England’s post-punk mythos tells that certain towns became spawning grounds for the pioneering new sound, with Manchester, Sheffield, London and Liverpool generally acknowledged as the quadraphonic holy alliance that gave birth to the sound of Britain in the early 80s. However, often missed in the romantic recollections of musicologists is the pure pop nexus of Basildon, where a small group of school mates somehow managed to form some of the most successful and long-lasting electronic pop acts of that time, including Depeche Mode, Erasure, and the singer Alison Moyet.
Like Depeche and Erasure, Moyet’s rapid transformation from gruff punk spending her dole cheque on studio hire to international pop star involved the firm calculating hand of Ivor Novello-winning songwriter Vince Clarke, whose mysterious gift for frothy pop hooks appears almost occult. However, his project with Moyet, Yazoo, was over as rapidly as it began, with Clarke afterwards forming Erasure, and Moyet venturing uncertainly into what is now a highly successful 30-year solo career. She’s worked with various producers, bands and projects, but has never been absorbed back into a collaborative project again. And yet, despite her multiple number one solo albums and singles since that time, Moyet is both blessed and dogged by her fans’ – and British radio’s – enshrined memory of those two stratospherically successful years three decades ago.
Moyet will revisit the Yazoo years for potentially the very last time at the upcoming Short Circuit Festival at the London Roundhouse as part of a showcase of Vince Clarke’s collaborative endeavours on the label. She shares with the Quietus her memories of the years before, between and beyond Yazoo.
When did you start playing music?
Alison Moyet: For me it really took off with punk, and I think it was less about music then than the culture of it – finding yourself amongst a group of freaks you felt more akin to. It was more about the lyricism and the aggression, and entertaining yourself, really. We lived in a new town where we had no money and there was no culture going on so it was a way of us entertaining one another. We would play in car parks or in fields and everyone was in a band whether you could play an instrument or not. That was the joy of punk, really.
What was your first band?
AM: My first band was called the Vandals that I started when I was about 15 with a couple of close girlfriends from school. We used to walk around the streets singing all the time, telling everyone we were in a band, and then someone actually offered us a gig – which was a problem because we had to pull a set together really quickly. There was a guitar player in my school a year below us, I approached him and said ‘Right, we’ve got a gig next Saturday and you’re playing with us.’ His name was Rubber, and he was Vince Clarke’s best mate. It was us three girls and we’d pick up a different drummer every time – whoever was in the hall and could play drums would have to just come and jam with us. It would be quite brilliant: we’d hijack a pub and everyone would play a set. I think that’s where the big singing came from for me, it was more about the fact that we had really shit PAs than anything. I imagined that if I sang really loudly people would be able to hear me.
How did you end up becoming the singer?
AM: Because I was the most Bolshie. Being a punk in Basildon was quite dangerous, it was very much about clans: there were skinheads, rockers, and there were the punks. In those days one of the first things you did when you met someone in the street is check their feet. If they had pointy shoes and straight trousers you knew they had a certain affinity – you could get a smack for having the wrong shoes on. I was the instigator of the band – I came from quite an aggressive French peasant family, and I was big and argumentative and I wrote the words. So, automatically I went up front.
What happened after the Vandals?
AM: Punk had done its thing – started to become acceptable, appearing on <i>Top Of The Pops</i>. Divisions started within the punk scene which split off into the New Romantic scene or into the pub rock scene – the new wave scene I suppose. I mean people like Elvis Costello and Ian Dury, music that was a bit more melodic, and that appealed to me.
What I didn’t like about New Romantics was that the punks who went that way had dropped all of the principles we had about it not being about your monetary status. Also it just was too ‘prettified’ for me, whereas the pub rock scene in Canvey Island (like Wilko Johnson and Dr Feelgood) seemed a more natural progression of where I was going musically. So I ended up as a part of the British R&B scene in the South East as opposed to where the Depeche lot went which was New Romantic.
Was the R&B scene where you developed your voice? Did you get any vocal training?
AM: No… It wasn’t that kind of blues singing – it was much dirtier than people imagine it now. People have spoken about me as having been this kind of blues-jazz singer, and that gives it a much more ‘honed’ air than it really had. It was actually really thrashy: thrashy punk-blues-rock. My style of singing was based more on male singers than on a kind of gentle female singing, and that is what Vince had me doing in Yazoo. Actually, if you’d have heard ‘Don’t Go’ when Vince first played it to me it was a very straight melody much in the way of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. Those turns in the melody in the final version were things that I brought to it from my own sense of playing R&B. I use that term loosely because R&B means something completely different now from what it did then. I think my singing skills have developed over the years and the way I have applied it has changed with my age rather than being a conscious thing. I don’t think it was until I did <i>The Voice</i> album that I wanted to see if I could control myself better in that way.
Yazoo started from an ad you placed in the paper at that time, didn’t it?
AM: Yes it did. After my previous band The Screamin’ Ab Dabs split up I was looking for another bunch of blues musicians to work with. At the same time, I’d been playing in bands that predated Depeche, and Vince was looking for a singer who was quite different to Dave Gahan. He was looking for a singer generally but looking for my number at the same time, so it was real serendipity that he just opened the paper and there was my number. It was like it was meant to be.
Vince wasn’t what you were after at all, was he?
AM: No, not at all, and I had mixed feelings about it. And yet, what excited me about Vince was his attitude. There was always a lot of ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do that’ talk going on, the hot air-ing of young people who don’t have a great future ahead of them. I left school at 16 completely unqualified, I had no prospects, the idea of university wasn’t even a consideration, and you met plenty of people that were just getting stoned and drunk and kept saying the same things about what they were going to do. Vince was someone that actually turned what he wanted to do into fact and I found that really interesting.
Also, as I said before, I had no money so I had no way of making a demo, and Vince called me up and said he had a song, would I like to go and demo it for him? I thought that if I did this song with Vince I’d have a demo to illustrate how I sang. He played me ‘Only You’. I had a very quick musical memory then and just sang it into his tape recorder. He called me up a week later saying he’d played it to the record company and they thought we should record it. So we recorded it, and when they heard that they said we should make it into a single so tried to find some b-sides. Vince had written ‘Don’t Go’ but that was too good for a b-side so then we wrote ‘Situation’ together, which actually ended up being released as a single in America.
Everything we did at that time just seemed to spark – it just kind of worked. I don’t think Vince ever intended to start a band with me, that wasn’t what he was looking for. He was still very sore, Depeche were his mates and leaving them was like the break-up of a marriage. I think he was feeling angry and disillusioned and wanted to prove himself as a writer, so we got together without having a future, and it just rollercoastered. Everything that we did appealed, and suddenly we were making an album before we’d even been for a pint together or had a relationship or knew anything about each other’s lives.
We had this strange studio relationship where he would bring a song to me or I would bring a song to him and he would do what he did without asking me anything and I would do what I did without asking him anything… there was no conversation. I would write a song and, for the most part, he would just arrange it up then I’d sing on it, or he’d sing me a song on the guitar and then I would play with the melody or not, add vocal pieces and sing it the way that I wanted to. There was no talk about whether this was a gentle song or a dance song, I just sang it as I saw fit.
Given your tastes for heavier sounds, did you like Yazoo’s sound?
AM: I adored it, even retrospectively. What I really liked about it is that my tastes are very eclectic and when you look at the material the songs come from a million different places and yet are tied together by the sound, the voice and the instrumentation we used. What was great about Yazoo is that there was never feeling that you had to give up on anything. I could still sing blues, I could still sing the darker poetry stuff that appealed to me.
There were a couple of light pop moments that appealed less. When it came to ‘Happy People’ on the second album we had a big fallout because I refused to sing it. He did it none the less because he liked it, and by all accounts it was a big hit in Poland [laughs]. There are just some places you can’t go, I tried singing that song a couple of times but I couldn’t genuinely bring anything to it so I wouldn’t do it. But that’s the only time I ever refused a song.
How did you feel about the level of success Yazoo so quickly attained?
AM: It was bizarre, but when I compare having a hit then to having one in the late 80s or the 90s it was so much more exciting. Nowadays when you have a record out you know by day two what the trajectory is, you know mid-week where you’re predicted to go to. In the early 80s you had to sit listening to the chart countdown on Radio 1 to find out whether you were in the charts or not, so there was always this excitement. ‘Only You’, for example, entered the charts at, I think it was 157, but I was thinking ‘157, that’s amazing.’ Also, you wouldn’t be told about the Radio 1 playlist, DJs were playing what they wanted to so you could be completely surprised by something being played. It was a really amazing time, really exciting.
Where it all started going wrong for me was when I started becoming incredibly recognisable. When it was just a song on the charts and the radio, that was brilliant, but, especially with my physicality, I was so recognisable. When you start getting chased down the street… that was just too odd.
How did that affect your personal life?
AM: I found it really difficult because I was one of the only people I knew who wasn’t desperate to escape Basildon. I really liked the town and my friends in it. I never had an aspirational character, and I never wanted to socially climb – none of that stuff ever occurred to me. I just really wanted to be with my mates, just like I’d always been – that’s the sort of thing that matters to me – and it was difficult because you’d want to go to the same pubs as always, but you were constantly getting other people trying to get your attention, to talk to you. So you stop going to those places, and then you start becoming isolated and feeling excluded, and your mates don’t want the hassle of it, either. So instead of fitting in more you actually become more of a freak when you become famous.
That sounds like the opposite of everything you would have wanted as a punk… how did your ‘bolshie’ side react to this excessive artificiality?
AM: You don’t know it until you’re in it, you have no idea what that lifestyle means. I think ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ but at the same time I feel really ungrateful for saying that, because due to moments like that, when I had fallow years I could say ‘no’ because I had earned money and didn’t have to take jobs for the sake of it.
I think what was particularly difficult about that time is that Vince had already experienced that moment with Depeche, and he was also in this blessed position where he was the songwriter but stood at the back so he could disappear if he chose to. When you’re the front person that’s a much more difficult thing to do. Also he was in quite an insular angry place at the time and wasn’t able to understand what I was dealing with, and I was a difficult adolescent/young adult, not naturally graceful or gracious… I wouldn’t have been particularly likeable.
Were you told how to act publicly, as a star? For TV performances and things like that?
AM: No, I was completely left to my own devices. You think of how well prepared youngsters are now, right down to the things they should say to the press, the way they should dress. I remember when I did <i>Top Of The Pops</i> I had been unemployed, I never went into music for money so I’d never asked anyone for any. The first bit of money I got I blew completely on a motorbike so I still had no money, and I remember my mum lent me 30 quid to go down the Basildon market to buy some fabric and a friend made me a dress with it for TOTP. There were no… millions… when people said ‘Have you bought your mum and dad a house yet?’ you thought ‘Are you fucking mental, they’re giving me pocket money!’ [laughs]
Is it true that by the time the second album was being made, you and Vince were starting to fall out?
AM: We’d had problems before that. I think the second album happened because of advice from his publisher, because Vince’d done one album with Depeche and had walked, and then he’d done one album with me and he was ready to walk then. I think that his publisher was going ‘You’re mad – you shouldn’t be doing this, you should make at least one more record.’ But even as we began the second album we knew that it was over, he had already decided he didn’t want to work with me anymore.
It was reported that I had left Yazoo to go and be a solo act, but I never ever had the ambition to be a solo singer. The only reason I did is because I’d become so disenfranchised with Yazoo, in the sense that all the contacts that Yazoo had were Vince’s: he was the one dealing with the record company, the publishers, he was the one who had the mates and I was completely reliant on whether he was communicative with me or not. I’d lost the company of my old bandmates who were appalled that I’d done the kind of record I’d done, or perhaps jealous that I’d got something away, and were determined that it was all going to go badly for me, so I had no mates at the time. Even in Yazoo I’d become solitary very quickly – I didn’t socialise and never networked or anything like that.
All I had were a lawyer and an accountant who really did a job on me saying ‘You’ve got to leave Mute’ and got me a deal with Sony. So now, all of a sudden, I had a deal with Sony and no band, and that’s what made me a solo singer. It was one of my residing regrets, becoming a solo singer. There’s something really brilliant about having other people to share your successes with and to share your fears and anger and your bullishness, having someone onside that truly has as much to gain and as much to lose as you.
So how did it actually end with Vince?
AM: It was Vince’s decision but I can’t remember if it was on the phone or how he told me. I remember asking him to reconsider on one occasion but he was absolutely adamant that he was out, so when we made the second album we were entirely working on our own. He’d go in in the mornings, I’d go in in the evenings, he’d do something then later I’d do something on top of it. It was like a patchwork album where there was no discussion or getting excited about each others’ things. We just worked separately.
You signed to Sony and were expected to do a solo album: what happened next?
AM: It was a really miserable time. My lawyer had told me I was free to sign worldwide and I never had a deal with Mute, that’s not how they worked. However there was a deal with Warner Brothers where they’d release the albums. My lawyer told me I was free to sign with Sony worldwide and then promptly disappeared, and never took any of my phone calls. By the next week I was injuncted by Warner Brothers and that was a really bad time. I had no contact with anybody other than my lawyer and accountant who weren’t talking to me and I was injuncted and there was no way of getting out of it. I said ‘I’ll pop into Warner Brothers’ and did a deal that was stupidly punitive just to get the right to work again: a year of not working.
I became agoraphobic and quite ill, and Sony (they were CBS at the time), their attitude had been ‘Come back when you’ve sorted this out’ – they weren’t going to help me with it. So I didn’t see them for a year. In the first meeting with them after that, I was a complete space cadet. I signed a producer and they did that horrible A&R thing that they do, which is pick up a Music Week and see who’s got one album that we can put together with a certain producer and I was too mad to really consider what was happening. A year of not really leaving the house and not having spoken to anyone was not really conducive to making a good move.
So what had you done in that year? Did you write any music?
AM: I stayed indoors. I literally stayed indoors for a year. I couldn’t even listen to music. Music had been something that I did every day since I was 15 and here I was, 22 or something like that, and I wasn’t allowed to work. And I couldn’t just go and play in local pubs because the week I signed to Sony I’d just been number one so I was really, really recognisable, and sort of famous. So I couldn’t even listen to records, it would make me physically sick.
So how did making Alf go?
AM: It was interesting. I worked with Swain and Jolley on it, they would come around to my house – I had a piano there – and the writing process was really quick and easy. We got the album done in three months and then went to the studio. It was interesting, different from the way that I’d worked with Vince in the way tracks were built up. Also, [I was] working with producers, which Vince and I hadn’t done, so the experience of it was interesting. I ended up really disliking that album for the wrong reasons – I’m much more comfortable with it now than I was then.
What didn’t you like about it?
AM: I disliked it then because I became famous from it – I got so recognisable – and hits really can be the bane of your life. People don’t see that songs are like a diary of where you were at when you were 22, and then you’re 23 and think something different and at 24 something different again. It’s like you are forever tied to your hits and that’s a fucking pain in the arse, because what is appropriate for you musically then isn’t appropriate later on.
What interested me about <i>Alf</i> was just the process of making it. I didn’t really think about where that was going to lead me, or how it would represent me. It was just ‘Oh, we’re doing that are we? OK.’
In the process of making that album, did you begin to find what you’d consider your own sound?
AM: No, I don’t think that started until Hoodoo really. You know, my favourite albums are the later ones. I feel self-conscious in saying that because so often you get artists who are really defensive of their work that’s less known, but lyricism is really important to me and I find the words of a 21-year-old don’t move me. Interestingly enough, I find Yazoo’s work more interesting than the bleatings of an early solo singer.
How do you feel about singing Yazoo songs now?
AM: It’s the songs that were milked on the radio that people remember you for, fans and non-fans alike. The hardened fans that come to my shows are as bored of the earlier stuff as I am… Actually that’s not a fair thing to say – I am less bored of it now because I’d stopped for a while and refused to do them. I can now revisit that innocence without the embarrassment that you feel when you’re close to it, in the same way that with an old lover, as time has gone by, you find it much easier to remember things about them that you did like than the things that you didn’t.
‘Only You’, for example – I have to smile my way through that song because I get so bored singing it. I’ve sung it for over 30 years but what I get now that I never used to get is that it really brings joy to other people, and transports them to for a moment to a time in their life when hope was still a prospect. That one moment of ‘Yes! Thank you!’ gives you enough reason to want to do it again.
How about the Yazoo reunion? Was it full of those ‘grin and bear it’ moments?
AM: I did the Yazoo reunion tour in 2008, and what was really fantastic about doing those shows is that we’d never performed the whole second album live and for the first album we’d done no more than 30 dates. So of all my material, the Yazoo songs have been in some ways the least covered live-wise. Because of that it was not like some nasty karaoke, it was genuinely like doing it for the first time with the complete joy that every single song was thoroughly known by the audience… a set of hits that you’ve never sung live before and at the same time were not hits. It was just brilliant, I had a really great time and it was really good that Vince and I had come through the whole circle of being really angry with each other, forgetting what we’d been angry about, and forgetting that there was ever any displeasure.
It was a blessing to have one of those rare times when you’re accepted by the public, by the media and by the serious music press – there are not many times in your life when that happens.
So what brought you and Vince back together?
AM: It was something that I’d wanted to do for a long time because playing live always has been my favourite part. I’m much happier live than in a studio somewhere, and I do a couple of Yazoo songs in my own shows, primarily because so much of my own material is so bleak I feel I need a moment where people don’t want to go and stab themselves. I look to Yazoo for some of the lighter moments: I’ve done ‘Situation’, ‘Don’t Go’ and ‘Only You’ in my sets. But the majority of Yazoo songs, including half the songs I’ve written myself, I didn’t feel I could do live because they needed not to be done with a generic band. A huge part of what they were was the electronica, and short of getting someone to come and mimic Vince, I couldn’t do those songs. So, I would have played with Yazoo for that reason at any time over the last 20-25 years.
Who instigated the reunion?
AM: I emailed Vince and said: ‘Would you like to play live?’ It’s like Vince was married to Depeche and married to Erasure and I was the transition relationship, and as such, for him to play live with me… well if the shoe was on the other foot and I was Andy Bell I wouldn’t have liked it much, and I think Vince would have felt that it betrayed Andy, so his first reaction was: ‘As much as I’d like to, I can’t.’ Then I think after Andy told him that he wanted to take a sabbatical and not work for year he said ‘Actually, Alison asked me if I’d like to do some Yazoo gigs’, to which Andy said ‘Well, you should go for it’, so he did! I think seeing Vince on stage with Yazoo made Andy miss that very much so he wanted to start working again quite soon afterwards, and that really put paid to us doing any more gigs than we did.
Is that good in a way, not to get caught up too much in the past?
AM: Well, I loved it, I had a great time. We toured England and did some gigs in America and they were great. I would have loved to have done some more worldwide, to hit some of the places we never played in. I would have been happy to have done more, but I’m satisfied with what we did.
And what made you decide that was the time to email Vince?
AM: I always thought that it was a project we hadn’t finished, it was kind of half-done and then put on the shelf with all the other things Vince did. For me, it was unfinished because you never really get to the crux of something until you sing it live, until you’ve toured it… for me it’s almost sad that you record an album and then tour it; it’s a shame you can’t tour an album and then record it, then you’d really find out what’s the meat and bones and what are the feathers for plucking.
You and Vince are both going to be appearing at the Mute festival – might that lead to more shows?
AM: We’ll be performing together and I’m 99.9% sure it’s the last time. I mean, should he change his mind I’m happy to do more Yazoo gigs, but knowing Vince and his fidelity to Erasure I can’t see it happening again. So, as far as i know this’ll be the last time that we’re playing Yazoo stuff together.
Are you still working on a new album?
AM: Yes, it’s a good 70% through. I’ve been working with Guy Sigsworth, and I’m certainly thinking in terms of my next tour being an electronic tour. It ties in with the new album, and means that I can approach some of the early 80s stuff that I’ve done and also deal with a couple of the albums that I’ve not been able to do because they’re so heavily programmed.
Does that mean that you’re writing an electronic album this time?
AM: Yes, it’s effectively a programmed album. It’s not electronica in the sense of that early 80s analogue sound but it is electronic as opposed to acoustic instruments.
You said that Hoodoo and onwards have been your favourite albums; moving forward from that era, how do you think you have developed as a songwriter?
AM: Well, I think that the lyricism has really come to the fore, and I think that’s where my area of strength is. My challenge is that sometimes you write as a songwriter and sing as a singer, which is why I sometimes cover other people’s songs – because sometimes my own stuff is not always suited to a singer. The material that I listen to is not always singer-oriented so when I’m writing I’ll often give more fidelity to the poetry than I would to how to showboat as a singer.
And does it reflect a less turbulent time, a more confident time now?
AM: Well, I certainly think that it’s age-appropriate. You know, I’m coming up to 50 now and what I’m looking for in a lyric is… what I love about writers such as Jacques Brel is that they’re not frightened of showing themselves in a less flattering way. I think you are far more intimidated by that when you are younger – when you’re younger you have to be seen as sexy or edgy, those kind of things, whereas when I’m writing now I’m really happy to be ugly, to see myself in a not very flattering light. There’s a kind of beautiful ugliness in it that you don’t approach when you are younger.
Do you think about what your fans want when you write?
AM: It’s irrelevant for me. I’ve collected fans from every different album, so there will be some that only ever want to see me as a gay diva, there’s some that only want to see me as a dark poet, some that are happy for me to be a euphoric pop singer, some see me as a jazz singer, everyone’s got a different idea and has a different era that they like. I would not write for the marketplace. I did it once: I recorded ‘Weak in the Presence of Beauty’ because I knew it was a hit and I regretted that totally and will never do that again.
So what is important to you in writing a song?
AM: That I move myself.
And how do you know when you have?
AM: Because I cry…
AM: Because I cry, or because I feel… that feeling. There’s a feeling that you get in your stomach that you can’t distinguish between anxiety, euphoria or hunger. You get that kind of feeling when you go: ‘Fucking hell, you’re beautiful.’
(The Quietus, Nix Lowrey , May 4th, 2011 07:50)