Yello – Zebra

If you could pinpoint the period when Yello really found themselves, I think 1994’s Zebra would be a decent estimate. Now eight albums into their career, they had gone through the slightly silly novelty stage, tried serious pop, motorsport-inspired energetic electronic pop, and a very strong smattering of jazz. But it was with Zebra that they truly embraced dance music – maybe not quite for the first time, but it was certainly the first time they had dived this deep.

It opens with Suite 909, a big dance piece with trance bass and tribal beats. It does feel somewhat dated now – Yello were, perhaps, never quite the sonic trailblazers that their contemporaries were. It’s technically a prelude to Tremendous Pain, which we’ll hear later. If nothing else, as an opening track, it does make for a bit of a shock to the system.

It wouldn’t be Yello if it didn’t have its sillier moments, and second single How How is one. It’s catchy and clever – it fuses jazzy elements with acid breaks and dance beats – but you also can’t stop yourself from wondering who other than Yello would ever release anything this daft.

Night Train is probably as good as this album gets. It’s dark, with throbbing, tribal beats, and lyrics that echo the nocturnal feel of the track perfectly. The samples – I don’t recognise all of them, but Alison Moyet‘s cackle from her Yazoo days is definitely one of them – complement the track perfectly. This is quite brilliant.

Lead single Do It is next (although curiously it’s pushed back to track 2 of side B on the vinyl and cassette versions of the album). This is clever, actually – it’s a classic Yello track, but with clean, simple, dance production. It’s a great single to re-introduce us to the wacky Swiss duo after the three year break that preceded this album. Remixes on the single came from Thomas Fehlmann and Mark Picchiotti, so they were in illustrious company.

I… I’m in Love is next, another classic Yello moment with huge dance beats. As with much of this album, I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t dated particularly well, so this is perhaps more a track for those who were there at the time than it is for people discovering this act for the first time. That’s alright, although I might have to revise my beginner’s guide recommendations.

S.A.X. is a bit of a surprise on an electronic dance album, full, as you might guess, of saxophone solos and chanted lyrics, among the tribal beats. It’s great, in its own special way, because you really can’t see that anybody else would have been doing anything like this. By itself, it’s hardly contemporary, but it is at least interesting.

But Yello have always had a more serious side to them, such as the huge Lost Again a decade or so earlier. Fat Cry is hardly serious, with its pitch-tweaked backing vocals, but it does channel that atmospheric sound. In a way I’m glad they don’t do things like that all the time, as it just makes them stand out all the more, but Fat Cry does grab you in a way that some of the earlier tracks may not have. In spite of the whistling in the melody half way through.

Final single Tremendous Pain follows, with some very confusing lyrics (“How do you spell / Suite 9-0-7?”) If you’re tied to the traditional structure of an album, you’ll probably struggle to reconcile this track with opener Suite 909, but then you’ll probably be struggling with Yello anyway – they had already been dropping remixes onto albums in odd places for the last couple of albums. Tremendous Pain is a good track, with a particularly catchy chorus, but as is also sometimes the case with Yello, the impenetrable lyrics make it a difficult listen at times.

Move Dance Be Born feels very Teutonic, as though they’re channelling a certain Düsseldorf quartet. It’s great, full of squawking processed vocal samples, more tribal beats, and lots of instructions to move, dance, and be born.

This is, in a way, a fairly short album, the second half of which is reserved for darker dance territory, as The Premix (How How) follows. It is, as the name somewhat confusingly suggests, a remix of the earlier track – this time with fast beats and acid bass, alongside bizarre squelchy beats. It’s an odd remix, and maybe the name tells us that it was actually recorded before the single. It’s different enough from the other version to comfortably secure a place here, but it is a strange inclusion.

Finally comes Poom Shanka. Yello have never been scared of throwing something completely unexpected at their listeners, and this is a fine example of that. For a Swiss group to bring Indian influences is really no less incongruous than someone from Liverpool doing the same thing, but somehow something doesn’t quite seem right here. If you put that out of your mind, what you have here is a beautiful, gentle piece of music which fits well on the end of this album, but the track might be over by the time you’ve really got the hang of it. I think, in the end, I like it a lot, though.

So Zebra is classic Yello in many ways – it’s not exactly groundbreaking, because you’ll have heard most of the sounds already on earlier releases, but it was contemporary for its time, and the mix of jazz and electronic influences is, as always, spot on. It has all the trademarks – such as crazy lyrics and insane vocal delivery, but for pretty much the first time, they have tapped dance culture in a way that would never really stop on subsequent albums. It’s an essential release for Yello, just perhaps a slightly impenetrable one for those who don’t know them well.

You can still find Zebra at all major retailers.

The Ultimate Guide to the BRIT Awards

This year’s BRIT Awards will be the 39th ever, and due to the gap between the first and second, it’s over forty years since the first ceremony was held in October 1977. There’s no particular reason for a celebration, but let’s take a moment anyway to look back at the previous 38 ceremonies and the history of the awards!

Artists they love

We calculated the top twenty artists at the BRITs just last year, and – spoiler alert – the top five British acts, in ascending order, were Annie LennoxTake ThatAdeleColdplay, and Robbie Williams. Comparison with the top-selling British acts of all time puts Annie Lennox and Take That nowhere on the list, Adele and Coldplay joint fourteenth alongside others, and Robbie Williams joint twenty-fifth.

Or you could compare with the top sixty singles acts of all timeAnnie Lennox still doesn’t make it, Take That are fifteenth, Adele is a bit too recent for the list, Coldplay are sixtieth, and Robbie Williams is twenty-second.

The BRIT Awards seem to have always struggled with the Female Solo Artist categories, obsessing for years on end over Annie LennoxAlison Moyet, Adele, and (internationally) Björk.

Artists they hate

Contemporary artists who haven’t done quite so well based on those lists include Elton JohnQueen, and David Bowie, who came 15th, off the chart, and 11th respectively, although much of their heyday would have been in the 1970s, and OasisSpice Girls, and George Michael, who have never quite made the cut, appearing 10th, 17th, and somewhere just off the list respectively.

Famously, Radiohead have never won anything despite plenty of nominations, and Jamiroquai also inexplicably got lots of nominations but sanity prevailed on the night, and they never quite won.

Nominated in the wrong category

U2 seem to have caused a bit of confusion about whether they were British or International, having been nominated for awards in both. Solo artists have got a bit confused at times as well, with Roland Gift of Fine Young Cannibals receiving a solo nomination in 1990, despite not releasing anything on his own for another decade. Fortunately, his group returned their awards after a particularly vomit-inducing appearance from Margaret Thatcher as part of the ceremony. Mick Hucknall also seems to have caused some confusion in 1997 about whether he was a solo act or group, as did.

Trouble at the top

Plenty of drama happens on and off stage at the awards, most of which is well-documented. A new one that I hadn’t come across previously was that somewhat amusingly, Rick Astley apparently couldn’t quite make it up to the stage in time, so wasn’t able to accept his own award.

There have been some very odd choices of presenters – after Michael Aspel presented the first, and Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood were never invited back, a lot of odd people were, including Tim RiceNoel EdmondsSimon Bates, and Russell BrandAnt & Dec have presented three times (2001, 2015, and 2016), Chris Evans has done four (1995, 1996, 2005, and 2006), and astonishingly James Corden

Nobody cares any more

The ceremony has had its ups and downs (Sam Fox, perhaps not unfairly, apparently blames everyone but herself for the 1989 event). Search online, and there are plenty of good articles about the better and worse moments in its history – this one is one of the better researched.

But in its heyday, the BRIT Awards ceremony was event TV, with a sixth of the country watching, but these days, barely five million people can be bothered tuning in.

Stay tuned for more coverage on the run-up to the 2018 BRIT Awards. There’s plenty of coverage on this blog from previous years, but one place to start might be this post from a couple of years ago.

The Assembly – Never Never

After a few stormy years with Depeche Mode and YazooVince Clarke‘s third attempt at a group was The Assembly, formed with Yazoo‘s producer (and provider of the first album title) Eric Radcliffe. It was a short-lived project, which supposedly was intended to consist of collaborations with multiple vocalists, but after the follow-up with Paul Quinn failed to break the charts, Clarke moved onto Erasure, and the rest is history.

So the lovely Never Never sadly never made it onto an album. Released thirty-five years ago this week, barely a year and a half after Yazoo had disbanded, it peaked at number four on the UK charts. As a standalone hit, it’s largely forgotten now, but it’s worth remembering from time to time.

It’s a great song, for the first time on a Clarke production featuring some very audible acoustic guitar work, and also including some early pre-echoes of Erasure‘s early work. But the overriding mood here is of Yazoo‘s unfinished business – you can’t help but wonder whether Clarke wrote this intending that Alison Moyet would be delivering the vocal. Instead, it’s Feargal Sharkey who does the honours, and he does a great job.

Side B brings us the brilliantly syncopated instrumental Stop/Start. Again, this would have fitted perfectly on the tail end of Yazoo‘s imaginary third album, and it’s hard to stop thinking about that now, but there’s also a fairly different feel to this track that maybe would prevent it from fitting in quite so well with Upstairs at Eric’s and You and Me Both.

The 12″ version of the single just gives us two extended versions – Never Never gains a long introduction which honestly sounds exceptional, and Stop/Start also gets some extra bits at the front, although they don’t add a huge amount in this instance. They also seem to have left the radio on in the background for the extra part of this recording, for some reason.

It’s a short, compact single, with just two tracks on each format, but you have to wonder slightly what might have happened if an album had followed. Instead, Clarke found peace and sold millions of records as half of Erasure, and Never Never was largely forgotten.

The 1996 CD reissue of Never Never has long since fallen out of print, but you can still find it as a stream or download.

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.

Artist of the Week – Erasure

Here’s another old Artist of the Week feature from my old radio show. It probably wasn’t researched very well, and so may contain plagiarism, errors, and omissions. My sincere apologies if so.

The story begins way back in 1981, when Vince Clarke was briefly a member of the gods of electronica Depeche Mode. After the first album, musical differences forced him out of the band, leaving just as their popularity was growing. Following this, he and Alison Moyet formed Yazoo, who saw huge success during their brief but stormy reign over the charts between 1982 and 1983.

After their split, Vince joined with producer Eric Radcliffe to form a group called The Assembly, where the intention was that they would produce tracks with different singers. After one huge hit, Never Never, and one flop, they called it a day.

It was during the auditions for The Assembly project [I’m going to add my own “citation needed” tag here] that Vince first came across singer Andy Bell. They started working together, and had soon completed the first album Wonderland. However, for whatever reason, the debut was never a substantial hit, and only yielded one minor hit single, so it wasn’t until the second album The Circus came out that they were propelled to the top end of the charts by the universal hit Sometimes.

Further albums followed, with The Innocents bringing more success, and, at the end of the 1980s, they turned away from their traditionally analogue sounds to produce Wild!, their second number one album, which also brought them four top twenty hit singles.

For 1991’s Chorus they returned to a very analogue sound to produce what is commonly thought to be their best album to date. Again, a further four huge hits ensued, and in mid-1992, they followed this with an obscure collection of cover versions which brought them their biggest hit to date, the huge summer smash Abba-esque EP.

Their return in 1994 with I Say I Say I Say brought them further hits, but by the mid-1990s, a combination of being overwhelmed by Britpop and spending too much time experimenting meant they were starting to lose their touch. This began in earnest with 1995’s eponymous album, which turned their previous sound on its head with ten-minute instrumentals and ambient tracks.

In 1997 they tried to get a foot back in the door with Cowboy, a collection of 3-minute pop songs, which were widely ignored by the record-buying public. In 2000, they tried to tap the remnants of the indie explosion with Loveboat, a predominantly acoustic guitar-based album, which barely even managed to scrape into the charts.

It was finally last year that they managed their comeback, through the all-too-popular medium of a cover versions album. The wittily titled but frankly awful Other People’s Songs managed to grab them a little bit of the limelight they deserve, and helped their second singles compilation into the top end of the charts.

So what now? Well, they’re still very analogue, and rumour suggests that they’ve now gone all electro on us, following recent successes from the likes of Röyksopp and Mirwais. The album is released on January 24th, preceded by the single Breathe on the 3rd.

The Best of the BRIT Awards

The 2016 BRIT Awards take place tonight, but unfortunately (well, fortunately, for me) I’m actually on holiday right now, so I’ll have to catch up when I’m back. In the meantime, here’s something I knocked up a few weeks ago – you could call it The BRIT Award Awards, or perhaps The Best of the BRIT Awards.

I’ve gone through each of the previous ceremonies, and worked out the most nominated and winning artists for each category. So here goes! For the most part, we’ll be using the current awards and names.

British Male Solo Artist

  • Phil Collins. Won 1986, 1989, 1990.
  • George Michael. Won 1988, 1997.
  • Cliff Richard. Won 1977, 1982. Nominated 1983, 1984, 1988, 1990.
  • Paul Weller. Won 1995, 1996, 2009.
  • Robbie Williams. Won 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003.

The winner is Robbie Williams, with four wins. Honourable mention to Ed Sheeran for scraping into sixth place.

International Male Solo Artist

  • Beck. Won 1997, 1999, 2000.
  • Eminem. Won 2001, 2003, 2005.
  • Prince. Won 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996.
  • Justin Timberlake. Won 2004, 2007. Nominated 2014.
  • Kanye West. Won 2006, 2008, 2009.

Winner: Prince, and an honourable mention for Bruno Mars, for just missing out on the nominations.

British Female Solo Artist

  • Kate Bush. Won 1987. Nominated 1986, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1995, 2006, 2012.
  • Dido. Won 2002, 2004. Nominated 2001.
  • Annie Lennox. Won 1984, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1996.
  • Alison Moyet. Won 1985, 1988. Nominated 1984, 1986, 2003.
  • Lisa Stansfield. Won 1991, 1992. Nominated 1990, 1993, 1995, 1998.

The winner is Annie Lennox, a tearaway success with six wins.

International Female Solo Artist

  • Beyoncé. Won 2004. Nominated 2007, 2009, 2012, 2015.
  • Björk. Won 1994, 1996, 1998. Nominated 2002, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2016.
  • Madonna. Won 2001, 2006. Nominated 1986, 1987, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1999.
  • Kylie Minogue. Won 2002, 2008. Nominated 1989, 1995, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2011.
  • Rihanna. Won 2011, 2012. Nominated 2008, 2010, 2013.

The winner is Björk, much loved and much deserved.

British Group

  • Arctic Monkeys. Won 2007, 2008, 2014. Nominated 2012.
  • Coldplay. Won 2001, 2003. 2012. Nominated 2006, 2009, 2015, 2016.
  • Manic Street Preachers. Won 1997, 1999.
  • Simply Red. Won 1993, shared win 1992.
  • Travis. Won 2000, 2002.

The winner, with three wins and rather more nominations than Arctic Monkeys, is Coldplay!

International Group

  • Bon Jovi. Won 1996. Nominated 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990.
  • Foo Fighters. Won 2008, 2012, 2015. Nominated 1996, 2003.
  • Kings of Leon. Won 2009. Nominated 2004, 2008, 2011, 2014.
  • R.E.M. Won 1992, 1993, 1995. Nominated 1997, 1999, 2002.
  • U2. Won 1988, 1989, 1990, 1998, 2001. Nominated 1992, 1993, 1994, 2005, 2006, 2016. Nominated for British Group 1985, 1986.

Winner: with five wins, U2.

British Producer of the Year

  • Brian Eno. Won 1994, 1996. Nominated 1988.
  • Flood. Co-won 2014. Nominated 1994, 1995, 2012, 2013.
  • Trevor Horn. Won 1983, 1985, 1992. Nominated 1984, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1995.
  • David A. Stewart. Won 1986, 1987, 1990. Nominated 1992.
  • Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Won 1988. Nominated 1987, 1990, 1992. Pete Waterman nominated separately in 1993.

Winner: Trevor Horn.

British Single

Adele and Coldplay tie for fifth and sixth place in the nominations, so we have six nominees:

  • Adele. Won 2013. Nominated 2009, 2012, 2016.
  • Blur. Won 1995. Nominated 1995 (again), 1996, 1998, 2000.
  • Coldplay. Won 2006. Nominated 2001, 2009, 2013.
  • Queen. Won 1977, 1992.
  • Take That. Won 1993, 1994, 1996, 2007, 2008. Nominated 1993 (twice more!)
  • Robbie Williams. Won 1999, 2000, 2001. Nominated 1998, 1999 (again), 2002, 2013.

Winner: Take That, with an honourable mention for Robbie Williams for taking part in several of their wins too.

British Artist Video

There are seven nominees in this category, because four artists are tied for the bottom position, with one win and two nominations.

  • All Saints. Won 1998. Nominated 1999, 2001.
  • Blur. Won 1995. Nominated 1996 (twice), 1998.
  • The Cure. Won 1990. Nominated 1991, 1993.
  • Peter Gabriel. Won 1987. Nominated 1993, 1994.
  • One Direction. Won 2014, 2015. Nominated 2016.
  • Spice Girls. Won 1997. Nominated 1997 (again), 1998.
  • Robbie Williams. Won 1999, 2000, 2001. Nominated 1999 (again), 2002 (twice).

Winner: Robbie Williams.

British Album

Six nominees again for this one:

  • Arctic Monkeys. Won 2007, 2008, 2014.
  • Blur. Won 1995. Nominated 1996, 2004.
  • Coldplay. Won 2001, 2003. Nominated 2006, 2009, 2012, 2016.
  • Florence + The Machine. Won 2010. Nominated 2012, 2016.
  • Manic Street Preachers. Won 1997, 1999. Nominated 1997.
  • Oasis. Won 1996. Nominated 1995, 1998.

That’s a decisive win for Arctic Monkeys!

And that’s your lot! If it seems a slightly odd list, think of it as a list of the typical nominees and winners at the BRITs. If you’re more interested in the ceremony that’s about to happen, that would be here.

Anyway, enjoy the ceremony tonight, and we’ll catch up on the results here very soon.