirit, in instrumentation. They play synthesizers. Often they play synthesizers exclusively. It’s weird for 1980. Dave Gahan, speaking Rolling stones in 1990, says: “I think, without knowing it, we started doing something completely different. We had taken these instruments because they were practical. You could pick up a synthesizer, put it under your arm and go to a concert. You joined PA directly. You didn’t have to go through an amp, so you didn’t have to have a van. We used to go to concerts by train.”

He also says: “At the time, everyone was using electronics in a very morbid, gloomy way. Suddenly here was this pop band using the stuff – these young kids who were making everyone dance, instead of standing around in gray raincoats at to commit suicide.” Okay. Time to hit ’em with “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

(embed)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tE88nPjx6g(/embed)

Depeche Mode’s first album, Speak and spell, was released in 1981, with most of the songs written by Vince Clarke, who would not be in the band much longer. And as a consequence, this record will be far from Depeche Mode’s, er, poppiest – or at least peppy. This is a niche cultural reference, but if you’re like me, you’ll never hear the song “Just Can’t Get Enough” again without thinking of Karl Pilkington. From the late 90s, future TV king and polarizing comedian Ricky Gervais used to have a radio show, then a podcast, then a TV show, where he and his buddy Stephen Merchant would just sit and terrorize their producer, a very colorfully gloomy civilian gentleman named Karl Pilkington. And then in 2010 they did a reality show called An idiot abroad, where they had Karl travel the world while he’s gloomy and clueless, and there’s a famous scene where Karl wanders around the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá in Mexico, wearing headphones listening to a guided trip, but he’s bored so he puts on “Just Can’t Get Enough” instead and dances around. It is one of the dumbest and most beautiful sequences ever shown on television.

(embed)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qghzQPZpgw8(/embed)

Depeche Mode, not Human League, Karl – he corrects himself. You can understand his confusion though, because after this record Vince Clarke leaves Depeche Mode. Vince goes on to form the excellent synth-pop duos Yazoo and Erasure. There are two amazing Yazoo records and like 19 amazing Erasure records. But in his absence, Depeche Mode will now be steadily, er, better. The band’s second album, A broken framereleased in 1982 with Martin Gore now as the primary songwriter, and already these guys sound like they’ve had way more than enough already.

(embed)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_zaEcrpCbI(/embed)

For their third album, 1983’s Construction time again, Depeche Mode adds another super-talented multi-instrumentalist, Alan Wilder, and the lineup of Alan, Martin, Andy and Dave will last for a while. Andy Fletcher would later sum up the band’s dynamic by saying, “Martin’s the songwriter, Alan’s the good musician, Dave’s the vocalist and I’m messing around.” He is polite. Meanwhile, shit, we’re not even halfway to 1990 yet, we need to change our approach, but this record Construction time again has “Everything Counts,” which for my money is still one of the, er, stickiest Depeche Mode songs.

(embed)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI7MCmIihqQ(/embed)

The grasping hands
Grab everything they can
All for themselves
After all

“Everything Counts” has a hook as sticky, as sharp as “Just Can’t Get Enough”, but now there’s a bracing cynicism – or realism! – to the lyrics, to the atmosphere. But yes, it takes too long. New approach! So this Failure cover of “Enjoy the Silence”, which I love dearly, appeared on a full-length Depeche Mode tribute album called To the fairs, released in 1998. As a child of the 80s and sullen teenager of the 90s, I never thought much of Depeche Mode, and yet by the time I turned 18 I knew 15 Depeche Mode songs by heart simply thanks to MTV and pop radio and then alt-rock radio. One tended to unconsciously breathe in this bond in the same way one breathes in oxygen or anxiety. So this tribute album – which as far as I can tell wasn’t that loved and is sadly super out of print – was something of a revelation for me as it revealed how many different kinds of ’90s bands owed a huge debt to Depeche Fashion.

The sinister synth-pop vibe that Depeche Mode cultivates throughout the 80s will obviously have a massive effect on electronic music, a massive effect on the darker corners of dance music, a massive effect on industrial music going forward, although they are sometimes used as foils, as enemies, as too popular and poppy cheeseball types. German industrial band KMFDM – the creepiest band I could think of as a teenager and the funniest band I can think of now – there is the quite famous rumor that KMFDM stands for Kill Mother Fucking Depeche Mode. Spin interviewed Dave Gahan in 2007 and asked him if he thought that was what KMFDM stood for, and he said, “All I know is that I think it’s true.”

But Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails – the coolest band-slash-guy I could think of as a teenager – Trent was much more complimentary. In 2017 Trent posted on Facebook, prompted by Tony Hawk and I’m almost certain I’m right, a quick tribute to Depeche Mode that read: “It was the summer of ’86. I was dropped out of college and living in Cleveland trying to make my way in the local music scene. I knew where I wanted to go with my life, but I didn’t know how to get there. A group of friends and I drove down to the Blossom Music Center Amphitheater to see the Black Celebration tour.” (Depeche Mode’s album Black party released in ’86; Blossom is a cool venue, but the parking situation stinks. I’m the one saying that, not Trent, but Trent totally agrees with me. Anyway, Trent continues.) “DM was one of our favorite bands and they Black party record took my love for them to a new level. I’ve thought about that night a lot over the years. It was a perfect summer night and I was exactly where I needed to be. The music, the energy, the crowd, the connection… it was spiritual and truly magic. I left that show grateful, humbled, energized, focused and in awe of how powerful and transformative music can be…and I began writing what would eventually become Pretty Hate Machine.”

Pretty Hate Machine, of course the first Nine Inch Nails record, which came out in 1989 and helped define ’90s rock, dance and industrial music as we know it. Depeche Mode is also one of those deals where it’s a bit challenging now to convey how revolutionary these guys were in the late 80s. So their sixth album, Music for the massesreleased in 1987 – it’s the record with “Never Let Me Down Again” and “To Have and to Hold” and “Strangelove”.

(embed)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIrm0dHbCDU(/embed)

And that album title is supposed to be some kind of joke, right? This is pretty dark and gritty and S&M adjacent as pop music goes. Dave Gahan, speaking Weekly entertainment in 2017, says: “With Music for the masses, we were quite arrogant. We weren’t actually making music for the masses, but suddenly we were playing sold-out arenas in Texas and weird places where we thought we’d never sell records. It was like a cult following. DA Pennebaker, who made our concert film, described it as almost like a Grateful Dead experience – people as rabid about Depeche Mode as fans of the Dead were about the Dead. We spoke to people who felt a little different, those with way too much eyeliner, those in schools who were bullied or had to run home. We were the weird ones, and we embraced it, because that’s kind of who we were growing up.”

It is DA Pennebaker, the legendary documentarian for Bob Dylan and David Bowie and so on, who co-directed the 1989 film Depeche Mode 101culminating in Depeche Mode ending a triumphant US tour with a show on June 18, 1988 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, attended by a whopping 60,000 people.

(embed)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzqqVFb9p4U(/embed)

The band grossed $1.3 million at that show, according to the band’s accountant, on camera, during the movie, where they talk about grabbing hands and grabbing everything they can. Depeche Mode 101 probably needs more love on the Greatest Music Documentaries of All Time list. There is a fan-driven aspect: We hang around with a tour bus full of Depeche Mode fans for a while. There is a reality TV precursor aspect; very prescient, very instructive. But the most striking thing is just the sight of Depeche Mode on stage. Dave Gahan, he looks and acts and sings like you asked one of those AI generators to invent synth-pop Elvis. As you just tell AI, Do Elvis, but give him a synthesizerand AI goes, Oops: Dave Gahan. Nice profile. Big sideburns. Big spin moves, his pirouettes. He exudes grandeur, he exudes melancholy, he exudes just a little bit of stupidity. You can draw a line between him and Freddie Mercury, or at least write a line of binary code.

So you take that guy and you sat him down on stage in front of three sensual, shit-looking gentlemen all behind these huge, elaborate keyboard rigs. No drummer: An offstage reel-to-reel tape machine handles all the drums. Few, if any, guitars. This is rock ‘n’ roll now. This is arena rock. This is stadium cut. This is the Rose Bowl filling stone. This is the future. Depeche Mode played a crucial role in preparing us for the 90s. By U.SI mean anyone in the 90s who listened to the radio for more than five minutes. As this tribute record alone makes clear, a great many ’90s bands and artists with very different personal temperaments would flourish thanks to ’80s Depeche Mode. And 90’s Depeche Mode would also flourish, or at least Depeche Mode’s best album would be released in 1990.

To hear the entire episode click here, and make sure that follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes about the decade’s most important songs. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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