Discussions of Depeche Mode usually center around things like the new wave combo’s popularization of industrial textures, their pervasive cultural influence, or their myriad moody hits. Not as much time is spent on the band’s early Vince Clarke-driven synth-pop days and the first record they produced, Speak & Spell. In fact, most casual fans would hardly recognize the ironically sunny melodies of I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead or the fey jaunt of Puppets.
Now we have cause to train our gaze on those salad days! A new reissue campaign pays homage to Depeche Mode’s career-spanning dance floor dominance by compiling the 12-inch singles from each album into box sets. To kick it off, boxes for the band’s first two albums (Speak & Spell and their first without Clarke, A Broken Frame) have been released together. To help with this extended focus on Depeche Mode’s origins, here’s a primer on their debut album and its singles:
Before leaving to found Yazoo and Erasure, synth maestro Vince Clarke wrote the bulk of Depeche Mode’s 1981 debut. Dave Gahan might’ve been the frontman, but Clarke was the star. Building on the foundation laid by Gary Numan, Tubeway Army, and Kraftwerk, Speak & Spell loudly proclaimed the arrival of synth-pop with Clarke’s infectious, shimmering electronic melodies.
The sounds and lyrical content on this record could not be further from the textures and melancholy ruminations that eventually defined Depeche Mode. The LP is so upbeat that Gahan’s vocals were characterized as “undramatic” by Smash Hits. They’re talking about the same guy who sang Personal Jesus, for god’s sake!
That said, Speak & Spell isn’t entirely foreign from subsequent albums. Hints of their darker trajectory can be heard on Nodisco! and Photographic — not to mention non-album tracks from this period. These are the bits Martin Gore picked up and ran with after Clarke left.
The record was met with acclaim in the UK. After turning the page on all things “New Romantic,” the press was searching for something hot and new. Record Mirror lavished Speak & Spell with praise, and it was given positive marks by the rival NME. In the US, however, reviews were mixed at best. Rolling Stone characterized synth-pop as a passing fad and Speak & Spell as quintessentially ephemeral in that regard. Robert Christgau curmudgeonly called it “tuneful pap.”
Sales figured followed suit. The album cracked the top 10 in the UK while barely making the top 200 in the US.
The second single was New Life, the lone track praised by Christgau in his Village Voice review. The 12-inch remix of New Life featured a much harder, more percussive intro than on the UK album. This version ultimately made its way onto the US edition of Speak & Spell. The flipside, an extended mix of Shout, doubled down on the heavy percussion of the A-side. The non-album track presaged the industrial sound Depeche Mode would eventually own.
The third time was indeed the charm for the band, as Just Can’t Get Enough was Depeche Mode’s highest charting single thus far and the first to become a bona fide American club hit. The almost-seven-minute Schizo mix was the default version in the States, as it was included in the initial US album release. The 12-inch was backed with an altered instrumental version of Any Second Now that plays up the atmospherics.