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Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 1: “Only You” by Yaz(oo)

John Scalzi

For June of 2022, I’ve decided that once a day, every day, I’m going to write a post celebrating some of the music and musicians who were (and are) important to me over the years. Over the course of this month, I’ll cover music that spans more than 40 years, from 1977 to 2018, which is a lot of time.

That said, this neither a complete nor comprehensive list of music important in the larger culture, or for that matter, to me. It’s merely some the music and musicians who hit a chord with me at various points in my life. The astute will notice several gaps in terms of representation of more than one genre of music. That’s on me, and you can make of it what you will. At the end of the day (and month), however, music is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, and I think it will be interesting for folks to see who among musicians (and which of their songs) have stayed with me and why.

With that said, let me begin with one that’s especially important to me:

Let me place the scene: My bedroom in Glendora, California, in 1982. I’m in 7th grade, attending Sandberg Middle School. I have an alarm clock to wake me up every day so I can bike or walk the roughly one mile to school. The alarm clock is tuned to KIQQ 100.3 FM, a top-40 radio station that doesn’t exist anymore (the call letters do; they’re attached to a station in Barstow playing regional Mexican music. Likewise, on the 100.3 FM frequency in LA you’ll now find contemporary Christian music. Times change).

One day in March or April or May of ’82, KIQQ plays “Only You” in the period of time between when my radio alarm goes off, and when I drag myself out of bed to go to school. It’s a curious choice for the KIQQ top 40 format, which at the time was playing Olivia Newton-John and Hall and Oates and Survivor and Chicago; the most “alt” KIQQ usually got at the time was to play the Go-Gos or Men at Work. “Only You” didn’t sound like any of these things: It was spare synth lines, a drum machine and a voice of the sort that 13-year-old me, listening to Journey and Foreigner, hadn’t previously encountered, singing simply but powerfully about being in (possibly unrequited) love. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I knew I wanted to hear more of it.

The good news is that KIQQ played the song again, in the morning before I got up for school, several more times in the next couple of weeks. The bad news was that as far as I can remember, they never identified the song by title or by band. It was, to me, That Song The Radio Played Before I Got Up. And then it disappeared and I was very sad. During the rest of my junior high existence, British synth pop in the form of The Human League and Thomas Dolby and others started making inroads in the charts and on the radio and on that new thing called MTV, but none of those songs or artists sounded quite like that one song. I was haunted by it, and in particular by that voice.

Here’s how I found it again: in my freshman year at Webb, the private boarding school my mom had basically manhandled into giving me a scholarship to attend (it cost more than my mom made in a year), I was wandering past the Jameson dorm when I heard that song coming out of the window of one of the rooms there. I stopped what I was doing, popped my head into some confused upperclassman’s room, and yelled something along the line of WHO IS THAT TELL ME THIS VERY INSTANT.

The answer: Yaz, and “Only You,” from the album Upstairs at Eric’s.

The upperclassman was then kind enough to let me borrow his cassette of the album. If memory serves I played it nonstop for the three days before I gave it back. By this time, early 1984, Yaz (who was Yazoo in the UK, and Yaz in the US because apparently some other band was using Yazoo in their name here) had already released a second album and then broken up; a lot can happen when you’re not paying attention. Regardless, in short order I had both albums and, now armed with knowledge like the names of the actual musicians, was able to follow them to their other musical adventures.

I particularly followed Alison Moyet, whose voice was — and is — probably my favorite in all of music. This led me to her solo albums, and also down some musical paths I might not have otherwise taken, for better or worse. There’s very little chance I would have picked up Bob Geldolf’s Deep in the Heart of Nowhere album, for example, if Moyet had not been singing the backing vocals on the lead single. Welcome to teenage musical obsessive me. Be that as it may, it also meant that I was rewarded with any number of Moyet songs over the decade, from “Invisible” to “It Won’t Be Long” to “When I Was Your Girl” to her smashing cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” that now have a permanent place in my musical library.

“Only You” still stands as my favorite, not only because we love the music we loved when we were 13 with unalloyed joy, and not only because it stands as a musical synecdoche for early 80s British synth pop, but because it is in my mind one of the few utterly perfect pop songs. In three minutes, a couple of synths and one voice, it does everything a song is meant to: it takes you to a place of musical transcendence, makes you feel all the longing and desire the words and music illustrate, and leaves you on the other side wistful and happy that you took the ride. It’s simple and short and perfect. Vince Clarke wrote the song, but as multiple not-quite-there covers show, it’s Alison Moyet and that voice of hers who brings it home.

For me, “Only You” stands as the first song that held me completely still for minutes at a time, focusing on nothing else but the world that was made in that song. I had other music I loved — I wore out my first copy of Journey’s Escape around this same time — but nothing had captivated me like “Only You” had. Very little music has since. And nothing captivates me still, literally four decades later, like this song still can. I hear it like I’m hearing it out of that alarm radio: a transmission from another world, with a voice, not of an angel, but of a force of nature.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: B. L. Blanchard

If you could rewrite history, what would your version of it look like? Author B. L. Blanchard took up the challenge in her newest book, The Peace Keeper. Find out how her new past looks today.

B. L. BLANCHARD:

What if North America had never been colonized?

Sit with that idea for a minute, and really think about it.  What do you think that world looks like?  How do you think it happened?

It’s almost overwhelming, isn’t it?  There are so many ways colonization could have been avoided, and so many ways the world could have turned out if it had.

I developed the plot and the characters both quickly and early in the process.  It’s a murder mystery, so I started with the twist and worked my way backwards.  But figuring out what the world today might look like without colonization?  It consumed me.  

I thought through possibilities for well over a year, before I wrote a single word of the story.  I discussed it with my husband.  I talked about it with my family.  I did all kinds of research.

And I tied myself in knots.

Because there is no shortage of alternative histories that could have unfolded.  If I ask five different people to imagine a world without colonization, and then ask me to tell them their theory of how it could have been avoided, I will get five different answers.  

I used to watch a documentary series on the Discovery Channel called Seconds from Disaster.  It portrayed real-life disasters, such as the Challenger and Concorde, and demonstrated through how they are never triggered by just one thing going wrong.  As the series always put it, “Disasters don’t just happen, they’re a chain of critical events.” Colonization was no different.  Many, many things had to go wrong for this to have been the result.  Our timeline was not inevitable, and imagining how it could have been different only requires a single change, or a few slight changes, in history.  The possibilities of what the world might look like now are limited only by your imagination.

I started by first trying to chronologically build out the world, starting from the 15th and 16th centuries and going forward.  I was confronted with a bunch of questions.  Did that mean that there had never been any contact with Europe, or had colonization been attempted but rebuffed, or there was no attempt to colonize but just trade partnerships, or… you get the idea.  

And then there are the ripple effects.  For example, if there are no colonies in North America, there was no trans-Atlantic slave trade.  How does that impact the history of peoples in Africa and beyond?  If there is no colonization in North America, do European nations have the wealth and resources or will to attempt colonization in any other part of the world?  (The impact of a world without colonization on Europe is the focus of the second book in this universe.)

This book isn’t a treatise in what an alternative world without colonization might look like, so we don’t get into how and why history deviated.  I leave that to the reader to decide.  

Eventually, I decided that instead of trying to chronologically fill in the last 500 years, I would take a page from what I did with the plot: start with the end result and work my way from there.  What did I want this world to look like?

I wanted to see a modern, 21st century, industrialized, indigenous society.  I wanted a society that kept both traditional practices as well as modern technology.  I wanted a skyline populated with both high-rises and wigwams, and where Native cultural practices had never been outlawed, but were widely and openly practiced.

I am blessed that I had the rich real-life history of the pre-colonial Americas to draw from.  There was a massive network of trade and travel routes across from present-day Canada through to the Inca empire in Peru.  That grew into a network of high-speed rail trains covering a similar territory in the book.  Pre-colonial Americas were full of cities, including Cahokia near what we know as St. Louis, Tenochtitlan near what we know as Mexico City, Yax Mutal in what we know as Tikal, Guatemala, and Huayana Pichu in what we know as Machu Picchu, Peru.  So I also developed Shikaakwa, in what we know as Chicago.  Among other things, we also see a professional game of baaga’adowewin, the sport on which lacrosse is based; the manoomin (wild rice) harvest festival; and a judicial system based on making victims whole, not punishing offenders. 

As in all stories, characters are the beating heart.  So leading us through this world are characters from a variety of backgrounds that reflect the diverse lived experience of the citizens and descendants of the more than 573 federally-recognized Native American nations: some are Anishinaabe, some are not.  Some are academics, some work with their hands.  Some are secular, others are spiritual.  Some are urban, some are rural.  The world they are from governs their actions, and their actions shape their world.  This is a world that will hopefully seem both familiar and new.  It’s aspirational, but I also think it was very, very possible.

Welcome to the nation of Mino-Aki, the Good Land.  I hope you enjoy your stay.


The Peacekeeper: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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