Although he’s endured a few rough patches over the years when his demons got the best of him, Dave Gahan has successfully managed to remain frontman of Depeche Mode throughout the band’s entire existence. As such, he’s racked up quite a few legendary vocal performances over the years. We’ve put together a dozen of them, stretching from the band’s 1981 debut LP and into the 21st century, resulting in the vocal and musical evolution of one of new wave’s greatest singers.
“Just Can’t Get Enough” (Speak & Spell, 1981): Written by Vince Clarke, who – as you probably already know – left Depeche Mode after their first album and formed Erasure a few years later, this bouncy, cheery vocal from Gahan definitely isn’t what you’d be hearing from him for the long haul, but it’s still a fun number.
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“The Sun and the Rainfall” (A Broken Frame, 1982): Although never released as a single, this album closer from the band’s sophomore LP now plays like a prophesy of what future Depeche Mode recordings would sound like, blending the musical darkness with a just-slightly-brighter vocal from Gahan.
“Love, In Itself” (Construction Time Again, 1983): The second single from the band’s third album, this track stopped its U.K. chart ascent just outside of the top 20 (it stalled at No. 21), but its performance on the U.K. indie chart was decidedly different, climbing to No. 3.
“Master and Servant” (Some Great Reward, 1984): Given the unabashedly sexual implications of its title, it’s surprising to look back and see that this song not only cracked the Billboard Hot 100, hitting a chart high of No. 87, but also provided the band with a Top 10 single in the U.K., with the song landing at No. 9.
“Shake the Disease” (The Singles 81-85, 1985): An often forgotten track if you only look at the band’s studio albums, this obligatory new song for their first compilation LP really provided Gahan with an opportunity to shine vocally.
“Stripped” (Black Celebration, 1986): This track was once called “an ominous and intriguing pop song” by The Quietus, and they’re not wrong. Indeed, the fact that it actually managed to make it to No. 15 on the UK Singles chart (and No. 4 in Germany!) is still a little startling, since it absolutely does not scream “huge chart hit.”
“Never Let Me Down Again” (Music for the Masses, 1987): Is it about drugs? Is it about sex? Or is just about taking an airplane ride? Does it even matter? Just listen to the song and bask in its brilliance.
“Personal Jesus” (Violator, 1990): It might surprise you to learn that this song was actually inspired by Priscilla Presley’s memoir, Elvis and Me. In an interview circa the release of Violator, Martin Gore said, “It’s a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care. It’s about Elvis was her man and her mentor and how often that happens in love relationships – how everybody’s heart is like a god in some way, and that’s not a very balanced view of someone, is it?” On the other hand, Johnny Cash considered it to be a gospel song when he first heard it, so...everybody’s got their opinion, right?
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“Condemnation” (Songs of Faith and Devotion, 1993): This is one of those tracks that was always going to make the list of must-hear Dave Gahan vocal performances, if only because it’s one of the songs that you just know he must’ve had to fight Martin Gore for the right to perform it. It definitely screams Martin, but damned if Dave didn’t pull it off.
“Sister of Night” (Ultra, 1997): Although he’s clean now, Gahan freely admits that this song’s vocal was the only one on the album that he performed while high.”I can hear how scared I was,” Gahan told Q. “I’m glad it’s there to remind me. I could see the pain I was causing everybody.”
“Freelove” (Exciter, 2001): One of the final songs recorded for Exciter, it was also the album’s third single, and while the album version is good, this is arguably one of the better single versions of the band’s career.
“Suffer Well” (Playing the Angel, 2005): Included not only because it’s a solid performance by Gahan but also because – believe it or not – it was actually the first ever Depeche Mode to be written by Gahan.
BONUS TRACK: Dave Gahan, “Dirty Sticky Floors” (Paper Monsters, 2003): It took a long time for our man Dave to finally decide to venture out beyond the comforts of Depeche Mode and take a shot at a solo career on the side, but when he did... Well, to be fair, it still ended up sounding rather a lot like Depeche Mode, but only because that’s just the sort of thing that happens when you’re the lead singer of a band. Still, Gahan co-wrote the songs with Knox Chandler, who’s worked with everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Siouxsie and The Banshees, and the end result showed Gahan in fine form, starting with this album opener, which also served as the album’s first single.