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The early eighties saw the decline of punk and a new genre raised its head. Based largely on the electronic sound of synthesisers and drum sequencing, new wave/electro pop saw the birth of some major innovators in this genre.
Depeche Mode built on the sound of bands such as Kraftwerk, but added a highly commercial twist to produce classics including ‘Blue Monday’, ‘Personal Jesus’ and ‘Enjoy The Silence’. Want more groups like Depeche Mode? Then check these out…
Essential tracks: ‘Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls’, ‘Modigliani’, ‘I Touch Roses’, ‘Sunny Day’, ‘Boy’, ‘Sound and Vision’, ‘Witchcraft’
Essential albums: ‘Book of Love’ (1986), ‘Lullaby’ (1988), ‘Candy Carol’ (1991), ‘Lovebubble’ (1993)
American band Book Of Love was formed in Philadelphia in the midst of the new wave boom. The opening act for Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward and Black Celebration tours in 1985 and 1986 respectively, this synthpop/dark wave band garnered much interest from the music press, acclaimed for their thought provoking lyrics that often explored gender roles and sexual orientation.
Most notably their track ‘Pretty Boys and Pretty Girls’ showed a band unafraid to tackle the subject of the AIDS epidemic. Despite their singles barely entering the Billboard Hot 100 charts, Book Of Love were massively popular with the synthpop/dance audience.
‘Modigliani (Lost in Your Eyes)’ received as much airplay as Depeche Mode and OMD in dance clubs across the states during the mid-eighties. After various hitaus’ over the years, Book Of Love reunited in 2013 for a string of one-off gigs.
Essential tracks: ‘Broken Heart’, ‘Control’, ‘Russian Radio’
Essential albums: ‘Naïve Art’ (1989), ‘Machines’ (1992), ‘The Crypt’ (1993)
Born in Liverpool but raised in the States, brothers Chris and Mark Reynolds formed the synthpop duo Red Flag in 1984. Their debut release Naïve Art (1989) was well received, with the music press making comparisons of the duo’s style with that of Depeche Mode.
The release of The Crypt brought the duo critical accolades for its dark, gloom-laden lyrics blended with an electro/synth style, bringing Red Flag to the attention of the goth movement in the same way Depeche Mode had occasionally flirted with that genre.
After Mark Reynolds committed suicide in 2003, Chris resurrected Red Flag as a solo project in 2007, seeing his debut as lead vocalist and releasing the dark, introspective album Born Again.
Essential tracks: ‘Living in Oblivion’, ‘When We Lie’, ‘Do You Hear Me Anymore?’, ‘Jubilation’
Essential albums: ‘Peace’ (1990), ‘Worth’ (1992), ‘Hope’ (1993), ‘Elektrodelica’ (1997), ‘The Universe Is Expanding’ (2001), ‘The Effects of Stereo TV’ (2003)
Formed in New Jersey in 1986, Anything Box have garnered critical acclaim for their early eighties-inspired synthpop, bridging the gap between the eighties and the noughties and bringing the genre firmly into the present.
With the release of their debut album Peace in 1990 giving them a foot in the door, Anything Box went on to record their second album Worth with Depeche Mode producer Gareth Jones behind the mixing desk. Not afraid to be experimental with their sound, this band has incorporated synthsised dance music with a raw edgier sound for their later albums.
Essential tracks: ‘Unputdownable’, ‘We Fly…Tonight’, ‘I’m Not Dreaming Of You’, ‘What’s Love All About’, ‘Love Will Find a Way’
Essential albums: ‘World Without End’ (1993), ‘Fairyland’ (1996), ‘Void’ (2000), ‘Subkutan’ (2006), ‘Rockets and Swords’ (2012)
German synthpop band De/Vision was formed in 1988. With an impressive twelve studio albums to their name, the majority of tracks are sung in English, although they have recorded several German language tracks. De/Vision has a grungy/dance sound with an electropop feel, and the dark, almost cynical quality of their lyrics has proven successful, as the longevity and sheer amount of studio releases indicates.
Still very active within the music business, De/Vision treat fans to something special in 2014 with the release of the live album ’25 Years – Best Of Tour 2013’, proving that synth/new wave music may evolve over the years but the die-hard fans stay loyal to the cause.
Essential tracks: ‘Big in Japan’, ‘Dance With Me’, ‘Sounds Like a Melody’, ‘Forever Young’,
Essential albums: ‘Forever Young’ (1984), ‘Afternoons in Utopia’ (1986), ‘Salvation’ (1997)
German new wave band Alphaville was formed in 1982 and probably best known for the singles ‘Forever Young’ and ‘Big in Japan’. Despite charting well across Europe, Alphaville never made much of an impact further afield during the eighties. With an extremely commercial sound, Alphaville initially did well on the new wave scene but somehow failed to keep momentum up.
Alphaville’s single ‘Big in Japan’ had plenty of airplay in the UK, charting at #8 and giving them their biggest hit this side of the Channel, and ‘Forever Young’ has been re-recorded by various artists and used in movies and tv shows, notably Napoleon Dynamite and the American sitcom It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
Essential tracks: ‘You Didn’t Want Me’, ‘Trust You’, ‘It Scares Me’, ‘Not Prepared’, ‘Crash’, ‘Only Better’
Essential albums: ‘Fragile’ (1994), ‘In This Place Forever’ (1996), ‘Who Watches over Me?’ (2002), ‘Automation Baby’ (2013)
Synthpop band Mesh hail from Bristol and were formed in 1991, with their debut album Fragile hitting the music shops in 1994. Seven albums later, and Mesh are still with us, albeit down a member or two. Incorporating a rockier sound in later albums, this largely electronics focused band has produced some solid work over the years and garnered a strong fanbase.
Despite forming in the early nineties, this band creates a fantastic retro new wave vibe, staying close to the blueprint laid down by some of the early innovators in this genre but working in their own take on proceedings. I would highly recommend checking out their latest album ‘Automation Baby’ – it’s a perfect showcase for that unique ability.
Essential tracks: ‘Send Me an Angel’, ‘Catch Me I’m Falling’, ‘Face to Face’, ‘No Shame’, ‘Babies’
Essential albums: ‘Heartland’ (1983), ‘Flame’ (1985),
Australian new wave/synthpop band Real Life was formed in 1980. The band’s generic electronic sound garnered them some initial commercial success in their homeland, with ‘Send Me an Angel’ and ‘Catch Me I’m Falling’.
After hitting the ground running, they were unable to duplicate the success of their debut album. Their second album failed to gain much interest, and subsequent single releases went largely unnoticed despite receiving airplay in Australia.
In spite of their promising career suddenly going downhill, this Aussie band have managed to keep their hand in the music business, with a 2009 cover album of 80’s synth classics keeping die-hard fans happy. Interestingly, ‘Send Me an Angel’ is often mis-credited to The Pet Shop Boys after being inaccurately labelled on an early version of Napster.
The synthpop/new wave sound took off during the early eighties, but its roots stretch back into the previous decade when technology began to creep into music and opened new doors.
Depeche Mode was just one of many bands creating innovative and exciting music, and in this section I’m covering some more pioneers of the genre…
Essential tracks: ‘Only You’, ‘Don’t Go’, ‘Situation’, ‘Nobody’s Diary’
Essential albums: ‘Upstairs at Eric’s’ (1982), ‘You and Me Both’ (1983),
British electro pop duo Yazoo was formed in 1981, when original Depeche Mode member Vince Clarke left the band and answered an advertisement placed by vocalist Alison Moyet in Melody Maker magazine. Thus Yazoo was born.
The blend of Clarke’s synthesizer melodies with Moyet’s powerful bluesy vocals gave the duo an imitable sound, and they enjoyed chart success on both sides of the Atlantic before splitting due to internal conflict in 1983. Vince Clarke later went on to form one half of electropop duo Erasure, whilst Alison Moyet enjoyed a successful solo career.
Essential tracks: ‘Blue Monday’, ‘True Faith’, ‘Temptation’, ‘Regret’, ‘Ruined in a Day’, ‘Spooky’
Essential albums: ‘Movement’ (1981), ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ (1983), ‘Low-Life’ (1985), ‘Republic’ (1993), ‘Music Complete’ (2015)
Formed in Manchester in 1980 by Bernard Sumner and the remnants of Joy Division, New Order are on par with Depeche Mode for their lasting effect on the new wave/synthpop genre, and is arguably one of the most influential bands of the era.
Initially a post-punk band, New Order struggled to free themselves from the shadow of Joy Division, but gradually injected their tracks with synthesisers to hone the sound they became synonymous with. Whilst resembling other bands of the era such as Dead Or Alive, Flock Of Seagulls and indeed Depeche Mode, New Order retained a modicum of those post-punk sensibilities creating a heavier feel to their music.
Essential tracks: ‘Enola Gay’, ‘So in Love’, ‘Secret’, ‘Maid of Orleans’, ‘Souvenir’
Essential albums: ‘Architecture and Morality’ (1981), ‘Dazzle Ships’ (1983), ‘Junk Culture’ (1984), ‘Sugar Tax’ (1991)
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (OMD) was formed in 1978, emerging on the music scene at around the same time as Essex lads Depeche Mode. The band had a loyal fanbase on the live circuit during the late seventies and found success across Europe with their synth-laden track ‘Enola Gay’ in 1980.
OMD’s debut album Architecture And Morality spiked further interest across Europe as well as the UK, and they were lauded for their willingness to experiment with a genre that was already weighed down with clones of the biggest names of the era.
Their second offering Dazzle Ships wasn’t as well received and it’s only in retrospect that critics have given it the credit it deserved, proving that even in the music business, hindsight is 20/20.
Essential tracks: ‘Autobahn’, ‘Showroom Dummies’, ‘Neon Lights’, ‘Computer Love’, ‘Numbers’, ‘The Model’
Essential albums: ‘Autobahn’ (1974), ‘The Man Machine” (1978), ‘Computer World’ (1981), ‘Electric Café’ (1986)
German Synthpop pioneers Kraftwerk is the penultimate recommendation for bands like Depeche Mode. You could argue that Depeche Mode is like Kraftwerk, but we’re not here to talk semantics, this is all about the music. And so they are more than well deserving of being included.
This highly reclusive band has constantly pushed the boundaries of technology and orchestration over the course of their career, and left behind a legacy that has inspired musicians from many different genres. From their first album ‘Kraftwerk’ in 1970, it was clear something innovative had sprung to life, and the computer sequencing used in music today may not exist if it wasn’t for Kraftwerk’s experimentation.
Essential tracks: ‘Wonderful Life’, ‘Lights’, ‘Stay’, ‘Wish’, ‘Nothing Will Be Bigger than Us’
Essential albums: ‘Happiness’ (2010), ‘Exile’ (2013), ‘Surrender’ (2015)
Bringing us right up to date, Hurts was formed in 2009 by Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson. Paying their dues with failed EP’s along the way, Hurts finally found some serious interest when their song ‘Blood, Tears and Gold’ was premiered as Zane Lowe’s ‘Hottest Record in the World’, and so Hurts had found a wider audience for their music.
With the release of their debut album Happiness in 2010, this synthpop duo took a firm hold on the music loving public and have continued their rise to pop stardom with chart topping singles and two further albums.
Whilst it’s true that Depeche Mode influenced a whole generation of musicians with their innovative synthpop tracks, it’s also fair to say they were standing on the shoulders of giants, honing a craft and a genre that started way back in the early seventies with bands such as Kraftwerk.
Before I wind this article up, I’d like to give a nod to solo artists including Thomas Dolby and Gary Numan, who produced some of the most iconic synthpop tracks of the era, and stood comfortably alongside any of the bands on this list.
I’d love to hear who else belongs on this list, so get commenting! And if eighties music is your thing, you might like to check out my article Underrated 80’s UK New Wave Bands.
The Editors. Listen to the Weight. That whole album’s sound is very late period Depeche Mode.
Thanks Robert for your recommendation!