Tuesday 22 August 2023



To celebrate Depeche Mode's landmark Construction Time Again reaching its 40th birthday, here is an article I wrote for the 2023 Classic Pop Depeche Mode special. I was asked to write about an album that had not had that much coverage previously and Construction Time Again seemed an ideal choice. If you want to buy the magazine this first featured in, go to https://www.classicpopmag.com/2023/04/classic-pop-presents-depeche-mode/

Depeche Mode’s third album, Construction Time Again, represents a crucial step in the band’s career. With this album, they moved away from the pop-focussed sound of Speak & Spell and A Broken Frame and, combining Martin’s interest in the industrial sounds of Einsturzende Neubauten and the sampling skills of “Tonmeister” Gareth Jones, they created a collection of songs that brought an experimental edge to their electronic pop music. The album also of course saw them use Hansa Studios in Berlin for the first time, the start of their fruitful relationship with Jones, and it produced a classic Depeche Mode single in Everything Counts.

To properly consider Construction Time Again, we must go back to the band’s January 1983 single Get The Balance Right. That release saw Alan Wilder officially join Depeche Mode and the single’s 12” remix, the Combination Mix, gave a clear indication of the direction in which Depeche Mode were headed. The harder sounding edge of the remix saw the band move on from the more standard 12” remixes to something entirely different, and that sound and feel resonate throughout Construction Time Again. As we will see, having co-written Get The Balance Right’s B-side, the curious instrumental The Great Outdoors with Gore, Wilder also wrote two of that album’s nine tracks, thus quickly cementing himself as an integral part of the band he had only recently joined.

Recording for Construction Time Again began in April 1983 in The Garden studios which were owned by John Foxx. The band, Gareth Jones and Daniel Miller stayed there for two months, and, during that time, they revolutionised the way Depeche Mode approached making music. The band’s first two albums were predominantly, if not wholly, analogue recordings but the use of The Garden’s digital facilities together with the introduction of Daniel Miller’s new purchased Synclavier sampling synthesizer opened up a new world of possibilities for the band. Like Gore, Jones was fascinated by the possibilities of sampling and he and Depeche Mode used his Stellavox SP7 reel-to-reel recorder to add textures and atmosphere to the album itself. The Garden was based in Shoreditch and that area was far from the area it now; it was run-down and full of building sites, old railway yards and all sorts of places filled with sampling possibilities.

The album’s third track, the Gore lead vocal Pipeline, is the album’s best example of the studio’s team’s eagerness to sample anything they could. The song is constructed entirely from found sounds, made up from the band, Miller and Jones hitting, banging and recording anything they could find in their Shoreditch playground. The vocals were recorded in a railway yard in the area and, as can be heard from around four minutes fifteen seconds into the track, a train passed by as Martin sang. The decision to keep that noise in the song is an inspired one; if you’re going to make a song influenced by industrial music, made entirely from samples of noises you found in railway yards and building sites, you may as well retain the noise of a passing train for extra authenticity. More Trans East End Express than Trans Europe Express perhaps?

Pipeline is the only track on Construction Time Again that is entirely made up of samples. Jones estimates that only “15-20%” of the album is made up of samples with the rest played on the band’s usual synthesizers. It’s worth noting too that on Love, In Itself and And Then… an acoustic guitar makes an appearance, a novelty for Depeche Mode at that time. The use of “real” instruments is taken further on the Love, In Itself remix Love, In Itself 4 which sees the band take on a lounge style persona with Dave crooning to a guitar and piano backing. Experimentation was very much in the air.

Once the London sessions were concluded, the band moved to Berlin to mix the album at Hansa Studios. That studio became the band’s home for the next few years and they recorded the next two albums, Some Great Reward and Black Celebration, there. Their newfound love of sampling married to their growing sonic ambition meant that they needed somewhere more specialised to mix Construction Time Again. Jones was already familiar with the studio, and, in September 1983, Dave Gahan told Record Mirror:

“We’ve been working in The Garden Studios in Shoreditch, and we just wanted to go to Berlin to get a different atmosphere. If you work a lot in one place it gets quite boring and we were using so many channels, we couldn’t possibly mix on a 24 track.”

Hansa offered a state-of-the-art studio with 64-input Solid State Logic mixing console, facilities that perfectly suited the ideas the band, Miller and Jones had for the sound of the album. Berlin suited the band perfectly too with its 24-hour nightlife particularly appealing. Gore ended up moving to the city to live with his new Berlin native girlfriend and that move’s influence on him directly informed the band’s next two albums and Gore’s newfound dress sense, a style still tediously not forgotten by his home country’s press today. 

The album’s release was preceded by its first single, Everything Counts, which came out on 11th June 1983. The single perfectly exemplifies what Depeche Mode were trying to achieve with Construction Time Again; the pop sensibilities were still there but the daring addition of sampling and industrial influences meant that the band were doing something very different from their peers. This experimentation often gets overlooked and Depeche Mode do not receive the credit they should do for the bold way they mixed two very different genres while at their pop height. The band’s television appearances in their home country still suggested a band playing the pop game and that sadly seems to have led to the album’s new direction and sonic pallet being overlooked. Gary Bushell’s typically coarse review of Everything Counts in Sounds (“And the band played on…whether the members of Depeche Mode are actually dead or alive is a question that’s baffled the medical profession for years.”) sums up the majority of the UK music press’ attitude to the band at the time. 

The single was rightly a hit, reaching number 6 in the UK charts, accompanied by the band’s first wholly watchable video, filmed by Clive Richardson in Berlin. The 12” features a wonderful remix Everything Counts (In Larger Amounts) while the single’s B-side, the enjoyably throwaway Work Hard, takes the album’s name and themes a little too literally. Like the Combination Mix of Get The Balance Right, Everything Counts (In Larger Amounts) shows just how far ahead of their peers Depeche Mode were when it came to remixing their own songs for 12” single releases, a cause rightly celebrated by the band’s ongoing 12” Boxset release programme. 

Get The Balance Right had also seen the band’s first limited edition 12” release, a stunning numbered, blue sleeved record that featured four live tracks from the band’s Hammersmith Odeon gig on 25th October 1982 alongside the single version of the track. That trick was repeated with Everything Counts, with a red sleeved 12” featuring the single and four more tracks from the same concert. The green sleeved limited edition 12” released for Love In Itself, the second and final single from Construction Time Again, gave fans a further four songs from Hammersmith gig, and all three 12” singles together provide a wonderful record of the live Depeche sound of the time which comprised three things: unforgettable melodies, synthesizers and screaming fans. Interestingly, the songs from A Broken Frame that most pointed to the direction Depeche Mode were headed, Leave In Silence and The Sun & The Rainfall, while played at Hammersmith were not present on these 12” singles. Perhaps the band were using them to say goodbye to their first phase as they moved on to darker, more interesting places?

The artwork for Everything Counts showed a sketch of a man hitting an anvil with a hammer, a precursor to the striking Brian Griffin shot artwork that graced the album sleeve. The album cover showed a worker wielding a sledgehammer on a mountainside, the worker in fact Griffin’s brother posing on Mont Blanc. The image matches the album’s themes and tone perfectly, though it did lead to some over-interpretation of the band’s political motives during an infamous interview with X Moore in the NME in September 1983. His attempts to have them engage in deep conversation about their newfound political direction failed however as the band shied away from any notion of that at all.

That is not to say that Construction Time Again ignored wider issues. Alan Wilder’s two songs on the album, Two Minute Warning and The Landscape Is Changing, dealt with subjects new to Depeche Mode releases. The former tackled the then ever-present fear of nuclear destruction and the latter, written after Wilder watched a documentary on acid rain, considered the environment and the impact we were having on it. Neither topic could be said to be topics particularly covered by pop bands of the time, never mind Depeche Mode themselves. 

Most of the album was of course written by Martin Gore and, while he didn’t follow Wilder’s lead and write songs that posted clear comments on world events, there is a theme that runs through many of his songs that perhaps shows X Moore wasn’t too far off the mark. Pipeline gave the album its overall theme and atmosphere. In that song, the construction of the titular pipleline is seen as a joyous event (“On this golden day, work’s been sent out way”) that provides something for the workers involved (“Taking from the greedy, giving to the needy”). In Everything Counts on the other hand, a song inspired by a trip the band made to Asia, the greed of money-makers is seen very much as a bad thing (“The grabbing hands, grab all they can, all for themselves, after all.”) Elsewhere, Shame sees Gore point the finger at anyone complacently watching others suffer and doing nothing to help them (“Soap won’t wash away your shame”) and Told You So borrows from William Blake’s Jerusalem, turning that poem on its head, highlighting that the green and pleasant English land envisioned by Blake was far different in reality. More oblique than Wilder’s songs no doubt, but still very much not what was expected of Depeche Mode.

The album’s opening two tracks, under-performing second single Love, In Itself (it only reached number 21 in the U.K.) and the thunderous More Than A Party, are a good start to the album but don’t offer too many clues to what lies ahead as from Pipeline to Told You So, the album changes direction and becomes more serious as discussed above. The closing track And Then… calms everything down, offering the idea that we “pull it all down and start again,” which, given the state of the world address the band have just delivered, seems a reasonable idea. It’s a very clever, enjoyable closing track and a hidden gem in the band’s rich back catalogue. Just when we think that And Then… has served its purpose however, a 59 second long reprise of the chorus of Everything Counts plays, perhaps suggesting that starting all again is futile as those with the power and the money will always win.

While easy to dismiss Construction Time Again as just another early Depeche Mode album featuring a great single, it pays to look much deeper into this album. Depeche Mode used Construction Time Again to push the boundaries of what synthpop bands could do. Instead of repeating the previously successful formula, they looked to industrial music, saw the potential of new sampling technology and, while never losing their pop edge, created a mature, focussed album that set them firmly on the path to their dominant late 80’s/early 90’s period. In terms of innovation and experimentation, Construction Time Again is one of Depeche Mode’s boldest and best albums.

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