MoonTunes Classic Reviews: Speak & Spell/Depeche Mode
By Brad Moon, Contributing Writer, wired.com
Speak & Spell
Speak & Spell was an electronic gadget released by Texas Instruments just in time for the 1978 Christmas buying season. Within a few years the educational toy with the voice synthesizer was everywhere and musicians had even begun experimenting with it. I remember sitting with my brother, killing ourselves laughing while making one of the little boxes utter semi-intelligible naughty phrases. By the time we were finished with it, that poor thing could have served a mute longshoreman very well.
Speak & Spell was also the title of the 1981 debut album of one of the 80s most dominant bands, synth pop outfit Depeche Mode. While the synthesized voice was absent (at least I could never find it), the intended association was obvious.
This album is a classic example of the coldly futuristic electronic style gaining in popularity for those who wanted a taste of punk’s attitude but still wanted to be able to dance, dammit. Where contemporaries like Kraftwerk were a tad industrial and the Human League slightly fluffy, Depeche Mode went for the sweet spot in the middle. At the heart of every song on Speak & Spell is the beat box kicking out electronic drum in a disco beat. Over top is layer after layer of synthesizer -repeating sequenced bits, atmospheric leads and quirky sound effects. I’ve been fortunate enough to see Depeche Mode in concert several times, and I can tell you those guys standing at the banks of keyboards certainly look busy.
Depeche Mode became known for sneaking in hints of furtive sexuality, sometimes approaching deviance, and this started with Speak & Spell. Take the song Puppets, for example. A rather sinister tune, its chorus is “And I don’t think you understand what I’m trying to say, I’ll be your operator baby, I’m in control.” Photographic adds to the dangerous mood with a tempo like a racing pulse and the chorus of “I take pictures, photographic pictures. Bright light, dark room. Bright light, dark room.”
But along with the seedier material, we get the futuristic New Life and Tora! Tora! Tora! and the pure, unabashed pop of the hit Just Can’t Get Enough: “When I’m with you baby, I go out of my head and I just can’t get enough.” Nothing industrial, sexually suspect or futuristic there.
Speak & Spell is a must buy for any Depeche Mode fan. It is also a milestone CD, the first shot by a band that has gone on to three decades of commercial success and influenced countless other artists. It should be part of any 80s music collection.