on 22 September 2010
There's a cuteness to this album that is so underrated. Think about it. We have depeche mode dressing up in dickie bow ties and suits, singing homoerotic lyrics, and dancing like nerds at a disco and all this just before they start wearing leather and shooting up. But they can be forgiven they were only Eighteen and in love with Bowie and Kraftwerk. It was the pop before the fizz. Depeche Mode definitely had a 'unique' start, looking over their 30 year-old career, the Basildon boys are a bigger live draw now than they ever were. This record, deriving many of its ideas from 60's harmonies and pop-rock, in turn went on to influence a host of artists and musical styles throughout the eighties, nighty's and girl bands of the noughtys. No fan of the 'dark' Mode could identify with much here, yet this album should be revered for what it is. It's a youthful, enthusiastic album, positively bouncing with energy, and explored a totally new attitude to producing music at the time.
New listeners cannot expect to hear this album quite the way their fans did at the time. With the band's 1981 debut, the increasingly adorable Speak & Spell, our distance from the original context actually makes things better. Of course, this is not the Depeche Mode we know: The songs on this album were written by Vince Clarke, who would shortly after leave the group and find fame with Yaz and Erasure. The sound is very different from what Depeche Mode would come to be and these of course, are the early days of synth-pop, these songs are building-block simple, bleepy and discoid, and the band sounds as gawky and adolescent as Dave Gahan looked. But we must remember a modern day vending machine has more microprocessor software than these early synthesizers ever had.
Like OMD, Gary Numan and early Human League they thought their brand of guitar-less synthpop was the future, it was naivety at it's purest. We have Dave Gahan singing like a teenage boy deeply in love and having the time of his life. Almost every track is catchy and infectious. Sure it sounds dated when you compare it with today's music but these guys were so young and technology wasn't as advanced as they thought. This record wears '80's cheese on its sleeve. If you're used to associating Depeche Mode with "gloom" and the like, be prepared to get startled! None of that is in Speak & Spell, Depeche Mode's first album. The band was probably aware of it and while the record wasn't well received particularly by them at the time, it gets a kinder reputation in later years. That's because even if every song from Violator is better than what's on here, they hadn't reached that level yet.
Even so, you get the ultra-catchy love song "Just Can't Get Enough," boppy and bouncy more than what you remember from them, yet excellent in its execution. The song may seem goofy for some, as it does sound like it when you hear Dave repeating "I just can't get enough" so many times in a row. But this was the 80's with a great sense an underground electronic vibe. I find it more consistent and enjoyable than some of their most acclaimed albums, but as I have mentioned in reviews music represents a snapshot in time and in rare cases perfectly capture the ambience and the mood.
This is fun if you can accept that DM began as a cheesy synth pop band and didn't emerge fully formed as the behind-the-curve industrial doom-mongers they now are. As with many 80s pop LPs, by which I mean the sort 14 year old girls might have bought at the time, this LP is the lightest and fluffiest Depeche album that you will come in contact with. Its upbeat, happy, and danceable (yes we are talking about Depeche Mode here). Their sound here is definitely plain with raw minimalist synth pop edge to it, the darkness isn't really there and it does sound a little cheesy but that is pretty much where the charm comes from. I remember seeing these guys on Top of the pops (1981) and thinking to myself they looked more like bank clerks or estate agents, furthermore there were no guitars - Hey I can do that, but as always it wasn't as simple as that even with my portable Casio synthesiser to which I could play the theme to Star Wars.
Back in the day Depeche Mode, were over looked as fodder for little girls, but in fairness they weren't always the great band that produced albums like Violator, Black Celebration and Some Great Reward. They came from rather humble beginnings, (Essex boys playing Truant from school) and on Speak & Spell sound like a totally different group. On later albums, their music had a Gothic flare, but that isn't really anywhere in sight. Most of Speak and Spell is listenable even if the majority of the songs aren't remarkable. It's easy to listen to this album and laugh. The keyboards are dated, the lead singer sounds ten years younger than he was (Gahan was 18 at the time) and the lyrics are nonsensical. Yet listen carefully, and you'll see why this album was so influential and important to the musical scene at the time.
'New Life' is representative of most of the album, in that it's energetic, youthful, upbeat, and still sounds ridiculously fresh after all these years. As mentioned above, the lyrics "I stand still stepping on a shady street/And I watch that man to a stranger" make absolutely no sense at all; they were chosen for phonetic value only; syllables that just seemed to fit the music.
The real climax of this album is 'Just Can't Get Enough'. You shouldn't need me to introduce you to this one. Bubblegum-pop in its purest form, it's constructed from deceptively multi-layered synths, and bounces along nicely enough. It's so catchy, it's very close to annoying.
The unfortunately most people are unaware of how far the band have come since this naive but enjoyable album...