Yazoo ‘Four Pieces’ (Mute) + Soft Cell ‘Keychains & Snowstorms’ (UMC)

Only you… oh, and you

Sort of like buses, two stone-cold classic 1980s acts release must-have retrospectives within weeks of each other. While ‘Four Pieces’ and ‘Key Chains & Snowstorms’ are very different beasts, which we’ll get to in a minute, both acts set themselves apart thanks to being able to refresh parts other electronic acts simply couldn’t reach.

The idea that synths are cold, sterile machines making cold, sterile music has endured. It is, of course, pish. The warmth of analogue machines can heat rooms (musically and, in some cases, literally) and with both Yazoo and Soft Cell, machines were used to shape not only some of the 1980s biggest hits, but pop music’s finest ever moments.

And yet they drew on the past to produce some incredibly forward-looking music, breaking down barriers and shaping much that followed in the process. Not that either get the credit they deserve for all of that, which is another tale. For the sake of not rattling on, let’s stick to these latest offerings shall we? We shall.

Yazoo’s two studio albums, 1982’s ‘Upstairs At Eric’s’ and 1983’s ‘You And Me Both’, are collected together on ‘Four Pieces’ along with a pleasing run of radio sessions, versions and remixes. Vince Clarke, it has to be said, is one of pop’s proper unsung heroes. In one act, you can hear where he’d have gone with Depeche Mode had he sat tight after ‘Speak And Spell’. Take a listen to the magnificent ‘Too Pieces’ and tell us you can’t hear old snakehips honking it out at stadia around the world as one of the Mode’s greatest hits.

On the very same record you can also hear where Clarke would be heading with Erasure a little way down his future path. Clock the the relentlessly upbeat ‘Bad Connection’ or ‘Goodbye 70s’. It’s not a stretch to imagine Andy Bell tackling them. Thinking about it, you’d pay good money to hear Alison Moyet doing Erasure songs, and Andy Bell doing Yazoo cuts, right?

Along with two enormo hits, ‘Only You’ and ‘Don’t Go’, ‘Eric’s’ also includes the musique concrète spoken word cut-up of ‘I Before E Except After C’, which speaks volumes for Clarke’s label, Mute. A major would have scuppered the idea of doing something so out there at the expense of cramming in another hit. Same goes for the juddery ‘In My Room’, which is Yazoo’s finest hour outside the obvious big ‘uns, and again, it’s no pop banger. Interestingly, Clarke has been a one-label man his entire career. In this one collection, you can hear why.

Soft Cell’s ‘Key Chains & Snowstorms’ is a different kettle of fish. Rather than a collection, it’s a celebration of their 40th anniversary, spanning nine CDs and a DVD. It is, as you can imagine, something of a showstopper.

Drawing tracks from 1978-84 as well as the 2001-03 reunion, it’s the story of, as their people remind us, “21 million records sold worldwide, 13 UK chart singles, five Top 10 hits, two gold and one platinum-selling albums”.

The set includes the 12-inch hits, B-sides, new extended and reworked mixes with Dave Ball at the controls, rarities, alternative versions, demos and curios, a bunch of sessions, a long-lost 1983 Los Angeles live show and, the cherry on the cake, ‘Non-Stop Euphoric Dubbing’, an hour-long mix featuring said raft of new Dave Ball mixes.

Impressive by any standard, what this almighty set does so brilliantly is to show that Soft Cell were very much not a one-trick ‘Tainted Love’ pony.

Disc five was our first port of call as it’s a proper curio, full of demos including an early doors session with Daniel Miller on production duties. With a regimented Teutonic feel, his demo of ‘Tainted Love’ is very Mute, if you know what we mean. Also here is their 1980, self-released debut ‘Mutant Moments’ EP, the original of which is impossible to put your hands on these days. ‘LOVE Feelings’ from said EP is such a simple pleasure, Marc’s delicious vocal over Dave’s gentle almost Bontempi-like backing. In 1980, to make music like that, with machines, and for it to feel warm was no mean feat. Which is exactly what sets Soft Cell and Yazoo apart.

While they made their music with blips and beeps, the results are a long, long way from cold, sterile machine music. Both acts, over the years, have made some of the warmest, soulful pop music not just of the 1980s, but of all time. With Moyet up front how could those pipes not have given Yazoo soul? And Soft Cell’s cover of ‘Tainted Love’, a northern soul staple, was no accident, despite the myth that they just stumbled across it. Dave Ball grew up in Blackpool. Northern soul was in his blood. Enough said.

You should stick both these very fine collections on your Xmas list, but they’re so good I’d hazard you won’t be able to wait that long.

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