Depeche Mode vs. The Cure

with respect to Bill Simmons, to whom this column is seriously indebted, we here at Stylus have started Vs. to bring you a series of battles between two similar items on the themes of music, movies, and television, breaking their merits down point by point and seeing which emerges victorious. Agree or disagree with the conclusions? You know the drill. But understand that our methods of empirical data analysis are in fact flawless and therefore should not be disputed.

The Match-Up: Depeche Mode (whose name is French for “Fashion Update”) formed in 1980 in Essex, and within a couple of years of their formation, they were synth-pop royalty in the UK. After their first album, however, songwriter/mastermind Vince Clarke departed to form Yaz, and under the new direction of guitarist Martin Gore, the band got increasingly darker as the 80s progressed, edging further and further away from synth-pop and closer to goth rock. With the release of 1990’s Violator, the band graduated from cult favorite to mainstream success, but drugs and inner conflict started to tear the group apart, and the band gradually lost its mainstream audience and slipped back into cult status, while managing to remain one of the country’s biggest live draws.

The Cure (originally “Easy Cure”) formed in Sussex in 1977, starting out with a crisp post-punk sound but quickly turned slower and more morose, culminating in 1982’s Pornography, seen as a landmark goth album. Acquiring more pop hooks and arena-ready production throughout the second half of the ‘80s, in 1989 they became trans-continental superstars with the release of 1989’s Disintegration, the commercial success of which the band would squander for much of the ‘90s. In the ‘00s, however, they experienced something of a revival, labeled as MTV “Icons,” headlining the Curiosa festival and releasing their self-titled album, the band’s most acclaimed album in over a decade.

Why They Deserve to Be Compared: Like the first Vs. article I wrote for this site, U2 vs. R.E.M., the Cure and Depeche Mode were two of the only alternative rock bands of the ‘80s to actually achieve mainstream success, and like those two bands, their career paths are eerily similar—both started out as underground successes (at least in the US) that got more and more successful as the ‘80s went on, culminating with both bands’ most acclaimed and popular album at the turn of the decade. In the ‘90s, both bands experienced diminishing returns with each successive album, until the ‘00s when each, officially out of the mainstream spotlight, suddenly became hailed as alt-rock Godfathers and influences on a wide variety of currently successful artists. Not to mention that both bands were, well, kinda dark, and each have a couple of fans that are into the band maybe a tiny bit too much.

Differences Worth Noting: Interestingly, despite the similarities of their career paths, the two bands actually achieved this while going in completely opposite musical directions. The Cure pretty much started out with, or at least quickly arrived at, the darkest sound they would ever cultivate, becoming synonymous with goth rock to the general public, while Depeche Mode started out as a gay synth-pop band—and I mean literally gay, they actually sang songs about coming on to dudes. Then the Cure started getting poppier and lighter while Depeche Mode got harder and more rock-influenced, essentially intersecting sound-wise with their most successful albums, before the Cure got a little bit too fluffy and the Mode maybe got a little too dark and bluesy. Meanwhile, even at their most similar, few would confuse the bands—musically, the Cure were always based in rock while the Mode spent most of their career rooted in electronic music, and in terms of personality, the Cure were self-loathing and introverted while Depeche Mode were confident and heavily extroverted.


Better Debut Album

Neither band’s debut album is really considered to be in their top echelon, but I think both are classics, especially considering that, with the possible exception of DM’s similarly underrated follow-up, A Broken Frame, neither band would sound remotely like these albums again. The Cure’s Three Imaginary Boys bristles with energy (not an adjective that could easily be ascribed to the boys in their later years) and hooks, some of the best and least self-conscious songwriting Smith would ever do. And DMode’s Speak & Spell, the only album of theirs penned by original songwriter Vince Clarke, has some of the best (and best remembered) pure pop songs the band would craft, wholly lacking the goth trappings that often marred their later work (in other words, no Viking chant closers).

Close, but I’m gonna give this one to the Cure—on Speak & Spell, it’s all too clear which songs are the singles, and though “Puppets” and “Big Muff” are pretty nifty, it’s still a bunch of great singles surrounded with a bunch of album tracks that just happen not to suck. TIB stands as one of the Cure’s strongest albums through-and-through, though—not every song is great, but it flows like a dream, and the great songs—“Subway Song,” “10:15 Saturday Night,” “Grinding Halt,” and career top 10’er “Fire in Cairo”—are all classics. It’s enough for the edge.

Winner: The Cure

Better Music Videos

Videos were a key part to both bands’ success, as they provided the images that the bands are now best associated with. Both groups were able to maintain a relatively consistent, and in fact practically diametrically opposite image in their consistent relationship with the same music video director; the Cure with Tim Pope and Depeche Mode with Anton Corbijn. Pope crystallized the Cure’s image with videos that were colorful and often playful while still being intensely private and isolated, the key example being “Love Song,” where the band play alone inside a shimmering, hauntingly lit cave with each member separated from the rest of the group, Smith’s face half-covered by his hair as he cowered in the corner. Conversely, Corbijn’s videos for DM were often excessively gritty, especially the Music for the Masses clips, which are shot in grainy black and white and play like silent French New Wave films, cementing the band’s persona as arty European bad-asses.

The Mode takes it here, because their best video managed to beat the Cure at their own game. The most memorable parts of the video for “Enjoy the Silence” seem like an ideal set-up for a Cure video—Dave Gahan traipses around ornate, panoramic locales on his own while looking for a place where he can just sit by himself in silence. But the brilliant part of ETS is that Corbijn cuts these beautiful long shots with quick clips of the band looking more like AEBAs then ever, as if they’re claiming the Cure’s image for their own (and considering the Cure never made a really memorable video after 1990, looks like it worked). As far as I can tell, the Cure never made an attempt at DMesque new-wave grit (unless they made a video for “How Beautiful You Are,” but I’m pretty sure they didn’t). I doubt it would have been very successful anyway.

Winner: Depeche Mode

Better Covers of the Band By Other Bands

Several generations of artists have been influenced in one way or another by both of these groups—more on that later—and many of them have proven their devotion by covering the band’s classics. Depeche Mode has Lacuna Coil’s “Enjoy the Silence,” Johnny Cash’s (and Marilyn Manson’s) “Personal Jesus,” In Flames’ “Everything Counts,” A Perfect Circle’s “People Are People,” Tricky’s “Judas,” Placebo’s “I Feel You,” and the entirety of the For the Masses tribute album (several tracks of which I still can’t listen to the originals without thinking of—especially Rammstein’s cover of “Stripped”). The Cure has Dinosaur Jr’s “Just Like Heaven,” 311’s “Lovesong,” Smashing Pumpkins’ “A Night Like This,” the Dismemberment Plan’s “Close to Me,” The Living End’s “10:15 Saturday Night” and the entirety of the 100 Years tribute album, which I have not heard but assume sucks, because all tribute albums suck (including For the Masses, pretty much)

The great majority of these covers are not good. With the exception of DiJr.’s “Just Like Heaven,” Cash’s “Personal Jesus” and maybe one or two others (M’s French reading of “Close to Me” sounds like a synth-pop Eddie Cochrane, which is kinda cool), most of these covers fail to capture something of the original—the attitude, the production, the hooks, the delivery, the evil (or in the case of Rammstein’s “Stripped,” the not-quite-that-evil). You could say that both bands are inimitable, but considering the existence of Camouflage’s “The Great Commandment” and The Rapture’s “Olio,” we know this clearly not to be the case—for some reason, bands tend to be superior at writing their own Cure and Depeche Mode songs than re-writing already existing ones.

Anyway, the victor here is Depeche Mode, basically for the same reason as the last category—the Cure have covered Depeche Mode (a half-hearted run through of “World in My Eyes” from For the Masses), and Depeche Mode have not, as far as I can tell, ever covered the Cure. For all we know (or more importantly—for all the Cure know), Depeche Mode don’t even like the Cure. And that’s what I call leverage.

Winner: Depeche Mode

Better Classic, Universally-Beloved Single

Both the Cure and Depeche Mode are among the great singles bands of our time, the Cure having released one of the most canonical singles comps of all-time with 1986’s Staring at the Sea (or yes, Standing on a Beach if you still own a cassette player), and I feel if they cut it at “The 13th,” Galore would be held in similar esteem. Though DMode never released a comp quite so beloved, they get my vote for the third greatest single run of all-time for their ’87-’93 run, just below the Beatles ’62-’65 and New Order ’82-’87. The amount of classic singles both bands have released is truly staggering, which is why neither band will ever have a satisfying single-disc compilation ever released, though record labels will undoubtedly keep trying.

Still, both bands have one single that stands out from the pack—“Just Like Heaven” for the Cure and “Enjoy the Silence” for Depeche Mode—the songs that always functions as the bands’ representatives on “Greatest ___ Songs of the Last ____” lists, and the songs that most people are likely to principally associate with the bands. Though “Enjoy the Silence” is undoubtedly a classic, this isn’t really much of a debate for me—“Just Like Heaven” has a strong claim to being the best rock/pop song of the 80s, and is clearly one of the most brilliant songs ever written. Plus, I analyzed it for a High School poetry assignment once—even at my most immature and self-deluded, I’d never consider DMode lyrics anything approaching poetry. And I had a hell of a 7th grade.

Winner: The Cure

Better Classic, Universally-Beloved Album

Disintegration vs. Violator, obviously—though I don’t think Music for the Masses is very far behind Violator, it’s obvious which the band’s definitive album is, and the Cure don’t even have a close 2nd to Disintegration Despite both albums being alt-rock essentials, this is probably the easiest category of all to decide—Depeche Mode never made a perfect album, and Violator, despite containing arguably the best set of three singles (“Policy of Truth,” “Personal Jesus” and “Enjoy the Silence”) ever to appear on the same album, is still clunky as shit. Note to bands: Never put a song as slow and draggy as “The Sweetest Perfection” as your album’s second track. It’ll end in tears, and inevitable hitting of the “>>” button.

Disintegration, however, is one of the few albums that can be considered totally flawless. Could it stand to be a bit shorter? Yes, but really no—it’s the rare blockbuster album where the lagging parts are just as important to the album’s success as the poppy hit singles, and if it were up to me, I wouldn’t shave a second off the CD’s 70 minute+ running time (and, yes, I know “Last Dance” and “Homesick” aren’t on the original album, but I can’t imagine Disintegration without them). Everything that’s wrong about Violator is everything that’s exactly right about Disintegration, so this one is a cinch.

Winner: The Cure

Less Embarrassing Songs

Ooch, no one’s a winner on this one. To be fair, I’ve never considered liking the Cure or Depeche Mode to be embarrassing on the whole—in fact, the two bands reflect something of a generation gap in public conception. I’ve talked to people who were actually around during these bands’ imperial runs, and more often than not, they express love for the bands with looking-over-their-shoulder hesitance—being around when the weird, freaky kids were the ones to spazz out over these bands has instilled them with a lifetime of guilt for enjoying them. But now, just about everyone likes DM and the Cure, especially since so many of the weird, freaky kids who listened to them in the 80s grew up to form some of the biggest mainstream acts of the late-90s and 00s. Today, finding these bands as embarrassing only makes a little more sense to me than finding, say, Sonic Youth or The Replacements embarrassing.

That said, both bands have a truly shameful number of songs in their repertoire that justify every negative thing ever said about them, songs so unthinkably gauche that it’s amazing that the same people had once written “Just Can’t Get Enough” or “Boys Don’t Cry.” Ballads seem to be both band’s weak spot, with DMode flatlining on songs like “World Full of Nothing,” “One Caress,” “Pimpf,” “Microcosm” and fan-but-not-Unterberger-favorite “Somebody,” and the Cure putting themselves on the slab for “A Thousand Hours,” “Wailing Wall,” the career nadir-providing theme to Judge Dredd and the great majority of the second half of Wild Mood Swings.

Giving this one to Depeche Mode, for two reasons. One is that, with the exception of the previously mentioned “Microcosm,” Depeche Mode seem to have largely phased these songs out of their repertoire in the last decade or so, while I’m not convinced that the Cure are out of the woods yet. And the second is that Depche Mode’s embarrassing songs seem to be more about failed experiments rather than undercooked halfassery or legitimate songwriting experiments. Those always seem more forgivable, to me anyway.

Winner: Depeche Mode

Better Album Covers

The other most important part of each band’s respective image (and few non-metal bands in history have relied more on image than these guys) is in the album cover department. The Cure have a number of classics—the lip close-up that could also be seen as two slimy maggots (dichotomy!) gracing the cover of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, the creepy open-shutter blur setting up Pornography and the “how much more grey could it be? The answer is none. None more gray” defining visual of Faith. Hell, I even like the much-derided, symbolically household appliance-laden cover of Three Imaginary Boys.

However, Depeche Mode once again have an ace up their sleeve with Anton Corbijn, whose extended contributions to the band should have earned him member status by now. His stark but instantly iconic covers for Music for the Masses and Violator practically seal the deal for the band on their own, assisted by the similarly unforgettable cover to A Broken Frame. The nail in the coffin for the Cure in this category is their dropping the ball with the imminently forgettable and incredibly disappointing cover to the band’s classic album, Disintegration One of the least memorable covers to a classic album ever released.

Winner: Depeche Mode

More Influential Outside of the Goth-Rock Genre

As previously mentioned, though it must’ve seemed unthinkable to fans of the bands back in the 80s, Depeche Mode and the Cure went on to be two of the most influential and name-checked bands of their era. Obviously nearly every goth-rock band that followed in their footsteps owes something to one or both bands, but even outside of that genre, the groups have a really stunning number of disciples.

For the Cure: the Deftones, AFI, My Chemical Romance and nearly all non-pop-punk based emo bands, Ivy, 311, the Rapture, the Killers, late-period Blink-182, A Perfect Circle, Smashing Pumpkins circa ’95, KoRn and all other more-self-loathing-than-you-loathing nu-metal bands.

For Depeche Mode: Nine Inch Nails, Ladytron, every band to ever be considered Electronic Body Music, the Deftones, every microhouse artist to ever use the Schaffel beat, Smashing Pumpkins circa ’97, Linkin Park and every nu-metal band that actually cared about good production values, and pretty much all of Detroit techno.

The verdict? Depeche Mode influenced more good music, but the Cure influenced more important music.

Winner: The Cure

Better Follow-Up to a Classic, Universally-Beloved Album

Wish and Songs of Faith and Devotion, despite both initially charting higher than their more acclaimed predecessors (SOFAD even managed the band’s only #1 debut, probably considered unthinkable a decade prior) both were ultimately considered disappointments. Now that the alternative era that these bands helped usher in (conceptually if not musically) was in full swing, both bands were looked at to solidify their status as rock superpowers, and instead released these personal and relatively uncommercial albums. Wish is the sound of the disturbingly sobering Sunday afternoon after the emotionally cathartic, alcohol-fueled Saturday night suicide contemplation of Disintegration, Songs of Faith and Devotion is the unsure second-guessing after the life-altering spiritual purge of Violator.

Both albums are heavily underrated. Wish is maybe the most silently despairing album of the Cure’s career, lacking the grand gestures of Disintegration and Pornography but becoming even more devastating in its overwhelming sound of surrender. And Songs of Faith and Devotion is the only really vulnerable-sounding album the quintessentially cool Depeche Mode would ever create, as well as one that pushed the Mode’s sound in directions it had never gone before and would never go since (the industrial monster “I Feel You” is the band’s most confident, biggest single, the Bauhaus-goes-gospel “Condemnation” is their most moving). It’s really close to a tie here, but Songs of Faith and Devotion just slays me—it’s not perfect, but when an album contains some unbelievable clunkers (and “One Caress” almost hurts) and you can still call it a classic, you know you’ve got something special.

And that statement can also be applied to Depeche Mode in general.

Winner: Depeche Mode

By: Andrew Unterberger
Published on: 2007-03-21
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