In the 1981, anything goes world of post punk’s New Wave, which was just beginning to swell, Depeche Mode were a bit of a trend setter, trading in guitars for keyboards and a gruff, gritty exterior for a pretty boy glam that was as ambiguous in look as the music it fronted was androgynous in style. Of course the gun shot snares, bleep-bleep synths and expressive if coldly delivered vocals weren’t 100% original, as Kraftwerk and similar Kraut Rock outfits from the previous decade were a huge and obvious influence, but Depeche Mode also incorporated disco and dance pop that gave their sound a breadth and depth that was immediately warmer, more intimate and ultimately more front facing than what was happening on the continent.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of Depeche Mode’s landmark debut, Speak & Spell, which first introduced the world to David Gahan’s hypnotic vocals (if in a less distinguished and still embryonic form) and (to a much lesser extent) the songwriting brilliance of Martin L. Gore.
Speak & Spell is an anomaly (among anomalies) in the Depeche Mode catalog for multiple reasons, the most noticeable being that this is the only album with founding member and (then) principle songwriter Vince Clarke, who after this album would move on to further success as one half of Yaz(oo) and even more so with Erasure.
Clarke’s songwriting style is markedly different from Gore’s, which is obvious by comparing most of the album with the latter’s compositions, most notably Tora! Tora! Tora! While still dark in delivery, Clarke conjures a "digital 50s" danceability and an almost whimsical playfulness in tracks like Boys Say Go!, New Life and the winkingly asexual What’s Your Name?, with themes often focused on life as a young man on the city social scene. And while songs like Photographic and Puppets do lean a bit more to the sinister side of things, they’re almost impish romps in comparison to what Gore would offer when at the helm just one year later.
Despite Clarke’s departure, the remainder of the band knew they had some winners to keep in their arsenal and Just Can’t Get Enough especially (aside from being an alternative rock classic) has remained part of their live roster into the 21st century. But from a legacy standpoint, Depeche Mode, along with New Order et al, were highly influential in making dance pop more than Top 40 filler, but something edgy, enduring and ultimately, well, punk. While Speak & Spell is not Depeche Mode’s (or Vince Clarke’s) best set of songs, the groundwork it laid for future New Wave, pop and dance acts (both good and bad) cannot be overestimated, and while it does stand somewhat separate and apart from other Depeche Mode classics like Some Great Reward, Violator and Playing the Angel, all of those albums owe at least a partial nod to the one that poured the concrete for the foundation, making the rest possible.