Depeche Mode:
The Dark Progression
Sexy Intellectual

Having my first exposure to Depeche Mode with “People Are People” as an adolescent was probably not the best introduction to the band. In later years filled with music suited to teenage rage, the band became poster boys for all that was fey, just another group of pretty boys wrapped in pseudo-goth garb.

As the years have passed, I have grown to have a greater appreciation of the band, though I still would never place their darkened synth-pop in the same echelon as such contemporaries as New Order and the Cure, even if they may seem similar on a surface level. Still, I have warmed to records like Black Celebration and Music for the Masses with time, and now I’m probably willing to say that Depeche Mode were at least innovators of a sort, even if such innovation was accompanied by a good deal of stylized panache.

Further illustrating the view of Depeche Mode as innovative artists is this new documentary on DVD, Depeche Mode: The Dark Progression. Tracing the band from its beginning in Essex and initial success while being led by Vincent Clarke (later of Yaz and Erasure) to the pinnacle of their artistic and commercial success in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the film presents the band in the best of lights. (It never gets to singer Dave Gahan’s later drug problems, for instance.) Most importantly, it also shows how they were among the first to bring electronics into the pop world, following in the footsteps of influences like Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, whose Andy McClusky provides some of the movie’s most enjoyable commentary, and the Normal. And indeed they made electronic music that was not only immensely popular (Depeche Mode played the Rose Bowl stadium on their tour in support of Music for the Masses and brought thousands out for a record signing), but also enduring in a way that the music of the ephemeral new wave acts of the early ’80s, who also favored synths, never was.

Relying heavily on commentary from biographer Jonathan Miller, The Dark Progression documents Depeche Mode’s development from the lighter fare of the Clarke years to the powerfully brooding compositions that would comprise its best work. It’s interesting, though, that while the film’s commentators stress the importance of the addition of Alan Wilder to Depeche Mode’s studio arrangements, his departure soon after the timeframe of the movie is never mentioned, nor how that may have had an impact on the mediocre albums they made in the following years. Still, it’s interesting to hear from producer Gareth Jones, who worked on Black Celebration as well as its predecessors, Some Great Reward and Construction Time Again, on how he and the band developed the band’s sound by using samples and running their synths through amps instead of directly into the mixing board.

Being unauthorized by its subject matter, though, the one thing is missing is direct commentary from the band itself, though there is some interview footage from 2006 licensed from Mute included. As such, Miller’s opinion, which is questionable at times, tends to dominate. And ending with Songs of Faith and Devotion (from 1993) without getting to the band’s struggles and lesser albums makes one wonder if the band is really as enduring as the film proposes. But then again, once given a stronger understanding of where Depeche Mode came from, one can decide where it is they’ve ended up.
Stephen Slaybaugh