Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 86 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.” Below is an excerpt of this episode’s transcript.
Depeche Mode formed in the town of Basildon, in the county of Essex, in the East of England, in 1980. Original lineup: Vince Clarke, Andy Fletcher, Martin Gore, and Dave Gahan. Original concept: What if punk rock, but with synthesizers? I’m paraphrasing. I’m exaggerating. That’s mildly obnoxious. But at the very least, Depeche Mode in 1980 is confrontational in spirit, in instrumentation. They play synthesizers. Often they play synthesizers exclusively. This is weird for 1980. Dave Gahan, talking to Rolling Stone in 1990, says, “I think without knowing it, we started doing something completely different. We had taken these instruments because they were convenient. You could pick up a synthesizer, put it under your arm and go to a gig. You plugged directly into the PA. You didn’t need to go through an amp, so you didn’t need to have a van. We used to go to gigs on trains.”
He also says, “At the time, everybody was using electronics in a very morbid, gloomy way. Suddenly, here was this pop band that was using the stuff—these young kids who had everybody dancing, instead of standing around in gray raincoats about to commit suicide.” All right. Time to hit ’em with “Just Can’t Get Enough.”
Depeche Mode’s first album, Speak & Spell, came out in 1981, with most songs written by Vince Clarke, who ain’t gonna be in the band for very much longer. And as a consequence, this record, by far, will be Depeche Mode’s, uh, poppiest—or at least peppiest. This is a niche cultural reference, but if you’re like me you’ll never hear the song “Just Can’t Get Enough” again without thinking of Karl Pilkington. Starting back in the late ’90s, future TV kingpin and polarizing comedian Ricky Gervais used to have a radio show, and then a podcast, and then a TV show in which he and his buddy Stephen Merchant just sat around terrorizing their producer, a very colorfully dour civilian gentleman named Karl Pilkington. And then in 2010 they did a reality show called An Idiot Abroad, where they made Karl travel around the world being dour and oblivious, and there is a famous scene where Karl is roaming the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá, in Mexico, and he’s got headphones on listening to a guided tour, but he gets bored so he puts on “Just Can’t Get Enough” instead and dances around. It’s one of the silliest and most beautiful sequences ever shown on television.
Depeche Mode, not Human League, Karl—he corrects himself. You can understand his confusion, though, because after this record Vince Clarke leaves Depeche Mode. Vince goes on to form the excellent synth-pop duos Yazoo and Erasure. There are two great Yazoo records and, like, 19 great Erasure records. But in his absence, Depeche Mode will now get steadily, uh, gothier. The band’s second album, A Broken Frame, comes out in 1982 with Martin Gore now as the primary songwriter, and already these dudes sound like they’ve already gotten way more than enough.
For their third album, 1983’s Construction Time Again, Depeche Mode adds another super-talented multi-instrumentalist, Alan Wilder, and the lineup of Alan, Martin, Andy, and Dave will endure for quite awhile. Andy Fletcher will later summarize the band dynamic by saying, “Martin’s the songwriter, Alan’s the good musician, Dave’s the vocalist, and I bum around.” He’s being polite. Meanwhile, shit, we’re not even halfway to 1990 yet, we gotta change our approach, but this record Construction Time Again does have “Everything Counts,” which for my money remains one of the, uh, stickiest Depeche Mode songs.
The grabbing hands
Grab all they can
All for themselves
“Everything Counts” has a hook as sticky, as sharp as “Just Can’t Get Enough,” but now there’s a bracing cynicism—or realism!—to the lyrics, to the sentiment. But yeah, this is taking too long. New approach! So this Failure cover of “Enjoy the Silence” that I adore profoundly appeared on a full-length Depeche Mode tribute album called For the Masses, released in 1998. As a child of the ’80s and a surly teenager of the ’90s, I never thought super hard about Depeche Mode, and yet by the time I turned 18 I knew, like, 15 Depeche Mode songs by heart, simply thanks to MTV and pop radio and then alt-rock radio. One tended to unconsciously breathe in this band the same way one breathed in oxygen or anxiety. So this tribute album—which as far as I can tell was not well loved, and is now super out of print, alas—was quite the revelation for me in that it revealed how many different kinds of ’90s bands owed a huge debt to Depeche Mode.
The sinister synth-pop vibe that Depeche Mode cultivates throughout the ’80s will of course have a massive effect on electronic music, a massive effect on the darker corners of dance music, a massive effect on industrial music going forward, even if sometimes they’re used as foils, as enemies, as too-popular and poppy cheeseball types. The German industrial band KMFDM—the scariest band I could think of as a teenager and the funniest band I can think of now—there is the quite famous rumor that KMFDM stands for Kill Mother Fucking Depeche Mode. Spin interviewed Dave Gahan in 2007 and asked him if he thought that’s what KMFDM stood for, and he said, “All I know is that I think it’s true.”
But Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails—the coolest band-slash-guy I could think of as a teenager—Trent was a great deal more complimentary. In 2017, on Facebook, at the behest of Tony Hawk, and I’m almost positive I’ve got that right, Trent wrote a quick tribute to Depeche Mode that read as follows: “It was the summer of ’86. I’d dropped out of college and was living in Cleveland trying to find my way in the local music scene. I knew where I wanted to go with my life but I didn’t know how to get there. A group of friends and I drove down to Blossom Music Center amphitheater to see the Black Celebration tour.” (Depeche Mode’s album Black Celebration came out in ’86; Blossom is a cool venue, but the parking situation sucks ass. That’s me saying that, not Trent, but Trent would totally agree with me. Anyway, Trent continues.) “DM was one of our favorite bands and the Black Celebration record took my love for them to a new level. I’ve thought about that night a lot over the years. It was a perfect summer night and I was in exactly the right place I was supposed to be. The music, the energy, the audience, the connection … it was spiritual and truly magic. I left that show grateful, humbled, energized, focused, and in awe of how powerful and transformative music can be … and I started writing what would eventually become Pretty Hate Machine.”
Pretty Hate Machine, of course, being the first Nine Inch Nails record, which came out in 1989 and helped define ’90s rock music, dance music, and industrial music as we know it. Depeche Mode is also one of these deals where it’s a little challenging now to convey how revolutionary these guys were in the late ’80s. So their sixth album, Music for the Masses, comes out in 1987—that’s the record with “Never Let Me Down Again” and “To Have and to Hold” and “Strangelove.”
And that album title is supposed to be kind of a joke, right? This is pretty gloomy and thorny and S&M adjacent as pop music goes. Dave Gahan, talking to Entertainment Weekly in 2017, says, “With Music for the Masses, we were being pretty arrogant. We weren’t actually making music for the masses, but suddenly we were playing to sold-out arenas in Texas and weird places that we thought we’d never sell records. It was like a cult following. D.A. Pennebaker, who made our concert film, described it as almost like a Grateful Dead experience—people that were as rabid about Depeche Mode as fans of the Dead were about the Dead. We spoke to people that felt a little different, the ones with way too much eyeliner, the ones in schools that were bullied or had to run home. We were the odd ones and we embraced that, because that’s kind of who we were as well, growing up.”
That’s D.A. Pennebaker, the legendary documentarian for Bob Dylan and David Bowie and so forth, who codirected the 1989 film Depeche Mode 101, which climaxes with Depeche Mode capping off a triumphant U.S. tour with a show on June 18, 1988, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, attended by fuckin’ 60,000-plus people.
The band grossed $1.3 million at that show, according to the band’s accountant, on camera, during that movie, speaking of grabbing hands grabbing all they can. Depeche Mode 101 probably needs more love on Greatest Music Documentaries of All Time lists. There is a fan-driven aspect: We hang around with a tour bus full of Depeche Mode fans for quite a while. There’s a reality-TV-precursor aspect; very prescient, very instructive. But most striking is just the sight of Depeche Mode onstage. Dave Gahan, he looks and acts and sings as though you’d asked one of those AI generators to invent synth-pop Elvis. Like you just tell the AI, Do Elvis, but give him a synthesizer, and the AI goes, Whoop: Dave Gahan. Great profile. Great sideburns. Great spin moves, his pirouettes. He radiates grandiosity, he radiates melancholy, he radiates just a little bit of silliness. You can draw a line between him and Freddie Mercury, or at least type out a line of binary code.
So you take that guy and you set him down onstage in front of three sensual-dork-lookin’ gentlemen all standing behind these huge, elaborate keyboard rigs. No drummer: An offstage reel-to-reel tape machine handles all the drums. Precious few, if any, guitars. This is rock ’n’ roll now. This is arena rock. This is stadium rock. This is Rose Bowl–filling rock. This is the future. Depeche Mode played a crucial role in preparing us for the ’90s. By us, I mean anybody in the ’90s who listened to the radio for more than five minutes. As that tribute record alone makes clear, a great many ’90s bands and artists with quite varied personal temperaments would flourish, thanks to ’80s Depeche Mode. And ’90s Depeche Mode would flourish as well, or at the very least, Depeche Mode’s best album comes out in 1990.
To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.