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The Pied Pipers Of Basildon


Adrian Thrills meets a girl named Alf and a boy called Vince and asks how do you Yazoo? Photos Peter Anderson.

The friday morning after the nation had seen them perform their new single on Top Of The Pops, Vince Clarke and Alison Genevieve Moyet pull a smaller though no less curious audience as they bask under some bland British sunshine.

Posing patiently outside Vince’s small second-floor council flat for the benefit of Lanarkshire lensman Peter Anderson, the pair attract the attention of two passing housewives who decide that they want in on the action too.

“‘Ere, ain’t you two in that pop group?” one of the passing pram-pushers enquires. On receiving an affirmative reply, the two women insist on a few hurried Polaroid snapshots of their own “for the little boys” before they make a satisfied departure.

In the bright, polite Essex new town of Basildon, Vince and Alison – or Alf as she calls herself – are big news. Together they are Yazoo and along with Vince’s former playmates Depeche Mode, they are responsible for putting their hometown on the map as something more than just another overspill estate for the run-down docklands of East London.

Things could hardly have gone better for the duo since they teamed up at the turn of the year: their two exquisite Mute singles ‘Only You / Situation’ and ‘Don’t Go / Winter Kills’ have charted convincingly; their first stateside release (a remixed version of ‘Situation’ on Warner Brothers) is already making the sort of waves in the New York clubs to suggest that they may well be the next British act to make inroads into the American chart after The Human League; their debut album ‘Upstairs At Eric’s’ is due out in August and their first live shows are being set up to coincide with its release.

Using the chart as their playground, Yazoo have hinted at the coming harder edge that will surely soon provide a foil to the peachy-sweet ‘frivolity’ of far too much contemporary pop. The most remarkable thing, though, is that they are offering their antidote to the plastic smiles without losing sight of a crisp commercial streak.

Yazoo take their two simple tools – Vince’s synth and Alf’s voice – and use them to make music that, at it’s best, combines technical precision with stunning emotional range and power. From the tender textures of ‘Only You’ to the more abrasive ‘Don’t Go’, they effortlessly embrace the melancholy mood of a deep soul tragedy and flavour it with the deceptive simplicity of great pop, icing the cake with a timeless sense of good tune in both cases.

Like that other stubbornly independent, maverick chart duo of Mackenzie and Rankine of The Associates, Clarke and Moyet of Yazoo are an odd couple.

Their musical backgrounds are toitally different; Vince’s roots stretch from an early gospel duo to Depeche electropop; and Alf’s interests encompass blues, punk and greasy Canvey Island R&B. They also look pretty strange together: Vince is small, skinny and fair, Alf almost exactly the opposite.

At 22, Vince is the older of the two, his hard, hollow features and casual clothes topped by the oddest haircut since Terry Hall – a straw-tinted fringe that either hangs limply over his forehead like a net curtain or is swept back over the dome of his number one crop: “It’s the sort of cut that you have to go a real barber for, the one’s with Durex displays in the window! You go to one of the trendy stylists and they’re scared to cut your hair.”

In complete contrast, Alf is a plumpish 21-year old, the daughter of an English mother and French father. Dressed in denim and leather motorcycle gear, she had biked the four miles across town to Vince’s flat form her parents’ home. A shot of deep red dye, faded from washing, highlights her short, feathered tufts of hair.

One of the things that Vince and Alf share is an earthly lack of pretention. In conversation they are warm and friendly, if sometimes a bit unsure of themselves, Vince giving away little at first and Alf hiding a shy streak with her generous spirit and ironic sence of humour.

“I generally don’t like meeting people,” she confesses as we move upstairs for coffee in Vince’s tidy, compact frontroom. “I get nervous and start to stutter. After we’d done our first round of interviews, I wasn’t too keen to do any more. It used to be aggravating when writers would meet us for ten minutes and draw these massive conclusions about our personalites.”
Did being in a band and in the public eye make her self-conscious about her weight problem?

“Sometimes it did. You can try to come on all strong and indifferent, but some of the things people say do affect you. It offends me when people talk about me on a personal level and who are they to know what I’m really like?”

“But if people want to remark on my clothes or my shape, then it’s up to them. There’s no point in trying to disguise things like that because people are going to mention them sooner or later. Everyone has their own paranoias . Either their ears are too big or their feet are too small, so what’s the point in worrying about it?”

“Sometimes I think that people don’t quite know how to take me. A lot of people thinks that girls in groups should be real pin-ups. But as long as people are more concerned with the music, that’s alright with me. If people are going to judge us on the way we look, I just don’t take them seriously”.

Yazoo take themselves seriously enough to place musical credibility highest on any list of group priorities, way above single sales or the superficial glamour of pop: if it came to the crunch , they would rather be seen as earnest musos than shiny young pop stars.

“I’ve never really been into the glamour thing,” says Alf. “I think we would look really silly if we went for a deliberately glamourous image. When the first single came out I did try dressing up a bit because I thought it was the thing to do, but it’s just not me. I’d just feel really silly. It would come across as a sham if we tried to do it”.

“The only level on which I can take the group seriously is a musical one.”

“The glamour of being on TV and getting recognised can be a big kick,” adds Vince. “But when it comes down to it, that mans nothing in ten years time. The only thing that really matters in the long run is the records and hopefully when the album comes out people will judge us on that, because we’ve spent a lot of time to try and get the best results.”

“Ideally, I’d like to try and get away from the singles market. As a rat race, the singles chart is terrible. Bands are always under so much pressure if one single fails to do as well as another. I’d rather be in a position where we can release an album every now and then without having to keep such a high profile as a singles band.”

This time last summer Vince was enjoying his first flush of fame in Depeche Mode; the ‘New Life’ single had just charted and composer Clarke looked to have laid himself the foundations of a fruitfull songwriting career with the Basildon electroboppers.

A few months later he was out of the band, his enthusiasm blunted by the rigours of touring and the lack of vision he detected in the group. Once he had fulfilled his remaining obligations in Depeche, finishing their European tour and writing all but two songs on the ‘Speak And Spell’ LP, he told them he was leaving. Fortuitously, the split hasn’t hit the three remaining members too hard, Martin Gore immediately assuming the mantle of main songwriter with some success.

“It wasn’t really a personal thing.” Explains Vince.”It would be out of order for me to say that their attitude was wrong. It was just different to mine. At first there was a few bad feelings, but that seems to have died down now that everybody concerned feels more secure about what they are doing now”.

“I don’t think of Yazoo as a continuation of Depeche or even as an improvement on Depeche. It is a completely new project and fortunately it has always been taken as that.”

“When I left, I never really thought of what the consequences might be. In the past I’d always left jobs without thinking too clearly about what I was going to do next. You have to take chances like that. You might as well be dead if you’re not going to take a few risks with your life.”

The widely-quoted tale of how Alf and Vince met through an advert in a musicians’ paper is not strictly true. The pair originally met years earlier at a Saturday morning music school in Basildon where Alf was learning the oboe and Vince the violin.

It was Vince who renewed the acqaintance late last year when he heard that Alf was looking for ‘rootsy Blues musicians’ and had the audacity to propose himself.

After growing disillusioned with punk – “it became another fashion, just like disco” – Alf sought refuge in R&B, attracted by its lack of pretension and the fact that so many of its prime movers, from the Feelgoods to Lew Lewis, played so regularly in the south Essex area.