Over the course of the 80s, British electronic music legends Depeche Mode led the forefront of the synthpop and industrial pop music scenes, catapulting the alternative sounds of these worlds into mainstream attention. At the decade’s end (and seemingly at the top of their potential) the band returned to the studio to record their seventh studio album Violator. This landmark album includes several iconic singles including “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence”. With “Enjoy the Silence” Depeche Mode took a serene ballad of satisfaction, and wrapped it in disco dance-ability….kicking off the nineties with a new wave of poignant, self-reflective songwriting which embraced the infectious sounds of pop.
Depeche Mode developed out of a working-class, religiously centered community in Basildon, Essex, England and the intersecting youths of Andy Fletcher, Vince Clark, Dave Gahan and Martin Gore. Fletcher and Clark (born Vince Martin) were involved in their local Methodist church, St. Pauls, which had an active youth group for boys their age. Fletcher credits that community for the space where they began to learn how to play instruments and sing. Clarke began writing simple songs and their fellowship bands would often play covers of popular songs like The Who’s “Cant Explain” alongside contemporary religious songs.
It wasn’t long before Fletcher and Vince created their own band. Fletcher recalls:“Vince and I had a group when we were 16 called No Romance in China which tried to be like the Cure. We were into their three Imaginary Boys LP. Vince used to attempt to sing like Robert Smith.” Clarke credits No Romance in China as the origins of Depeche Mode, particularly noting how Fletcher began to grow musically once he picked up a bass: “Fletcher was really quite good; he bought himself a bass guitar and I kind of showed him how to play it. He was very keen and enthusiastic – very eager to listen and learn. And that’s really how Depeche Mode Started; it was just me and Fletch.”
With a revolving community of musicians around them, the next big step in Fletcher and Clarke’s musical partnership was their group Composition of Sound, which they formed in 1980, bringing in Martin Gore on keyboard. Gore told No. 1 Magazine in 2007:
“Me, Andy Fletcher and Vince Clarke started mucking about together. Vince was a local kid who lived minutes away, Andy I knew from going along to Boys Brigade and church.”
Composition of Sound were inspired by the music of an English electronic band from Wirral Merseyside. Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark. or OMD. Clarke told PopMatters in 2020: “Orchestral Maneuvers were such a huge influence on me. The reason I got into electronic music was because I heard the track “Almost”. That’s when I thought to myself, oh my God, electronic music actually has some emotion, and I wanted to do that, be a part of that.”
In 1980, David Gahan joined the group, and the band changed their name to Depeche Mode. Gore recalled: “The name Depeche Mode came from Dave much later. He was doing fashion design and window display and used the magazine Depeche Mode as reference. It means hurried fashion or fashion dispatch. I like the sound of that.” Depeche Mode took the attitude of punk music and brought it together with the ultra-modern sounds of electronic instruments. Their signature was a blend of dark, industrial sounds woven into a danceable, pop container.
The band was approached by Mute Records Founder Daniel Miller, after he saw them performing at the Bridge House in Canning Town. Miller brought them into the studio where they recorded their debut single “Dreaming of Me”, released in February of 1981. Their second single, “New Life” hit number 11 on the UK Charts, followed by “Just Can’t Get Enough” which gave the band their first UK Top 10 Hit. It also established them as leaders of the emerging synth-pop scene in the UK.
Depeche Mode’s debut album Speak & Spell was released on October 5, 1981.
Clarke quit the band after its release, which left the group without the primary songwriter. Martin Gore quickly stepped into this void, writing all of the songs that appeared on their second album A Broken Frame – released in 1982. Gore’s songwriting brought a darker, more existential turn to the band’s sound.
After Clarke’s departure, Depeche Mode brought in Alan Wilder who would earn his reputation as the “musical director” of the band. Producer Flood explained to Pulse! Magazine in 1993: “[Alan] is sort of the craftsman, Martin’s the idea man and [Dave] is the attitude”
Depeche Mode’s popularity began in the UK and moved first to Australia. In 1984, their single “People are People” charted in UK, Ireland, Switzerland, West Germany and Canada, and hit the No. 14 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Depeche Mode’s US response largely began on the college radio and alternative rock circuit, in sharp contrast to the teen idol roles they held in Europe. But as the decade progressed, Depeche Mode brought their Gothic, industrial sound to mainstream attention. Their 1988 world tour ended with a concert at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena CA, where their audience of over 60,000 fans was the venue’s highest attendance in over 8 years.
That same year, they would perform “Strange Love” at the MTV Video Music Awards – a clear indication of the massive popularity they were experiencing at the time. At the height of this fame, the band returned to the studio to record their seventh studio album. Violator, which would catapult the band into international stardom including two top ten UK and US singles – “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence”
As its title would suggest, “Enjoy the Silence” began as a serene ballad, written by Gore. Its lyrics search for a sense of peace in the chaos and pain of the world around. Gore has called it a song about being completely satisfied and not wanting or needing anything else. The chorus sings:
All I ever wanted
All I ever needed is here in my arms
Words are very unnecessary
They can only do harm
And yet, the song itself holds an infectious dance beat. David Gahan explained to Entertainment Weekly in 2017: “Funny enough, when Martin first came up with a demo for ‘Silence,’ it was kind of half a song. Just a piano and these very slow, ballad-y couple of verses. And Alan [Wilder] and Flood, who was producing the album, had this idea to put a beat to it.”
Gore was skeptical at first, but soon realized the new direction was mesmerizing in its juxtaposition of meanings: “When I finished the demo of this song it was more of a ballad and sounded a bit like the harmonium version that came out on one of the formats. Alan had this idea to speed it up and make it a bit more disco which I was really averse to at first, because I thought ‘the song is called ‘Enjoy The Silence’ and it’s supposed to be about serenity, and serenity doesn’t go with the disco beat’. So I was sulking for about two days but after he sped it up, I got used to it and added the guitar part, which adds to the whole atmosphere. We could really hear that it had a crossover potential. I have to say that I was sulking for two days for no reason.”
Dave Gahan takes his usual role as lead vocals on the song; Martin Gore provides backing vocals. His rich, low voice perfectly fits the serenity of the lyrics, which provides this core sound around which the upbeat dance elements create their textures. The reverb and effects are strong on the vocals, which give it an otherworldly edge. However, in a pre-Auto-Tune world, Gahans powerful vocals are especially impressive in their precision. The bass uses a Minimoog Model D and an ARP 2600. The band also employs the E-MU Systems Emulator II – a sampler would allow the user to use audio files saved on a floppy disk. This is exactly what Depeche Mode does for the choir and string sounds on the track, several of which don’t enter until the very end of the track (including the chorus sound). The song’s haunting opening uses a synthesizer to create a sound almost like a music box. It disappears for much of the track but comes back in the middle. The constant change in presence and absence of individual synthesizer elements gives the song its captivating texture which constantly drives it forward.
“Enjoy the Silence” and the rest of the Violator album were recorded between May of 1989 and January of 1990. They recorded at several different studio locations: Logic Studios (Milan), PUK Studios (Denmark), The Church (London), Master Rocker Studios (London), and Axis Studios (New York City). “Enjoy the Silence”, in particular, was recorded at PUK Studios, and mixed at Master Rock Studios.
The band’s approach to the album was also a major departure from their previous methods of creating an album: Martin told NME in 1990: “Over the last five years I think we’d perfected a formula; my demos, a month in a programming studio, etc. etc. We decided that our first record of the ’90s ought to be different.” Part of this new process was bringing in producer Mark Ellis (professionally known as Flood) to co-produce the album with the band.
While the album took a long time to create, the recording process for “Enjoy the Silence” was quick. Once it was determined that the song should have a more upbeat, dance feel, things quickly fell into place. Gahan recalls: “They said, ‘Get out of the studio and come back in two days.’ When we came back, Flood said to Martin, ‘I need you to come up with a guitar line,’ so Martin started to play this riff, and that was it. Then he said ‘Dave, go sing,’ and I did. We literally recorded it in a couple of days. Then we started messing with the song, trying to make it more than it was, and it never needed more. We put it out like that, and I think we knew between us that there was something very special about it, but we had no idea what a huge hit it was going to be.”
Violator was mixed by François Kevorkian, and he did an initial mix of “Enjoy the Silence” along with the band. However Mute Founder Daniel Miller had a vision for the track and wanted to try mixing it himself, along with Phillip Legg. Miller told Electronic Beats in 2013: “The only thing about [François Kevorkian’s mixing] was that, while the record was great, I wasn’t happy with ‘Enjoy the Silence’ as it was. I had real demo-itis about it. I’d heard this rough version which they’d done, and in my head, that’s how it had to sound. So I said, ‘Look, I love the album, but I’m not feeling the way ‘Enjoy the Silence’ is at the moment. Can I go off and mix it with somebody else just to try it?’ So, I went off with a guy called Phil Legg, who was an engineer I’d worked with, and did it the way I’d always heard it. I think they were so burned out by the end—it took a long time making that record—that they said, ‘Okay, whatever you say,’ and they used that version.”
“Enjoy the Silence” was released on February 5, 1990, as the album’s second single. The album itself followed on March 19. The song was an international hit, reaching the top ten throughout Europe and the US. It took the number one spot on the US Alternative Airplay, and the number two spot on the dance charts, it also held the number one singles spot in Denmark, Poland and Spain. Violator hit number two on the UK albums chart.
“Enjoy the Silence” won the Best British Single award in 1991, and the song can be credited as one of the defining tracks of Depeche Mode’s career – one that brought the band’s groundbreaking electronic, industrial, and synth-pop sounds into truly mainstream attention. Depeche Mode’s music dominated the end of the 20th century and their legacy has earned them entrance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they were inducted in 2020.
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video to learn more about “Enjoy The Silence”!