Thursday, December 1, 2016

Dance Pop a la Mode: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Part V

Depeche Mode seems like they ought to be the epitome of something, being one of the most popular and certainly the most long-lived of the British synth-pop groups that emerged in the early 1980s. They were stars in England almost from their first release in 1980, although they didn’t break through in the U.S. until “People Are People” went to Number 13 in 1985. But “Just Can’t Get Enough” – which, let’s face it, is a much better song – had hit the dance charts in 1981, coming off the band’s first album, Speak & Spell.

The primary songwriter on Speak & Spell was Vince Clarke, who wrote nine of its 11 songs, including “Just Can’t Get Enough,” but he left the band after that first record came out. “We basically just weren't getting on,” Clarke said later. "We were really young, and we did quite well very quickly, and it all became too much.” Starting with their second album, Martin Gore took over the songwriting, and he proved to be almost as good at it as Clarke. (Clarke, by the way, was born Vincent Martin, but changed his name because he was on the dole and would lose his benefits if the government knew he was making money via his band.)

Changing chief songwriters is as fraught a move as changing frontmen, and even moreso for a synth-pop band, where the material is pretty much the entire band. Pink Floyd changed primary songwriters and thrived, but it’s pretty rare for a band to succeed that way.

Certainly, Depeche Mode only got bigger with Gore as its composer, although it’s arguable whether they got better. The band’s 1990 album Violator spawned three hit singles in the U.S., including “Enjoy the Silence,” their only Top Ten hit, and “Personal Jesus,” arguably their best post-Clarke song. They had Top Forty hits as late as 1997, and had a Number One hit on the U.S. dance charts as late as 2013 with “Heaven.”

That should have made them some kind of grizzled legend in the electronic-dance music world, but they never quite seemed to attain that status. They were never as good as other 1980s dance titans like New Order or Pet Shop Boys, even though they outlasted those groups as hitmakers. God knows Depeche has its fans, especially in Europe, but here in the U.S., they never quite felt like they had much substance.

The Case For Depeche Mode blazed trails in EDM, arguably laying the groundwork for a genre that continues to be vital today. “Personal Jesus” is 26 years old and still sounds pretty fresh. They even established themselves as a must-see live act, which you wouldn’t expect from a synth-pop band.

The Case Against After Vince Clarke left Depeche Mode, he formed Yaz with Alison Moyet and released “Don’t Go” and “Situation,” both of which are better than anything in the Depeche catalog. Then he went on to form Erasure, which was a lot more fun than Depeche, especially with “A Little Respect.” And neither of those groups was the best British dance-pop group of the 1980s; New Order was.

The Cool Factor Lead singer Dave Gahan was a heroin addict. In 1996, he overdosed on a speedball at the Sunset Marquis, apparently not realizing that the place to overdose on a speedball is the Chateau Marmont across the street.

The Verdict I like Depeche Mode; honestly, I do. I just don’t see what they’ve done to differentiate themselves from other bands of their ilk. New Order hasn’t even ever been nominated, for pity’s sake. I vote no on Depeche Mode.


  1. Enjoying the series, keep it up. I'm a huge DM fan but I have some thoughts;

    Jose Remains The Most Absurd Thing on the Site - 01 December 2016 07:41 PM
    Dag Nabbit at - 01 December 2016 07:04 PM
    Nawrocki: Depeche Mode & the RnR HoF.

    Some thoughts;

    1. Reading through that the comments about New Order, Yaz and Erasure compared to Depeche Mode are nonsense in my opinion. I like those other bands but the Depeche catalog is just leaps and bounds better in both peak and career value.

    2. One fairly important difference that you touch on is how great a live act DM have always been. The ability to put on a live show is a critical part of being a rock band, albeit stretching rock to include these groups. That Depeche have done that is a huge check in their favor.

    3. I absolutely LOVE the rabbit drummer in the video. Depeche never shied away from the fact that they used some recorded music and playing with that is just a fun thing but does show the band aren't trying to pull a Milli Vinilli.

    4. Depeche evolved in a way few bands, EDM or orehrwise, have evolved. They still make great music but it is completely indistinguishable from their early stuff. Hell, Just cant Get Enough. Personal Jesus and Welcome To My World are dramatically different songs. That they are the same fundamental group is amazing.

    Anyway, end of defense of one of my personal top two bands.

  2. Oops, cut and paste from another site, accidentally left the header in there, sorry!

  3. Thanks, I appreciate the insight from a knowledgeable fan, even if I disagree with the conclusion. You are correct that their evolution is worthy of admiration.

  4. Huge fan of Depeche Mode here. I was thrilled to see them on the ballot. Although, I quite expected The Cure to nab the nomination.

    I'd love to see DM inducted someday. I just don't think they'll make the cut this year.

  5. Tom I agree on your vote but can't abide your description of New Order as a "dance pop" band. I really don't think they belong in the same category! The comparison with Yaz seems more apt.

  6. Yeah, no. For starters, Just Can't Get Enough has the semi-banal hook line, and a decent bassline. The chorus is just there. Meanwhile People Are People has an intensely catching chorus and just grabs you in every way. For you to think the minimal note/almost no chorus Personal Jesus is their best Gore song makes me genuinely questionable your credentials to critique music. Clarke wrote intricate/multi-layered tunes, but Gore took it to a different level (at least up to Violator, where they purposefully simplified the songs and got huge), with better lyrics, better melodies, better harmonies. I honestly don't think you've listened to much Mode other than a cursory glance, which makes definitive statements like "Let's face it" grind my teeth, frankly ��. New Order to me are a hair below the Mode just because the Mode are catchier, but you've vastly, comically underrated them.