Yazoo – Upstairs at Eric’s

After his shock departure from Depeche Mode just a matter of months earlier, the young Vince Clarke wasted no time by partnering with the incredible vocalist Alison Moyet to form Yazoo (or Yaz, if you were in the US). Their debut release Upstairs at Eric’s first appeared an incredible thirty-five years ago this week.

It opens with the glorious single Don’t Go. Could anything really be better than this? Where Depeche Mode‘s debut Speak and Spell was naïve and at times a bit silly, this has all the confidence of a group that might have been around for decades. They hadn’t – Clarke and Moyet were still barely in their twenties.

This isn’t a perfect album, by any means – Too Pieces, for example, is nice but doesn’t quite sound fully formed. But at worst, everything on here is pleasant – and a lot of the time, as with Bad Connection, it’s actually pretty good. Taking heavy influence from the soul and Motown tracks of the preceding decade or so, there’s a lot to enjoy about it.

Curiously, the longest track on here is the experimental instrumental I Before E Except After C. Understandably omitted from the early CD versions (it was replaced with a couple of non-album tracks), it’s a bit of an oddity. As a minimum, it does include the famous Alison Moyet laugh that would be sampled by the Spice Girls a decade and a half later. You can appreciate this a lot more if you try to remember just how young sampling technology was at this point.

Midnight is the first of four Moyet-penned tracks, and does show a very different songwriting style. It’s a brilliant combination, actually – maybe Clarke found it difficult initially to work his synthesiser sounds around someone else’s song, but he seems to have taken to it extremely well.

Side A closes with the brilliantly experimental In My Room, which could easily have been a catchy pop song, but is instead haunting and eerie, punctuated by Vince’s sampled vocals and essentially only one or two instrumental sounds at any given time.

Then Side B opens with the fantastic debut single Only You, a song which Clarke had famously offered to Depeche Mode as a leaving present. It goes without saying that this is a fantastic song, far and away the best thing on here, although it’s difficult to imagine what it might have sounded like on A Broken Frame.

Goodbye 70’s is a rather brilliant period piece, in which Moyet tells us she’s tired of fighting in their fashion war. Ironic, to say the least, given the many best-forgotten looks that the 1980s would give us. Great song though.

Tuesday is a fantastic template for modern pop music, but Winter Kills might actually be the best thing on here. There’s so little to it – much of it is just a rippling piano, a single soaring synth line, and a bit of low percussion, of course alongside Moyet’s evocative vocal – but somehow it’s delivered quite beautifully.

The first album closes with Bring Your Love Down (Didn’t I), which might lack the strength of its predecessor, but it’s still pretty catchy. There’s a lot to enjoy on this album, and at its worst it’s at least an interesting listen. A lot may have happened in the thirty-five years that have followed, but it’s still a great debut release.

You can find the 2008 remastered version of Upstairs at Eric’s at all major retailers.

Chart for stowaways – 15 July 2017

Summer is the time when the charts go quiet, but here are the singles:

  1. Saint Etienne – Sweet Arcadia
  2. Erasure – Love You To The Sky
  3. Pet Shop Boys – Reunion
  4. Saint Etienne – Magpie Eyes
  5. Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17)
  6. Kraftwerk – Trans Europa Express
  7. Jean-Michel Jarre & Pet Shop Boys – Brick England
  8. Erasure – Be Careful What You Wish For!
  9. Depeche Mode – Where’s the Revolution
  10. Pet Shop Boys – Undertow

Stowaway Heroes – Daniel Miller

Our first stowaway hero is Daniel Miller, boss of Mute Records, and one of the most influential and seemingly hands-off individuals in the world of electronic music. In his late twenties, he was working as a film editor, and scraped together enough money to buy a synthesiser. His resulting 1978 solo double a-side single T.V.O.D. / Warm Leatherette, released as The Normal, is fundamentally brilliant:

It’s not clear to me whether Miller actually intended for Mute to become a fully fledged record label or whether it was all supposed to just be a one-off, but always way ahead of the curve, he also came up with his own virtual group Silicon Teens, who released a couple of great singles including Memphis Tennessee:

(video removed)

But of course, Mute is most famous for the astonishing roster of artists who were signed over the decades that followed, including mainstream acts such as Depeche ModeYazooMobyNick CaveNew Order, underground and cult successes including Fad Gadget and I Start Counting, and even (briefly) Kraftwerk. And he didn’t completely keep his hands off their output either – here’s his take on Erasure‘s Supernature:

He also presented a radio show on Berlin’s Radio Eins and remains well respected throughout the music industry, despite the slightly questionable sale of Mute to EMI for £23 million in 2002 (which was fortunately rectified by a split in 2009). It’s rare for someone so influential to turn up in so many places but be so unknown. So he’s a worthy first hero for this blog – hats off to Daniel Miller.

Edited, 25 Feb 2018 – removed Silicon Teens video that is no longer available.

New Order – Substance

Released thirty years ago this week, New Order‘s first compilation, the companion album for Joy Division‘s slightly later album of the same name, is widely celebrated as one of the best compilations of its era. Uniquely, thanks to their habit of releasing non-album singles, more than half of the tracks had never appeared on another New Order album.

The singles are presented here in relatively simple, chronological form, and so it opens with one of two versions of Ceremony, the Joy Division track that New Order recorded after Ian Curtis‘s suicide. It’s a great track, if somewhat poignant.

Continuing with their early works with producer Martin Hannett, we then get Everything’s Gone Green, representing their second single from late 1981. I’ve never been hugely fond of either this or Procession, which makes up the other half of the single. As a minimum it’s an interesting period piece, but it’s noticeably lower quality than Ceremony, and to me seems to show a group struggling to find its way after the death of its guiding light.

By Temptation (1982), they seemed to be starting to find their way. It could have been a lot more polished, but you could definitely see what their sound was starting to become. This version was slightly re-edited for Substance.

What can you say about Blue Monday that hasn’t been said before? Not much. Let’s just say it’s fantastic, groundbreaking, and unforgettable, and leave it at that. However good anything else on here might be, it’s never going to be as good as this.

A tweaked version of Confusion is next, unsurprisingly a sizeable hit after Blue Monday, just missing out on a top ten placing. Written with Arthur Baker, it’s an oddly experimental track, full of huge eighties snares and orchestral hits, but somehow it also displays a certain brilliance. Five tracks in, and New Order are firmly and consistently producing great music.

Thieves Like Us is probably the most “pop” of the earlier tracks. From the traditional New Order instrumental introduction that lasts over two minutes – more than a third of the song – despite being challenging and unusual, is already accessible, and Bernard Sumner‘s vocal, when it finally arrives, is unusually well delivered.

The eight-minute 12″ version of The Perfect Kiss is an odd inclusion in a way – it just seems a bit too long among the other singles. Which is only ironic because due to limited playing time on the CD, this is actually slightly edited from the original release. Still, it’s a great piece of music, and speaking personally, I’m all for frog and sheep samples in my music.

Also from Low-Life is Sub-culture, which follows, also in the form of a slightly obscure edited remix, which apparently led to sleeve designer Peter Saville refusing to design a sleeve for the single. Then comes the brilliant Shellshock, again an edited 12″ version, but sounding every bit as resonant as any of the single versions on here.

There are then two tracks from 1986’s Brotherhood – firstly, State of the Nation, a number 30 hit in September of that year. Honestly, by this stage it would be hard for New Order to do anything wrong – particularly not with their singles. Truly brilliant. But not, honestly, quite as good as Bizarre Love Triangle, which appears here remixed by Shep Pettibone in typically extravagant form. It’s perplexing and confusing that this only reached number 56 on its original release.

Finally, promoting the album was the fantastic one-off single True Faith. If you were forced to name a New Order track, the chances are good that you would pick either this or Blue Monday – it’s utterly fantastic, and unusually (at least as far as I’m concerned) the title actually seems to fit the song. Everything just seems to come together perfectly.

So Substance is an unusual compilation, focusing generally on the 12″ versions rather than the ones you might have heard on the radio, but as a companion to New Order‘s first four albums, it’s rather fantastic. The second disc gets you a whole load of b-sides and alternative mixes. You would probably have to be an established fan these days to buy this instead of the more recent Singles, but it’s definitely an essential purchase for completists.

You can still find Substance at all major retailers.