One of Britain’s most frequently mis-understood bands, Depeche Mode have led a highly individual career.
Lumped in with the New Romantic explosion, the Basildon boys never quite fitted in with their preening contemporaries. Pushing ahead, Depeche Mode developed their own sound, one that never found favour with British critics but nonetheless won worldwide fame and inspired techno producers from Detroit to Berlin.
Simon Spence traces the band’s story in his new biography ‘Just Can’t Get Enough: The Making Of Depeche Mode’.
Out now via Jawbone Press, read an exclusive extract below…
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Depeche Mode’s debut album, Speak & Spell, remains one of the greatest British albums of all time – a flawless synth masterpiece and a benchmark of the era. It stands head and shoulders above the other acclaimed New Romantic pieces of 1981 – The Human League’s Dare, Heaven 17’s Penthouse And Pavement, Japan’s Tin Drum, and OMD’s Architecture & Morality – in terms of attack, sound, melody, songs, tone, and sheer exuberance – and, as it happens, longevity. Even the cover – a photograph of a stuffed swan draped in plastic on a bed of silver twigs – has a quirky appeal.
The band had come a long way in a remarkably short period – the progression from first demo as Composition Of Sound to now was staggering. Much of that progress must be credited to Mute Records boss Daniel Miller.
“He’d spend hours on his own after they’d put their stuff down and marched off wherever they were going,” said Brian Griffin, who took the distinctive cover photograph. “He stayed, twiddling and playing. He gave me the impression that his input was immense. Immense. Daniel was a real boffin and he was determined to hone, to ensure they progressed and that everything happened for the best for them.”
Within a week of its late October release, Speak & Spell was in the UK Top Ten on the strength of advance orders of 80,000. It would remain on the charts for a remarkable 32 weeks. Reviews across the board were positive, with Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Sounds, and NME all offering high praise. In the NME, Paul Morley reviewed Speak & Spell alongside OMD’s Architecture & Morality and came out heavily in favour of Depeche Mode.
All was not well within the band, however. Vince had already told the others that he was leaving the band before they set off for their first proper UK tour, but he agreed to play this run of dates crammed into a two-week period without a day off. With ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ still on heavy rotation on Radio 1 and the band splashed across both the teen and rock press, the tour quickly sold out and the fans went wild. Already, however, Martin, Dave, and Fletch were thinking: what next?
“Vince told us he was leaving before he told them,” Stephen Luscombe of Blancmange, the tour support, told me. “It was a bit of a shock. I don’t think the band were ever happy about Vince leaving. They’d be going out and doing all the work and he was taking all the publishing money. I wouldn’t be very happy either. But that’s life – he felt he couldn’t go any further with what he was doing and had to stop.”
All eyes fell on Martin, who had written two tracks on Speak & Spell and was the only other songwriter in the band.
There was quite a bit of bad feeling after Vince quit,” Martin’s girlfriend of the time, Anne Swindell, recalled. “It was difficult. It was a bit like someone had pulled the rug out from under their feet. They had to completely change the way they were going to do things. Daniel was quite important in the shift to get Martin taking control of the songwriting. Fletch would have been really important as well in that transitional phase after Vince left. Martin really needed to be … it’s hard to go back to that, knowing how much more confident Martin is now, but I think it was quite a big thing for him to take over the reins – to know he could produce enough work that was going to sell, enough to go on tour, and to just being confident he could do it.
“I think if you’re writing songs, you’re putting yourself out there. It’s much more exposing. Songs are very much part of who the writer is. It was quite a difficult thing for Martin to do – suddenly he had to take on a whole album. It was a bit daunting, really. I think when Martin says the songs are open for interpretation and never says specifically what they’re about, I think that’s a part of keeping him a little more screened from view. It’s like: they mean something to me but they might not mean that to everybody. They’re there, and you can have them as you want them.”
Vince had two further obligations to fulfil following the announcement of his departure: a live recording for the Off The Record TV show and a mimed performance of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ for the Christmas 1981 edition of Top Of The Pops. Clips of Vince’s final live performance – the original band’s final gig, playing to a packed Chichester Festival Theatre for the Off The Record show – can be seen on YouTube. For their Christmas Top Of The Pops date, the band abandoned both the leather boy look and the 40s suits for what would become recognisable as their third look: Fletch and Martin in nicely patterned jumpers; Dave looking like a Basildon barrow boy on payday. And with that, Vince was gone.
“Martin’s a genius,” Vince told Smash Hits, “he just doesn’t know it yet.” Two geniuses in the same band would be a rare thing. What Vince didn’t reveal – what he has never revealed – were the two things that had bugged him most during his time in Depeche Mode. Firstly, he thought that songwriting should be his domain alone and didn’t appreciate any interference. Secondly, and more importantly, he couldn’t bear Dave Gahan as a singer. It was as simple as that. For Vince, Dave’s voice didn’t have a wide enough range.
Vince stayed in his Basildon flat for a while, messing with new equipment and seeing pals like Blancmange’s Neil Arthur. The revenue stream from publishing royalties and his share of record sales meant he was in a healthy financial position. He’d formed a strong bond with Blackwing engineer Eric Radcliffe, with whom he continued to work, and was still being advised by Rod Buckle. He would soon resurface with a new band, Yazoo, and a singer he found more to his taste: Alison Moyet.
Meanwhile, the three remaining members of Depeche Mode knew they needed to bring in someone else for their upcoming live dates, which included a first trip to the USA. In the end they chose a musician who had answered an ad placed in the NME, auditioned for Miller, and been accepted by the band after a try-out during a hastily arranged and frenzied show at Croc’s. His name was Alan Wilder. He was 22, middle-class, and came from Acton in West London. He was a bit of a hippie but he was good-looking and a professional musician. He wasn’t too keen on Depeche Mode’s music but he needed the money after playing in a succession of bands – including The Dragons, Reel To Reel, Daphne & The Tenderspots, and The Hitmen – who all failed to take off. He could play Vince’s parts with ease, sang good backing vocals, looked OK, and kept his thoughts on those awful jumpers the rest of the band were wearing to himself. For £100 a week, he was in.
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‘Just Can’t Get Enough: The Making Of Depeche Mode’ is out now.