Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet don’t strike you as the sort of people who play mind games with each other. But if they were, Clarke would be winning right now. Twenty minutes after Clarke was due to turn up at this Covent Garden private members club, there’s no sign of him. As a result, Moyet – already nervous about seeing her sometime Yazoo sidekick for the first time since they both attended a friend’s wedding 18 years ago – simply doesn’t know where to put herself. Seeking to reassure her, I implore her simply to pick up where she left off with him. “Um, we don’t want to do that,” she jokes, though quite why, she doesn’t explain.
At the beginning of the synth-pop era they helped to popularize, fans and critics referred to Yazoo – the songwriter who left Depeche Mode aged just 20, and the ballsy soul voice known to Essex punks then as Alf – as the odd couple. True to form, there’s no shortage of oddness about this reunion. There have been no phone calls, no protracted negotiations prior to this moment. Just three emails exchanged between Moyet, Clarke and their promoter have taken us to this point. After holding out for 25 years, the stars (or, rather, their schedules) aligned for Yazoo’s second life. Moyet had finished promoting her acclaimed solo album The Turn, while Clarke – now in his 23rd year with Erasure – fulfilled his outstanding obligations. Before proceeding, Clarke asked Erasure singer Andy Bell if he had any objections to the reunion. Bell apparently said, “Only as long as you get me tickets for the show.”
She’s such a formidable presence. Clarke is anything but. And yet, when the small, unassuming, shaven-headed Clarke ambles into the room, and addresses Moyet with a simple, “Hello, mate!”, this 46 year-old mother of three children – all by different fathers – all but falls apart. It’s very sweet. “I just… that really freaked me out, actually.” She turns around to a cameraman, who is here to film the moment for the website. “I’m sorry. I can’t do that,” she tells him. He leaves the room. I offer to do the same, but she says it’s fine. “I suddenly felt all stuttery.” Then, as long-estranged friends are wont to do, she reaches out for the first piece of conversational driftwood she can find and goes with the flow. In this case, it’s a conversation about Clarke’s other home in Chertsey, Surrey. Does he still have it? Yes, but it’s been on the market ever since he and his wife moved to Maine.
Some reunions reek of desperation. Others merely scratch the itch of nostalgia. The funny thing about the Yazoo one is that it merely formalizes something that is already in the air. The duo’s stock seems to be at an all-time high. Andrew Butler, the DJ mastermind behind Hercules & Love Affair cited Only You and Don’t Go as the first formative pop experiences of his life. LCD Soundsystem explicitly referenced them on their universally acclaimed Sound Of Silver album. But then, they were no less hip the first time around. The synergy of soul power and sequenced beats presaged the emergence of house music by five years. Moyet remembers David Bowie, Joey Ramone and members of Talking Heads in the audience at their first New York shows in 1981. “We were supported by rope climbers,” she confides, “Although I can’t quite remember why. They had everything but their twats hanging out.”
Just because Moyet was hip though, it doesn’t follow that she was happy. “That’s one of the funny things about the intervening years,” she explains, “I’ve constantly had people asking me to do those 80s package tours – and I’m sure Vince has as well – but my love of music isn’t determined by the era in which it was recorded. For me, the 80s was the era in when I was a miserable cunt, so why would I want to go back there?”
Why was she so miserable? In two decades which have seen Moyet move away from airbrushed pop via a well-received run in Chicago and into her own niche as a great modern torch singer, the answer seems no more simple to Moyet, but time has allowed her to get a better handle on the reasons. “If you think that we got our deal because Vince already had a deal [through Depeche Mode] then that already puts me in a vulnerable position. And then, to suddenly become well-known on top of that…”
What’s easily forgotten is just how well-known they did become. Yazoo’s debut album Upstairs At Eric’s spent well over a year in the British top 40. And yet, in the austere indie microclimate that was Mute Records, Clarke’s pop sensibilities were treated no differently to the musical whims of lesser-known artists. If Yazoo wanted to record, they had to wake at dawn and fit their schedule around that of labelmates Fad Gadget, who recorded between 11am and 11pm. And yet, having already written New Life and Just Can’t Get Enough for Depeche Mode, Clarke was already a proven hitmaking prodigy. Nevertheless, Yazoo required a leap of faith from their label boss Daniel Miller – one which took a while to come.
“When I did our first demo – which was Only You – I tried to give it to Daniel and he didn’t show much interest.” Moyet is amazed at this point: “Wow! I didn’t know that!” Clarke continues: “Yeah, I brought it in and put it on, and the whole time it was playing, Daniel was messing around with a synthesizer. He said he liked it, but carried on doing what he was doing – and that was it. Only when the publishers took and interest did he brighten up.”
Despite losing their songwriter, Depeche Mode were a known quantity in the eyes of a world mostly oblivious to songwriting credits. With their rejection of Only You cited as the catalyst for Clarke’s departure, Yazoo naturally took an interest in how Depeche Mode were coping without them. Moyet mischievously notes that “there was obviously an awareness that Only You was far superior to [Depeche Mode’s first post-Clarke single] See You.” Moyet turns to Clarke, suddenly unsure that she should have said that at all. “Is that really bad?”
“No, it’s all right,” says Clarke, drily, “No-one in Depeche reads The Times.”
Whatever it was that bonded Yazoo to each other at the beginning of their alliance, had vanished by the time their posthumously released second album You And Me Both appeared. In 1983, appearing on Top Of The Pops for the last time, the body language between singer and keyboard player as they played Nobody’s Diary told its own story. Sporting a giant, meticulously teased quiff, Clarke cut an impassive, emotionless figure and Moyet looked anguished and uncomfortable. It was a perfect microcosm of their brief alliance. “He was creatively very encouraging, very open to hearing my ideas for songs. The thing I found difficult was the lack of warmth. I wanted to feel more likeable, and you can’t feel likeable if someone doesn’t want to interact with you.”
If Clarke is an altogether different creature now, he puts it down in part to his sidekick in Erasure. “Andy Bell is the most laid-back person you ever met, and over the years that has rubbed off on me.”
This isn’t without a certain irony. Bell freely admits that his early years were spent in absolute thrall to Moyet. “As far as singing goes, I absolutely wanted to be her,” he says, “She was my heroine.” Despite or because of that, Moyet admits to feelings of envy as Erasure notched up a string of hits. She adds, however, that “I stopped feeling that way the moment I met him. He’s the loveliest guy you ever met.”
Post-Yazoo, of course, Moyet hit the ground running with a high-profile career of her own. Eager to hand the reins to someone who might be able to marshall what she saw as the chaos of her own life, she chose CBS over Virgin, even though the latter were offering her considerably more money. The reason? “Because Virgin had boxes all over the floor and at CBS, everything was tidy. That’s just where I was at.”
Hits such as Love Resurrection and All Cried Out propelled her to a plum spot on Live Aid. Fearing what the answer might be, it turns out that she never dared ask what Clarke thought of such airbrushed solo efforts. Clarke, nonetheless, elects to volunteer his thoughts. “I loved all the songs on that album [Raindancing],” he says, turning to face her.
Moyet can barely scrape herself up off the floor at this point. She says that, at that time, she had read an interview in which Clarke was asked what he thought of her album and he reportedly laughed. “So I always assumed you thought it was shit.”
Clarke is horrified. Far from being dismissive of her efforts, he says that her transition to solo stardom sparked feelings of jealousy in him too. Not least because she had procured the services of Spandau Ballet’s producers Jolley & Swain. “Well, it wasn’t like Daniel Miller, was it?” he explains, “They were properly famous.”
Both seem to find this hilarious: the glacial synth genius gazing longingly at the mainstream success enjoyed by his old singer; while his old singer assumes that her old Basildon mates must be repelled by her new mainstream cachet. It’s hard to imagine that they were ever this comfortable in each other’s company the first time around. “I lacked the life-skills of communication in a relationship,” he admits, “I felt confident in the studio, but starting a chat with somebody…” His voice trails off.
Does this amount to a tying up of loose ends or a second life for the duo whose influence seems to expand with every passing year? Tantalisingly, Moyet reveals that she has retained a total recall of several unrecorded songs that Clarke played for her without ever having committed them to tape. “I can remember not only tunes that we never recorded, but tunes that he played to me on a guitar that I would have sung twice and then he changed his mind about recording them.”
It isn’t too late to take care of that, I suggest. “I’ll sing them to you later,” she says to him.” Then, in almost perfect synchronicity, both remind me that we’re getting ahead of ourselves somewhat. “For God’s sake, we’’ve only just met!” It’s true. They have only just met. But had I not been there to bear witness to the moment, I would never have guessed.