September 9, 1978, Universal Amphitheatre, Los Angeles. To the opening chords of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” Dan Aykroyd is onstage laying down the intro to the Blues Brothers Show Band & Revue: “Well, here it is, folks, the late 1970s going on 1985. So much of the music we hear nowadays is pre-programmed electronic disco; it’s so rare to see master bluesmen practicing their craft…”
Setting aside the spectacle of two wealthy white comedy stars hiring a crack band of music vets to play watered down versions of classic soul music for frat boys and their dates, the question over “authenticity” has been with rock music since its inception. It wasn’t until the Disco Era, when technology and sexually ambiguous, jumpsuit-clad gamines seemed poised to take over the earth, that the word and all its meanings went into overdrive. The late seventies-early eighties war over authenticity was over “traditional” music like guitar-based blues rock and the “new” mechanized world of the Fairlight synthesizer, the Linn LM-1 drum machine, the Vocoder and, later, wacky New Romantic hairstyles on this new phenom called “MTV.” “Disco Sucks”was encoded with stealth arguments involving the “maniliness” of rock versus the “unmanliness” (read: gay, female, black, Latin, etc.) of synthpop and all its offshoots.
While Aykroyd made this speech, across the Atlantic in the South Essex burg of Basildon, England, a 16-year-old dropout named Geneviève Alison-Jane Moyet was test-piloting her nascent vocal style in front of various blues, punk, and pub-rock bands. A self-described “Bolshie” (Brit slang for “defiant and uncooperative”) from “an aggressive French peasant family,” the full-figured Moyet was from a council estate -- the English version of public housing -- and had left school at 16. Her prospects rested somewhere between hairdresser and piano tuner (she attended the local “College of Furniture”). By the dawn of the next decade, music fans would know her as “The High Priestess of Electro Pop.”
It would be too easy now to refer to Alison Moyet as “The first Adele” or the “pre-Winehouse” or “Joss Stone’s grandmammy”; certainly, her soulful pipes makes such comparions inevitable. In Yazoo, the electropop duo she formed with ex-Depeche Mode songwriter/keyboardist Vince Clarke after putting an ad in Melody Maker ("Female singer looking for a rootsy blues band”), she would confound the so-called “purists” with her deep, wind-tunnel contralto. (Tellingly, Moyet and Clarke named their band after the venerable U.S. acoustic-blues label Yazoo Records.) In their eighteen-month stint together, Clarke and Moyet hit upon an unbeatable strategy: powerful, earthy vocals mashed with chilly-yet-sensual electronics. Their blueprint would influence bands like Eurythmics (where Annie Lennox’s soul-diva roots would only reveal themselves over time), Animotion, I Am the World Trade Center, Hercules and Love Affair (which was practically a Yazoo tribute band), Frou Frou, Soul II Soul, Massive Attack and La Roux, not to mention the entire genre of Detroit House. (DJ/producer Derrick May used Moyet’s laugh in the pioneering House track "Nude Photo.")
The Nightengale onstage
Although there have been obvious links between Moyet’s voice and the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday (whose “That Ole Devil Called Love” Moyet covered) and Etta James, her tastes were more diverse than those obvious comparisons. Moyet listened to Gladys Knight, Janis Joplin, Poly Styrene and pub-rock vet Ian Dury, not to mention the Gallic heroes of her parents like Edih Piaf and Jacques Brel. Her oft remarked-about weight – she titled her first solo album after her self-deprecating nickname “Big Alf” – only added to her earth-motherish glow and gravitas to her vocal style, a husky, inviting yarl that was the warm human center of Clarke’s Jaguar-smooth pulses and minimal thwack-beats. This tension is the reason that nearly 30 years after Yazoo first recorded songs like “Only You,” “Situation,” “Nobody’s Diary” (Clarke’s “favorite ‘Alison’ song”), “Midnight,” “Good Times,” “Don’t Go” and “Walk Away from Love,” they embarked on a critically and artistically successful 2008 reunion tour – where Moyet swigged triumphantly from a bottle “medicinal cognac” onstage while singing songs that had never been performed live. With one foot in the Delta and another on the dance floor, Yaz never sounded old.
After she and Clarke had split in 1983 after two flawless albums, Moyet was primed to become massive in in Britain and (hopefully) in the U.S. She did the former through two successful if very ‘80s (read: overproduced and uneven) solo albums, Alf (1984) and Raindancing (1987). She sold over 25 million records worldwide, scored top ten hits with “All Cried Out,” “Love Resurrection,” “Invisible” (penned for her by Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier) and “Is This Love?” won 3 awards for top British female artist, even appearing before 2 billion people at Live Aid dueting with Paul Young on the Isley Brothers’ “That’s The Way Love Is.” Yet, to this day Moyet declares that “I never ever had the ambition to be a solo singer” and refers to the beginnings of her promising solo career as “a miserable time.”
What happened? Turns out, Yaz was a studio project mainly directed by Clarke, the admittedly brilliant wizard (writer Peter Sharpiro called him “the pied piper of synthpop” for his use of early sampling and owning one of the first Fairlights on the market) that brought Italodisco to English shores by penning most of Depeche Mode’s classic first album Speak & Spell, including the influential tracks “Dreaming of Me,” “Just Can’t Get Enough” and “New Life.” Although both Moyet and Clarke contributed lyrics to Yazoo, Clarke basically created electro-musical beds that merely needed a vocalist to make it work. He got lucky with Moyet (as he has stated many times), but their partnership was unequal from the beginning. “[Vince] was the one dealing with the record company, the publishers, he was the one who had the mates and I was completely reliant on whether he was communicative with me or not,” Moyet told The Quietus in 2011.
This pattern of reliance – odd for a self described “argumentative” and prole-punk but not so once you realize she was only 22 – bled into her first solo record. “[The record company] did that horrible A&R thing that they do, which is pick up a Music Week and see who's got one album that we can put together with a certain producer," she later remembered. "I was too mad to really consider what was happening.” It was this approach that planted veteran knobtwirlers Jolley & Swain (Spandau Ballet, Bananarama) behind the boards for Alf -- and later, current American Idol stalwart Jimmy Iovine for Raindancing – who drowned Moyet’s singular gift in sheets of electrowash.
She spent the ‘90s in inactivity, due to nearly a decade of litigation with her record labels and suffered from debilitating bouts of manic depression and agoraphobia, refusing to sing and donning goth makeup and short hair so as not to be recognized when she did venture out. “This took up a good decade of my life; my best singing years,” she told writer Nix Lowry. "Improvement can only come with work. And I’m aware that I’ve been hindered in my career by depending on other people to do things I could have easily mastered myself, but chose not to." Her personal life was in equal turmoil—she’s had three children by three different relationships—but it managed to upgrade Moyet’s talent for raw torch-confessionals that she first displayed in Yaz; in the midst of her legal mishmash, she managed to regain artistic control for the cult masterpiece Hoodoo, practically a concept album about deceit and broken relationships, exactly twenty years before Adele released 21.
When she finally reemerged in 2001 as Mama Morton in the musical Chicago in London’s West End, it was as a sophisticated (and newly svelte) grand damme who turned her voice to interpretations of classic and diverse material, covering Dusty Springfield’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do with Myself,” John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” Kirsty McColl’s “Walking Down Madison,” Harold Arlen’s “The Man That Got Away” (made popular by Judy Garland) and “I Will Wait for You” from the 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. She even toured with French jazz pianist Michel Legrand in 2009 and offered her voice as a narrator for Jazz FM documentaries.
She even had an opportunity to address the ceaseless digs on her weight. “Being fat all my life…I am used to people having their say over me,” she wrote in an August 2004 blog post. “But we live in new times and instead of giggles behind hands, a spiteful byline and the odd shout-out, it is now in your face and unashamed. I feel no more confident or lush than I did as big me...I feel utterly unchanged. I am certainly not flattered that a few more 'would'. It is utterly irrelevant.” She even coped to her ‘80s fashion crimes—with a caveat. “What I did like about the 1980s…was that people developed their own style,” she told a Scottish newspaper in 2009. “We might have looked minging, but at least we were authentic."