Dave Gahan, The Frontman: What Makes Him So Great?
January 24, 2021
What is it about Dave Gahan that makes him such a great frontman? After all, he was voted as among the greatest frontmen of all time by multiple press sources (#3 by NME1 and #27 by Q2), but what objectively makes him so great? This article lays out six criteria for what objectively makes a great frontman and explains how Dave excels at each of them. GIFs are included, as well.
1. A great frontman is great at what they do
This first point just goes without saying. If Dave wasn't at all great at what he does- which is singing and performing live...even if he was considered just "good," then there is no point in writing this article. Dave is a great singer. And it isn't purely by accident, though he always had natural talent. Dave has been singing and performing for at least 40 years, so he has plenty of practice and experience within his craft. He has worked with a few different vocal coaches over the years, and he applies a lot of dedication and discipline to honing his skills. He is also great at performing live. He appears to have excellent control of the projection and tonality of his voice. And I think I have rarely ever heard him sing out of tune, even in the early days when he was first starting out performing with Depeche Mode. In a nutshell, he is truly great at what he does, and he appears to work hard at remaining so. So now, let's look at other ways in which he is a great frontman...
2. A great frontman uses anything and everything on stage to his advantage
A good frontman can get up on stage and simply sing or play their instrument really well, and they'd be considered just "good." But what separates "good" from "great" is when they go above and beyond to deliver a dazzling performance without going overboard. In the beginnings of Depeche Mode, Dave used to just sing and maybe do a little dancing, and he really did sound good. But what took him from "good" to "great" was when he started employing lots of different techniques on stage, some of which eventually became his signature. After a while, he'd begin to pick up his microphone stand and dance with it, for example, creating a show that was just as much a feast for the eyes as it was for the ears. He also started moving all over the stage and he did it with great gusto and energy that it drove the audience nuts, of course in a good way. And yes, there is also some pandering to certain members of the crowd when he strips off his top and grabs certain body parts, but that is simply all part of the show. Finally, I must also emphasize what Dave does not do that also makes him great. He doesn't employ any over-the-top theatrics like crazy acrobatics, using random props, or extreme shock value (for example, Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off of a bat). He doesn't need to. He lets the music do the majority of the talking which leads me into the next point...
3. A great frontman lets the music speak for him
Have you ever seen a frontman spend too much time or energy drawing attention to him/herself, on stage or off? Well...of course a frontman will naturally draw attention to himself simply because he is in the spotlight and literally in front at all times. But what I'm referring to is a frontman who doesn't just let the music or his/her performance speak for itself. For example, they will spend a lot of time between songs reciting monologues that have almost nothing to do with the music or they will try too hard, perhaps by dressing or looking wildly different from the rest of their band or doing something that is inherently self-serving. It is, admittedly, a very fine and blurry line but it is noticeable whenever it's crossed. In Dave's case, though, he lets the music speak for him. He doesn't launch into lengthy chatter in between songs- in fact, most of the time, he'll just say, "Thank you," and then move right on to the next song. I find that very respectable and part of what makes him great. With that said, though, he can certainly command attention when he wants to, which brings me to...
4. A great frontman can stand on his own
Frontmen are tested all of the time. They are tested every time they get on stage in front of an audience and they have to lay everything out there for all to see, hear, and yes, even judge. So, if every frontman undergoes the same set of tests, whether it be in front of tens, hundreds, or thousands of people, what sets a great frontman apart from them? Well, in Dave's case, he was tested in a way that few other frontmen are tested, and that was when he performed live on his own without the band that carried him for his entire career up until that point. I am specifically talking about his solo career and more specifically, when he first stepped out on his Paper Monsters world tour in 2003. It was the first time he went on tour without the rest of Depeche Mode with him on stage, and I do wonder how terrifying that must've been for him. But he pulled it off; he had audiences everywhere practically eating out of his hand at those shows and released a highly-rated concert video to boot.
5. A great frontman reaches everyone in the audience
Whether you're in the very front row or standing at the very back, a great frontman will be able to engage every single person in the audience. Dave does this at every show. Sometimes, with people near the front, he will make eye contact with them and engage them in almost a one-on-one experience, ranging anywhere from a simple smile or wave to even signing autographs or holding hands. But he also engages people who are physically distant from the stage by his encouragements to sing along, dance, or move in a way that brings camaraderie. One prime and well-known example of this is the arm wave that he gets everyone to do at the end of "Never Let Me Down Again." He didn't start this tradition originally- it originated in 1988 during the concert at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, where the audience waved their arms back and forth to the beat of the song near the end of it, and Dave was so moved by this gesture, that he was literally in tears by the end of the show. But from then on, it became a tradition among Depeche Mode fans to do this every time this song was played live, and Dave took the reins and made sure that this was done at every show, leading everyone into it, sometimes by climbing up to the highest point of the stage and vigorously waving his arms back and forth in order to have the audience see and follow.
6. A great frontman sets himself apart from all others
Dave is not the only great frontman, I will admit that. There are many others who do meet some or all of the criteria above- Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Freddie Mercury, Michael Hutchence, Simon Le Bon, David Coverdale, and Brandon Flowers to name a few. So, how does anyone even begin to compete in a field like that? By setting him/herself apart from all others, essentially. And this can be achieved by coming up with something unique- a signature. And this is something that Dave has achieved. He has a unique way of dancing and moving around on stage, but his spins are probably the most notable, especially his "mic spins." This is where he picks up the whole microphone stand, turns it on its side, and spins in place for several revolutions. This started as his signature move when he performed "A Question of Time," but he has used it when performing other songs, as well. But spins, turns, pirouettes, or whatever you want to call it- this seems to be Dave's signature stage move throughout the years.
- "Liam Gallagher voted greatest frontman of all time", NME (March 10, 2012)
- "Q286 Exclusive preview", Q (March 30, 2010)
So, what do you think makes Dave a great frontman? Are they any other criteria that you can think of which makes a great frontman and how does Dave meet those? Please comment below!