/ Only you, Mute, 1982
Or how to point the way towards a new musical genre using a B side. While ‘Only you’ was a huge synthpop hit for the unlikely coupling of former Depeche Mode song writer Vince Clarke and bluesy soul singer Alison ‘Alf’ Moyet, reaching number two in the UK, it was in the grooves of ‘Situation’ that you could truly hear the future; the bleeping and percussive melody of A Guy Called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo ray’ germinating alongside the pitch-shifting squelch of many another acid house club classic. And thanks to exposure as a single in its own right in the US, where the remix by François Kevorkian made number one on the Billboard dance chart, arguably ‘Situation’ also became one of the strains influencing Detroit techno, Chicagoan house and New York electro.
With his hair in his eyes, that classic signifier of the shy, Vince Clarke was obviously a reluctant pop star. But he was also a man with a golden touch as sure as any pop Midas you care to mention, for in his time he has founded no less than four groups – Depeche Mode, Yazoo, the Assembly and Erasure – which have gone on to have top ten hits.
For writing more joyful pop songs, for singing them better than Phil Oakey (not hard), I prefer Depeche Mode over the more originally inventive Human League. ‘Dreaming of me’, ‘New life’ and ‘Just can’t get enough’ were an opening hat-trick of which a pop group of any era might be proud, revealing a melodically-gifted song writer whose inward-looking lyrics were typically characteristic of a self-obsessed young man desperate to leave behind the boredom of school days for a life of unfettered musical dreaming. And while ‘Don’t you want me’ was the biggest hit, it was ‘Just can’t get enough’ just as much as ‘Open your heart’ that had pop-obsessed school boys pestering their parents for the Casio VL-Tone as that year’s Christmas present.
Disinclined to follow Depeche Mode into the darkness suggested by the emerging themes of Martin Gore’s song writing, Vince left the group after this trio of singles, with the Mode still in the first throes of fame. Though I warm most to Clarke’s relatively innocent and supremely poppy version of Depeche Mode, when Dave Gahan danced like a Thunderbirds puppet on a string rather than suffering like the junky Christ on a cross he (penultimately) became, Martin Gore’s Mode still had a lot to offer, and continued the extraordinary run of great pop singles started by Vince. Gore was still fashioning traditionally structured melodic pop songs in the fresh clothes of synthpop even as the Mode left the last vestiges of their Basildon youth behind and headed for the decadent delights of a Weimar Republic Berlin phase.
When Vince re-emerged as one half of Yazoo, he didn’t have to tag himself as ‘formerly of Depeche Mode’ for long. ‘Only you’ was immediately striking and sentimentally powerful, and it still sounds fine today, an upright and evergreen early standard of the age of electronic music, with the substance to survive and shrug off the irritant factor of the Flying Pickets’ a cappella version, a Christmas number one in 1983.
With Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture just come to an end, it’s worth pointing out that with Yazoo’s debut LP Upstairs at Eric’s, we are not talking upstairs at that city’s second (or third) most famous club, but upstairs at Blackwing studios, where Eric Radcliffe engineered the early Depeche Mode singles and Yazoo’s two albums. Opening salvo ‘Don’t go’ is ‘Situation’ worked up into a dance-pop anthem, while the electro-funk of ‘Bring your love down (didn’t I)’ completes a trio of potential floor-fillers along with the hi-energy proto-house of ‘Goodbye 70’s’. Meanwhile ‘Too pieces’ and ‘Bad connection’ are in the classic vein of early Depeche Mode, with Moyet starring in the role Gahan might have taken and coming out about even – she fits less well but score points over Dave through sheer oomph and natural singing ability. And on ‘Midnight’ Yazoo pulled off what was probably the first true meeting of soul and synthpop. There’s even room for an experimental spoken word piece, ‘I before e except after c’, a cross between the ‘I am sitting in a room’ that Paul Morley writes about at such edifying length in Words and music and the venerable gobbledegook of Ogdens’ nut gone flake enlivener Stanley Unwin. It was a mind-bending puzzle for a young listener; hypnotic too. I played Upstairs at Eric’s so much that my copy bears the characteristic sound of my first record player’s stylus permacut into the vinyl’s grooves.
By the time You and me both was released in 1983, the balance has tipped too far towards Alf’s bluesy soul, with Clarke suffering a dip in song writing form; Moyet’s songs were easily the best of the bunch. ‘Nobody’s diary’ was undeniably yet another great pop song, more confidently executed by the duo than anything on Upstairs at Eric’s, but no less fresh in its intertwining of electronically generated music and soulful human voice. ‘Ode to boy’ reworked the Human League’s ‘Being boiled’ as a ballad of lovesick infatuation; its tones of Japan (both the country and the group) lingered long in the ear, as did Alf’s near-operatic performance on ‘Anyone’.
And that was it for Yazoo, until last year’s reunion and box set. Vince had a subsequent run out as the Assembly, with Feargal Sharkey surprisingly doing the vocal honours on the single ‘Never never’. Feargal you’ll recall was the man who had sung with the Undertones of his perfect cousin:
His mother bought him a synthesizer
Got the Human League into advise her
Now he’s making lots of noise
Playing along with the art school boys
Girls try to attract his attention
But what a shame it’s in vain total rejection
He will never be left on the shelf
Cos Kevin he’s in love with himself
It must have been a not dissimilar working relationship to Vince’s with Alf, save that it’s even harder to imagine the combination of the garrulous Feargal and the mute Vince once tools and mike were downed. (Train spotters’ note: you can hear a pre-programmed rhythm from the aforementioned Casio VL-Tone on ‘Stop/start’, the B side of ‘Never never’ – it comes in at 0:33.)
An increasingly militant and intolerant teenage disciple of indie, I soon lost track of Alison Moyet, our paths only crossing again when she sang ‘Make a change’ on Tricky’s post-Maxinquaye project, Nearly God. Not so much a song as a series of vocal phrases over a typical Tricky loop, other Nearly God vocalists – Terry Hall, Björk – were better served musically than Moyet. I could never summon up the remotest interest in Erasure. Rightly or wrongly my in-built switch-off device kicked in, and I couldn’t tell you the name of even one of their hits. Evidently Vince decided to let his hair down – or rather, pushed it out of his eyes – and concentrate on having fun, and good luck to him. But it’s his early magical moments to which I regularly find myself returning, travelling back to glimpse those mechanically mercurial sounds of the future.