The whole Synth Pop movement began on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the late-Seventies when musicians who had become infatuated with the sounds by German synthesizer pioneers Kraftwerk began to tinker with the machines and applying them to pop song melodies and structures. Common belief states that the UK was the first country in which synth pop bands began to pop up under the New Romantics umbrella. However, synthesizer-based pop songs began to pop up all across Europe. The first huge hit that ended up being something of a first cannon shot across the bough was the disco hit “I Feel Love” by the great American singer Donna Summer with help from her Italian-born, Munich-based producer Giorgio Moroder. That opened the floodgates that started with the world-wide hit “Pop Muzik” by M in 1979. After that, everyone was buying synthesizers and integrating them into their sounds. Disparate artists such as Prince, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and ZZ Top all successfully enhanced their sounds with synthesizers.
Other big synth pop hits began popping up in the States, as Minneapolis’ Prince-forerunners Lipps Inc. hit big in 1980 with “Funkytown”, followed by big hits by Gary Numan (“Cars), The Human League (“Don’t You Want Me”) and Soft Cell (“Tainted Love”). One band that jumped on the synth pop bandwagon was an English band called Depeche Mode. Their main songwriter was Vince Clarke, who would only stick around for one album before leaving to form two seminal synth pop bands, Yaz (or Yazoo) and Erasure (with whom he still records). Depeche Mode garnered a UK hit song with their debut single, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” pretty much a paint-by-numbers early-Eighties synth pop song. After Clarke left the band, Depeche Mode flounder for a couple albums before their music, lyrically and aurally, took a dark turn. And, when the band went in that darker direction, the actually became a classic band.
So, how did a guy from Middle America ever discover Depeche Mode. To be honest, I was familiar with “Just Can’t Get Enough,” as a synth pop-loving guy down the hall in my dorm had the album. But, at the time, I was not impressed. Still, I would hear Depeche Mode music being sneaked in DJs’ sets at clubs and parties, but nothing really grabbed me until I heard “People Are People” in a club in late 1984. To me, that song was a revelation. Finally, a band was clearly fulfilling The Human League’s intention of making the synthesizer sound like a rock instrument. And, Depeche Mode proved that they could rock AND make you dance.
Still, it was their remarkable growth between 1986 and 1993 that produced the most stunning results, during which the band peaked on their 1990 album Violator. With Violator, Depeche Mode discovered the key to making moody Pink Floyd-esque music coupled with unintentional rock-sounding hit songs, as they did with “Enjoy the Silence,” a great slice of dark yearning, on the strange love arrangement in a relationship in “Policy of Truth” and with their timeless hit, as Johnny Cash proved, “Personal Jesus”. With those songs being the album’s anchors, the songs Depeche Mode placed between them only enhanced the mood shifts of the album. Tales from the dark side of love and lust rear its heads throughout the album. Even lead singer David Gahan’s deadpan vocals only enhance each and every song with a certain cool detachment that gives off an impression that these songs are observations of the human condition and not a lifestyle choice.
Depeche Mode, in their unique manner, actually influenced much of the industrial musical movement of the Nineties, as bands like Nine Inch Nails, Ministry and Marilyn Manson all took the dark heaviness that Depeche Mode innovated, and made it heavier and darker to create their own unique sounds. Likewise, you can hear Depeche Mode throughout much of the music being created in the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene. So, artists such as The Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, LCD Soundsystem and even Daft Punk should give a nod of thanks to Depeche Mode.
One last thing, do not be surprised if Depeche Mode becomes one of the first alternative bands from the Eighties to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Back during the band’s heyday, they were able to sellout both Madison Square Garden and the Rose Bowl, and when bands do that, they seem to have entered another level in popularity, even as they fell on relatively deaf ears in the Midwest. Though, it would be a personal shame to have them get in before Devo, Joy Division/New Order, The Cure, The Smiths and The B-52’s. Yet, I would still welcome them with open arms with it signaling the end of the Boomers’ rock music reign.
To get a full view of Depeche Mode’s music, begin your listening experience with Violator, followed by their 1987 commercial breakthrough Music for the Masses, then their U2-like left turn album Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993), then come back with older albums Some Great Reward (1984) and Black Celebration (1986). It is a much more fulfilling listen than I expected after a couple of decades of sitting in my collection. Enjoy the darkness.