35 Years Ago: Depeche Mode Release Their Debut, ‘Speak and Spell’
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Though many musical acts in the early ’80s pushed the synthesizer to the front, Depeche Mode would ultimately take it into bigger leagues than any of their contemporaries. It all began with the release of their first record, Speak and Spell, in October 1981.
The band’s roots date back to the tail end of the ’70s, before finally gelling into form with the release of “Dreaming of Me” in early 1981. Two more singles, “New Life” and “Just Can’t Get Enough,” followed in the run-up to Speak and Spell, with the former just missing the Top 10 and the latter reaching No. 8.
Speak and Spell remains not only one of the most significant records of Depeche Mode’s career, but also of the entire synth-pop genre. One thing that, from the beginning, set them apart from the countless others armed with electronics was that they always wrote good, strong songs, regardless of the style they were delivered in. Most of their songs would stand even if done on acoustic guitar and vocal, probably because they didn’t necessarily intend to be so dependent on keyboards.
“When we originally started, we were bass guitar, rhythm guitar and synthesizer. We just gradually discarded our guitars for synthesizers,” said singer Dave Gahan in 1981. “It was just a natural progression, we just liked the sounds.”
“When I was a teenager I was playing an acoustic guitar I didn’t get a synthesizer until I was 19 and then it was all Gary Numan and John Foxx,” added founding member Vince Clarke in a 2009 interview with Quietus. “The first synth I ever saw was owned by [fellow Depeche Mode member] Martin Gore because he lived round the corner from me.”
The LP kicks off with “New Life” and is quickly followed by the highly energized “I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead” and the lost classic “Puppets.” Throughout, Depeche Mode make the electronic approach work for them as opposed to being buried by it as it it were a gimmick. Their use of chosen instrumentation never comes off as anything but genuine and, much like Kraftwerk before them, it ultimately just sounds natural.
Along with the hits, tracks like “Nodosco!” and “Photographic” have aged rather well, somehow transcending the era from which they came. David Fricke of Rolling Stone, however, gave the band a less than grand reception upon the album’s release. “They have neither the ambition of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark nor the overt commercial allure of the Human League,” he wrote. “They simply drift aimlessly between the two, occasionally hitting a disco bull’s-eye with chirpy dance tracks.”
Unlike those bands, however, time has been much kinder to the Mode catalog, and though some elements of Speak and Spell are unavoidable rooted in the synthed-out world of 1981, many of the songs have more than stood the test of time since its release.
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