A Tale Of Two ‘Speak + Spells’

Depeche Mode ® 1981 Fin Serck-Hanssen

Depeche Mode ® 1981 Fin Serck-Hanssen Doesn’t Martin Gore look like a Teletubby here?

By the Fall of 1981, I’d begun to get wind of Depeche Mode, whose album, “Speak + Spell” was being released on Sire Records. Being that I was enamored of all things synthesized, I was probably the target audience for this band. Sire had a pretty good track record of releasing New Wave records that spoke to me, so this was an instance, in my callow youth, of me buying an album strictly on the hype factor! I had not yet heard a note of Depeche Mode. I only knew they were a British synthpop act on Sire Records. Sign me up!

Sire Records | US | LP | 1981 | SRK 3642

Sire Records | US | LP | 1981 | SRK 3642

Depeche Mode: Speak + Spell US LP [1981]

  1. New Life [remix]
  2. Puppets
  3. Dreaming Of Me
  4. Boys Say Go!
  5. Nodisco
  6. What’s Your Name?
  7. Photographic
  8. Tora! Tora! Tora!
  9. Big Muff
  10. Any Second Now (Voices)
  11. Just Can’t Get Enough [schizo mix]

As common at the time, the US label made some switcheroos on the track listing. The order was similar, but Sire swapped the less interesting remixed version of “New Life” for the LP mix, which had a more melodic slant. They added the non-LP single “Dreaming Of Me” in lieu of what would become my favorite early Depeche Mode song, “I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead.” And finally, they dropped in the 12″ schizo mix of the single “Just Can’t Get Enough.”

I have to say that I bought this and was not convinced. I dropped my money that week on a record that was flat to these ears. Depeche Mode were merely… okay. By 1981 technopop was devolving into synthpop and the machines were getting cheaper, simpler to use,  and more widespread. Meaning, the technology was no longer getting into the hands of committed weirdos, but average kids who might like to start a band for all the wrong reasons [sex, money, fame, drugs]. Though with Depeche Mode in 1981 it was way too early to tell that ultimately, they would end up on the dark path. Indeed, these guys were so young, they were just a year or two my senior at the time. I recall seeing a quote that they had only just begun shaving.

The only track on the US album that really resonated with me was the poised and lovely “Any Second Now [voices].” It stood clearly apart from the simplistic pop songs with gay overtones that much of the rest of the album trafficked in. The Schizo Mix of “Just Can’t Get Enough” was always too much of a mediocre thing to these ears. The shorter that cut was, the better. The Brian Griffin cover was attractive. Listening to this material now, the thing I take most from it was the use of pre-digital sampling drum machines. There’s a purity to the rhythm programming here that resonates more powerfully with me now than it did back in the day since we could hardly know that the Linn-1 and digital drum machines were just around the corner. When producers got a machine to play back actual drum hits, in time, endlessly…it was all over, and the bad guys had won. We would never get to hear naively synthesized rhythm programming again for a generation.

Mute/Interchord | GER | CD | 1988 | INT 846.844

Mute/Interchord | GER | CD | 1988 | INT 846.844

Depeche Mode: Speak + Spell GER CD [1988]

  1. New Life
  2. I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead
  3. Puppets
  4. Boys Say Go!
  5. Nodisco
  6. What’s Your Name?
  7. Photographic
  8. Tora! Tora! Tora!
  9. Big Muff
  10. Any Second Now (Voices)
  11. Just Can’t Get Enough
  12. Dreaming Of Me
  13. Ice Machine
  14. Shout
  15. Any Second Now
  16. Just Can’t Get Enough (Schizo Mix)

I kept a finger in the DM waters and bought the first two 7″ singles they issued after founder/writer Vince Clarke left the band in 1982. They were decent. I felt that the slightly dark, late-60s vibe of “See You” was better than anything on “Speak + Spell.” The subsequent album, “A Broken Frame” I felt to be a quantum leap in the development of Depeche Mode and still sits as one of three crucial DM releases today for me. So I kept up [sort of] with Depeche Mode import 12″ singles when they crossed my path. Then, in 1988, the Germans [who were probably Depeche Mode’s biggest audience worldwide] embarked on an insane reissue program with each 12″ single getting re-released on CD5 format singles. I bought all of these that I could find. I also re-purchased “Speak + Spell,” which had been part of the Great Vinyl Purge® a few years earlier.

This DLX RM sported a tragically different cover that effectively minimized the wonder of Griffin’s original photograph. Apart from that huge gaffe, the disc managed to play better than the original US vinyl had. I appreciated hearing the LP mix of “New Life” which was far less flat to these ears. Most crucially, I finally got to hear “I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead” on something more than a flexidisc! This is what synthpop had been made for. Sweet, sticky melodies that once heard, never leave your skull for hours. What were Sire thinking by stripping this album of its finest track??!!

When I had gotten SFX #4 in early 1982, there was a Depeche Mode interview that taunted me with a few bars of the song as part of an interview on the C-60 “magazine.” I had the album but did not know this song. Then I saw the Flexipop magazine with the extended version, bought it, and it was in the Record Cell until my recent [2013] DM collection purge. Lots of travel and fun were paid for with my DM collection. In 2016 I have no regrets.

The short mix of “Just Can’t Get Enough” was more merciful on my ears, but the five bonus tracks appended to the CD version had some more triumphs for the band. Sure, sure. We got “Dreaming Of Me” and it’s B-side. The Schizo Mix of “Just Can’t Get Enough” was back again. All of this was irrelevant next to “Shout,” the fantastic B-side to “New Life.” If a creative track like this one had been on “Speak + Spell” to begin with, I might not have recycled the LP for CD money in the mid-80s. Listening to it now, I can’t believe that the band were not familiar with Simple Mind’s “I Travel” as both cuts perverted the energy of the Summer/Moroder classic “I Feel Love” into something darker.

Finally, the B-side of “Just Can’t Get Enough” was the radically different instrumental version of “Any Second Now,” which was very different yet no less fascinating as its album counterpart. This was more promising than much of the frankly tired sounding material on “Speak + Spell.” Making bland pop music with synthesizers and a gay subtext just was not enough for me contemporaneously. Fortunately, Martin Gore proved to be a more interesting songwriter than Vince Clarke had been in the group. The 1988 version of “Speak + Spell” at least feels like it was the work of a band that would next attain peaks of near-greatness throughout a solid six album arc of material than ran the gamut from strong to excellent.

– 30 –

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20 Responses to A Tale Of Two ‘Speak + Spells’

  1. Tim says:

    Re the Germans and DM, there’s actually a coffee table book about the response of East German (pre- Berlin Wall coming down era) and Depeche Mode. Being a Cold War nerd AND a pop culture nerd I would love to get my paws on this.

    Speak and Spell never spoke to me. And Just Can’t Get Enough is in a league of band defining songs that I never need to hear again (see also Breakout by Swing Out Sister and She Blinded Me With Science by Thomas Dolby, two other 80’s acts that I like a lot).

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    • Tim says:

      More on the book that I mentioned.

      ”For East German teenagers, Depeche Mode opened up a cosmos of endless yearning’, the book says. This was a yearning for material goods which were not available on the state-controlled East German market – posters, records, magazines – and that were the physical markers of allegiance to the Depeche Mode cult. While the band’s music, taped from West German radio or copied from originals supplied by relatives in the west, was desirable, when fans from the town of Sömmerda in Thuringia wrote to the band about starting their own fan club (Monument reproduces the letter in facsimile), they asked for autographs, posters and pictures, not recordings. Indeed, the emphasis here is on an unmet, aching demand among teenagers for the artefacts of material culture through which popular cults are lived out. Still, it is fascinating to learn that the hotbed of Depeche Mode fandom in the GDR was Dresden – a broadcasting blackout zone where the basin-like terrain meant that West German radio and TV, and the appearances of the band thereon, was out of reach – being starved of the object of obsession only served to fuel it. The avid fandom of Lange and the completist’s mentality of Burmeister may be seen as born of this starvation – like a ‘waste not, want not’ mentality enduring sixty years after the end of wartime rationing.”

      http://thequietus.com/articles/14746-depeche-mode-monument-book-east-germany

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – Of all of those overplayed songs, I give the “thumbs up” to “Breakout.” I think it’s a better track than “Science” and immeasurably better than “Just Cant Get Enough.”

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      • Tim says:

        I agree, what’s really sad is all three acts have so much better work that I’d prefer them to be know for. If you mention Swing Out Sister a lot of people either don’t know them or go ugh, Breakout. They have some really solid albums and they’re reduced to that one song after three decades of work.
        Dolby is such an odd duck, people know SBMWS and probably Hyperactive and I just love his quirky catalog.
        The oddest of these three is Just Can’t Get Enough. I remember the Music for the Masses/101 era and they’re touring and they have a really strong set list and this abomination is sitting in there, just sticks out not just sonic-ly but the lyrical content. One of these things does not belong…………

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  2. Echorich says:

    Speak+ Spell did not convince me when it came out. I never saw the Sire version, as I was able to buy the UK album surprisingly cheaply, so I picked it up – I wouldn’t be surprised if it was returned to my local import shop – which would take back any album that didn’t look like it too on any wear within a week of purchase.
    I knew New Life and Dreaming of Me prior to buying the album from both radio and 7″ singles, but aside from the universally superior Sometimes I Wish I Was Dead and Boys Say Go (the song which is the basis for the entire Yazoo – Upstairs At Eric’s album), and Photographic, I was not really that impressed. Photographic did have something of a darker feel to it that made it the track that made it onto a number of my mix cd’s in the early 80s. But Tora! Tora! Tora! is just bad Gary Numan aping and I too NEVER need to hear Just Can’t Get Enough again.

    I think you hit on the thing that changed my opinion on Depeche Mode, Monk. Once Clarke was gone and Martin Gore was left to his own devices, a real “sound” emerged. I would say a fair bit of listening to Foxx, Numan and maybe even Visage must have ensued with Clarke departure. It is a real tour de force for me, capturing a sound and feeling that was taking shape in music. While it was still pop, there was a certain new sophistication and darker feel in the songs. Nothing To Fear stands as one of the best electronic instrumentals of the ear to these ears. Leave In Silence and See You basically invent Darkwave Synthpop.

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    • Tim says:

      A Broken Frame is such a solid album for quality and consistency and I feel Construction Time Again falls into that quality for the DM resume. Then they hit this huge speed bump where the tonal landscape of the next proper album (Some Great Reward) is just all over the place. Three decades on the tracks that I liked in 1984 haven’t aged well and the ones that I didn’t like then are the ones that I like now.

      I don’t really consider Speak and Spell a DM album proper largely due to the long shadow that Vince Clarke casts over it. I agree that It has a lot of Yazoo DNA and Yazoo is an 80’s act that I just don’t get the appeal of (I do like a lot of his work later with Erasure, I think the alchemy with Andy Bell works much better) so it makes sense to me that I am not warm to this album.

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      • Echorich says:

        I waiver a lot between A Broken Frame and Construction Time Again, for favorite DM album. Have to agree that Some Great Reward is a bit of a mess and contains the second of their never need to hear again tracks – Master And Servant. But Blasphemous Rumours saves the entire album in the end.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – “Construction Time Again” didn’t work for me. It went in the Great Vinyl Purge and remains the sole classic period arc that I never got on CD. I’ve not heard it in over 30 years. “Master + Servant,” on the other hand, remains a go-to Mode track I never tire of hearing. “Some Great Reward” has long been a favorite of mine. I was shocked that they did Ultravox one better with “Something To Do.”

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          • Tim says:

            Master & Servant mixes really well with the b-side (Set Me Free – Remotivate Me) as well as a couple of other tracks. SGR, when it’s good, it’s really good and when it’s not…..
            There’s so much potential there and so little cohesion. I did my re-made re-modeled treatment on it and moving the tracklisting around a bit helps.

            I’m sorry to hear that Construction Time Again was a miss for you. I think it stands as a great 80’s album not only in being part of the New Wave but also capturing a late Cold War mood. It may not be lyrically an overt representation of early 1980’s Europe but the who package captures I think quite well a feeling for the time.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Oh yeah. “A Broken Frame” was a huge leap forward in the sophistication of both writing and arranging. Just lose “The Meaning Of Love” and it’s amazing. I did like the US version with the 12″ mixes and B-sides added, even if if meant that the LP was about 48 minutes long, and a real pain to record to C-90. Back then, I recorded every album and never played the vinyl again.

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  3. Echorich says:

    I have all the UK 12″ singles and loved the green textured cover for See You.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Do you know what the story was with the two different covers for “See You?” I love the Atatak cover painting
      depeche mode - see you atatak cover art
      but then there’s the thumbsucking child cover I can’t fathom.
      depeche mode see you UK12A
      It doesn’t seem relevant, and it;s a coin toss as to which cover has gotten used in which territories over the last 34 years!

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  4. Taffy says:

    I’ve still never heard the original UK version of Speak & Spell, so I don’t know what I’m missing. I bought the American-issued record and CD and in that pre-internet world I’d no idea that what I’d grown to love wasn’t what the Brits were hearing. But I just adore the childlike simplicity of it all, Just Can’t Get Enough included! I’ve often mentally paired this album with Altered Images’ delightful daffy Pinky Blue in that they both seem to stimulate the same bubble-synth-pop receptors in my brain.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – Good call on “Pinky Blue,” an album I vacillate on. I’ve owned it since release in one format or another, but some days it just gets too cloying. While “I Could Be Happy” is wondrous, there’s always “Song Sung Blue.” Having John Peel sing backing vocals on it becomes far less palatable knowing that he had a Humbert-like “crush” on Ms. Grogan at the time. Then again, Clare’s affection for “that book by Nabokov” is well documented, so she probably knew what she was doing.

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      • Taffy says:

        i should’ve put in a parenthetical disclaimer about Song Sung Blue, which would exhaust even Mother Teresa! Other than that endless energy-sucking drain, Pinky Blue is perky perfection for me.

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