The Remix Era

Before mash-ups, there was Depeche Mode.

CD cover

The rise of the mash-up and of easy, cheap sound-processing software means that remixes—especially hip-hop remixes—are all over the Web. There are dozens of homemade, online remixes of Jay-Z’s The Black Album alone. The concept has even migrated to literature, images, comic books, and beverages—Coca-Cola is now issuing an annual “remix” flavor of Sprite.

But as pop culture has merged with remix culture, the literal remixes of alternative pop that brought the idea to the public have gradually been vanishing from record stores. So, there’s something funereal about Depeche Mode’s new three-disc Remixes 81-04 (Mute/Reprise—there’s also a one-disc condensation). The British new wave group has been inactive for almost four years, and even if it hasn’t quite broken up, the dates on the new collection might as well be engraved on a tombstone: Depeche Mode were present at the beginning of the synth-pop remix era in the early ‘80s and rode it to success a few years later, and now they’re eulogizing its end.

Before remixes were widely marketed to record buyers, they were put together for the benefit of discotheques. Extended versions of disco tracks, aimed at DJs, proliferated in the late ‘70s. (Walter Gibbons’$2 1976 remix of Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent” is usually cited as the first commercially available 12-inch remix single.) But in the early ‘80s, a few bands started to release or commission multiple, radically altered remixes of the same song, meant for home listening.

Depeche Mode jumped on the idea: The 12-inch version of their sunny 1981 single ” Just Can’t Get Enough” shifted gears for its last few minutes into a minor-key dirge. By 1984, they were issuing a steady stream of remixes. Two of the best from that year, both mixed by the experimental dub producer Adrian Sherwood, appear on 81-04: “Are People People?,” a near-abstract collage assembled from metal-on-metal clinks and whirrs sliced off DM’s song “People Are People,” and Sherwood’s “ON—USound mix” of the S & M-lite whipalong ” Master and Servant,” which inflates and distorts the creepiest elements of the original recording until it sounds genuinely menacing. Everyone was doing it by then, of course: In 1984, you could even buy 12-inch singles featuring drastically reworked mixes of Yes and Bruce Springsteen songs.

A lot of the pop remix boom had to do with the British music business, which was driven by singles sales even more than its American equivalent in those days. If bands could get a fan to buy the same song three times, so much the better. So, a lot of the artists who reliably delivered impressive remixes were the new wave stalwarts of the U.K.: New Order, Tears for Fears, the Art of Noise, the  Cure, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and above all Depeche Mode. By the late ‘80s, the alternate mix was accepted as an expressive tool—a way to present a song from a different angle. Some remix EPs were even issued as cassettes, which were all but useless for club speakers, but great for headphones. If you weren’t into a band or a song, hearing it banging away for 10 or 20 minutes was like watching a director’s-cut DVD with every one of its commentary tracks, consecutively; if you were a fan, it was sheer heaven.

In 1987, Depeche Mode made their next leap as alternate-versioneers: The remix of their typically dour “Behind the Wheel” incorporated an atypical hefty distorted guitar and segued into a perky cover of Bobby Troup’s “Route 66.” It became an alt-rock hit and freed them up to try a series of progressively wilder mixes. They didn’t have much time to experiment, though, because in the early ‘90s, a series of shifts in the music world started killing off pop remixes meant for anyone other than club DJs.

One was a transition in alternative music itself. In the mid-’80s, a lot of the core repertoire of alternative radio stations was synth-pop, which lends itself to reconceiving the sound of a record. By the ‘90s, these stations had shifted to a guitar-rock model, in which the recording is alleged to represent a live performance—it wouldn’t make much sense to remix a Green Day song, for instance. Meanwhile, “remix collection” became nearly synonymous with “contract-filler to suck money out of fans.” And a schism developed between dance-club music and conventional songwriting: Groove-focused DJs, some of whom were now stars in their own right, came to anathemize the chord changes of pop songs.

Since the late ‘80s, Depeche Mode’s songwriter Martin Gore has been coming up with progressively simpler melodies, which makes them easier to transfer to celebrity remixers’ single-minded dance tracks. Still, 81-04 illustrates the fact that, by the mid-’90s, DJ mixes of pop songs had generally become more about the mixer than the song. Underworld’s “Hard Mix” of ” Barrel of a Gun,” from 1997, for instance, is only nominally a Depeche Mode record or “Barrel of a Gun”; it’s an Underworld record, decorated with a few stretched-out phonemes’ worth of DM singer David Gahan’s voice. Only one of the new mixes on 81-04 has much to say about its source material: Headcleanr’s take on 1986’s ” Nothing,” which replaces all of the original electronic instrumentation with a standard-issue punk band and gets a sturdy grunge song out of it.

The finishing stroke for the alterna-remix, though, was that American record labels have gradually phased out commercially available singles—especially vinyl singles. Depeche Mode can still sell 12-inches, but most other bands that aren’t aiming for club or hip-hop audiences can’t. Even in the U.K., singles are nearly extinct—the Independent recently reported that selling only 2,000 copies will now get one into the Top 40. And if there’s not a single to buy, there’s not much reason to commission remixes to fill it with.

Even though new alt-rock songs usually get remixed only by amateur mash-up artists, the remix has hardly disappeared from the hit parade; actually, it’s more prominent than ever. It’s just that the remix-for-listeners is now almost exclusively the territory of R & B and hip-hop, thanks to their studio-centric recordings and insatiable demand for new or partly new material. (P. Diddy called an album We Invented the Remix, which has a grain of truth to it.) A contemporary R & B remix might also involve a guest verse from a different artist, or different lyrics. See, for instance, R. Kelly’s hit “Ignition (Remix),” whose chorus starts “It’s the remix to ‘Ignition’/ Hot and fresh out the kitchen.” Some mash-up wag has to combine that with “Behind the Wheel.” It’s just a question of time, as Depeche Mode might say.