Depeche Mode Before Their New Life: A Look at ‘Speak & Spell’

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:

Depeche Mode - Speak & Spell box set

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.


Dreaming of Me

The lead single, in a sense, was Dreaming of Me. The sunny track requires an asterisk since it didn’t actually appear on the original UK version of Speak & Spell. Released eighth months before the album came out, Dreaming of Me was pulled from the British LP and not pressed as a single stateside because the track performed so poorly on the UK charts. It was backed by a moody non-album cut, Ice Machine.


New Life

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.


Just Can’t Get Enough

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.

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  • Sep 6,2018 at 16:11
  • Sep 6,2018 at 16:10

    I am a true fan of Depeche Mode and have consistently bought most of their discography. I am not that enamoured with the very latest releasings (Revolution was a lot of noise); I’m not sure what is going wrong. Dave has a strong, characterful voice as proved by his collaboration with Alison Goldfrapp on Ocean. Martin still writes good lyrics. It must be something about the instrumentation? Too repetitive? They could do with bringing Vince Clark back. Anyway, I still keep up with DM as I wouldn’t want to miss anything. So, I was surprised when I saw these ‘lavish’ box sets first advertised – taking us full circle to THE FORGOTTEN PAST. I was at college when these singles came out and loved them immediately.

    Firstly, for decades, DM’s poppy beginnings, namely the first two albums, seem to have been deliberately erased / obscured by the passage of time. DM fast became associated more with their industrial sound, favoured by the Germans; then fame in the US, with the violator tour and tracks like Personal Jesus sealed a ‘serious’ pop group’s fame. Countless remixes continued to ensure Depeche Mode’s cutting edge with the advance of musical possibility (Kruder & Dorfmeister etc); there were always new sounds to look forward to.

    Secondly – I was floored by the price – approaching £20 each for a 12″ single !!!??? I Don’t get it. They are lovely items to have – especially with the slip case. I always liked the Leave in Silence and See You songs, they are beautiful to listen to – but really the albums had more great tracks. I sort of feel that at the prices, they could have slipped the albums into the slipcases without increasing the price. They deserve something ‘extra’. (And I hope that flexi isn’t really a flexi! I can’t stand flexis.)

    Because of the price, I’m not sure who will purchase these boxsets: I suppose fans who don’t have the 12” editions (do they exist?). I have all the 12” versions – and yes, they are in great condition. Despite the boxset prices, I am glad of their availability. A proper appreciation of Depeche Mode deserves to include all of their releases from the beginning (including the albums, which are better listening experiences than the singles on their own). Ultimately, it’s great to see these 12”s available again. The formatting seems a bit exclusive, but I hope it brings the much-deserved attention to their original sound. DM were pretty much famous from the very beginning and the full sweep from pure pop, through Construction Time Again, hammering them into their definitive sound and beyond, provides a great testament of musical achievement.

    Here’s a testament: I even liked, “What’s Your Name?” I think some hated it, citing it as the worst DM track ever. It was generally seen as an embarrassment? Why? It’s great fun, hilarious and a good ‘ditty’. Some say it’s too gay (oh dear). I think it’s very Depeche Mode. The lightness of the song is the opposite of taking music too seriously and helped the range of the album – the perfect closing track for side A. If this were made into a high quality 7” and slipped into the boxset I would take away my reservation of the cost – it’s that special.

  • Sep 6,2018 at 10:15

    That post was pointless spam, ignore it.
    Save your energy for things that actually matter, like collecting records by Depeche Mode.
    I remember watching Depeche Mode appear numerous times performing on TV, whilst growing up. Especially their appearance on the UK TV show “Jim I’ll Fit It” hosted by Jimmy Saville (type Jimmy’s name into a search engine if you don’t know who he was or what he got up to) I watched with innocent eyes!

    Depeche Mode transcended the genre they got pigeoned holed in and redefined what was possible, Their original material stands the test of time and it’s still great to listen to. It’s good to have this material revisited, particularly the 12″ versions, as Martin Gore is very fond of alternative mixes and Remixes of DM material.
    I may just acquire this box set to go alongside the 7″ singles I purchased as a child at the time the music was originally in the charts. 😁

  • Sep 6,2018 at 05:57

    Why the fuck is this relevant to the article? What a troll!

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