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.