Biography: Depeche Mode
Depeche Mode, a group of post-punk pop performers who broke new ground in the field of computer-assisted music during the 1980s, have become "the most successful 'electro-synth' band ever," according to the group's biography at MTV.com. Depeche Mode has enjoyed great success in England almost since its debut in 1981, but in the United States, its following was limited to a sizeable cult until 1990, when the album Violator brought the group into the mainstream. Since then Depeche Mode has had little trouble placing singles on the top 40 charts and selling albums by the millions. Releases such as Songs of Faith and Devotion, Ultra, and Exciter helped continue the group's success into the 1990s and 2000s.
The group's success has come without compromise or pretense—Depeche Mode's members call themselves pop musicians and seem quite comfortable in that format. In fact, Depeche Mode has been one of a few bands to infuse pop with some sense of credibility. "Most pop songs just don't reflect life the way it really is," songwriter Martin Gore told Spin magazine. "You can't be happy all the time. Throughout our career, I've tried to write good serious songs as well as escapist songs. I know we get accused a lot of being depressive, but our songs also have a certain get-on-with-itattitude. If life is bad, there's always something to give you solace." Most pop bands tend to bask in the limelight and court the press. The members of Depeche Mode do almost the opposite—they save their performances for the arena and do little to court favor among the media. This reluctance to speak in print stems from the band's earliest days in England.
Depeche Mode formed outside London in 1980, fronted by songwriter Vince Clarke. Other founding members include Martin Gore, Andy Fletcher, and Dave Gahan, all of whom grew up in the suburbs of London. Rock music had spawned a whole new generation of machines for making music—synthesizers and drum simulators, to name two—and Depeche Mode's members gravitated to these machines. "We started doing something completely different," Gahan told Rolling Stone. "We had taken these instruments because they were convenient. You could pick up a synthesizer, put it under your arm and go to a gig. You plugged directly into the PA. You didn't need to go through an amp, so you didn't need to have a van. We sed to go to gigs on trains."
The group also did not need a grange hall in which to practice. In fact, they didn't even need to be together—any individual's bedroom could become a studio. Within a year of founding Depeche Mode, Clarke had put together a demo tape and was making the rounds trying to find a record label. Finally the band signed with an independent British company, Mute Records, and released a debut album, Speak and Spell, in 1981. The music was entirely synthetic, but it was original nonetheless. At a time when most techno work revolved around gloomy themes, Depeche Mode offered a dance beat, provocative lyrics, and that "get-on-with-it" attitude. Speak and Spell became one of the ten best-selling albums in Great Britain in 1981, and Depeche Mode was launched.
Not surprisingly, fans and the press hounded the young performers mercilessly, and soon Clarke had had enough. After Clarke quit, Gore became the principal songwriter, and Alan Wilder was added to help with vocals. "Under Gore's direction," writes Jeff Giles in Rolling Stone, "Depeche Mode's music became—to quote the title of an album that many of the group's fans hold dearest—a 'black celebration.' His songs, a few of which have made American radio programmers blush, have been both profane … and kinky." Almost virtually without radio station support, Depeche Mode began to attract an audience in America. They had one top ten hit in 1985 with "People Are People," but they became immensely popular as live performers. For a time the group was even compared to the heavy metal bands of the 1970s who regularly sold out in concert without ever earning a gold record.
Gradually, however, Depeche Mode began to make inroads in the all-important radio market. This was not an easy task for a group one critic called "synth wimps"—the standard rock format radio stations simply would not play Depeche Mode. The group was saved by dance hall crowds and New Wave fans who could groove to the band's techno-pop beat and provocative lyrics. Gore told Rolling Stone: "A lot of people get swayed by the 'real' music thing. They think you can't make soul music by using computers and synthesizers and samplers, which we think is totally wrong. We think the soul in the music comes from the song. The instrumentation doesn't matter at all."
Early on the members of Depeche Mode realized that their brand of music would not translate well in live performance. They therefore became one of the few major pop groups to be open about enhancing their concerts with pre-recorded material. This has allowed the group to be as outrageous as any of its contemporaries and has contributed in no small part to its fantastic success. "Using … tapes to enhance a band's performance is less a case of deliberate misrepresentation than of keeping up with the times technologically and giving the audience what it wants," Peter Watrous wrote in the New York Times. "People weaned on music from the 1960's may go to an Eric Clapton concert to hear how well he plays his guitar, but an audience for Depeche Mode, whose concerts seem almost completely prerecorded, attend for different reasons. The combination of post-punk performance ideas, in which improvisation is beside the point, and consumer-driven images, in which people come to share space with a performer, has produced an audience that goes out for more than the pleasure of music."
Depeche Mode's Violator album, released in 1990, and the subsequent World Violation tour earned the group its greatest level of mainstream success. With hits such as "Enjoy the Silence," "Policy of Truth," and "Personal Jesus," the album landed in the top ten and reached the multiplatinum sales mark in 1991. "Goth without ever being stupidly hammy, synth without sounding like the clinical stereotype of synth music, rock without ever sounding like a 'rock' band, Depeche here reached astounding heights indeed," said All Music Guide writer Ned Raggett, calling the album "stunning." The group followed the success of Violator with Songs of Faith and Devotion in 1993, which debuted on the charts at number one. Though a commercial and popular success, the album—which reached platinum sales in May of 1993—and its characteristically synth-heavy, though mostly guitar-driven tracks, did not fair as well critically. "This is a slickly produced, highly listenable album, but there is in the end a failure of nerve," noted Christopher John Farley in Time.
A four-year hiatus, marked by Wilder's departure from the group in 1995 to focus on his solo project, Recoil, and Gahan's heroin addiction, attempted suicide, and lengthy recovery, followed the release of Songs. The group's next effort, Ultra, released in 1997, featured hits "It's No Good" and "Barrel of a Gun" and stronger, more controlled vocals by Gahan. The hit singles compilation The Singles 86-98 was released in 1998; a supporting tour followed.
Exciter, the band's follow-up to Ultra, was released in 2001, with the singles "Dream On" and "I Feel Loved" finding moderate success on international radio outlets. Two years later, Gahan issued his debut solo album, the dark and sultry Paper Monsters. Gore also followed suit by issuing the all-covers Counterfeit², a full-length sequel to his similarly themed 1989 EP. Each member supported his work with respective tours of the U.S. and Europe; however, the bandmembers soon resumed working together, and Playing the Angel, their 11th studio album, became a Top Ten hit upon its release in October 2005. Produced by Ben Hillier (Doves, Blur, U2, Elbow) and studded with singles like "Precious" and "John (The Revelator)," it topped the album charts in 18 countries and went multi-platinum and/or gold in 20 countries. Depeche Mode went on to play for more than two and a half million fans worldwide, and the DVD release Touring the Angel: Live in Milan (2006) captured one of the band's greatest shows. Sounds of the Universe, also made with the assistance of Hillier, arrived in early 2009.