This week we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the debut Depeche Mode album, Speak & Spell. Vastly different from anything else the group have ever released – A Broken Frame shares some sonic similarities, but that’s about the only thing you can say – it really shares as much with Vince Clarke‘s later work as it does the artist whose name on it.
So you could probably forgive Depeche Mode fans for disliking this album, but really there’s something rather charming and fascinating about it.
It opens with the hit single New Life, which had hit the chart four months earlier and provided their first major hit. By the time the album came out, all three singles had been released already, so there were never too many surprises here. What is a surprise is just how far the group have come in the subsequent three and a half decades. With Vince Clarke at the helm as the main songwriter here, the focus was very definitely on pop music at this point.
I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead, despite the alarming title, is a short and sweet pop piece which is sufficiently different from its neighbours to guide us through smoothly to the darker Puppets. Boys Say Go! follows, and for many acts might well have been a huge hit single, but for Depeche Mode it’s just an album track. There isn’t a hint of Personal Jesus here.
Nodisco is a delightfully ironic disco track, and then the ridiculously pop-sounding What’s Your Name? closes Side A. It’s quite bizarre – absolutely nothing else Depeche Mode have ever recorded sounds like this, and yet it reminds me a lot of Yazoo. Not too surprising, until you remember that there were four people in Depeche Mode at this point, and three of them weren’t Vince Clarke.
Side B opens with the brilliant Photographic, perhaps the first moment since New Life that you realise quite how brilliant Depeche Mode are going to become once they get going properly. The more raw version on the Some Bizzare Album from earlier in 1981 is definitely better, but the album take is rather exceptional too.
At the end, it quietly morphs into the first of two Martin L. Gore-penned pieces, Tora! Tora! Tora! I doubt you would have noticed at the time, and maybe I’m pinning my expectations onto it, but it definitely sounds more experimental than anything we heard on Side A. You could probably also argue that Gore wasn’t quite at his best yet in terms of songwriting, although the chorus is great. And Dave Gahan‘s pronunciation of the line “You played a skellington” still amuses me every time I hear it.
Until A Broken Frame appeared barely a year later, the remainder of Gore’s songwriting legacy was represented by the instrumental Big Muff which follows. The lovely and dreary b-side Any Second Now comes next, in a new version, before passing the baton to its a-side, the adorable Just Can’t Get Enough.
For the most part, the singles are the highlights of this release, and the latter two at least have had so much radio airplay over the years that they’re difficult to forget. Debut release Dreaming of Me is less well known, and didn’t actually make it onto the original version of the album, but it got tacked on in a few different countries, so the reissued version includes it right at the end.
In many ways, Speak & Spell is more of a precursor to Depeche Mode‘s career than a debut. Apart from the lineup changes and the evolution of their sound, the artwork is particularly fascinating – the swan wrapped in cling film was heavily obscured for the original 1985 CD release, and is considerably more provocative than anything on the album. The photographer Brian Griffin returned for the cover of their next album, and that one is often cited as one of the finest album sleeves ever. This one is less well understood.
If you can find the double disc version of Speak & Spell, that’s the one you want – if not, forego the extra tracks in favour of less tinny sound, and grab the remastered single disc.