Depeche Mode (/dəˌpɛʃ-,
Depeche Mode released their debut album Speak & Spell in 1981, bringing the band onto the British new wave scene. Founding member Vince Clarke left after the release of the album; they recorded A Broken Frame as a trio. Gore took over as primary songwriter and, later in 1982, Alan Wilder joined to fill Clarke’s spot, establishing a lineup that continued for 13 years.
The band’s last albums of the 1980s, Black Celebration and Music for the Masses, established them as a dominant force within the electronic music scene. A highlight of this era was the band’s June 1988 concert at the Pasadena Rose Bowl, where they drew a crowd in excess of 60,000 people. In early 1990, they released Violator, an international mainstream success. The following album, Songs of Faith and Devotion in 1993 was also a success, though internal struggles within the band during recording and touring resulted in Wilder’s departure in 1995.
Depeche Mode has had 54 songs in the UK Singles Chart and 17 top 10 albums in the UK chart; they have sold more than 100 million records worldwide. Q included the band in the list of the “50 Bands That Changed the World!”. Depeche Mode also rank number 98 on VH1’s “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. In December 2016, Billboard named Depeche Mode the 10th most successful dance club artist of all time.
Depeche Mode’s origins date to 1977, when schoolmates Vince Clarke and Andy Fletcher formed a Cure-influenced band called No Romance In China, with Clarke on vocals and guitar and Fletcher on bass guitar. Fletcher would later recall, “Why am I in the band? It was accidental right from the beginning. I was actually forced to be in the band. I played the guitar and I had a bass; it was a question of them roping me in.”
In 1979, Clarke played guitar in an “Ultravox rip-off band”, The Plan, with friends Robert Marlow and Paul Langwith. In 1978–79, Martin Gore played guitar in an acoustic duo, Norman and the Worms, with school friend Phil Burdett on vocals. In 1979, Marlow, Gore and friend Paul Redmond formed a band called the French Look, with Marlow on vocals/keyboards, Gore on guitar and Redmond on keyboards. In March 1980, Clarke, Gore and Fletcher formed a band called Composition of Sound, with Clarke on vocals/guitar, Gore on keyboards and Fletcher on bass.
Soon after the formation of Composition of Sound, Clarke heard Wirral band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), whose output inspired him to make electronic music. Along with OMD, other early influences included The Human League, Daniel Miller and Fad Gadget. Clarke and Fletcher switched to synthesisers, working odd jobs in order to buy the instruments, or borrowing them from friends. Dave Gahan joined the band in 1980 after Clarke heard him perform at a local Scout hut jam session, singing a rendition of David Bowie‘s “Heroes”, and Depeche Mode were born. Gahan’s and Gore’s favourite artists included Sparks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Cabaret Voltaire, Talking Heads and Iggy Pop.
When explaining the choice for the new name, taken from French fashion magazine Dépêche mode, Gore said, “It means hurried fashion or fashion dispatch. I like the sound of that.” However, the magazine’s name (and hence the band’s) is “Fashion News” or “Fashion Update” (dépêche, “dispatch”, from Old French despesche/despeche or “news report”, and mode or “fashion”).
Gore recalled that the first time the band played as Depeche Mode was a school gig in May 1980. There is a plaque commemorating the gig at the James Hornsby School in Basildon, where Gore and Fletcher were pupils. The band made their recording debut in 1980 on the Some Bizzare Album with the song “Photographic”, later re-recorded for their debut album Speak & Spell.
The band made a demo tape but, instead of mailing the tape to record companies, they would go in and personally deliver it. They would demand the companies play it; according to Dave Gahan, “most of them would tell us to fuck off. They’d say ‘leave the tape with us’ and we’d say ‘it’s our only one’. Then we’d say goodbye and go somewhere else.”
According to Gahan, prior to securing their record contract, they were receiving offers from all the major labels. Phonogram offered them “money you could never have imagined and all sorts of crazy things like clothes allowances”.
While playing a live gig at the Bridge House in Canning Town, the band were approached by Daniel Miller, an electronic musician and founder of Mute Records, who was interested in their recording a single for his burgeoning label. The result of this verbal contract was their first single, “Dreaming of Me”, recorded in December 1980 and released in February 1981. It reached number 57 in the UK charts. Encouraged by this, the band recorded their second single, “New Life”, which climbed to number 11 in the UK charts and got them an appearance on Top of the Pops. The band went to London by train, carrying their synthesisers all the way to the BBC studios.
The band’s next single was “Just Can’t Get Enough”. The synth-pop single became the band’s first UK top ten hit. The video is the only one of the band’s videos to feature Vince Clarke. Depeche Mode’s debut album, Speak & Spell, was released in October 1981 and peaked at number ten on the UK album charts. Critical reviews were mixed; Melody Maker described it as a “great album … one they had to make to conquer fresh audiences and please the fans who just can’t get enough”, while Rolling Stone was more critical, calling the album “PG-rated fluff”.
Clarke began to voice his discomfort at the direction the band was taking, saying “there was never enough time to do anything. Not with all the interviews and photo sessions”. Clarke also said he was sick of touring, which Gahan said years later was “bullshit to be quite honest.” Gahan went on to say he “suddenly lost interest in it and he started getting letters from fans asking what kind of socks he wore.” In November 1981, Clarke publicly announced that he was leaving Depeche Mode.
Soon afterwards, Clarke joined up with blues singer Alison Moyet to form Yazoo (or Yaz in the United States). Initial talk of Clarke’s continuing to write material for Depeche Mode ultimately amounted to nothing. According to third-party sources, Clarke offered the remaining members of Depeche Mode the track “Only You”, but they declined. Clarke, however, denied in an interview that such an offer ever took place saying, “I don’t know where that came from. That’s not true.” The song went on to become a UK Top 3 hit for Yazoo. Gore, who had written “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and the instrumental “Big Muff” for Speak & Spell, became the band’s main lyricist.
In late 1981, the band placed an anonymous ad in Melody Maker looking for another musician: “Name band, synthesise, must be under twenty-one.” Alan Wilder, a classically trained keyboardist from West London, responded and, after two auditions and despite being 22 years old, was hired in early 1982, initially on a trial basis as a touring member. Wilder would later be called the “Musical Director” of the band, responsible for the band’s sound until his departure in 1995. As producer Flood would say, “[Alan] is sort of the craftsman, Martin’s the idea man and [Dave] is the attitude.”
In January 1982, the band released “See You”, their first single without Clarke, which managed to beat all three Clarke-penned singles in the UK charts, reaching number six. The following tour saw the band playing their first shows in North America. Two more singles, “The Meaning of Love” and “Leave in Silence”, were released ahead of the band’s second studio album, on which they began work in July 1982. Daniel Miller informed Wilder that he was not needed for the recording of the album, as the core trio wanted to prove they could succeed without Vince Clarke. A Broken Frame was released that September, and the following month the band began their 1982 tour. A non-album single, “Get the Balance Right!”, was released in January 1983, the first Depeche Mode track to be recorded with Wilder.
For their third album, Construction Time Again, Depeche Mode worked with producer Gareth Jones, at John Foxx’s Garden Studios and at Hansa Studios in West Berlin (where much of David Bowie’s trilogy of seminal electronic albums featuring Brian Eno had been produced). The album saw a dramatic shift in the group’s sound, due in part to Wilder’s introduction of the Synclavier and E-mu Emulator samplers. By sampling the noises of everyday objects, the band created an eclectic, industrial-influenced sound, with similarities to groups such as the Art of Noise and Einstürzende Neubauten (the latter becoming Mute labelmates in 1983).
“Everything Counts” rose to number six in the UK, also reaching the top 30 in Ireland, South Africa, Switzerland, Sweden and West Germany. Wilder contributed two songs to the album, “The Landscape Is Changing” and “Two Minute Warning”. In September 1983, to promote Construction Time Again, the band launched a European concert tour.
In their early years, Depeche Mode had only really attained success in Europe and Australia. This changed in March 1984, when they released the single “People Are People”. The song became a hit, reaching No. 2 in Ireland and Poland, No. 4 in the UK and Switzerland, and No. 1 in West Germany — the first time a DM single topped a country’s singles chart — where it was used as the theme to West German TV’s coverage of the 1984 Olympics. Beyond this European success, the song also reached No. 13 on the US charts in mid-1985, the first appearance of a DM single on the Billboard Hot 100, and was a Top 20 hit in Canada. “People Are People” became an anthem for the LGBT community, regularly played at gay establishments and gay pride festivals in the late 1980s. Sire, the band’s North American record label, released a compilation of the same name which included tracks from A Broken Frame and Construction Time Again as well as several B-sides.
On the American tour, the band was, according to Gore, “shocked by the way the fans were turning up in droves at the concerts”. He said that although the concerts were selling well, Depeche Mode struggled to sell records.
In September 1984, Some Great Reward was released. Melody Maker claimed that the album made one “sit up and take notice of what is happening here, right under your nose.” In contrast to the political and environmental subjects addressed on the previous album, the songs on Some Great Reward were mostly concerned with more personal themes such as sexual politics (“Master and Servant”), adulterous relationships (“Lie to Me”), and arbitrary divine justice (“Blasphemous Rumours”). Also included was the first Martin Gore ballad, “Somebody” — such songs would become a feature of all following albums. “Somebody” was released as a double A-side with “Blasphemous Rumours”, and was the first single with Gore on lead vocal. Some Great Reward became the first Depeche Mode album to enter the US album charts, and made the Top 10 in several European countries.
The World We Live In and Live in Hamburg was the band’s first video release, almost an entire concert from their 1984 Some Great Reward Tour. In July 1985, the band played their first-ever concerts behind the Iron Curtain, in Budapest and Warsaw. In October 1985, Mute released a compilation, The Singles 81→85 (Catching Up with Depeche Mode in the US), which included the two non-album hit singles “Shake the Disease” and “It’s Called a Heart” along with their B-sides.
In the United States, the band’s music had first gained prominence on college radio and modern rock stations such as KROQ in Los Angeles, KQAK (“The Quake”) in San Francisco, WFNX in Boston and WLIR on Long Island, New York, and hence they appealed primarily to an alternative audience who were disenfranchised with the predominance of “soft rock and ‘disco hell'” on the radio. This view of the band was in sharp contrast to how the band was perceived in Europe, despite the increasingly dark and serious tone in their songs. In Germany, France, and other European countries, Depeche Mode were considered teen idols and regularly featured in European teen magazines, becoming one of the most famous synthpop bands in the mid-’80s.
Depeche Mode’s musical style shifted slightly again in 1986 with the release of their fifteenth single, “Stripped”, and its accompanying album Black Celebration. Retaining their often imaginative sampling and beginning to move away from the “industrial pop” sound that had characterised their previous two LPs, the band introduced an ominous, highly atmospheric and textured sound. Gore’s lyrics also took on a darker tone and became even more pessimistic.
The music video for “A Question of Time” was the first to be directed by Anton Corbijn, beginning a working relationship that continues to the present day. Corbijn has directed a further 20 of the band’s videos (the latest being 2017’s “Where’s the Revolution.”) He has also filmed some of their live performances, and designed stage sets, as well as most covers for albums and singles from Violator and onwards.
1987’s Music for the Masses saw further alterations in the band’s sound and working methods. For the first time a producer not related to Mute Records, Dave Bascombe, was called to assist with the recording sessions, although, according to Alan Wilder, Bascombe’s role ended up being more that of engineer. In making the album, the band largely eschewed sampling in favour of synthesizer experimentation. While chart performance of the singles “Strangelove”, “Never Let Me Down Again” and “Behind the Wheel” proved to be disappointing in the UK, they performed well in countries such as Canada, Brazil, West Germany, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland, often reaching the top 10. Record Mirror described Music for the Masses as “the most accomplished and sexy Mode album to date”. The album also made a breakthrough in the American market.
The Music for the Masses Tour began 22 October 1987. On 7 March 1988, with no previous announcement that they would be the headlining act, Depeche Mode played in the Werner-Seelenbinder-Halle, East Berlin, becoming one of the few Western groups to perform in the Communist East Germany. They also performed concerts in Budapest and Prague in 1988, both at the time also Communist.
The world tour ended 18 June 1988 with a concert at the Pasadena Rose Bowl with paid attendance of 60,453, the highest in eight years for the venue. The tour was a breakthrough for the band and a massive success in the United States. It was documented in 101 – a concert film by D. A. Pennebaker and its accompanying soundtrack album. The film is notable for its portrayal of fan interaction. Alan Wilder is credited with coming up with the title, noting that the performance was the 101st and final performance of the tour. On 7 September 1988, Depeche Mode performed “Strangelove” at the 1988 MTV Video Music Awards at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles.
In mid-1989, the band began recording in Milan with producer Flood and engineer François Kevorkian. The initial result of this session was the single “Personal Jesus.” Prior to its release, a marketing campaign was launched with advertisements placed in the personals columns of UK regional newspapers with the words “Your own personal Jesus.” Later, the ads included a phone number one could dial to hear the song. The resulting furor helped propel the single to number 13 on the UK charts, becoming one of their biggest sellers to date; in the United States, it was their first gold single and their first Top 40 hit since “People Are People”, eventually becoming the biggest-selling 12-inch single in Warner Records’ history up to that point.
Depeche Mode have released a total of 14 studio albums, 10 compilation albums, six live albums, eight box sets, 13 video albums, 71 music videos, and 54 singles. They have sold over 100 million records and played live to more than 30 million fans worldwide. The band have had 50 songs in the UK Singles Chart, and one US and two UK number-one albums. In addition, all of their studio albums have reached the UK Top 10 and their albums have spent over 210 weeks on the UK Charts.
Early in their career, Depeche Mode were dismissive of benefit concerts such as Live Aid. Martin himself stated, “If these bands really care so much, they should just donate the money and let that be it. Why can’t they do it without all the surrounding hype?”. But in recent years, the band have applied their celebrity and cultural longevity to help promote and raise funds for several notable charity endeavours. They lent their support to high-profile charities such as MusiCares, Cancer Research UK and the Teenage Cancer Trust. The band has also supported the Small Steps Project, a humanitarian organisation based in the United Kingdom, aiming to assist economically disadvantaged children into education. Since 2010, Depeche Mode have partnered with Swiss watchmaker Hublot to support Charity: Water, aimed at the provision of clean drinking water in developing countries. In 2014, the partnership hosted a gala and fundraiser at the TsUM building in Moscow, raising $1.4 million for the charity.
- Andy Fletcher – keyboards, backing vocals, bass guitar (1980–present)
- Martin Gore – keyboards, backing and lead vocals, guitars (1980–present)
- Dave Gahan – lead vocals (1980–present)
- Christian Eigner – drums, percussion (1997–present)
- Peter Gordeno – keyboards, bass guitar, piano, backing vocals (1998–present)
- Vince Clarke – keyboards, lead and backing vocals, guitars (1980–1981)
- Alan Wilder – keyboards, piano, drums, backing vocals (1982–1995; one-off show in 2010)
Early Studio albums
- Speak & Spell (1981)
- A Broken Frame (1982)
- Construction Time Again (1983)
- Some Great Reward (1984)
- Black Celebration (1986)
- Music for the Masses (1987)
- Violator (1990)