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In a Depeche Mode

Despite personnel shifts and personal problems, the world's most resilient electro band isn't ready to fold yet.

Like Burt Reynolds, Depeche Mode tends to be viewed as either comically irrelevant or deserving of more praise than it usually receives. But no one denies the staying power of these doomy dance-pop veterans. The band has been around for eighteen years, yet the act's current worldwide jaunt in support of The Singles 86>98, a two-CD best-of set, is among its most successful ever--quite an accomplishment for a combo whose moniker is French for "fast fashion." Moreover, lead singer Dave Gahan, songwriter/creative force Martin Gore and keyboardist Andrew Fletcher actually seem to be enjoying themselves this time around.

"To go back on stage and really perform, like we're doing right at the moment, is a real joy," says Fletcher, who functions as the group's most enthusiastic cheerleader. "I was watching during our show in Berlin, and Dave was singing fantastically, the audience was going crazy, and I was just staring at it all--and I ended up forgetting what I was playing. It was spectacular, and the crowd response was unreal. It's just been great fun."

The previous four years weren't nearly as enjoyable for the bandmates: During this period, Gahan attempted suicide and Fletcher suffered a nervous breakdown. But Depeche Mode's singular amalgamation of electro-production and composition-based pop craft never went out of vogue thanks largely to the untidy obsessions of diehard admirers, Eighties-era fanatics and hipsters who see the group as a precursor to the exploding electronic-music scene. Not that the players can be accused of trying to capitalize on their role as pioneers. "We're really into a slow groove these days," Fletcher admits. "Faster rhythms aren't particularly appealing right now, and we've never really been into techno. It's very hard to write classic songs with that type of music."

Tunes form the backbone of the outfit's legacy: "Just Can't Get Enough," a 1981 cut issued as its third single, began an unbroken chain of chart-climbers that have thrilled fans every bit as much as they've bored or bothered naysayers. The liner notes to Catching Up With Depeche Mode: The Singles, 1981-1985, a mid-Eighties collection that's just been expanded to include several additional tracks, spotlights some typical gibes: Future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant, then the editor of Smash Hits magazine, refers to "Blasphemous Rumours" as a "routine slab of gloom," while Gang of Four's John Gill says, "I have often wondered why God bothered with Depeche Mode." Now, however, the worm has turned. "We've been getting fantastic reviews," Fletcher notes. "In our career now, we can't seem to do much wrong. It's quite nice for a change, I suppose."

The band sprang to life in 1980 in the small manufacturing burg of Basildon, UK, and while Fletcher, Gahan and Gore were part of its original lineup, keyboardist Vince Clarke was the act's mastermind: He wrote Depeche Mode's earliest material and insisted upon a pure electronic approach that ignored traditional rock accoutrements such as guitars. The combination of these elements with Kraftwerkian factory beats and a leather-and-eyeliner look cribbed from David Bowie soon caught the attention of Daniel Miller, a producer and founder of Mute Records. He subsequently signed the aspiring celebrities to a deal and issued Speak and Spell, a 1981 platter filled with somewhat dour but incredibly catchy music written entirely by Clarke. In short order, Depeche Mode was famous.

Success couldn't keep the group together, however: At the end of 1981, Clarke split, citing the band's hectic touring schedule as the primary motivation for his departure. An immensely skilled knobs-and-buttons man, the studio-fixated Clarke went on to form three more seminal electro-bands: Yazoo (aka Yaz), co-starring Alison Moyet; the Assembly, featuring Feargal Sharkey; and Erasure, a partnership with Andrew Bell previously profiled in these pages ("Erasing the Past," June 5, 1997). But strangely enough, his defection had only a minimal impact on Depeche Mode's progression. "We were so young in those days that we didn't even think about it twice," Fletcher says. "We just carried on."

Drummer Alan Wilder, who joined Depeche Mode in 1983, helped fill part of the gap left by Clarke; according to Fletcher, "Alan's impact on the group was more significant than Vince's in the end." But Gore was primarily responsible for making the transition a smooth one. He took over as the band's chief songwriter and philosophical scratching post, and although "See You," "The Meaning of Love" and "Leave in Silence," the first three singles he penned, were technically scrawny numbers that lacked the creative spark of Clarke's compositions, "Everything Counts," issued in 1983, was a genuine breakthrough. Its popularity paved the way for "People Are People," an effort that landed the outfit on the airwaves of America--and Depeche Mode stayed there thanks to Gore, whose knack for radio-friendliness helped the outfit avoid the fate that befell one-shots like A Flock of Seagulls and Modern English. "We're very lucky that Martin writes consistently good songs," Fletcher says. "It obviously doesn't matter what type of music you play, whether it's rock or jazz or whatever. Because if you write good songs, you're in with a shout, now, aren't you?"

But Depeche Mode proved to be more than a singles band. On albums such as 1982's A Broken Frame, 1983's Construction Time Again, 1984's Some Great Reward and the murky 1986 masterpiece Black Celebration, highlighted by the gothic keyboard fantasia "A Question of Lust," Gore took the group into uncharted territories via computer programming, aural manipulation and machine-age malaise inspired by the influential German collective EinstYrzende Neubauten. Even better was 1987's Music for the Masses, an appropriately titled epic loaded with dirty, hook-ridden tracks such as "Strangelove, "Never Let Me Down Again" and "Behind the Wheel." The album, which sounded like David Lynch at the discotheque, provided cynical teens everywhere with a tantalizing taste of the future.

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