Listen to this track by electronic-pop foursome and first-phase blippy synthesizer enthusiasts from Basildon, Essex Depeche Mode. It’s “New Life” a key track and second single from their debut 1981 record Speak & Spell.
This song would mark the band’s initial sound, under the creative leadership of Vince Clarke. Clarke would soon leave the band after the album gained traction, and form Yazoo (aka Yaz), and then Erasure later in the decade. Under Clarke’s influence those bands would also demonstrate a notable dexterity when it came to catchy synth-pop.
Incredibly, he would put this skill on display even this early on, with one of my favourite Depeche Mode songs, built on a compelling synth figure, helped along by vocalist Dave Gahan’s distanced and appropriately detached singing style. “New Life” would be their breakthrough hit in Britain, partially on the strength of their performance of the song on Top of the Pops. In the years that followed, they’d build a significant audience on our side of the pond with a succession of albums that moved them into darker thematic and sonic territory.
Despite all that, Clarke would soon cut his losses and leave the band after this record and the tour that followed. But, what is it that his influence brought to the band?
A big part of it was his ability to figure out how to optimize what a synthesizer could do when used in a pure pop composition. And there was plenty to explore by the time “New Life” was written. By the end of the 1970s and into the very early ’80s, synthesizers and synth pop would make a big splash, first in Europe and then in the UK. A big part of this shift was the high profile development and subsequent availability of the instruments at the time. They were also becoming more and more portable. This is a vital element to their use by kids forming bands, and piling gear into vans.
As to the instruments themselves, Clarke would have a way not only with electronic texture, but also with good, old fashioned riffage while using a synth as his primary instrument. Clarke is like the Keith Richards of the synth, able to build complimentary riffs to support a melody line, making them compelling without crowding out that melody. On this song, he found a way to create that kind of riff which serves as a percussion line at the same time, too. That’s what this riff you’re hearing does; it keeps the beat. If it was the only line you heard, you’d still be able to dance to it.
So, melody support, counter-melody that you can sing, and also keeping the beat. That’s good writing and a keen sense of how a single line, or series of intertwining ones, can play multiple roles in an arrangement So, the song’s anatomy doesn’t simply rely on new technology so much as on traditional pop songwriting chops.
Even if Vince Clarke would leave the group after this first album, the band would continue on a trajectory of smart pop writing, even if it headed in a darker, and eventually more rockist direction. There was another pop craftsman in their ranks; Martin Gore, with whom Clarke would reconnect and work on their joint VCMG 2012 album Ssss.
Depeche Mode have recently released a new album, Delta Machine. It’s their 13th! Learn more about it at depechemode.com.
For you gearheads out there, Vince Clarke is still keeping up with the times as a musician and producer, as well as maintaining a collection of analogue and digital synthesizers in the basement of his home in Brooklyn. See that collection and read about what Vince Clarke is up to here.