Synth-pop was a genre of pop music that I didn’t appreciate until after I graduated college. Not sure why, though. Perhaps it could have been lack of exposure or something that I just needed to warm up to. I listen to a lot of it now and I recently traced back my musical progression to understand how I got to this point. First, I listened to a lot of punk in high school. In college, punk led me to new wave. And after that, breaking down new wave led me to synth-pop. Makes sense looking back, but I’m sure the 15-year-old version of me would laugh at me now.
Synth-pop, and a lot of music in the 1980s, gets a bad rap. A lot of music listeners talk about purity and authenticity as if these are things that can be measured with some form of standard metrics. They are just bullshit words that people use to elevate their own tastes over others. We all use these or similar terms, and we all put down some form of music, but 1980s music gets it the worst. It stems from this notion that artists who use synthesizers or drum machines are not real musicians.
The 1980s were an experimental time in music. New technology in the world of instruments and production were being introduced. Some of this new technology were just merely toys while some produced stellar results. Many artists, fresh and established, tried their hand. While the sound of the 80s wasn’t kind to legacy artists such as Neil Young or Bob Dylan, up-and-coming artists now had an in to make a big splash on the radio.
One of the most underrated artists in music, and not just the 1980s, is Vince Clarke. You may not know his name, but Clarke is a pioneer of synth-pop and new wave. Early in his career, Clarke was a founding member of Depeche Mode performing on their debut album Speak & Spell. Clarke left shortly after over creative differences, but his career didn’t end there. He would eventually become one-half of the synth-pop duo Erasure, a phenomenal group that still performs and releases music today (and you might know their song “Always” as being the music featured in the game Robot Unicorn Attack).
However, between his brief time in Depeche and the success of Erasure, Clarke teamed up with Alison Moyet to form the synth-pop duo Yazoo (or Yaz in the U.S.). Yazoo released only two studio albums, Upstairs At Eric’s in 1982 and You and Me Both in 1983, until the duo disbanded. Despite making two amazing records that sound incredibly cohesive, Clarke and Moyet just couldn’t get along. This is such a shame because this was a group where two already talented people elevated each other.
While both of Yazoo’s records are solid, Upstairs At Eric’s is superior choice. Each song contributes something unique and special to the overall listening experience. The album opens with the high-energy single “Don’t Go.” “Bad Connection” is playful and has a little fun with the production. “Midnight” features vocalization from Moyet that is unmatched elsewhere on the record. “Situation” and “Only You” are amazing radio hits. And “Goodbye 70’s” is an empowering anthem about change.
This record is such a classic, but one song stands above all the others for me. “In My Room” is an undisputed masterpiece from the duo. It musical arrangement is subtle and reserved compared to the energy and intensity of other tracks found on the album. It also features experimental spoken-word vocals from Moyet and creepy cool backing vocals that repeat lines from the Lord’s Prayer amongst other things. Moments of serenity in the song are quickly disrupted by shattering glass. It is an experimental track that works well. There’s a reason they reference the song’s title for a reissue collection of the band’s entire discography in 2008. It is a stellar track that break the rules of pop radio and defines what synth-pop can be.
Despite some reunion shows a few years ago, don’t expect any new Yazoo material. Those days are long gone as both Clarke and Moyet have pursued other interests. And I don’t think that is a bad thing. Many of the great pioneering artists only released a handful of albums. Yazoo could’ve just stopped after one and they will still be one of the greats.