It is amazing how radically different the Depeche Mode of today is than what it was back in 1981. The band that was Depeche Mode 26 years ago, over the years, has become a sort an embarrassment to its present day avatar and its fans as well. And Vince Clarke has become but a reprehensible and dark truth in the band’s past that they are just too happy to forget. But Speak And Spell (its reissue) resurrects the alter-Depeche Mode: this nightmare of the band’s past that we all love to deny.
For a band that is so well known for the dark undertones in its music, and that has become such an inspiration to countless gothic industrial rockers, the beginning was just too frivolous. As hard as it is to grope with the truth, Depeche Mode were four young lads from Basildon, England that set out to make pop records that would sell. And pop music is what they did on Speak And Spell. If the 80s was an era of senseless pop and the worst fashion taste, then early Depeche Mode was a part of that game. Speak And Spell is full of the embarrassments that made the 80s so clumsy and so strangely charming at the same time.
The main culprit is Vince Clarke. Speak And Spell speaks and spells “Vince Clarke” in every breath. Its on-and-off cheesiness is not as unbearable as Erasure, though it has characteristics more in line with that band than what most people recognize as Depeche Mode. Among the pieces that reek of Clarke are the famous “Just Can’t Get Enough,” the very Yazoo “Boys Say No” and “What’s Your Name,” a track that the band should kick itself for writing at all.
With lyrics that are comically skewed, this fun-fun song sounds like a karaoke nightmare with its lollipop music and backing vocals that echo Dave Gahan’s every sentence like an irritating singing shadow: when Gahan sings “Everybody wants to know your name” the backing vocals exclaim “Hey hey what’s your name,” and reach the lowest point of annoyance during the chorus towards the end of the song, where the ensemble spells out “p-r-e, double-t-y” with the chorus, which goes, “Hey you’re such a pretty boy, you’re so pretty.”
The funny thing is that these guys were still great musicians then, and as much as it brings out a feeling of absolute cringe just thinking about it, wrote genuinely sweet and naïve songs. And though Speak And Spell is about frolicsome 80s pop music, a lot of it is really fantastic. Even in the tacky karaoke sugar-pop sound of the album are gems like “Dreaming Of Me,” “New Life,” “Any Second Now,” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!” that are no less than some of the band’s greatest songs. Also darker cuts like “Photographic” and “Puppets” have the same discomfort and brilliance as the present day Depeche Mode, showing that Clarke had some spine in him to write bleaker songs.
This reissue DVD is a nice collector’s item for fans and includes a few B-sides, a 5.1 mix of the album and most notably a short half-hour documentary of how the band formed and hit a record deal with Mute, including some very interesting footage of really old interviews with the lads (probably in their teens), juxtaposed with recent interviews that consists of one with Vince Clarke.
Speak And Spell is not a breakthrough debut, even though it is a great pop record. It is not as monumental as debuts by other equally influential acts of the 80s like R.E.M., U2, the Smiths and The Cure. Depeche Mode would not have been where it is today had it not been for its stark metamorphosis, but the band had to start somewhere, and Speak And Spell is not a bad start at all.