Four weedy boys from Basildon (England’s answer to Poffadder) burst onto the charts — decked out in shirts, ties and suspenders — with a cheesy, irrepressibly bouncy synth-pop song about nothing really, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. Who’d have thought that a little over ten years later their band would be one of the biggest in the world; their tattooed, heroin-addicted lead singer would resemble an emaciated Jesus; and their dark songs would be about sex, death, religion.
It’s a transformation that can be heard on ‘The Best Of Volume 1’ and that began, gradually, after that first hit song back in 1981. Chief songwriter Vince Clarke left the group — to continue his brand of cheesy, irrepressibly bouncy synth-pop with Yazoo and Erasure — leaving the far more cynical, nihilistic Martin L. Gore to come up with the tunes.
‘See You’ was a tentative attempt to emulate Clarke, but by the time the materialism-bashing ‘Everything Counts’ rolled off the production line, he’d found his confidence and began pushing the band’s music into darker, more outspoken realms — just as David Gahan started revealing the full force of his voice.
Witness the S&M serenade ‘Master and Servant’ and the supremely powerful ballad ‘Shake The Disease’, although the industrial ‘People Are People’ was effectively deconstructed by its hokey, idealistic lyrics that nevertheless struck a chord with the general public.
By 1987 the band’s intention was clear: ‘Music For The Masses’ dished up further populist anthems like ‘Strangelove’ and live staple ‘Never Let Me Down Again’, but it was ‘Violator’, released three years later, that would briefly propel the band to the U2-stratosphere. With ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘Enjoy The Silence’, Gore perfected the balance between catchy music and subversive lyrics, Depeche Mode topping the charts with their credibility intact.
But still, there was room to grow artistically. ‘Songs Of Faith And Devotion’, with the chainsaw guitars of ‘I Feel You’ and gloomy gospel of ‘Walking In My Shoes’, found the band at their creative peak — even if Gahan had become a slave to his drug habit. He almost died of an overdose a couple of years later, and the departure of chief musician/studio wiz Alan Wilder seemed almost inconsequential in comparison. The band marched on. But things were never quite the same, never quite as good.
‘It’s No Good’ — something of a misnomer — was the best single off their back-from-the-dead album ‘Ultra’, but 2001’s ‘Dream On’ showed that Gore’s well was showing signs of running dry. It was nothing a few years off couldn’t fix though, as the delicate ‘Precious’ and jagged ‘Suffer Well’, from their most recent studio outing, had the band sounding their best in a decade. And not a drug in sight.
The New Song, pulsing, bleeping ‘Martyr’, continues their stubborn defiance, hinting that, even if the breaks between albums become increasingly longer, there’s still a future for these boys from Basildon.
Pity, then, that ‘The Best Of Depeche Mode’ doesn’t give a complete reflection of their past, neglecting bleaker, quieter moments like ‘Somebody’, ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ and the entire ‘Black Celebration’ album in favour of their relatively sunnier days. But what glorious days they are…
- This article originally appeared on iafrica.com.