Smooth Yaz

July 14, 2008


In an '80s music scene dominated by glossy, superficial sounds, the British duo Yaz stood out: While musical wizard Vince Clarke was one of the pioneers of electronic music, his partner, vocalist Alison Moyet, brought a husky, soulful and sensual presence to the proceedings that made this the most human of all synth-pop bands.

Clarke first made his mark on the music world as a founding member of Depeche Mode, writing many of that group's early hits, including "Just Can't Get Enough." As the story goes, one day in 1982, he played his bandmates a demo for a new tune called "Only You." The group dismissed it as garbage, Clarke quit in a fit of pique and he went on to record the song with Moyet, a local punk singer he knew through a mutual friend.

"I had seen her perform a few times, but we had never spoke properly together, and in the course of the recording we never really got to know each other," Clarke recalled. "It was a working relationship, and we went right to work" -- and to the top of the charts.

The debut single by Yaz -- known as Yazoo overseas, after the American blues label -- became a U.K. smash, and Clarke and Moyet went on to score a string of follow-up U.S. hits, including "Don't Go," "Situation" and "Nobody's Diary." All of these hit No. 1 on Billboard's dance chart and became staples on early MTV. Then, after two albums -- "Upstairs at Eric's" (1982) and "You and Me Both" (1983) -- the exhilarating ride came to a sudden halt.

Clarke and Moyet had become business partners before they'd had a chance to become friends, and the heady rush of success drove them apart. "I think if we had been digging around and struggling a little, that would have made a difference," Clarke said. "But our first record did very well, we toured as much as we could and it all happened very quickly. We were young, and we didn't talk and it exploded in our faces at the end."

Yaz split up in 1983. Clarke went on to find a new vocal partner and more success with Andy Bell in Erasure, while Moyet launched a rewarding solo career; her latest effort, "The Turn," issued in England last year, finally saw its domestic release last week.

No one expected the duo to pick up where it left off a quarter-century ago -- least of all Clarke.

"When Alison first approached me, I was quite flabbergasted," the musician said. "I think that's the right word. I'm pretty much married to Andy [in Erasure], and it's like you and an old girlfriend going out on a date. But we met and we spoke, and it's been 25 years between then and now. A lot has gone on -- mostly children. We're very different people, and we ended up kind of feeling anxious about the idea, but very excited."

Now, after a handful of European dates that drew rave reviews, Yaz is playing six shows in the U.S., including a stop at the Chicago Theatre tonight. The jaunt is partly in support of "In Your Room," a three-disc box set also released last week that includes the original albums as well as B-sides, remixes and rarities. But it's really a celebration of the extraordinary body of music the pair created in two short years.

As Clarke tells it, that unforgettable sound -- the meeting of siren and synthesizer, diva and digital backing tracks -- was pretty much an accident. "When Alison and myself were recording, we were both pretty naive about the whole process. The arrangements may have been unique, but it's not so much that we planned to do that as that when you're first in the studio, everything you do sounds great, because it's all fresh to you.

"When I approached Alison, I already knew she could sing really well, and I think that my songwriting was probably getting a little more romantic as I was getting older. I wanted to work with someone who could express that feeling, but it never occurred to me that her singing was really soulful or 'bluesy.' She was just someone who could sing with emotion and bring out those emotions in the songs I was writing."

And in the end, the reason Yaz endures is because of those songs.

"My favorite artists when I was growing up were Simon and Garfunkel; that's what sent me off to write music in the first place," Clarke said. "At the end of the day, you don't listen to a record and go 'that was great' because of the sound; you would never remember the chorus when singing in the shower if it wasn't for the song, and that's my thing."