A Personal History of Music, Day 1: “Only You” by Yaz(oo)
Posted on June 1, 2022 Posted by John Scalzi 38 Comments
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.
Now I can hear it in my head, clear as can be. And, YES! re: Alison Moyet.
My similar musical experience was someone at work in college playing a cassette of Jean Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene” – 45 years later I’m still listening to everything he puts out, plus it lead me to Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, etc
Great song, no question.
Nothing will ever top the original, but German EBM band And One are known for incorporating synthpop hits into their live sets. They do a fun, but tongue-in-cheek take on the song.
Here’s the link if anyone’s inclined to check it out.
My similar experience was with Don’t Dream It’s Over by Crowded House. They never announced the name of the band and I only knew it as the Hey Now song. That tune took me someplace ethereal and yet every day. Eventually I asked my brother if he knew the song (so very long before Google) and he identified it for me.
Alison Moyet’s voice is indeed thrilling – a nonbinary voice before we knew the term. I love her version of Anyone Who Had a Heart.
I just finished the Anthropocene Reviewed podcast and my mind read this in John Green’s voice even though you are nothing like John Green. And yet, this is a very reminiscent of the podcast. My mental John Green gives Only You five stars and ends with an Alison Moyet clip.
(Actual John Green probably, like me, grew up with Yaz as a punchline representing all 80s soft rock and would not give it 5 stars, though I do appreciate it and am instantly transported to the grocery stores of my youth. But, unlike actual John Green, I don’t appreciate the 5-star Mountain Goats.)
My early teen unalloyed musical joy is either REM Radio Song or Metallica Nothing Else Matters. I was so naively nihilistic. Things were always getting better, but #alternative was all about angst. I do wonder what the relationship between popular music angst and the struggle against the patriarchy actually is over time.
This is a really good idea for a series.
This is such a great idea! I can’t wait to see what up next!
Had to listen before I recognized it, but it definitely took back. Interestingly, the song that played on the auto-playlist was one that (given I’m a couple years younger than our host) took me back to a similar place and time, “Take On Me” by A-Ha.
Odd that I’ve never heard of Yaz or this song before, although I have my little brother’s cast-off LPs including Alf.
My 13-year-old fixation was the Beatles’ “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”, the flip side of the “Let It Be” single. Theme and variations, along with sheer British goofiness, on a Beatles record? (I didn’t know then that the track was originally created a few years earlier; the full-length version appears on Anthology.) This led me to the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Intro and Outro” and ultimately to Dr. Demento.
It’s so cool how sometimes an experience with music can take you back to a specific moment in time. I have two, somewhat related, in that I acquired both at the same time. In the summer of 1973, my parents sold our home in Orange County, California (we moved about five miles), and some furniture at a sale beforehand, including my corner group with built in turntable and radio. From then until Christmas, I was forced to use their six foot long console to play my records (in the den, an office/music room/extra bedroom if you set up a rollaway). For Christmas, I received my own new stereo, which came with four albums and four 8-track tapes. One of the albums was One of Those Songs by The Fluegel Knights:
I adored some of the tracks, but especially Everybody Loves My Baby. Some months later, I was watching Celebrity Bowling, and it turns out that that song was the show’s theme song! At some point after that, I happen to be watching another episode, and as they went into a commercial break, I heard the beginning of the next song on the album, Horn Duey. It occurred to me that they weren’t just playing the same song, they were playing the same album! 16-year-old me was thrilled at the connection.
One of the four 8-track tapes was Catch Bull at Four by Cat Stevens. I’d heard his hits, but never more than what was on the radio. I was entranced, and the entire album (tape) was played on repeat until I wore it out and replaced it with the vinyl album. I went on to buy all of his albums, and I have all the new stuff as Yusuf Islam as well. Just about any Cat Stevens album has the ability to make me feel better if I need it, but especially Catch Bull at Four. It’s my comfort music.
Thank the universe for befuddled but helpful upperclassmen, without whom we would all be adrift! I can’t remember anything transcendental about being 13, let alone the music; my memories of waking up at that age involved my mother ripping my bedcovers off and launching into a lively rendition of “Oh! What a Beautiful Morning!” from Oklahoma!
I would like to point out that I am deaf, which neither stopped her nor made the entire experience more bearable.
The song isn’t really my kind of things but Ms Moyet has certainly proven she has one hell of a voice over the years. Talent is always nice to find, in any field
Yaz is far and away one of my favorite groups, so this resonated.
Yazoo is the name of a jazz record label in the US, which is what forced them to use the Yaz moniker over here. As a collector, shopping for their music in the early internet days was a frustrating undertaking.
While the Yazoo version will be the version of your heart, memory, and soul (so you shouldn’t listen to this other version) the slower, dreamer version, by these guys, is the version I loved. If other readers of this site have no strong feelings, I’d recommend a listen.
“The Flying Pickets is a British a cappella vocal group, that had a surprise number one hit in 1983 in the UK singles chart, with their cover of Yazoo’s track “Only You”.”
The title is right… but it’s the one by The Platters that strikes home with me!
I love this song too. However I didn’t discover it until it was played on an episode of Fringe.
I am delighted to report that the internet archive has three full cassettes of KIQQ airchecks from 1983 and one from 1981.
Yup, “Only You”
…that and “Shambala” by Three Dog Night
I seem to remember a post from a few years ago in which you finally got to meet her. I’m surprised you didn’t embed the link!
The a capella cover by the Flying Pickets is how I first heard this (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgDKtLPp46s). I don’t think the Flying Pickets’s music ever made it to the US.
Looking forward to future installments in the series.
I see someone else already menioned the a capella cover by the Flying Pickets, which is how I first heard the song(see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qgDKtLPp46s). I don’t think the Flying Pickets’s music ever made it to the US.
Looking forward to future installments in the series.
I still can’t get over the fact that a band that only put out two albums has a boxed set with four discs.
Aww. You should have given some lines to Vince Clark and Erasure. Classic British synth pop, and Andy Bell’s voice was so clean. Everyone knows “A Little Respect” and “Chains of Love”.
And 3rd’d on The Flying Pickets. My parents loved that cover.
How wonderful! I did a similar song-a-day blog project for myself in 2020, to keep myself sane during the early months of pandemic lockdown; it was very gratifying and therapeutic to do deep dives into songs that have resonated with me across the years. (You can see the site by clicking on my name, I think.)
I have a fond connection to “Only You” as well: it was on the first CD of my college singing group (recorded before I joined), and though I never had the pleasure of performing it with them, listening to it always brings back good memories of my time with them.
Looking forward to hearing more of your picks and the personal stories behind them.
(Also, “Kaiju Preservation Society” rocks. More, please!)
Imagine my surprise when I went to play it on Spotify. It was marked as one of my favorites. Thanks for the connection.
This album is one of my favorites from that time as well. So many great pop songs on it. Only You, Situation, Don’t Go, Bring Your Love Down. Then add in some weirder tracks like I Before E Except After C. Off to give it another listen!
I remember the first time I heard “Only You” – A friend played it for me on his over-powered stereo in university residence. Loved it.
I loved Only You as it came out over here, and got Upstairs at Eric’s almost as soon as it came out. Midnight, and Bad connection are also great.
I believe Alison Moyet and Annie Lennox are two of the finest British female voices of the last half century, at least.
I did think, round about that time, that Paul Young’s voice was magnificent, too.
I’m not familiar with Yaz(oo), and only vaguely familiar with Alison Moyet, but my dog would be a huge fan :) I suspect they named themselves after the bottled flavoured milk drink you can buy here in the UK. My dog often finds these discarded in the park, and tears them open to get at the contents!
Now I will be obsessed until I hear Alison Moyet! The days before “on demand” music: spending hours glued to the radio to hear “that song” and trying to memorize it as fast as possible so you could at least sing it when you wanted to hear it. Now, just ask Google and you can find virtually anything with a scrap of a lyric. At 70, I am still doing just that: Hearing something wonderful and searching till I find it. I have found so much new music to love this way. Makes me feel young again. 😀
Yazoo and Alison Moyet cemented my ‘cool’ status when I spent my junior college year in London. Introduced to me by a wonderful college friend with eclectic taste, I fell in love with her haunting voice. Similarly, I introduced 65 random American teenagers to Yazoo, and Thomas Dolby (beyond his pop ‘She blinded me with science) that spring and became the ‘cool kid’ for the only time in my life. I’m now off to relisten to the two Yazoo albums and will save Moyet’s Alf lp for tomorrow.
Thank You for this, I needed the music flash memory (kinda like a scent memory that takes me back to the moment!)
Strange: this was the only period in my life when I regularly listened to pop radio, yet I never came across this song or have ever heard of it or its band or its singer. Pity, as I think I would have liked it, and do now.
On the other hand, the experience of hearing a song on pop radio and liking it but having absolutely no idea what it is because they don’t identify it on the air – that’s awfully and tiresomely familiar.
Now that I’ve listened to “Only You” several times – you’re right, it is addicting – I realize there is one song I -did- hear around that time that sounds very like it. I guess this would be that “Brit synthpop” genre you’re talking about, because that song is “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics.
But I grew to like that not directly from the song itself but from – on one of my rare exposures to MTV – seeing the video, which was really weird and captured my interest.
This was my fav during my college years! We had just visited the UK from the US on our Spring Break. Thanks for bringing the memories. I’m going to love this series!
Freshman year of college and Beth, my on again off again girlfriend, I listened to this song with her and then many times without her. To me it brings back the emotions of being in love and then unrequited love. Thank you for celebrating this song.
I had a similar experience, to the point where when on a road trip with the radio on scan, I insisted we stay on the faint signal of a song long enough for me to memorize half of one line: “Jessie, paint your picture…”.
I then went to my local music store and grabbed every disc with “Jessie” in the title of a song. I was able to confirm the musical fingerprints of Joshua Kadison from amount of radio play that “Beautiful in My Eyes” was getting, so I bought “Painted Desert Serenade” and prayed.
“Jessie” is the first track, a song about a more ordinary form of star-crossed love: Dreamers dreaming big and being unable to reconcile those dreams with reality, eternally separating and reconciling. The album ends in a sequel, “Georgia Rain”, in which the main characters have given up on their dreams, living in uneasy peace, but finally with each other. “And everything’s all right, ’cause Jessie’s singin’ me to sleep tonight”. This very much mirrors my never quite getting what I want when I reach for the stars, but always having the comforting arms of my wife to return to when I fall.
My song that I heard briefly and didn’t find before it disappeared was Marlene On The Wall. I was driving around London, it came on the car radio and blew me away, but I didn’t get the details. It’s first UK release sank without trace, but later it was a huge hit somewhere else (Germany I think) and was re-released in the UK.
When my wife and I got married, “Only You” was the song played for our first dance as husband and wife. It’s still our song.
It’s also interesting in that my wife and I have fairly different tastes in music, so intriguing that this song is one we overlap so strong on.
For the last six weeks I have been listening to Genevieve Ballard and nothing else. My favourite music is from the 1980’s too.
Upstairs at Eric’s my first album and still has me stunting in my wheelchair.
I was in my teens too.
Great memories coming out of a Ghetto Blaster!
@Moyenne Suzanne Vega! That was one of the albums I played over and over in my college dorm room in 1985!
I love how music is like a memory marker, with each song bringing you back to a different period in your life.