Tuesday, 6 April 2010

7. Speak And Spell - Depeche Mode

Purchased : late December 1981

Tracks : New Life / I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead / Puppets / Boys Say Go / Nodisco / What's Your Name / Photographic / Tora Tora Tora / Big Muff / Any Second Now / Just Can't Get Enough

The fruit of a spending trip to Rochdale with Christmas money in my pocket this is also the first one that's on cassette as the vinyl version I initially bought kept jumping. It's also the first LP in my collection not to feature any conventional instruments at all.

This was DM's first LP and is dominated by the songs and keyboard skills of the soon-to-depart Vince Clarke. There's a sense that the others are learning their trade in his shadow. It's also an LP that disappeared from public consciousness very quickly. Released the same week as new albums from Adam and the Ants and OMD, it entered the charts at 10 then quickly descended as Clarke's sudden departure left them unable to tour it. The follow up composed by Martin Gore came out less than a year later . So there's a sense in which this is an obscurity, the non-singles quickly forgotten and rarely revisited by the band themselves.

This has led to a lazy misconception that this is really the first Erasure album instead, a collection of bright and breezy dance pop tracks that , personnel aside, has little connection with the dark drama of their more famous work. Certainly, there's little in their subsequent canon that resembles "Just Can't Get Enough" but elsewhere there are plenty of pointers to a heart of darkness beating behind the primitive sequencers.

The LP starts as it had to with the great clarion call that is the intro to "New Life", the stentorian four note motif being answered by a burble of synth noise four times before the beat kicks in. The attractiveness of the melody disguises the fact that this is a song about sex and potentially deviant sex at that. What DM are offering on this album is a commercial take on the music of Blitz favourites DAF (themselves influenced by Suicide) with Clarke adding melody lines to the bare throbs and pulses of the sequencer. They also took cues from DAF's homoerotic image -in the video for "Just Can't Get Enough" they're already wearing the leather - and it's in the lyrics here - "I watched that man to a stranger. You think you only know me when you turn on the light". It's very tempting to think that the word "complicating" in the chorus was originally "copulating". The music is densest here, Clarke adding new melody lines with each verse apart from the third when Gahan sings over just the drum machine. The track ends with a rising harmony of "Aahs" exploding into a riot of synth melody , the best simulated orgasm in pop prior to "Relax". A magnificent and massively underrated single.

"I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead" is more minimalist, just a throbbing pulse and a single melody line for the chorus. It's hard to know what Clarke is saying with the title since this is one of the most optimistic tracks - a reference to his impending departure or clumsy grab at Joy Division gravitas. The song itself is slight and just fades out after a third verse without conclusion.

"Puppets" aims to be sinister with a high pitched note repeating before the bass synth comes in. It doesn't quite get there because Dave Gahan isn't yet capable of evoking menace ; his mumbled whisper just sounds incompetent. When he sings "I'll be your operator baby I'm in control" you suspect you're hearing a bedroom fantasist rather than a genuine Svengali. Clarke's plaintive melody in the latter stages improves matters but you still think Soft Cell could have done it better.

With "Boys Say Go" we have some more mainstream influences on the music. After the rather gauche hooligan chant of the title we get a Hi-NRG disco pulse reminiscent of Sylvester or Cerrone and an overtly gay lyric. Ironically the middle eight's air of respite resembles the one from Bronski Beat's "Smalltown Boy". When one considers that none of DM are actually gay it does have an air of pastiche about it.

"Nodisco" is based around a line lifted from Talking Heads "Life During Wartime" - "this ain't nodisco" . Unlike the Heads though, DM seem aware of the double negative and we plainly are at a disco albeit one playing some rather lugubrious music. There's a recurring filmic metaphor throughout the album and it's here in "I saw you play the part" and "Part one, act one". Is this Clarke's way of keeping an ironic distance from the subject matter ?

A stark, brutal drum machine is the wrong-footing intro to the overtly poppy "What's Your Name" now cited by Fletcher and Gore as their most hated number. It's easy to read this song as a satire on manufactured pop just as it is to imagine Jedward, Chico or some other muppet trilling its chorus of "hey you're such a pretty boy" on the X Factor. But this is 1981 when the top teen idols were Adam Ant and Simon Le Bon who wrote their own songs and owed nothing to any back room Svengali. I think it's more likely a song about rent boys and their clients hidden behind layers of bubblegum like the corny handclaps on the last verse and the "P-R-E-Double T-y" ad lib from Martin Gore making his first vocal appearance on the LP.

Side Two begins strongly with "Photographic" , already released on the Some Bizarre Album and the most aggressive track on this one. The honking synthesiser pulse at the beginning has gained in menace since a very similar sound was used to herald the deadly commercial in "Halloween 3" . It's quickly joined by a more brutal binary pulse and Gahan's morose vocal. The photographer seems to be watching a film (again) of a past love before he dispassionately intones "I take pictures, photographic pictures" over a scattergun synth line. For a moment we seem to be in "Peeping Tom" territory but then Clarke starts playing a minor key line and Gahan becomes mournful again- "The years I spend just thinking of a moment we both knew". He ends by just repeating the mantra "Bright light dark room" as Clarke plays a sad melody leaving him there before the twitchy sounds of the next track start overlapping.

Clarke then takes a back seat as the next two tracks are Gore's first contributions to the DM songbook. "Tora Tora Tora" was a code phrase used by the Japanese in the attack on Pearl Harbour meaning "total surprise achieved" so we seem to be in "Enola Gay" territory again although Gore's writing is opaque. The line "Or just a form of modern art" may be a reference to Roy Lichtenstein's "Whaam ! " painting of aerial combat. The music is the nearest we get to Joy Division with Gahan singing the verses over just the rhythm and Hannet-esque synth noises throughout including a theremin wail on the chorus. The refrain of "I played an American " reminds us that the song shares its title with a 1970 film which may have been the inspiration all along.

Gahan then takes a breather for a couple of tracks. The dubiously titled "Big Muff" is actually a Hi-NRG instrumental then Gore takes the vocal lead on Clarke's "Any Second Now" . On this one the drum machine is switched off and Gore sweetly sings an almost Oriental melody. It's similar in places to Yazoo's "Ode To Boy" only not as good. It ends with Oriental chimes then the nagging synth riff of "Just Can't Get Enough" begins. This song first took DM into the Top 10 as a single and of course has been recently revived by The Saturdays. Even at the time I thought it was a bit vacuous and repetitive and those criticisms still hold good but listening again I note the synthetic brass stabs at the end of each instrumental passage an early use of a particularly eighties trope.

Only "New Life" and "Photographic" (plus the B-side of debut 45 "Dreaming of Me", "Ice Machine" not included here) really qualify as classics from the Vince Clarke period but as a work-in-progress of one of the most interesting bands of the last 30 years it's still worth a listen.

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