From Synth to Soul

Mark Cooper finds the merger that is Yazoo a strangely odd mix.

Yazoo’s Alf and Vince don’t look like the perfect couple. According to Alf, “Vince is about six inches shorter than me … we can never get that close.” If Dollar make a living from making eyes at each other, Yazoo charm by presenting themselves as two separate and distinct individuals.

“I’m a great talker and he’s a great listener,” explains Alf. “Just because we play music together doesn’t mean we have to be seen as one. We could never wear the same clothes!”

Vince stirs in his corner and looks out from under his fringe. He agrees with Alf: “I could never wear suits or anything like that. I wanted to work with her because I knew she had a good voice.”

In half an hour Yazoo will take the stage at Nottingham’s Rock City and play their fourth live concert. Right now, they are remarkably composed, remembering their first encounters back in hometown Basildon.

“We both went to the same Saturday morning music school in Layndon High Road,” says Alf. “We were in the same folk singing class and then we never saw each other again. I was the oboe in the wind ensemble and Vince was the second violin in the orchestra.”

Basildon is a small town but big enough to hold Vince and Alf. Alf soon began to run with a wilder crowd and lean towards the r’n b scene over in Southend: “Punks weren’t very well known in Basildon, or very popular for that matter. I hung out with gentle punks but people thought we were violent. In Basildon, if you dress up, they think you’re violent. My first band was called The Vandals – three girls and two boys.”

Alf would see Vince around town. She didn’t know him but she had him placed: “He was from the quieter side of town. He was a creep! One of those young teenage boys who didn’t appear to direct his life around his music. He wasn’t somebody to make himself notorious around town.”

Vince is a quiet person but obliged to protest at this portrait: “I was into music, I just never really got into the blues. I knew that there was a Southend scene, Canvey Island R’n B, and that there was a punk scene in Basildon. I didn’t know anything about the tradition she came from, I just knew she had a good voice.”

Vince is a reclusive presence. He peers out at the world from behind his synths, his fringe or his Super-8 camera with the wicked grin of a goat boy. He is clearly an individual, a person brave enough to leave Depeche Mode at the peak of their popularity and strike out on his own.

“Depeche was getting to be a bit of a job. I felt at the time we were limiting ourselves musically and onstage. With Yazoo, everything’s totally up to us. We’re at the wheel, so to speak.”

While Vince had gone to fame and fortune with Depeche, Alf played the pubs with her first love, blues and soul, “I’m used to playing in front of audiences of 30 people, not crowds like tonight. If we were lucky, we’d get one support gig a month.”

Alf is a self-confessed purist. When the call came to sing Vince’s ‘Only You’, she was probably a little disapproving of this pop music.

“Originally I saw working with Vince as an opportunity, a stepping stone to getting my own band together. I do see my music separately. First thing in my life is that I’m a singer. The second is that I like singing blues and jazz. Commercially, that’s a more self-indulgent music. Unless you can really push yourself, you can’t get work.”

“I prefer to be a pop singer that a non-working jazz-blues singer. After all, from small fishes, big fishes grow.”

Alf and Vince appear to respect each other’s skills and to appreciate one another’s talents: “He knows 100 per cent more about synths than I do and vice versa with my singing. There’s no way I can get a song down on tape without Vincent and he can’t write songs without me there to interpret them.”

At first, Vince wore the trousers: “He’s still in a greater position of power. There’s no way I could ever do what he does technically. I can’t communicate what I hear in my head. And then, Vince had the reputation. In the beginning, some people were very rude about me, calling me the co-singer, ignoring me, and only talking to Vince.”

Already, this state of affairs seems hard to believe. Vince on stage is a distant and absent-minded professor, Alf is adored. Her voice is huge and full of feeling and the crowd love her for her humility, her singing and her character. A star is born!

‘Upstairs at Eric’s’ is full of sorry tales of love and leaving. Four of the songs are written by Alf, notably the album’s tour de force, the chilling tale of love, as a vampire, ‘Winter Kills’. Yazoo are realists when it comes to relationships: “Neither of us are big dreamers when it comes to affairs of the heart,” says Alf. “We’re definitely not wet. The way I see love is a very selfish thing all about ego and self-gratification.”

Perhaps it’s this view that gives Alf’s worldly voice its sense og suffering. The lady sings the modern blues: “Love songs seem to be the ones that trip of our tongues. I couldn’t sing too passionately about motor cars. But love’s such a load of crap, it’s all games and pride and ego. People always want to possess each other (‘Love just like addiction, now I’m hooked on you’ – from Don’t Go)”.

Once Alf begins to talk of love, she finds it hard to stop: “If I end up with somebody for a long time, it’ll be because I like them. I believe in friendship more than love. It would be very nice to believe in this wishy-washy concept but all I see is people being selfish, out for what they can get, what they can take.”

Alf talks as if she’s been hurt. Her relationship with Vince would appear to approach her ideal friendship. Here two totally different people work together, pooling their skills, respecting their differences. Vince uses synths to compose hummable electro-bop melodies, Alf gives them soul.

“People seem to think it’s a strange combination,” wonders Alf, “but other people have limited themselves. We’re not limited to any style. Other synth players have got hung up on all that mannequin stuff, the plastic man image, all that dreary unhappiness. They’ve listened to fashion.”

Yazoo avoid the fashion for the simple truths of melody and the human heart. This is why their album is number one and Rock City is full tonight. Vince hasn’t been led astray by technique: “The best tunes are the simplest. If you can’t play chords, you’re well on your way. We put chords to the melodies rather than the other way round.”

The difficulties are not apparent. By the time Yazoo finish their set, Rock City is bopping. They’ve listened to the slow ones, strutted to ‘Situation’, currently number one in Americas disco chart, and sung along to ‘Only You’. Alf and Vince have managed this with a few slides, a few synths and a voice. So it’s true, small is beautiful.

“Don’t say that,” says Alf. And smiles.



Originally printed  in Record Mirror on September 25th 1982.Reprinted without permission for non-profit use only.

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