Depeche Mode Play “Personal Jesus”

Depeche_Mode ViolatorListen to this track by synth-pop movers and dark-dance auteurs Depeche Mode. It’s “Personal Jesus”, their return to the top 40 US charting single as taken from 1989’s Violator.

It would be a song that would secure their continued success in North America, and establish them as a key alternative dance pop act that had evolved from their original incarnation of fresh-faced Kraftwerkian synthesists, under the creative guidance of co-founder and original member Vince Clarke. By the end of the 1980s, head writer Martin Gore had successfully steered the band’s material into the darker corners of human experience. This song would be one of the best examples of the establishment of their work as having much darker, psychologically complex themes compared to when they first started out.

For instance, there is a distinct human dynamic  outlined in this song that most bands were not exploring in the mainstream; the willingness to be subsumed by another. But, is this just about sexual roleplay tied up in religious imagery as it is often assumed? Or, are there implications that go beyond that? Read more

Depeche Mode Play “New Life”

Depeche Mode Speak & SpellListen 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?

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Depeche Mode Perform ‘Get the Balance Right’

Here’s a clip of Basildon Kraftwerk acolytes and future goth rock pin-ups Depeche Mode with their 1983 hit single “Get the Balance Right”, a big favourite of mine.  The song was released as a single in early ’83, and then went on to appear on their 1984 North American-released People Are People compilation.

they only ilook/i like nice boys
Depeche Mode: they only look like nice boys

Depeche Mode are one of those groups with an unpredictable career path, stylistically speaking.  They went from fresh-faced synth nerds, led for the most part by founding member Vince Clarke, into darker territories in many senses of the term.  Clarke left the group after their debut to form Yazoo with Alison Moyet, and then went onto form yet another band, Erasure, with Moyet soundalike Andy Bell (not to be confused with the other Andy Bell who is now in Oasis…). When Clarke headed up the group, their sound was based around hook-laden synth lines, with material aimed at a young dance crowd who weren’t terribly concerned with anything other than something to dance to.

When fellow founder Martin Gore took over as musical director after Clarke’s departure, he led the group further away from their breezy synth-pop roots with every release, and into a musical territory which was darker and more dense.  This strategy initially added dimension to what had been established on the first album, and soon a new sound began to eclipse the original sound of the band, using harder-edged instrumentation and more lyrical references to the darker side of the human psyche.

I think this single was the beginnings of that process, with the synth pop sound still there, yet this time a bit beefier, and the lyrics here are a little less bright than, say “I Just Can’t Get Enough”, or “Dreaming of Me”.  The opening salvo establishes this pretty blatantly:

There’s more besides joyrides/Little House in the countryside/Understand, learn to demand/Compromise, sometimes lie…

This is the sound of innocence lost, that to remain ultimately selfish is not necessarily bad, that it is a part of the balance of living.  It was clear that the moral boundaries described here are pretty blurry.   And this is  heavy stuff for men in their early 20s, with the understanding they may have come to what they considered to be some pretty practical conclusions about what it is to make it through an equally amoral world  of successful pop stars.

The People Are People compilation (which is a collection of singles and earlier tracks) marks the end of  their first phase as synth popsters.  The optimism and brightness which had marked their work up until this point, which is encapsulated so well in the title track of the compilation,  was soon to disappear.  Their follow up single, “Blasphemous Rumours” would take on headier subject matter still, as would the material on subsequent albums like Violator, Music for the Masses, and Songs of Faith and Devotion.  The naiveté of the writing began to fall away too, with references to S&M and drugs taking their place, possibly because the band themselves were immersing themselves in these kinds of pursuits.

But, the darker they became, the more North American audiences seemed to embrace them.  And they did make some excellent music well into the late 90s as well, with the “Barrell of a Gun” single in particular standing out for me as some of the best in industrial-pop, the kind of which had paved the way for Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and others during that decade.  Yet for me, my favourite period for this band is when they only hinted at the darkness, when they infused their seemingly innocuous dancefloor hits with streaks of grey and black, with the innocence of youthful enthusiams still fighting back against them.

For more music, check out the Depeche Mode MySpace page.