Thirty years ago this week saw Depeche Mode reach a decisive level of maturity by releasing their first singles collection The Singles 81-85 (also known as Catching up with Depeche Mode in the USA, as their singles catalogue was rather less extensive).
For such a short period of time, it’s a fascinating chronicle, with fifteen singles taking us from the initial minor hit Dreaming of Me (1981) all the way through to It’s Called a Heart (1985). The first track is raw, with boy-band harmonies, crisp snare sounds, and somewhat enigmatic lyrical content, but it’s also great, right from the start.
The follow-up singles were New Life and Just Can’t Get Enough, which saw Dave Gahan starting to find his vocal style and Vince Clarke already finding his inimitable niche for great pop songs.
The hole that was left by Clarke’s departure after the first album Speak and Spell (1981) was filled astonishingly quickly, and See You soon appeared, heralding second album A Broken Frame (1982). The plinky-plonky synths remained, but replacement songwriter Martin L. Gore immediately demonstrated his superior lyrical abilities and dark side, and See You turned out to be rather brilliant.
The other singles from A Broken Frame are less noteworthy, although both of The Meaning of Love and Leave in Silence have their upsides, and then early in 1983 the non-album single Get the Balance Right followed, keeping the mood from the previous album.
The contrasts between the early albums are exceptional. After the plinky plonky pop album and the plinky plonky dark album, in 1983, Depeche Mode discovered sampling. The glorious Construction Time Again only yielded two singles, but both are exemplary – Everything Counts is an eternally great pop song, and Love, in Itself is a darker, more beautiful piece.
The group changed again fundamentally with People Are People, from 1984’s Some Great Reward album, finding themselves a dark industrial sound to accompany reasonably cheery pop songs with grim and grimy lyrics – a compelling contrast. People Are People brought them their first huge American hit, then Master and Servant followed up with a curiously sexual exploration.
One of the nicest things about this compilation was the carefully curated list of comments – two for each song, one positive and one negative. For Blasphemous Rumours, the negative one sees Pet Shop Boys‘ Neil Tennant, heavy with irony, describe “a routine slab of gloom in which God is given a severe ticking off”. I have to disagree, but it’s hard not to like a review like that.
Depeche Mode didn’t have the lengthiest back catalogue in 1985, so including Somebody, the other half of the same double a-side was really the only option they had. Some may question the decision to include it here, but it’s a good song. It’s also pleasing to hear this very different side to the group on this collection.
But viewed as a whole, The Singles 81-85 is a story of a group of young musicians gradually finding their way in the world of music, and by the time you reach the two new exclusive tracks Shake the Disease and It’s Called a Heart, it’s clear that they know their game. Shake the Disease is classic Depeche Mode, and while It’s Called a Heart may be less noteworthy, it’s still a strong pop song.
As an extra treat, the later reissues also provide the essential Some Bizarre version of Photographic and the extended Schizo mix of Just Can’t Get Enough, which round off an exceptional collection. Paired with the later The Singles 86-98 (and the hopefully forthcoming The Singles 01-15 or 16), and you have a couple of slices of music history.
Why not grab both of the existing collections in one box, with The Singles 81-98 box set, still available for a bargain price?