With performances at DM fan events and gigs in their own right throughout the world, SPEAK & SPELL will be honouring thy name soon with a full performance of DEPECHE MODE’s debut album of the same name.
Opening TEC003 on SATURDAY 13TH SEPTEMBER 2014 at Hertford Corn Exchange, this celebration of electronic pop also features VILE ELECTRODES and special guest DJ SARAH BLACKWOOD.
DEPECHE MODE released ‘Speak & Spell’ on Mute Records in Autumn 1981 and successfully fused the sound of the synthesizer to a new ultrapop template. At the time, TV appearances often showed the band operating synths such as the Kawai 100F, Yamaha CS5 and Moog Prodigy with the complete absence of a drummer. But what synthetics actually appeared on the album and how were those danceable rhythms made?
In a break from rehearsals, SPEAK & SPELL happily discussed their namesake with The Electricity Club.
Keith: Classic albums like ‘Speak & Spell’ don’t become outdated. It’s not like it’s a piece of obsolete technology. It’s a milestone in the synth revolution, a revolution that changed English and then global pop music forever. It’s raw, honest pop that captured the imagination of the generation. It also has longevity because it is full of actual catchy songs that someone bothered to write. This immediately puts it in a class apart from a lot of contemporary electronic “classics” anyway.
In terms of its technical production then yes, the recording technology Eric Radcliffe used has been surpassed but not necessarily bettered by more recent producers or mastering. The electronic instruments are surpassed on paper, but in reality the synth-heads I know would all part-ex all their digital synths plus body parts to get a real ARP2600.
Joe: I’m coming at this from a different perspective: I was minus four years old when the album was released, so I haven’t grown up with it since childhood. Discovering it retroactively, I can tell you it definitely has a ‘period aesthetic’, though I dare you to name me an album from that time that doesn’t. Not that this takes anything away.
‘Speak & Spell’ as an album sounds unlike most other things in people’s record collections — a trend that DEPECHE MODE continued with in everything they subsequently did. The songs are solidly written and stand up well in their own right.
Instrumentally it sits between the primitive garage synth sound on OMD’s debut and the hi-tech stance of the HUMAN LEAGUE’S ‘Dare’, particularly percussively. For the uninitiated, how were the original ‘drum’ sounds done on ‘Speak & Spell’?
Keith: I don’t think they used drum machines at all but synthesisers like the ARP 2600. Even the kicks and snares which, when heard out of context, don’t sound like you would imagine. To me, it is a perfect idea that a kick drum doesn’t have to be generated by someone hitting a drum, but can be anything. DM choosing to steer clear of drum machines as well is the ultimate expression of this.
Simon: As Keith alluded to, drum machines in 1981 were very primitive devices and often more trouble than they were worth when trying to lay tracks down to tape. The addition of Daniel Miller’s ARP 2600 paired with its ARP sequencer meant they could lock the sequencer to a primitive click and lay down drum tracks much more easily and be more creative with their choice of sounds.
Keith: I know they had drum machines like the Boss Dr Rhythm DR55 for those early COMPOSITION OF SOUND gigs but listening to the album, the unorthodox percussive sounds are almost certainly synthesised.
Of course, it would appear it is all quite easy to replicate on modern software. How have you managed to retain the feel of the original songs?
Keith: The idea that using soft synths is easy is dangerously close to being myth. Some of the software recreations of old synths are amazingly similar and are easy to get something out of in minutes, so useful to scratch ideas out. But production is different and soft synths (especially ones not based on old hardware) can be very complicated.
We do use a lot of software for practical reasons but, real analogue synthesisers have an increasing presence in our set-up and Simon will tell you it’s because they introduce other nicely unpredictable harmonics.
We run quite a few analogues and thanks to Simon, we are now introducing a whole lot more including doubling up on our Analogue Solutions Leipzigs and Telemark vIIs plus adding in an extremely rare Oberheim 4-Voice.
We are also using a couple of Oberkorn III CV Gate step sequencers which, while not making any noise, entirely change to process and add a dimension to filter automation. But the staple gear is the right soft synths and the sampling technology of the era.
Technically things have moved on even further now. These days, Simon and I get into the actual technology DM used more than ever before, especially on the first few albums. That gets really interesting during ‘A Broken Frame’ and ‘Construction Time Again’ with the arrival of Martin’s first PPG Wave 2 and the Emulator I, then the later Wave 2.3 and Emulator IIs. For later material I’ve used a lot of the same Emulator II / III and Emax I / II libraries and synth sounds as well re-synthesising them and using other techniques beyond just sampling.
In terms if retaining feel, our techniques have changed several times over the years as well as our equipment. In the last 4 years, the core thing has been to not switch on the synths or samplers until we’ve ‘back engineered’ the track further than just the notes or the sounds perceived. We look into the history and context plus how the band had dealt with them live. Knowing what it felt like at a gig 30 years ago having been there, we decide how we are interpreting and produce an authentic, balanced backing track. But, if it doesn’t feel right, we do it again or don’t play it.
Joe: As Keith mentioned, the question is pretty much a myth: it’s easy (ish) to get close to re-creating the songs verbatim, but it’s that last 10% that takes up 90% of the energy. Getting the sounds as perfect as we can and getting the feel of the song are absolutely vital. It’s time consuming, sometimes a complete nightmare, yet always ultimately rewarding. That last 10% is the difference between a covers band and a tribute band.
Simon: We are revisiting all the tracks we have for ‘Speak & Spell’ as well as producing the new ones for the set. Without wanting to give too much away about the set on the night, we wanted to produce something unique for TEC003 and this is unlike anything we have done before. We will be using different techniques for the production and will be producing a show as close to the original as we can get. It should be a bit of a treat for any synth geeks and any old-school fans
Keith: I always thought they layered the notes of chords within other melodies, so the chord progressions are kind of there, but not. They did have access to polyphonic sounds with paraphonic synths like the Roland Jupiter 4 so I’m certain this was deliberate. In fact I had a quick mental trip through the album and I can’t actually think of a solitary outstanding played chord anywhere on the whole thing or any B-side.
I understand through folklore and magazine articles the synths used were the ARP 2600 and sequencer, maybe a Roland System 100M. I know they owned a Jupiter 4, Yamaha CS5 and Moog Source around that time for live and maybe Sequential Circuits Pro-One and Roland Promars MRS-2. To be honest I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 90% ARP 2600 and sequencer on the recording with bits from their live synths thrown in. We reckon there’s Jupiter 4 on ‘New Life’.
Joe: There aren’t any traditional triad chords at all in the instrumentation, which is quite unusual for any album. The only block chords we get are actually from the vocals (think the “aaaahs” in ‘New Life’) which is something quite unusual in itself.
One of the standout tracks on ‘Speak & Spell’ is ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ which is one of Martin Gore’s songs. You’ve analysed it and played it, was there anything even in those early days that made his songs quite distinctive from Vince Clarke’s?
Keith: I think so yes; ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ is a lot more complicated to play whereas the rest of the album is relatively simple. It’s quite minor in places and unfolds very nicely whereas Vince’s songs were more instant. I do think they influenced each other. These two are the definitive songwriters in the genre, what were the chances of that happening otherwise?
Joe: Lyrically, ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ is much more mature than anything else on ‘Speak & Spell’, with ‘Puppets’ running a close second. ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ is being steeped in allegory and metaphor and really shows the beginning of the unusual Gore style. It’s a long way from the words of the other fan-favourite tracks, such as ‘New Life’ and ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. The difference in attitude and emotional engagement with lyrical content between Vince and Martin was clear right from the off.
Though some of the keyboard parts on ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ are more complex, the structure matches and sits well with the rest of the album; melody, counter melodies and vocal harmonies all enter, exit and intertwine where expected. I don’t want to use the word formulaic, but it’s clear both Vince and Martin’s songs were worked on together as a band, which helps give this ‘queer duck’ album a cohesive feel.
The use of sequencers, arpeggiators and trigger noise are a major part of ‘Speak & Spell’. Of course, each machine has its own quirks and capabilities. How are you interpreting those elements?
Keith: We will listen to any live version or remix and make a judgement call on what we want to produce that we think will work for us. But in terms of sequencers arpeggios and trigger noises etc it’s all pretty much the same output. For example, the fast arpeggio on ‘Photographic’ during the “I take pictures” lyric are sequenced, probably by the ARP, rather than actually using an arpeggiator, which is just a kind of sequencer anyway. The result would be precisely the same. So we just use Logic 9 or X and sequence them in that.
‘Any Second Now’ must have been an interesting challenge?
Keith: Yes and it was an absolute joy. In our current version, we used 3 stacked Korg Polysix basses. We then used about 6 layers of ES2 soft synths for the initial pluck sound sequence at the start, with additional layers coming in an octave up with reverb to make it carry like the original. Now we are going through it all again but replicating these sounds using analogue sound sources instead of Virtual Analogues for TEC003.
The really interesting bit is that there are two very different versions with different lead parts that we wanted to merge into one. Lots of the synth bits in verse two are close interpretations and the choir sound in the breaks deliberately drifts in and out of tune.
They also had a more complex bell at the end that we decided to leave as just close enough. The problem is, if it’s too close you run the risk of getting accused of sampling entire sections of the original. And that’s not how we operate. So given the choice, if we can’t get a sound in isolation and play it, we’d rather start again and recreate it from scratch.
Simon: For the TEC003 set, we are revisiting all our current sounds and backings to reproduce them using analogue synths. We use the Analogue Solutions Leipzig-s and Telemark a great deal for recreating basslines and all those characterful percussion sounds. This is a lot trickier and more painstaking process than the luxury of working with soft synths but it’s also nice to work under the challenge of limitations.
’Photographic’ is another iconic track from the album. It has gone through some transformations from its original ‘Some Bizarre Album’ recording over the years having been revived for the ‘Touring The Angel’ set in 2006. Which version will you be attempting?
Keith: A mixture. We have always played a type of Some Bizarre version akin to the version DM rolled out at the Royal Albert Hall.
The problem is it’s DM today, so rocky and missing some of the best electronic parts of the 7 or so versions they have played. We wanted to cover more of the bases, so we found a middle ground with the tempo and set about finding a workable way to incorporate elements from the album, ‘83 and Some Bizarre versions for a track that will still have a strong live presence.
Joe: Our version is a kind of mini best-of of all the versions, but one that still works cohesively as a single track and, crucially, holds its own in a live environment.
‘Puppets’ is a great Mode song that is somewhat underrated don’t you think? That intro sequence and the deep bass synth after the chorus riff are just brilliant.
Keith: Absolutely. I saw them do it in ‘83 and never understood why it wasn’t a single. And that kick arse lead synth is awesome but it’s a bit of a trick, it isn’t that bassy.
When I programmed this version and we rehearsed, it Simon noticed it was clashing a bit with the 2 separate bass lines that run at the same time and we actually had to EQ a lot of the bass out of the lead synth to let it cut through more. Listening back to the album and live versions, their takes were never that bassy either.
Joe: Full disclosure time; ‘Puppets’ is my personal favourite from the album. I vividly remember hearing it for the first time and programming my CD player (yes, I’m from that generation) to play it on loop for about an hour solid. Any time the album has come up in conversation, people seem to love it so I don’t know about the underrated claim… underrated by not being released as a single, definitely!
Keith: ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ yes, ‘New Life’ no, not now. With ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, we feel almost obligated to play it. We did remove it for a while but got asked about it, then you put it in again and other people aren’t so keen.
With ‘New Life’, we had a version that we were really not that happy with as some synths were wrong. We decided to recreate that with a much thumpier version and straighten it out. So we are all much happier with it.
Joe: ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ (or “Vince’s Pension”) has done what not many DM tracks can do – entered into the mainstream consciousness and, thanks to a variety of covers, is known by people across multiple demographics. It’s loved by some and hated by others, and there’s famously no way to please all the people all the time. It’s fun, and we all love hearing it when we’re a bit drunk and dancing! But if I’m honest, it can sometimes be slightly tiresome to perform. I feel slightly heretic saying that.
In Vince’s last performance with DEPECHE MODE on that ITV ‘Off The Record’ broadcast, they end with What’s Your Name?’ and Vince lets off a cheeky grin towards the end as if it’s his parting gift and he’s having the last laugh. How are you going to perform ‘What’s Your Name?’ with a straight face?
Keith: I won’t be. Anyone who knows Paul, Joe or Simon knows they won’t be either. I doubt anyone there will be. But I think it will be a laugh. It’s the “P-R-E-double T-Y” bit we’re looking forward too.
Simon: Even KRAFTWERK would struggle to keep a straight face through that song.
Keith: In hindsight, maybe Vince Clarke could have chosen lyrics other than “Hey you’re such a pretty boy”. But I have to admit, if I’ve got it on loud in the car, I roll my window up at that point.
Will there be any bonus songs performed at TEC003 from that Vince Clarke era?
Keith: Yes, definitely. We think three 😉
SPEAK & SPELL discuss their instrumentation further at:
SPEAK & SPELL perform the ‘Speak & Spell’ album live in full on SATURDAY 13TH SEPTEMBER 2014 at TEC003. There will also be a special aftershow featuring highlights from the ‘101’ live album. The event which additionally features VILE ELECTRODES and special guest DJ SARAH BLACKWOOD takes place at Hertford Corn Exchange, 39 Fore Street, Hertford, Hertfordshire SG14 1AL
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
Live Photos by Chris Fraude
11th June 2014