Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday 80s Flashback for March 11, 2011

Vince Clarke (Image Credit: Bradford Shellhammer)

[The Clarke Factor] -- Unless you enjoyed scouring album liner notes due to a serious irrational interest in who made electronic music and how they made it, the name Vince Clarke will not strike a bell for you. (See what I did there? No? Don't worry, you'll catch it later.)  But Clarke's musical DNA is featured prominently in three of the most-popular synth acts from the first half of the 80s: Depeche Mode, Yazoo (known as Yaz in the States), and Erasure. His work with these three bands yielded nearly 20 hits that landed within the top 50 on several different charts -- and that's just looking at the output from 1981 through 1989! That makes for a sizable catalog to assess. So, what selections have I chosen from this man's illustrious pop and dance music career?

Read and hear more after the jump.
Star-divide
Flashback #1: "Think you only know me when you turn on the light | Now the room is lit, red danger."

In the late 70s, Vince Clarke and his schoolmate, Andrew Fletcher, formed the band that would eventually become Depeche Mode after the additions of Martin Gore and David Gahan. Right from the start, Depeche Mode was a synthesizer band, embracing the electropop that was a hallmark of the decade. They recorded and released two singles between December 1980 and June 1981 before they finally released their first album, the aptly named Speak & Spell, in November of 1981. This debut was also Clarke's last record with the band. He left shortly after the album's release, but he was with the band long enough to experience their success: Speak & Spell peaked at #10 on the UK Albums Chart; the second single, "New Life" (June 1981), peaked at #11 in the UK; and a third single, "Just Can't Get Enough" (September 1981), reached #8 on the UK Singles Chart and #26 on the US Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. Their very first single, the sparse but spritely "Dreaming of Me," didn't perform well, but it did reach the top 100 of the UK Singles Chart. As "New Life" was such a breakout hit for the band, and because Clarke's eventual departure was something of an impetus for Martin Gore's new life as he assumed songwriting duties, I felt it was the perfect selection for our first Flashback of the day. (Oh, and don't worry about Depeche Mode. They did just fine for themselves.)




Flashback #2
: "All I needed was the love you gave | All I needed for another day | And all I ever knew | Only you."

Shortly after he left Depeche Mode, Clarke formed Yazoo with Alison Moyet, who had recently left an obscure R&B cover band called the Screaming Abdabs [source: AllMusic.com]. How a band could not reach the proverbial "Big Time" with a name like that will forever be a mystery to me. But this isn't about the Abdabs, this is about Yazoo. So, anyway, in March 1982, Clarke and Moyet released their first single as Yazoo: the lilting synth ballad "Only You." (Legend has it that Clarke offered "Only You" to Depeche Mode as a parting gift, but they declined. And that's one to grow on!) "Only You" appears as the seventh track on Yazoo's first album, Upstairs at Eric's, which was released on August 23, 1982. The album's name comes from fact that Clarke and Moyet were living at producer Eric Radcliffe's home during the recording. The marriage of Alison Moyet's R&B voice to Vince Clarke's electronic compositions was hugely popular, and "Only You" hit #2 in the UK and Upstairs at Eric's went platinum in Britain.

If you don't recognize the name Yazoo, it's likely due to the fact that you knew them as Yaz. When the Clarke/Moyet duo tried to crack the US market, they were slapped with a lawsuit. Seems there was already an American band using the name "Yazoo," so our couple was forced to use "Yaz" for all business in the States. (By the way, don't bother looking up that other Yazoo -- they sold almost as many records as the mannequins that appear on the cover of Upstairs at Eric's).

Yazoo would release only one more studio album (1983's You and Me Both) before calling it quits and moving on to the next stage in the members' individual careers. But before we continue to Clarke's next musical destination, we should pause and listen to Alison Moyet's lush vocals on our second Flashback of the day. (Full disclosure: Alison Moyet ranks among my absolute favorite vocalists, so I might be a tad biased in my love for this song).




Flashback #3
: "Ooh, sometimes | The truth is harder than the pain inside | Oooh sometimes | It's the broken heart that decides."

With the demise of Yazoo/Yaz, Clarke took up a brief gig with vocalist Feargal Sharkey and the producer of the Yazoo recordings, Eric Radcliffe. For our purpose today, this venture (The Assembly) and a failed collaboration with vocalist Paul Quinn were mere stepping stones on the way to the chart-topping machine known as Erasure. Clarke's time with Erasure is notable for a number of reasons. I will give you four: First, he started the endeavor by placing an ad in Melody Maker for a singer, and one of the applicants (Andy Bell, who ended up with the gig) turned out to be a fan of Clarke's work with Depeche Mode. (For my readers who were born after the days of internet dial-up, Melody Maker was a UK music paper, pretty much a fanzine with a classified section. You can think of those classifieds as a Craigslist for finding other musicians, but the ads are on paper instead of the web. Bold idea, I know). Second, Clarke stayed with this band for more than just an album or two; in fact, they have released a total of 13 studio albums over a span of 21 years. Third, Erasure's singer, Andy Bell, was one of the first openly gay performers in pop music and he has become something of a gay icon. Fourth and finally, 34 of Erasure's 45 singles and EPs have reached the UK Top 40, with 17 of those releases soaring into the Top 10. Clarke and Bell are definitely synthpop superstars.

They did not, however, start out so strong. Their first album, Wonderland (1986), did poorly upon release. Critical reception was not favorable and it limped along with weak sales. (If you must know, I do count myself as a fan of the album, particularly the tunes "Cry So Easy" and "Oh L'amour"). Motivated rather than discouraged, Erasure quickly recorded "Sometimes" and released it on October 6, 1986 as a preview for their upcoming sophomore offering. "Sometimes" reached #2 on the UK charts and paved the way for their second album, The Circus (1987), to reach #6 and spawn three more hits. I remember my small group of synthpop aficionados, who had all but devoured Wonderland, were completely floored by the songwriting and polished studio work of The Circus. And it has held up pretty well. Now, the video for our final Flashback of the day might tickle your funny bone -- I'm sure you've come to expect a certain amount of cheese from 80s videos -- but the song will have you bopping around all weekend. Here is the tune that launched Erasure as a flamboyantly successful dance-pop duo: "Sometimes."




Once again, I remind you that the rule of three applies when doing Flashbacks. As I've made my three offerings, that's all till next week. But if you 80s-philes need more flashbacks, please visit the archives. As always, your comments are welcome on today's, or any other, flashback post. And if I may be so bold, I also suggest you read Bradford Shellhammer's December 2010 interview with Vince Clarke. And you might be interested in this Wikipedia entry about Vince Clarke's recording and production methods (it's really for gear heads only).

I'll see you in seven!

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