Depeche Mode, “Everything Counts”

Depeche Mode, “Everything Counts”

Regardless of whether the album is becoming obsolete, the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for rewind.

It starts with a noise. The racket mimics human industry stripped to an abstraction, muscle meeting metal, bone bent beneath the vicious efficiency of Fordism. And then there’s the beat: Stark and metronomic, imbued with the algorithmic swing of automated manpower, it’s more a time-and-motion study than a flow of percussion. Somewhere, Frederick Winslow Taylor looks down and smiles. Or does he? Under the heel of the song’s clockwork lockstep is a human voice—not precise and proudly productive, but dour and droning, disembodied, dehumanized. A ghost ground in the machine of its boss’ making.

The song is “Kollaps” by the pioneering German industrial group Einstürzende Neubauten. Released in 1981 on the band’s seminal album of the same name, it was surely one of the songs performed the night Martin Gore of Depeche Mode attended his first Neubauten concert in early 1983. Keyboardist and primary songwriter Vince Clarke had recently quit Depeche Mode to form the successful duo Yaz (and later the even more successful duo Erasure), leaving a void in the group that Gore was still scrambling to fill. The result had been Depeche Mode’s lackluster 1982 album, A Broken Frame, whose title reflects the instability caused by Clarke’s less-than-amicable departure.

With Clarke gone, the shy, 21-year-old Gore had become Depeche Mode’s de facto musical director. It wasn’t a plum job. The band’s music was viewed at the time as little more than robotic bubblegum for horny 14-year-olds. Few critics liked Depeche Mode, and many predicted—with undisguised glee—its imminent fade to obscurity. Granted, the haters appeared to be making a safe bet. A Broken Frame was more than a sophomore slump. It was symbolic of Depeche Mode’s failure to muster a clear identity after the loss of Clarke, the group’s presumed mastermind. In hindsight, Frame is actually pretty decent. But after the frothy, futuristic infectiousness of its debut, Speak & Spell, Depeche Mode seemed destined to become another victim of the fickle tastes and fleeting trends of the early-’80s English pop scene.

Depeche Mode’s post-Frame output was, according the band itself, a make-or-break endeavor. The sensitive Gore could have easily buckled under the pressure. Instead, hardened the beaten sheet-metal and mechanized savagery of a Neubauten concert, he wrote “Everything Counts.” 

“Everything Counts” is a clouded pop gem that dissolves from crystalline, sophisticated synthesizer patterns into lullaby-level singsong. Passion is melted down and poured into shapes. The hooks roll out on an assembly line. The song also the first time frontman Dave Gahan and Martin Gore split verses and choruses, a hard/soft vocal dynamic that plays up the strengths of each and underscores the sensitive-cyborg vibe that pulses through the song. As with Neubauten’s “Kollaps,” “Everything Counts” is made brittle by a cruel tension between humanity and machinery. But Gahan and Gore pack tissue onto the chassis, leaving the song impossibly lush and haunting.

No human blessed with functioning eardrums would ever mistake “Everything Counts” for “Kollaps” (or any Neubauten song, for that matter). But with a close listen, it’s easy to believe Gore’s claim that Neubauten inspired it. The first single from Depeche Mode’s 1983 album, Construction Time Again, “Everything Counts” is the kind of course-correcting, game-changing record that few bands with mainstream aspirations allow themselves to make (or are allowed to make). It’s gutsy. It’s subversive. It’s weird. Yet it formed the template for everything Depeche Mode would achieve over the next 10 years, when Gore and crew morphed from second-stringers to stadium-fillers. More striking, though, is the fact that Depeche Mode would do so by defying the expectations of the music industry rather than following them.

In the case of “Everything Counts,” that defiance is explicit. The song’s lyrics have two targets: On one hand, Gahan—the ex-punk with the bad-boy swagger, at least in comparison to his bandmates—delivers Gore’s dark, angry verses with a snarl. “The handshake seals the contract,” Gahan coolly sneers, “From the contract there’s no turning back.” He then mentions “the turning point of a career” (with the word “career” stretched into a four-syllable sneer), and it’s hard not to hear Gore’s lyrics as turning suddenly inward. Aware of Depeche Mode’s precarious position—one foot in the future, the other in the bargain bin—he doesn’t hedge an inch. But the song doesn’t succumb to solipsism; after flirting with this bit of self-reference, Gore zooms out and places the cold, corporate culture of multinationals in his crosshairs: “The graph on the wall / Tells the story of it all / Picture it now, see just how / The lies and deceit gained a little more power.”

Despite its scathing, if overly simplistic, take on geopolitical dehumanization (or whatever), “Everything Counts” has been interpreted by some as just another example of a petulant pop band whining about its record contract. But there’s never been an indication that Depeche Mode was having trouble with its label. In the early ’80s, Mute Records benefitted from a clear identity, a solid roster, and the happy paradox of indie cred and wide distribution. (In fact, Depeche Mode never left Mute, and the label remains reliably legit—and in 2000, it even wound up signing Neubauten.) It makes more sense that Gore was simply growing up, and that hormonal love songs were no longer enough to sustain the band’s creativity or long-term prospects.

In that regard, there may be some contrivance to the newfound sociopolitical conscience of “Everything Counts.” But at the time, it seemed sincere. Said Gahan in an NME interview soon after the single’s release:

It’s a bit more important to sing about something of substance than sing about nonsense. If you’re in a band in our position, you’re in a very strong position to write about those things, so why not do it? Obviously, for a lot of bands that aren’t so successful, it seems an obvious thing to do. Whereas a band in our position could quite easily sing about nonsense. I think a lot of people just expected us to sing about nonsense.

The nonsense he’s referring to is, of course, the Clarke-penned lyrics of Speak & Spell. It’s a cheap shot to take, but at the same time, it’s a brave one—especially considering the chorus to “Everything Counts,” a drizzle of syrupy harmonies that’s easily as catchy, if more melancholy and harmonically sophisticated, than anything Clarke ever wrote for the band. And then there’s the reprise of sorts, “Everything Counts (Long Version), which is in fact a minute-long extension of the song’s melodica-laced chorus that serves as the coda to the entire Construction Time Again album. Like one last dollop of dessert, it marks the end of Depeche Mode’s bubblegum stage and the beginning of a stretch of albums that would be darker, harder, smarter, and sleazier—yet melodic and accessible enough to catapult the band to superstardom.

As Gahan admits in another interview around the same time, crafting catchy pop songs and club hits was always the focus: “They might suddenly think, ‘Well, what does all this mean? Admittedly, a lot of people will just hum the tune and never think about it, just ’cause it’s a good beat. That’s exactly what my mum does.” Construction has more industrial-sounding moments (for instance, the droning, atonal “Pipeline,” which goes overboard on its Neubauten worship) and more pop-oriented ones (like the relatively lightweight “Two Minute Warning”). But even within those two outliers, Gore shoots for a nervy equilibrium. “Get The Balance Right!” is the name of Depeche Mode’s single immediately prior to “Everything Counts,” and it’s also the first song Gore wrote after assuming Clarke’s duties. But the title can be read as a statement of intent—one that Gore and the rest of Depeche Mode fully realized with “Everything Counts,” which remains one of the band’s concert staples and best-loved songs.

Depeche Mode wasn’t the only synth-pop group in 1983 treading a tightrope. In addition to “Everything Counts” and Construction Time Again, that year saw the release of artistic triumphs (and commercial nosedives) such as Soft Cell’s underrated The Art Of Falling Apart and OMD’s masterful Dazzle Ships. The difference is, Depeche Mode didn’t shed a drop of flop sweat. Gore got the balance right: As experimental and edgy as it is, “Everything Counts” became the band’s biggest UK hit since 1982’s “See You,” a fluffy jingle that could have been made by a different outfit entirely. “Everything Counts” also gave Depeche Mode its highest U.S. chart placement up to that point, the start of a steady climb that would peak exactly a decade later, when 1993’s Songs Of Faith And Devotion topped the album charts in both the States and the UK.

There’s irony—or perhaps hypocrisy—embedded in “Everything Counts.” “It’s a competitive world,” Gahan intones with black sarcasm just before Gore breaks into his unsettlingly gentle choruses. Bashing capitalism in blunt slogans usually employed by your average anarchist punk band, Depeche Mode still wanted to succeed on capitalist terms. And the group wasn’t trying to hide it. Absolving himself of responsibility even while playing both sides, Gore used “Everything Counts” to cast Depeche Mode as a self-aware automaton slaving away within the omnipotent mechanism of industry—and himself as a cog within that automaton. It would take the rise of alternative rock in the ’90s before that world would see kind of self-negation in its rock stars. Rather than anguished, though, it’s playful; case in point, the live video for “Everything Counts” from the documentary Depeche Mode 101, which starts with a group of bean-counters rattling off the insanely huge attendance numbers and gross receipts of one of the group’s 1988 concerts—figures the band had only dreamed of back in ’83.

A more striking (and telling) self-contradiction is the fact that “Everything Counts,” from its title on down, rails against the ascendency of numbers over flesh and blood. Yet the song makes this point by yoking its creators (and its listeners) to the ones and zeros of digitized industrial music. Neubauten may be the far more radical band. But starting with “Everything Counts,” Depeche Mode became, at least for a while, a Trojan horse—not by seeking to destroy the system from within, but by infecting it with a viral strand of pale, squishy humanity.