After their 1986 album Black Celebration, new wave legends Depeche Mode fully committed to being the most gloriously gloomy band next to The Cure to appear on stadium stages. Earnest pleas for tolerance like “People are People” and playfully suggestive vamps like “Master and Servant” gave way to atmospheric dirge-y washes and funereal tempos made for moping, not dancing. The move defined them after their early breakout with an image as a kind of New Romantic boy band.
The Depeche Mode of the early 80s was always edgier than most of their peers, even if they looked clean cut and cherubic. They were also more experimental, drawing from Kraftwerk’s deadpan German disco in their minimalist first single “Dreaming of Me” and making industrial pop in Construction Time Again’s “Everything Counts.” Theirs is a body of work, for better or worse, that launched a hundred darkwave bands decades on, and their very first incarnation may remind indie fans of other lo-fi indie pop artists of recent years.
Before they were Depeche Mode, they were a minimalist post-punk/new wave band called Composition of Sound. They recorded two demo tapes under the name, “one with Vince Clarke on vocals and guitar,” notes Post-Punk.com, “Andy Fletcher on bass and Martin L. Gore on synthesizers, and one [above] just after the arrival of Dave Gahan in the band, shortly before they were renamed.” These tapes, from 1980, are the first recorded manifestation of the Depeche Mode lineup.
Clarke and Fletcher began playing together in the 1977 Cure-influenced band No Romance in China. They formed Composition of Sound with Gore, who’d played guitar in an acoustic duo, in 1980 and recruited Gahan that same year whey they heard him sing Bowie’s “’Heroes’” at a jam session. By that time, they’d mostly given up on guitars, after Clarke—who left Depeche Mode after Speak & Spell to form the hugely influential synthpop band Yazoo (or Yaz in the U.S.)—encountered Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark. The three-song demo at the top represents that evolutionary step in action.
The first track, “Ice Machine,” was released as the b-side of “Dreaming of Me,” Depeche Mode’s first artistic statement of intent on their longtime label Mute. Fletcher plays bass guitar on this and the other two tracks, “Radio News” and “Photographic,” but the songs are otherwise rudimentary ancestors of Depeche Mode’s synth-dominated sound, which would persist until they brought guitars back into the foreground in the 90s.
It appears they did play a “handful of gigs” in the transitional phase of Composition of Sound, as Martin Schneider writes at Dangerous Minds: “The first COS show with Dave Gahan on vocals happened on June 14, 1980 at Nicholas Comprehensive in Basildon.” The gig went well, according to Clarke, “because Gahan ‘had all his trendy mates there.’” Their last show in this incarnation “sounds like something out of This is Spinal Tap.”
They played at a youth club at Woodlands School in their hometown of Basildon. “Their audience consisted of a bunch of nine-year-olds. ‘They loved the synths, which were a novelty then,’ remembers Fletcher. ‘The kids were onstage twiddling the knobs while we played!” One wonders if any of those kids went on to start their own fashionably minimalist synthpop bands….