Synthesizer Soul: Yazoo's Upstairs At Eric's 30 Years On
, August 23rd, 2012 07:46
On the 30th anniversary of its release, Vince Clarke tells John Freeman how Yazoo’s groundbreaking debut album was all about "the singing and the tunes"
In 1982, at my rundown grammar school in a grey suburb of Manchester, musical battle lines had been drawn - you either liked Japan or The Human League. You couldn't like both and had to display an allegiance. It was akin to Bloods versus Crips or Montagues versus Capulets but with a penchant for Roland synths and lots of floppy hair. I loved both bands but in an early display of shameful social fence-sitting, I hid this decadent truth and publicly sided with Japan.
Very little united us: Soft Cell were a tad too edgy and The Smiths were still a few months away. As pre-pubescent 12-year-old boys, we defended our choices with a bullish swagger and a vast ocean of ignorance. Then, in the springtime, a single was released that comfortably straddled the great divide. Every last one of us loved 'Only You' by Yazoo. While the electronics were familiar, the stark ballad offered something very different – soul.
Yazoo were a duo from Basildon, comprising of synth-king Vince Clarke and singer Alison Moyet. They quickly followed 'Only You' with a storming second single – 'Don't Go' was a belting synth-pop anthem which showcased a bouncing Clarke melody and Moyet's rich and glorious voice. Then, in August of 1982, the pair released their debut album Upstairs At Eric's; a record that married a number of strikingly simple melodies to dark lyrics and Moyet's extraordinary vocal range.
In 1982, we already knew about Vince Clarke. He'd been in Depeche Mode when they'd released the singles 'New Life' and 'Just Can't Get Enough'. The tough Human League lads at school thought Depeche Mode were too weedy but I (again) quietly liked them. In November 1981, Clarke had quit the Mode citing a combination of touring boredom and a disdain for pop stars' goldfish bowl existence. However, he'd written a new song and wanted to find someone to record the vocals.
Weeks later, Clarke responded to a Melody Maker advert looking for someone to form a "rootsy blues band”. The ad had been placed by fellow Basildon resident Alison Moyet, who he knew from the local post-punk pub circuit. The new song was 'Only You' and when the pair agreed to meet up, Moyet instantly nailed the vocal and Yazoo were up and running. They quickly wrote a batch of songs and recorded them on the first floor of Blackwing Studios in London with engineer Eric Radcliffe – hence the album title Upstairs At Eric's.
Three decades on, Upstairs At Eric's remains a fascinating listen. Packaged in Joe Lyon's iconic cover photography, there is a simplicity in the compositions – perhaps born out of Clarke and Moyet's technical naivety at that time – which swathes the record in an uncluttered charm. Nevertheless, Upstairs At Eric's is a hugely expressive set of songs, stemming from Moyet's ability to sing from deep within her soul. The songwriting credits are neatly split and if Clarke was the more experienced in terms of previous chart success, it didn't show. While he penned the album's hit singles, a number of Upstairs At Eric's tracks revealed Moyet's bleak worldview. In particular, two Moyet-penned songs, the emotionally-charged 'Midnight' and the beautiful piano-led ballad 'Winter Kills', were delivered with captivating rawness and honesty. However, Upstairs At Eric's was not only about soulful ballads. If Moyet's raging 'Goodbye 70's' dripped with disco-beat spite, both 'Don't Go' and the pulsating 'Situation' (which was the b-side to 'Only You' in the UK and released as a single - against the band's wishes - in the US) became huge hits in American clubs. Yazoo had crossed over. Ground had been broken.
The duo went onto release another fine album (1983's You And Me Both), but, as quickly as Yazoo entered our lives, they imploded in a tangle of non-communication. The introverted Clarke would internalise his issues which would both confuse and frustrate the explosive Moyet. Yazoo split during the summer of 1983. Clarke, via a brief sojourn with The Assembly, would go onto form the resolutely successful Erasure with Andy Bell, while Moyet would embark on a solo career that would include the classic pop of 'All Cried Out' from her 1984 debut album Alf. The pair would reunite in 2008 to play a series of shows that, having never toured the You And Me Both album, symbolised an act of closure.
Thirty years after the release of Upstairs At Eric's, 2012 has spewed out of vast array of synth pop bands and very few - if any – possess even the semblance of Yazoo's electronic soul.
The Quietus spoke to Vince Clarke about his recollections of Upstairs At Eric's, a record that he describes as "a bit of a mish-mash.”
What were your first impressions of Alison?
Vince Clarke: By the time Alison and I started working together I did kind of know her. I'd seen her perform in a couple of local R&B bands and a punk band [The Vandals], so I knew she had a great voice. When I finally got to meet her I found her to be incredibly shy, which was opposite to her personality in this particular punk band.
What was it about Alison that made you want to work with her?
VC: Well, I only had one song, 'Only You', which I wanted to demo and that was the sole purpose of hooking up in the first place. I knew that she could sing with a lot of emotion and this particular track was a love ballad. I was looking for someone who could put that across.
What was that very first practice session like?
VC: It was great. We were using this tiny four-track tape recorder and I had the backing track already done. She came around to my flat in Basildon and just sang it in one or maybe two takes. The song wasn't particularly challenging for someone of Alison's abilities. But immediately in the recording there was this sense of seriousness and almost pathos – it was a really great performance.
You then played 'Only You' to Daniel Miller at Mute and he wasn't immediately impressed. I've read that you were pretty close to quitting music at that point. Was that the case?
VC: Pretty much. When I first played the track to Daniel I had gone to his office and he was busy messing about with a synthesizer, as usual, and he didn't seem to be particularly interested. I did think to myself that that was the end of my musical career and I'd need to get a proper job. But that the same evening, the publisher came into the office and he was with a load of other publisher associates and they heard the track and were really enthusiastic about it. That possibly influenced Daniel's opinion.
As you began to create songs for Yazoo, did your songwriting change compared to how you'd written previously for Depeche Mode?
VC: No, I don't think my writing changed. Hopefully my songwriting was getting better but I wasn't writing songs for Alison's voice per se, I was just writing what I thought at the time were quite good songs. I knew that Alison had some ideas for songs as well - she plays piano better than I do - so we just came together and it was a bit of a mish-mash really. There was no concept or theme running through the album; we were just messing about in the studio.
Part of the charm of that album is a naivety. There really wasn't a profound concept that was running through the recording. I didn't really know what I was doing in the studio and Alison hadn't much experience of being in a recording studio, so everything was new. We'd make one sound and we'd think it was great and just stop there and wouldn't make any more sounds. It wasn't like we were continually honing or over producing songs because everything at the time sounded fresh. That's why a lot of the tracks only have eight or nine elements to them.
The title of the album refers to the studio in which you used. What are your memories of the recording process?
VC: We were recording at Blackwing Studios where I recorded the first Depeche Mode album. It was the only studio we knew and the engineer, Eric Radcliffe, was – and is – fantastic. Back then, Blackwing was the studio that Mute were using for all their artists so Fad Gadget was recording his second album at the same time. He was doing the regular hours of 11 in the day until 11 in the evening and so we would get there at about five or six in the morning and just do that early shift.
VC: Yeah, I wasn't a morning person at the time.
There were a couple of songs on Upstairs At Eric's that were very popular in American clubs. Was that a surprise to you?
VC: It was. The first track released by Yazoo in the US was the b-side of 'Only You', a song called 'Situation'. Both Alison and I were very distressed at that being released as a single at the time because we felt 'Only You' was a better song. We couldn't really relate to the way the American market worked, but the American record company insisted on it and did remixes and stuff. But, in the end, it worked out really well for us. We weren't really consciously trying to get into the American dance scene, although both of us were aware of the fact that as far as playing live – which we were considering – dance music was by far the most exciting music to perform just because of the instant reaction from the audience.
What's your favourite song on Upstairs At Eric's?
VC: It's probably 'Only You' just because it was the first song that was written and I remember the song coming together really easily. Other than that, my favourite would be 'Midnight', a song that Alison wrote. She had it already and at the time I thought it was a real challenge to orchestrate and write music for. I didn't appreciate it at the time, and I certainly didn't appreciate her vocal performance on that track. Now I do.
The artwork for Upstairs At Eric's is stunning – what are your memories of how the cover image came about?
VC: I remember seeing the cover artwork and I really liking it. I actually went to see the set-up which was in this guy's photographic studio. But, what really blew me away was that it cost so much. I was fresh off the dole and I couldn't believe you could charge that much for a photograph. Don't get me wrong, I did appreciate it – I think it is a really fantastic cover and completely unique. And well worth the money.
I read a quote from Antony Hegarty who said he wanted Hercules & Love Affair to sound "as much like Yazoo as possible.” Thirty years on, do you think Upstairs At Eric's has left a legacy?
VC: I guess it was pretty different sounding to anything else at that time. I don't think we felt we were the forerunners or pioneers of anything, we were just making music. The whole period, in all music, was incredibly exciting – when you don't know anything everything seems wonderful.
My memory was that it was the first record I'd heard that sounded like soul and blues music that just happened to be played on a synthesizer. Would you agree?
VC: I think that's how it turned out but it wasn't how we planned it. I suppose, at the time there were quite a lot of bands that sounded like robots – which I loved – so I guess we were doing something a bit different. However, the Eurythmics were also trying to capture that soul-meets-electronic kind of sound.
Do you think Upstairs At Eric's has aged well?
VC: The sound of the album has stood up well, even if some songs have aged better than others. When we did the recent  tour, I hadn't played that stuff for 20 years or even listened to it. When I started analysing the tracks I was amazed at how simple they were and how straightforward the arrangements were. There wasn't anything complicated going on; it was just the singing and the tune.