A reminder of treasures past, a career recap of one of the brightest British synth pop duos of the 1980s, Yazoo: an Essex ensemble formed by Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet, who has turned 60.
One of the most prolific names in pop, it’s difficult to overemphasise Vince Clarke’s central role in the world-conquering rise of electronica. As if you didn’t know, Clarke’s spent most of his career as the knob-twiddling enigmatic egghead responsible for the synapse-tingling tunes of sassy synth pop duo Erasure, via false starts with The Assembly, Yazoo and a certain Basildon-based four-piece.
Born Vincent John Martin in Woodford on the London/Essex border, in the late 1970s the teenage Clarke was inspired to make electronic music after hearing the early groundbreaking recordings of Merseyside’s Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Yorkshire’s the Human League. Along with Dave Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher, Vince was one of the founding members and the main songwriter of foundational electro combo Depeche Mode.
Apropos of everything, this is the fab four performing their breakthrough single New Life, written by Clarke, on the ITV programme Razzmatazz on 11 August 1981. Dig those not-at-all-rehearsed audience girl dance moves!
The quartet’s music—electronically rendered yet brimming with humanity, hooky-as-hell but tinged with pathos—went on to influence acts as disparate as Pet Shop Boys, Nine Inch Nails, Lady Gaga, and countless techno and house artists.
Following the success of the Mode’s long-playing debut in 1981, Speak & Spell, Clarke had unceremoniously quit the band, citing a combination of touring boredom and a disdain for pop stars’ goldfish bowl existence.
However, he’d written a new song and reportedly offered it to Depeche Mode as a farewell present, but his Basildon bandmates thought it wasn’t quite right as it sounded like something they’d already heard. They were wrong but it hardly hampered their meteoric career, which truly went into overdrive with their second hit, Just Can’t Get Enough, again written by VC.
Clarke was worried that by walking out of Depeche Mode he would lose his record deal with respected indie label Mute Records, and wanted to show them that he still had something to offer them. So the hunt was on for a vocalist.
Weeks later, Clarke responded to a Melody Maker advert.
The ad had been placed by fellow Basildon resident Alison Moyet, a.k.a. ‘Alf’, who he knew from the local post-punk pub circuit. “I advertised for a rootsy blues band and Vincent answered,” Alison Moyet remembers. Moyet didn’t really like synthpop. Clarke was undeterred. Despite having wildly differing directions, Moyet was won over by the song Clarke had written and his positive attitude to making music.
That new song was Only You and when the pair agreed to meet up, Moyet sang the lyrics into a tape recorder, instantly nailing the vocal. Clarke took the demo to Mute, and when the label asked the duo to record the song as a single, Yazoo (Yaz in the US for tedious legal reasons) were up and running.
Only You is a classic Vince Clarke composition; a deceptively simple, yet instantly memorable melody paired with an equally straightforward, yet poetic lyric. His arrangement of the song, though very Eighties in its synthtasticness, is masterful in its careful layering of sounds, creating the perfect tone for the heartache of the song.
Then there is Alison’s vocal. Oh yes.
For a first attempt at professional recording, Moyet’s vocal on Only You is pretty astounding. The first thing you notice is the strength of her voice, it has depth and warmth and a real presence. The next thing you realise is that this is an emotional singer, by which I mean she is not simply performing the song, she is connected to it on an emotional level.
A singer in command of their emotions does not need to rely on histrionics, so the vocal is restrained, yet Alison takes us right to the edge of her pain and shows us the hurt. A perfect moment in pop.
Following Only You, Clarke and Moyet quickly wrote a batch of tracks and recorded them on the first floor of Blackwing Studios in London with engineer Eric Radcliffe – hence the title of one of the greatest debut albums of our times, Upstairs At Eric’s.
Listening back to UAE now, it’s still astonishing how sparse and how few musical elements are present on the tracks. The fact that it works is down to the combination of beautifully direct songwriting, carefully programmed interlocking monosynth parts (at this point Vince was still of the opinion that using chords was a “cop out”!) and Alison’s mellifluous voice. In a Kraftwerkian aesthetic, there are no superfluous production elements and the tracks are allowed to breathe and give space to Moyet’s still stunning vocals and Clarke’s synthetic mastery.
Featuring potent pop gems such the proto-house Bring Your Love Down (Didn’t I), endlessly remixed club hit Situation, and an emotionally charged up-tempo plea for love in Don’t Go, the album showed that a melding of soul and synths could be fitting bedfellows, and pre-dated Eurythmics’ heady hybrid of Dave Stewart’s cold austere electronics and Annie Lennox’s soaring soulful vocal prowess by several months.
Food for thought: perhaps 21st Century soul-pop divas like that over-singing chav Adele ought to have to pay Moyet a portion of her hefty income. Not only that, but Situation and Don’t Go have become so iconic to the New Wave movement (and everything that would become ’80s culture), that they’ve provided the hooks to a new generation of pop tunes.
Dance floor anthem Situation was sampled in The Saturdays’ If This Is Love—a top ten hit in 2008—and currently, Oliver Heldens and Riton’s Turn Me On, a righteous retro banger which uses electro-R&B belter Don’t Go’s ridiculously infectious tinkering synth riff, and is set to be a disco-house smash at a club somewhere near you, but not only you.
The circumstances and speed of the formation of Yazoo sowed the seeds of its destruction. Alison and Vince were strangers with little in common and their very different musical styles and interests meant there was no real meeting of the minds on a creative level.
There was growing tension by the time came around to record a second album. Clarke had thought of Upstairs at Eric’s as a one-off project. Industry execs pressured him into making a follow-up, stating it would not go down well if he was seen to walk out of a second band within a year of the first. Moyet was only 21 at the time, and was struggling to come to terms with being in the spotlight and sudden fame. And she felt that he was leaving her to carry out all the promotional duties for the records by herself.
Take this awkward Italian telly spot, for instance. Allora.
Ironically entitled You And Me Both, the pair worked separately in shifts in the studio to complete it; Vince would record instrumentals in the morning, and Alison would come in the evening to add her vocals.
However this dissent was rarely apparent in the quality of the output. With a couple of exceptions, most of the lyrical content on the record is an icy cold soundtrack to a break-up (hence the snowy cover art for an album released in summer).
One of Moyet’s haunting compositions, Nobody’s Diary, chosen as the LP’s sole single, is a gut-wrenching and powerful tale, set to a typically mesmeric Clarke backing track. The singer’s vocal line “…for the times we’ve had I don’t want to be, a page in your diary, babe” could easily be directed at her soon to be ex-colleague and his now notorious refusal to stick at his musical projects.
On the UK chart dated 21 May 21 1983, Nobody’s Diary checked into the chart at No.20, the same week the duo announced they were checking out to the New Musical Express: “Towards the end of the first album the atmosphere was getting heavy and we weren’t enjoying it too much,” Moyet told NME’s Don Watson. “We decided the initial excitement had gone, and we’ve both got other things we want to do.”
Going one better than Eric’s, You and Me both entered at pole position that July. Project cancelled. But not before one last Top of the Pops appearance. You’ll probably want to look away for the first few seconds of this clip.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRlzy25Kj6U
By only creating two albums (excepting live and compilation works), Yazoo were a sonic candle that burned stunningly bright for a mere 18 months. However, the last thirty-five years have been a bit odd.
A quarter century after they disbanded, Clarke and Moyet surprised everyone by reconciling and reforming Yazoo to play a short tour of Europe and North America during 2008, in support of the reissue of the two studio albums and a comprehensive audio/visual box set of their material. Their Hammersmith show remains one of the best sounding concerts I’ve witnessed. Even my old buddy, S’Express mainman Mark Moore thought so.
V&A briefly reunited in May 2011 for a three-song performance before Erasure’s set at Mute Records’ Short Circuit music festival at the Roundhouse in London, but it seems unlikely that Clarke and Moyet will play together again in the future.
But then, out of nowhere, a completely unexpected and entirely lovely orchestral festive version of Only You was issued as a single just before Christmas 2017, prompted by its use in a Boots telly ad. So anything’s possible.
To recap, Yazoo’s story sort of goes something like this:
- 1982: Upstairs at Eric’s and non-LP single The Other Side of Love
- 1983: You and Me Both
- 1986-1996: CD reissues of singles and albums, and a clubby remix of Situation
- 1999: Only Yazoo best of compilation, and ropey remixes of Only You, Don’t Go, and Situation
- 2008: In Your Room 4CD/DVD box set and surprise reunion tour, random remix singles Reconnected EP and Nobody’s Diary
- 2010: Reconnected Live album
- 2012: The Collection budget 2CD
- 2017: random remix of Only You
- 2018: Four Pieces – A Yazoo Compendium 4LP, 3CD box set including BBC sessions
Footnote: A capella troupe the Flying Pickets had the surprise festive No.1 with their version of Only You in December 1983, famously keeping Culture Club’s Victims off the top spot. I can’t stand it, but, hey, for history’s sake you can make your own mind up.
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