Picture the scene: it’s 1988, the evening of June 18 to be precise, and in the back rooms of California’s Pasadena Rose Bowl, four twenty-somethings from a small town called Basildon in Essex (with the exception of keyboard virtuoso Alan Wilder, who hails from London) are wiping the sweat from their collective brow, psyching themselves up to play to a crowd of over 60,000 US fans, all screaming in anticipation, dressed in their finest black clothes, ready to sing along with every verse and dance to every beat the humble English electronic band known as Depeche Mode are about to deliver. It’s fair to say that after viewing the D.A. Pennebaker film which captured the above event in its annoyingly edited glory, one gains a clear, distinct impression of Depeche Mode’s standing as the decade drew to a close: they were kings; superstars; they’d made it big in the field of alternative music and as the succeeding years would prove, had plenty of gas left in the tank.

The Mode’s rise to stardom was not a rapid one, nor was it particularly sluggish. What it most definitely was, was progressive and evolving. From their rough, punchy recording debut on the quietly seminal
Some Bizzare Album in 1980, to the dawning of 1986’s defining Black Celebration, the Basildon boys saw a lot of change. They lost a songwriter, gained a brilliant arranger and keyboardist, and pushed the trappings of synth-pop in as many directions as their young heads would accommodate. The Singles 81-85 charts these crucial years in the bands history, and offers value to both existing fans and neophytes.

As introduction to the band, and when paired with
The Singles 86-98, the album is unrivalled and efficient, charting Depeche Mode’s progress from bouncy synth-poppers to cluttered proto-industrialists. The 15 singles make for a thrilling and streamlined experience, flashing the bands brightest colours no matter which period in their career the songs are pulled from. Even singles from shakier times in the bands line-up - in particular 1982 when they were cut down to a trio and released one of their poorest efforts - doesn’t darken the waters too much as the ride is so smooth and polished. Moving from the eternally upbeat synth-pop of iconic singles such as ‘New Life’ and ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ to dense, metallic electro-tunes (‘People Are People’, ‘Everything Counts’, ‘Master and Servant’) to the first traces of the darker, moodier sound the band would become characterised by, with late tracks such as ‘Somebody’ and ‘Blasphemous Rumours’, it quickly becomes apparent just how briskly the group grew in the space of 5 years.

There’s appeal for fans too, with the inclusion of rarer non-album tracks such as ‘Get the Balance Right’, ‘It’s Called a Heart’ and the gorgeous ‘Shake the Disease’, an alternate mix of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, the original Some Bizzare version of ‘Photographic’, not to mention the fact that all the cuts are the single versions, each carrying small differences from their album-version counterparts, and in remastered form nonetheless. It’s simply a great compilation for virtually anyone interested in the band, and works better than
The Best of Depeche Mode Vol 1, for both fans and newbies alike. That said, the bands glory years are captured best on the follow-up (The Singles 86-98) but still, the efficiency and quality here earn the album an easy 4; make that 4.5 when paired with its successor.

by Major Tom (sputnikmusic.com)