Depeche Mode - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
In the hearts of their diehard fans, Depeche Mode will forever be cult icons even though they have sold millions of albums. The band has made a career of always being the dark outsiders looking in, often commenting on a world steadily descending into violence and homogenization. Utilizing pulsing electronics and blankets of synthesizers, DM have been one of the few bands in the world to evolve with changing trends yet never at the expense of their artistic integrity. The band has grown from synthpop to gothic 80’s alternative to rock radio pop stars to superstars. They’ve survived the departure of key band members, drug overdoses, and a public backlash only to take their popularity to new heights in the latest stage of their career.
The roots of the band stretch back to Basildon, England circa 1976, when budding keyboardists Vince Clarke and Andrew Fletcher formed the short-lived group Romance in China. In 1979 Clarke formed French Look with another keyboard enthusiast named Martin Gore. Fletcher soon joined and the trio changed its name to Composition of Sound. Clarke and Fletcher began working odd jobs in order to buy new synthesizers and by 1980 David Gahan was brought on as lead vocalist after Clarke saw him sing David Bowie’s “Heroes” at a local jam session. Once again the band changed its name, borrowing Depeche Mode from the name of a French fashion magazine whose name means “Fashion Dispatch.” The quartet also streamlined their sound, relying solely on synthesizers with Fletcher playing the bass parts, Gore keeping the melodic rhythm, and Clarke playing lead. Clarke also acted as the band’s principal songwriter
In 1981 DM was approached by Daniel Miller, founder of Mute Records, to record a single. “Dreaming of Me” was released in February of 1981 and to everyone’s surprise actually charted in the UK at #58. Later that year the band released their third single, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” and it broke the UK Top Ten. Depeche Mode’s debut album Speak and Spell soon followed and was generally well-received. While touring to promote the album Clarke began to express displeasure about the band’s career trajectory. He exited Depeche Mode in late 1981 and went on to form Yazoo with singer Alison Moyet. In 1985 Clarke founded the synthpop duo Erasure with vocalist Andy Bell.
Now down to a trio and with their principal songwriter gone, Clarke’s departure was the first of many growing pains Depeche Mode would experience. Martin Gore had contributed two songs to Speak and Spell and soon found himself writing all the material for the follow-up, A Broken Frame (1982 Mute). The band also hired Alan Wilder, initially as a touring member, though he soon became a full time member of the band. Promoting Gore seemed to be the right move. In 1982 the single “See You” shot to number #6 in the UK charts and A Broken Frame was a moderate success that kept in line with Clarke’s arpeggiated New Romanticism but also occasionally hinted at the darker direction the band would take in later releases. Undaunted and on a creative streak, the band kept touring and recording, releasing Construction Time Again (Mute) in 1983. The album marked the first time Wilder contributed to recording and composition. It also showcased the more industrialized side of Depeche Mode and much darker tone. Some Great Reward (Mute) followed in 1984 and was a groundbreaking hit. Despite dark lyrical content, ranging from the sadomasochism of “Master and Servant” to the dangers blind religious faith on “Blasphemous Rumors,” the album spawned several hit singles, including the worldwide hit, the prejudice-denouncing “People Are People.”
It would be two years before Depeche Mode would release their fifth full-length. Black Celebration (1986 Mute) signaled another change in direction, abandoning most of the industrial tones, replacing them with a dense, Dark Wave atmosphere that earned them the adoration of the Goth subculture. Black Celebration is notable for featuring Martin Gore’s vocals more than any other Depeche Mode album. It was also the first time they worked with their now frequent audio/visual collaborator Anton Corbijn, who directed the video for “Question of Time,” and has since directed 19 other DM videos, filmed live performances, and designed the cover art for numerous DM albums.
Music for the Masses (1987 Mute) was their most critically-lauded album to date and provided the band with their first Top 40 hit in the U.S. Buoyed by big, anthemic hooks and house-inspired beats, Music for the Masses produced three classic singles: “Strangelove,” “Never Let Me Down Again,” and “Behind the Wheel.” The album outsold their previous releases and resulted in a massive 87-88 world tour that culminated in a sold-out Rose Bowl show in Pasadena, California to around 90,000 people. The show resulted in the band’s first live album, 101, and was filmed by the legendary D.A. Pennebaker and released as a documentary of the same name. Despite Depeche Mode’s massive commercial success, they were still not a household name. The singles scraped the bottom of the charts in the U.S. and the UK (although they did well in Germany) and the band would have to settle for being giants of the alternative and indie scenes.
On cusp of superstardom Depeche Mode retreated back into the studio, this time under the guidance of producer Flood. Keeping with the stadium anthem approach, this time they embraced hip-hop and house-inspired beats which they mixed with gorgeous washes of synths, and hauntingly sparse guitar parts to give depth to the hooks. Violator (1990 Mute) was not only the most technically demanding album they had yet produced, it was also the perfectly unified record Depeche Mode had been trying to make for the better part of a decade. The album was an enormous success, spawning three hit singles (“Personal Jesus,” “Enjoy the Silence” and “Policy of Truth”) and has sold over 8 million copies to date. The band attempted to celebrate the release of Violator with a signing at Tower Records in Los Angeles but was forced to cancel when the event attracted over 17,000 fans and nearly incited a riot.
Almost immediately upon reaching their largest audience, Depeche Mode began to show signs of strain. The group members had long been experimenting with drugs and the World Violation Tour only exacerbated the problem. Nevertheless, DM entered the studio once more and again they significantly altered their sound. Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993 Mute) was considerably more rock than anything they’d attempted before. Mixing in distorted guitar feedback, orchestrated strings, real drums and even a gospel choir, the album was another commercial success. Despite the grunge and R&B’s domination of the airwaves at the time, Songs of Faith and Devotion entered the U.S. and U.K. charts at #1 and the band embarked on yet another successful world tour.
The pressure of constant touring and recording mixed with the members’ hard living was beginning to take its toll. Gahan had acquired a debilitating heroin addiction, Gore suffered a series of seizures and Fletcher dropped out of the second leg of the tour citing “mental instability.” By the end of the massive tour, the band went its separate ways and the future of Depeche Mode was left in serious doubt.
A further blow was the 1995 departure of Alan Wilder who announced his exit from the band on his 36th birthday. Claiming a lack of credit for his musical contributions and an “increasing dissatisfaction with the internal relations,” Wilder turned his attention to his solo project, Recoil. Wilder had long served as the bands in-house studio engineer and arranger. As a three piece, Depeche Mode was left a ship without a rudder. Around the same time, Gahan’s alleged suicide attempt and subsequent speedball overdose left serious doubts as to whether the band could pull it together enough to produce another album. Gore had a new batch of songs but time and again Gahan failed to show up for recording sessions. Depeche Mode had officially stalled.
In 1996 Gahan entered a drug rehabilitation program to battle his heroin addiction. After completion he took vocal lessons. Later in the year the band reentered the studio, this time with producer Tim Simenon. The result, Ultra (1997 Mute), was Depeche Mode’s bleakest, least-commercial effort although it debuted at #1 in the UK. Dark and claustrophobic, the album kept the rock direction of its predecessor but replaced the lushness with dank, computerized bells and whistles. The critical reception was lukewarm and due to the hardships faced on the last tour, the band decided to stay put this time around.
The Singles 86-98 (Mute) compilation was released in 1998 and the band undertook a successful, four month tour. In 2001 the trio returned with their tenth full length Exciter. Producer Mark Bell encouraged DM to embrace a more electronic approach, which only served to bury Gore’s songs under a mountain of electronic cacophony or left them so sparse that they sounded flat. In 2003 Gahan made a surprising move, releasing his first solo album Paper Monsters (Mute) which was followed by a worldwide tour. Gore also released his first solo LP, Counterfeit² (2003 Mute), an album of covers. Fletcher went behind the scenes and started his own independent label Toast Hawaii.
In early 2005 Depeche Mode again circled the wagons, this time entering the studio with producer Ben Hillier (Blur, Doves, U2). It was now pertinent to mix things up and Hillier proved the perfect man for the job. Hillier threw out the computerized bent of the previous two records and brought in old analogue synthesizers. Gahan also contributed lyrically for the first time in the band’s existence. Playing the Angel (2005 Mute) was widely seen as the band’s long awaited return to form and it went to #1 in17 countries. Depeche Mode then embarked on another successful world tour and headlined the 2006 Coachella Music and Arts Festival as well as the O2 Wireless Festival in London’s Hyde Park. The same year the entire Depeche Mode catalogue (aside from Ultra and Exciter) was remastered and re-released as two-disc sets which include DVD documentaries on the making of each respective album. Gahan released a second solo album, Hourglass (Mute), in October of 2007 and the band announced that Gore had been writing songs for the 12th Depeche Mode album with spring 2009 as a tentative release date.
Depeche Mode has experienced the highest highs and the lowest lows but through it all they have constantly evolved (for better and worse) at their own pace. Never pandering to trends and always remaining true to themselves, the group has truly earned their spot in the pantheon of the “best bands in the world.”