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What’s it all about, Alfie?


As Alison and Vince prepare to go their separate ways, Don Watson searches through the fact, fantasy and fiction of Yazoo with an exclusive Alf interview.

Of course, it should be no surprise to anyone that Yazoo are poised on the edge of disintegration. They were a fragile creation at best, trapped in a bubble of imagination, somewhere between the grey washed brilliance of Vince’s romantic fiction and the late night feelings of unlikely poetess Alison. When fantasy and fiction collided with fact, the bubble burst, leaving Vince to walk away in silence and Alison searching for strength and stumbling over words in the midst of disillusionment …

THE FICTION
Alison Noakes woke up to the soundtrack of a headache. The needle of her tinny mono record player was hammering into the wind-off groove of last night’s record. She strained to raise her head and peered through the blur, then turned over, hoping vaguely that this might silence the throbbing racket.

As her surroundings filtered through against the irrational cross-current of her half-waking thoughts, she remembered that she had an appointment today. She decided in favour of positive action, and turned over again.

After a few moments of trying to fool herself that she was still asleep, she fell out of the bed and staggered towards the mirror, ran a hand through the red tangle of hair, and reached out for the switch to reactivate last night’s record.

Billie Holiday’s blue magnificence filled the room. She’d played this track over and over for the last week, not because of the song particularly, but for that sound. And for the feeling that welled up through it’s sad sweetness.

She and Vince were going their separate ways. She reached for a hairbrush and scattered a few of the scraps of paper off the bedside table. Each piece has a word or a line scrawled across it, and idea scribbled down in excitement of the night. She looked at one of the most recent scribbles, flushed deep red and threw it down again.

As she walked out of the house she tried to quell that persistent feeling of unease that a trip to London always provoked. From now on, she reflected, she was on her own.

 

THE FANTASY
How easy it is to fall for the obvious but inexplicable charm of the fiction romantic when outlining the meeting and parting of the boy called Vince and the girl called Alf. On the surface it’s a story that could have fallen from any pulp pages. An alliance between two immaculately ordinary characters whose lack of image, so perfectly pockmarked, immediately snagged the popular imagination. Overweight and clumsy Alison meets small and reluctantly scruffy Vince, and together they discover pop happiness.

It could have been a twee tale, another rewrite of Georgie Girl; the plain lass makes good myth whose ugly duckling features could have touched the heart of the British sentiment. While the two faces were only striking in their normality, though, the music ranged from the prosaic polish of a pop continuum to the outer limits of the extraordinary.

Theirs was a music as mysterious and and as disembodied as the figures that adorned the cover of their debut album, ‘Upstairs at Eric’s ‘. It was a sound soaked in silence, full of forgotten lines and missed opportunities, but way beyond the usual bedsit poetry cliches, the only viably electro-pop. The debut single ‘Only You’ ached in it’s simplicity, while the follow up ‘Don’t Go’ kicked back viciously with a more bloodthirsty desperation.

Yazoo strained the seams of the dream and searched among the seamy, teeming schemes that coil underneath the solid rock of love. Their poetry tapped a vein and fed on the darker flow that has fired the greatest romantics; they eschewed the bland vocabulary of the lexicon of love for the harder lines of the dictionary of desire, and joined the noble succession – from Nickolay Gogol to Nick Cave – capable of ruthlessly separating sensitivity from sentiment.

Theirs was a sad inevitability and a reluctant addiction: “Well, all of this rain can wash away my tears,” Alison sang in ‘Midnight’, “But nothing can replace all of those wasted years / In all of this I tell you I have learnt / Playing with fire gets you burned.” And it ended with the fiery resignation of “And I’m still burning”. It was pretty clear that if the likes of ‘Bad Connection’ bordered on bubblegum, there was a razor’s edge sunk only slightly below the surface.

In the songs, Alison was a powerful figure with a blood-drenched voice that frazzled stereotypes at 50 paces. A sinner more than sinned against, her lyrics had a vicious assertion that dripped with the genuine cruelty of the classic love song.

“Pain in your eyes makes me cruel,” she gushed in ‘Winter Kills’, “Makes me spiteful / Tears are delightful.”

While her lines made a deep, raking nail slash across the face of Yazoo, her voice scraped Vince’s pop gloss with the rough sandpaper of the blues to develop a dark doomy fantasy of modern mystery.

 

THE FACT
There’s not a lot of mood about the offices of a record company in the mid-afternoon, even one as small and personal as Daniel Miller’s Mute. This is quite fitting, in fact, since there’s not a lot of mystery about the daytime incarnation of Alison Moyet / Alfie Noakes. She breezes into the room with an impressive stride and a swing of a loose skirt, only slightly unsteady on the heels of a pair of cut-off boots. She’s dressed entirely in black, but with a spiky orange necklace highlighting the muted colour of the lank fringe that flops across eyes almost too small for the beaming face, but gleaming through the blue blur of make-up.

Behind the initial assertiveness there’s a fragile, nervous spark that bursts through when, after two false starts with hands being partially extended and quickly retracted, we execute a clumsy handshake and negotiate our way into the interview room.

“I don’t usually have a lot to say for myself,” she warns, “I suppose because I change all the time. I could say something to you now and totally believe it, and then the next morning wake up and disagree with it entirely.”

She’s one of the few people who don’t find their chief delight is talking about themselves.

“I used to spend most of my time when I was younger just listening to people, not listening to their problems or anything, but just the stories they had and often fantasising that I was that person. Mainly because I wasn’t allowed a great deal of social freedom at home until I was about 18 or so, I used to like listening to what other people had done because I’d never really done anything myself.”

“That’s our platinum disc for ‘Upstairs At Eric’s’,” she explains, noticing my interest in a large brown paper parcel standing in the clutter of record sleves. “I’ve got one round at me mum’s place, but I haven’t got around to unpacking mine. It doesn’t really mean anything to you after a while. It’s like once you record a song and put it out it doesn’t really belong to you any more, it’s just as if it was by somebody else. It’s just a product. I prefer gigging really, at least then it’s actually you that’s there and you can see what’s going on.”

From the back rooms of wormy pubs to the platinum disc level has been an uneasy journey for her.

“I take it all a lot more tongue in cheek now, but at first it did bother me a bit. What really got me was that a couple years ago I was just an absolute nothing who’d left school with a couple of O-levels and nobody would take my word for anything. Then suddenly, because I’d sold a couple of records, people expected me to know the ins and outs of everything. Then I decided to get a house – I mean, I was 21, it was about time I left home. But the press treated it as if it was some sort of spectacular event and wanted to come round and photograph the house and all that. I had a couple of them virtually camping in the garden.”

“It did all become too much to take at one point. I couldn’t stand being recognised in the street or anything, so I used to stay in the house all day. I just couldn’t work out why they were interested in me.”

In the eyes of the ‘real’ press though, Alison was newsworthy due to her place along with Marc Almond and Boy George in the holy trinity of a brand new religion – the star as oddity. If Marc is the star as runt with immaculate taste, and Boy George the star as cuddly toy philosopher, Alison is the star as … well, the pretty damn ordinary. She’s the small town girl whose dreams are all the more tangible because her feet are so firmly on the ground.

In an interview with The Face, August Darnell did try to rationalise her appeal into a world view based on sex by arguing some form of exotic attraction, but it was pretty much a last ditch attempt.

“No, I definitely wouldn’t say that,” she stresses with rare conviction. “I mean, there’s always the thing of one man’s meat being another’s poison,” she grimaces slyly, “but I wouldn’t say that was why people liked us at all. I think, if anything, people feel an empathy with us because we’re not the pretty boy band or the pretty girl band, we’re just anybody. Who’d ever believe somebody standing on a stage and singing about heartache when they’re an absolute goddess? You’d think, just leave it out! You’re not in trouble. Nobody could identify with something like that.”

“I think women, particularly, find that I’m someone they can relate to, though. I think most of my fans, if you want to call them that, are women. Usually ones who, like most of us, don’t look like the adverts and the magazines tell them they should do. I mean, it’s a pretty distressing thing really when a woman is led to think that the greatest sin she can ever commit is not being archetypal. All I do is say, You can do something whoever and whatever you look like, as long as you have faith in yourself.”

So did you ever identify with anyone like that?

“Yes. Janis Joplin. When I was younger I used to get into these really wonderful modes of depression and listen to old Janis Joplin stuff and think, Yah, ma’am – I relate to you.” She collapses into giggles. “But that’s all over now, thank God, I feel quite good at the moment.”

 

There’s an uneasy ambivalence in Alison’s state of mind nowadays as she contemplates the future and wavers between elation and insecurity. It’s a situation that exists because – as she casually dropped into the middle of the interview – Yazoo have now ceased. The second album, being mixed now, will be their last. The word, of course, has spread since then, but at that time the first confirmation was shocking but sadly inevitable. Yazoo’s strength has always been in the supreme unlikeliness of their opposition, the silken tones of synth-pop broken with a sound from behind the walls of heartache. The uneasy alliance  was never going to last for long.

“The main reason for the split, I suppose,” she explains, “is simply that the magic that we had at first just seems to have gone. I mean, when we started off, it was just so spontaneous. ‘Only You’ was the first track we ever did; it was just straight into the studio and on with it. ‘Don’t Go’ was the second. It was all new and fresh and exciting. As you get successful, though, you’re expected to bring out singles and you’re expected to bring out albums and it all begins to lose its sparkle.”

For Alison, everything has to be immediate, she has a restless nature bordering on hyperactivity, that shows through behind the tension of her clipped words.

“I just can’t work under conditions that I think are contrived, everything has to be done really quickly. Like all the vocals that I do are usually first takes, just guide tracks that have stuck. I’d rather go with something that’s got that initial feeling in it, but has got a few dodgy tunings – which a lot of mine have – than do everything loads of times over and have it coming out sounding note perfect and really bland. I just go into the room and have all the lights out and just sing.”

“I suppose it’s because of that unpredictability that I like playing live, that feeling of shitting yourself before the first song and then after that being at the same time oblivious and yet totally aware of what’s going on around you. I know that sounds ridiculous, but that’s what I’m like. When  I’m singing I’m not really aware of what the audience is doing and yet there’s a feeling that somehow you’re attuned to that tells you just how they’re reacting.”

“That was really where the first disagreement came from, because I really loved playing live, but I didn’t feel that Yazoo worked terribly well as a live band.”

“Then Vince decided that he didn’t want to tour anymore, and he didn’t want to do any promotion work. So what people wanted us to do was leave Vince to work in the studio and have me going out, working and doing the interviews and the photo-sessions. Which was not totally on.”

Even then it was a difficult decision.

“Well, I did think at first that I’d go along with the whole plan, because everybody wanted me to do it and basically I believed that everything we’d done had been because of Vince. Then I sat down and thought, Christ, if I’m going to go out and do all this promotional work, it’s going to be for something that I really believe in. So I decided I’d rather play it dodgy and try something else. I might fall flat on my face, but it’s something that I’ve got to try.”

So what was it you were unhappy with in Yazoo?

“Well, there was quite a bit really. A lot of Vince’s melody lines just weren’t really written for vocal lines, the melodies were very simple and very boring to sing. Like ‘Bad Connection’ was the song I really hated. And ‘I Before E’ as well. But Yazoo was two people, so I couldn’t say I don’t want to do that, if it was a song that Vince felt strongly about when he wrote.”

Having taken the step and made the break, though, she’s hesitant about the next move.

“I suppose this is a very insecure point in my career, I don’t know how things will turn out or how I’ll go down. But I do feel stronger about it as well because I know that I’m going to be behind it all the way, I know that I’m going to want to do it and want to make it work.”

So what is ‘it’?

“Some jazz, some soul and some songs that have got the feeling of ‘Winter Kills’ and ‘Midnight’ and ‘Ode To Boy’, which were the favourite songs of mine from Yazoo. I really want to do something with more of a band line up and gig a lot and do some recording. But basically, I just like the idea of liking every track that I do, just the joy of being able to put your heart into every song, which hasn’t always been the case with Yazoo.”

In previous interviews Alison has stood quite aloof from the values of pop and, while her view has softened, it’s an attitude she still holds.

“Pop is something that doesn’t really excite me. There’s certain chord patterns that do excite me, but you don’t seem to find them too often in pop songs, they’re all a bit too jolly and happy for me. I do like something with real depth and meat in it. My respect for what Vince does has grown a great deal since we’ve been working together though, particularly on the second album he’s excelled himself, but I want to change. I like guitar sounds, I like good slap bass sounds,” she adds with a rockist gleam growing in her eyes. “But I don’t want to stick to just one thing. I’d like to be able to use an unconventional sound in some cases, and then do some jazz and blues stuff with a very traditional sound.”

“I’ve come round to the idea of the synthesizer since working with Vince, but I think that’s because before we came along most people were using synthesizers as a cold, fashion thing, whereas now I can see that they don’t necessarily have to be applied to cold, emotionless music. I think the whole thing came down to that fashion thing, that people were more interested in finding some fantastic front man that could put forward some amazing image rather than someone that could actually sing.”

 

Fashion crops up quite a bit in Alison’s conversation as some lingering enemy, that’s why her small town experience of the punk explosion meant so much to her, as an island between the “fashion wars” referred to in ‘Goodbye Seventies’. It was the only time she didn’t feel surrounded by “walking clothes horses”.

“It was brilliant, it was the best time of my life, because you didn’t feel you had something to live up to. Me and a group of mates just used to get together and sing acappella songs in car parks, and we used to be a right bunch of slobs. Nobody really cared what they looked like, and I was really into the whole thing. Then I discovered that so many of my friends that I’d thought it all really meant something to just saw it as another trend, and they all went of to become New Romantics or whatever. That’s what ‘Goodbye Seventies’ was all about, about how sour the whole thing became.”

Although she wouldn’t care to admit it, there’s a consistent bitterness to her lyrics which is closely allied to the basis of the music she retreated into after the demise of her own personal punk dream. A line like “tears are delightful” indicates a deep  awareness of the perverse aesthetic of sadness which runs through the blues. As she admits, though, her songs are usually scribbled down, with the immediacy she’s so fond of, in the middle of the night when the nerve ends are exposed. But when she’s not singing them she’d rather forget them.

“Most of my songs are about my own experiences so they often seem embarrassing when I look at them over afterwards. Like the new single was a song that I originally wrote when I was 16 and the lyrics were originally different. I had to change them the day I was due to record it, though, because what they were about remains sour to me now, and I just couldn’t bring myself to sing them, the sounds of the words made me sick. Not necessarily because it was about something that meant anything to me, but because the emotion in them was so remote from how I feel now.”

Do you think sorrow is something which can be instinctively  attractive?

“If you don’t like somebody, yeah, I know it sounds weird, but that line in ‘Winter Kills’ – ‘tears are delightful‘ – is about somebody else who is experiencing an emotion that you think is hogwash really, like putting an emotion in their heads and trying to make everybody think that they’re feeling an emotion when they’re not at all. That brings on a sort of instinctive dislike. The person that I’m singing about wants to live in this sort of melodramatic swirl and it’s just basically saying, I’ll give you two weeks and then come and tell me about it.”

“It’s a cruel song in a way, but I think putting emotions on that aren’t there are pretty cruel anyway.”

So don’t you want to live in a ‘melodramatic swirl’?

“Well no, not really. Mind you, I do only tend to write songs when I’m relatively depressed. Perhaps that’s why I’m not really writing much at the moment, because I’m really quite happy with what’s going on. I’ve got to get myself into a good depression, to get my doom discs out.”

At this stage I make the mistake of pushing the point too far by asking her whether she agrees with Andy Warhol’s claim that glamour exists entirely in despair. She grimaces.

“Is this a good puzzled expression?” she asks after a few seconds of totally blank stare. “I mean, we’re probably totally on the same wavelength, but we’ve got different ways of describing it. I’ve got a really small vocabulary; I don’t tend to analyse lines that I’ve written afterwards, I write them because they’re what I’m feeling at the time and then I go off and do something else. I just can’t sit around and think about things, it’s totally foreign to my character.”

Of course! The star as ordinary person once again; normality returns after a brief glimpse into the world beyond. But a record company office at this time in the afternoon is no place to delve into the darker sides of Yazoo. A few days later, after writing the fiction section above, I speak to Alison again and check out the one detail I’d presumed. What record exactly was it you were playing the morning before the interview? I guessed Billie Holiday.

“The Darts I think,” she replies, proving once again the destructive qualities of hard facts.

 

THE FINALE
So where exactly  can Yazoo be placed? Fantasy or fiction? In an effort to find out, late one night I took out an old record and lost myself in thought, listening to the resonant echo of its sadness: “From a shadow by the stair / I watch as he weeps unaware / That I’m in awe of his despair“.

I woke up to the soundtrack of a headache. The needle of the stereo was hammering into the wind-off groove of last night’s record.

 

Originally printed  in New Musical Express, NME, on May 28th 1983. Reprinted without permission for non-profit use only.

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