This was originally meant as my small contribution to last April’s Cerne to CERN continental Happening, where the Liverpool Arts Lab hooked up with the Cosmic Trigger crew for a magic bus ride into the beyond (in this case Damanhur in Italy, before crossing the Swiss border on route to Geneva to head to the site of the CERN collider).
The intention was for this mix, by the pioneering Swiss electronic group, Yello, to be played when they reached Switzerland, but events took over and it missed its airing, so it’s been placed on the backburner ever since whilst I’ve waited for a suitable opportunity to share. This has now presented itself via Gouranga, as part of their themed mix series, which I contributed to last year with The Chic Organization – 1977-79 Selection Reworked. I’m just about to play their birthday party, at Mick’s Garage in London on December 20th, whilst an undoubted highlight of the year for me was appearing at The Rabbit Hole, Glastonbury’s hidden oasis of dance, for which Gouranga plays a key role.
The Yellomix runs for just over an hour, covering the period ’83-’85 – their most innovative in my opinion. It gives me the opportunity to re-visit one of my favourite artists of the early-mid-‘80s – I was a huge fan of Yello’s back then, they were really pushing the boundaries of electronic music and I was absolutely blown away by their production sound. I had my home DJ studio up and running at the time, including a pair of really nice sounding Mission 700 speakers, which I’d bought from my friend, DJ Paul Rae. Yello provided the perfect music to show off these speakers, and I’d subject numerous people to the intensity of their recordings LOUD, ‘excessing’ them good and proper! For this music needs to be played loud for full effect. It’s truly epic stuff, almost Wagnerian in its assault – relentless, surprising and sonically shocking, bombarding our senses with its strangeness and brooding melancholy. Regardless of whether beat driven or ambient, their tracks built a tension unique to their sound – once you know who they are, that sound could only be Yello.
Like their forerunners, the seminal German technomeisters Kraftwerk, their music found favour with the New York dance underground, their 1981 single ‘Bostich’ would eventually reach #23 on the Billboard Dance chart (having originally appeared, in shorter form, on their 1980 debut album ‘Solid Pleasure’). They’d improve on this in ’83 when ‘I Love You’ reached #16, and then ‘Pumping Velvet’ / ‘No More Words’ peaked at #12, before, in 1985, ‘Vicious Games’ (#8) gave them their first top 10 US dance hit (2 more would follow – ‘Tied Up’ #9 in 1989 and ‘Tremendous Pain’ #7 in 1995).
Apart from some of the DJs more associated with the New Romantic / Futurist side of things, ‘Bostich’, released by Do It Records, went pretty much under the radar as far as the UK was concerned. It was on the New York underground, having been licensed from Do It by the Stiff America label, where it really made its mark – Afrika Bambaataa had championed it with the black and Latino audiences, whilst it was a favourite of Larry Levan’s at the Paradise Garage (also his friend, Frankie Knuckles, over at The Warehouse in Chicago). Radio plays from the legendary Frankie Crocker on WBLS further cemented its status within the black/dance community, and as Bambaataa stated; ‘the people in the New York club scene freaked out – ‘Bostich’ was funky’, adding that Yello were amongst a number of electronic artists who have been instrumental in developing Electro Funk and Hip-Hop, along with the likes of Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Yello was formed by Boris Blank (keyboards, samples, percussion, backing vocals) and Carlos Perón (effects and tapes), who recorded avant-garde electronica together at Perón’s Tranceonic Studio between 1976-79 (although nothing was released at the time, a compilation, ‘New Crime’ was issued in 2017). Following a trip to the US, they picked up a deal with San Francisco label Ralph Records, the home of experimental icons The Residents. They added the essential element of Dieter Meier’s vocals before releasing their first album, ‘Solid Pleasure’ in 1978. Meier had started out in the Punk days, releasing a limited run solo single, ‘Cry For Fame’ in 1978. He met Boris Blank via a contact in a Zurich record shop, who thought the fledgling Yello needed a singer – Blank had bought a copy of ‘Cry For Fame’, and agreed that Meier’s distinctive vocal approach would be suited to his music, the two going on to form a formidable songwriting partnership.
A 2nd album, ‘Claro Que Si’ followed in ’81, but it was their 3rd LP, ‘You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess’ (1983), which really launched their career. Unleashed by famed Indie label Stiff in the UK (Vertigo in Europe, Elektra in the US), the album reached a very creditable #65 on the chart. The lead single, ‘I Love You’, very nearly piercing the top 40, stalling at #41. By the time of their next album, 1985’s ‘Stella’, they’d signed for Elektra in the UK and most of Europe, with the US release, as with the bulk of their subsequent catalogue, issued by Mercury.
Their ‘Stella’ LP was the first to include a guest vocalist, with Rush Winters providing the female lead on ‘Vicious Games’ and ‘Angel No’. Later Yello singles would include further guests – ‘Goldrush’ (Billy MacKenzie of The Associates) in 1986, ‘The Rhythm Divine’ (Shirley Bassey) in ’87 and ‘To The Sea’ (Stina Nordenstam) in ’97. Their 2010 ‘Yello By Yello’ box-set anthology would inexplicably replace the original ‘Vicious Games’ vocal with an inferior take by Heidi Happy, the track softened out somewhat in the process, losing its relentless tension.
With his Fairlight sampler centre-stage, Boris Blank would build up a bank of samples and sounds, which eventually ran into tens of thousands. Studio engineer Ursli Weber was listed alongside Yello as co-producer on the first 3 albums. Carlos Perón would leave the group after ‘Excess’, having released his first solo album, ‘Impersonator’, in 1981. Following ‘Stella’, Yello would go on to issue 9 further studio albums, the most recent being 2016’s ‘Toy’, with a ‘Live In Berlin’ set released in 2017.
Although it’s included on ‘Stella’, I left what is probably their best-known track, ‘Oh Yeah’, out of the mix. It’s come to be regarded a bit of a novelty since it was included in the 1986 film ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ (it’s subsequently featured in a number of other movies), probably causing many to view Yello as far more gimmicky than they were (although they were very much leftfield). This view would perhaps become further endorsed by their only top 10 UK hit single, the Formula 1 inspired ‘The Race’ (1988) – used as a trailer for the TV station Eurosport, which launched the following year, whilst featuring prominently in the British comedy farce ‘Nuns On The Run’ (1990).
Throughout the second half of the ‘80s their sound became increasingly formulaic, and with the new more urban directions of House and Techno heralding a general shift towards electronic dance music, Yello, despite their previous innovation, no longer felt relevant, their more underground / avant-garde legacy becoming increasingly shrouded. Having secured their highest UK album chart placing in 1991 for ‘Baby’, which reached #37, during the rest of the ‘90s further LP releases would only chart in Germany and their home nation of Switzerland. This is why I chose to highlight the music they recorded between 1983-85, when they were at their creative height, and which showed through in spades on ‘Excess’, ‘Live In NYC’ and ‘Stella’.
My personal introduction to Yello’s music was via a 12” DJ promo white label in ’83, which combined 4 tracks from the ‘Excess’ album, ‘I Love You’, Lost Again’, ‘No More Words’, and a remixed version of the title track – it was a stunning combination and I was instantly hooked. I was then a black music specialist, so although I loved these tracks, the vocals were too ‘alternative’ for the audience I played to, and more suited to the Thursday ‘Dancematic’ Futurist night at Legend, hosted by Paul Rae and Ralph Randell, so I didn’t get to play them out personally.
During the final months of 1983, before I took a 2 decade hiatus from professional DJing, one of my regrets was not being able to feature some of the more alternative dance music that had been coming out, ‘Situation’ by Yazoo (the François Kevorkian Dub) being a perfect example, which I just stopped short of playing given Yazoo’s status a UK Pop act. People could be snobby on specialist scene’s and I’d taken a whole heap of flack for playing stuff like Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force’s ‘Planet Rock’ (due to its Kraftwerk influences) and ‘Buffalo Gals’ by Malcolm McLaren & The Worlds Famous Supreme Team (McLaren best-known at the time as the infamous manager of the Sex Pistols). However, I did get to play one Yello track over Legend’s incredible sound system, as the 12” club mix of ‘Pumping Velvet’ had stripped out the much of the vocal, leaving a solid Electro-Funk cut.
In 1984 I grabbed myself a copy of the 15 minute-long ‘Live At The Roxy N.Y. Dec 83’ – a rarity here, issued on the German Vertigo label, and a wonderful artefact, the group’s dynamic performance pressed onto a one sided 12”. ‘Bostich’ features prominently in the short but intense performance, which surprisingly, given the date of its recording, didn’t include any of the tracks on ‘Excess’. Not that they’re missed – ‘Live At The Roxy’ is an aural feast in its own right and is included as part of the mix. The performance was also filmed and can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRwmQ1L9ILc
The Roxy had been New York’s leading roller disco, following its opening in 1978, converting to a club space in 1982 and catering to a racially mixed clientele, with Kool Lady Blue’s (Ruza Blue) Hip Hop night a key juncture for the movement Afrika Bambaataa DJ’d there and breakdancers the Rock Steady Crew regarded it as home from home, making it a centre of B Boy culture. Apart from Yello, acts like Kraftwerk, Madonna, Run-DMC, and the Beastie Boys appeared there.
‘Stella’, released in 1985, included tracks like ‘Vicious Games’, ‘Sometimes’, ‘Angel No’ and the aforementioned ‘Oh Yeah’, and very much felt at the time that they were pointing towards a new heavyweight Synth-Pop approach, but, with the exception of ‘Oh Yeah’, the group’s music remained on the margins.
I got to remix Yello’s ‘The Race’ in 1988, but, truth be told, it wasn’t how I’d have wanted it to be – I was commissioned to put together a ‘Sporting Mix’ sampling commentary from various competitions. It was also only to be issued on 7”, so not a dance mix as such. Then it was a case of the studio only having 2×24 track tape machines (48 tracks) when the recording was 72 track (made up of 3×24 track tapes). This meant that I had to make a decision to bypass a whole 24 tracks, so, in effect, work with just two-thirds of the recording. The end result was lacking, studio time was limited and a big chunk wasted with the realisation we’d have to lose those 24 tracks – besides, the samples I’d hastily pulled together from a couple of videos I’d bought in HMV on Oxford Street weren’t the best. All in all it was something of a personal anti-climax, but despite this, it was fascinating to find that, on the tapes, Yello recorded each instrument in a continuous loop, sorting out the arrangement in the automation of the mix. I’ve never used this approach myself, but found it to be a really interesting back to front way of working in the studio.
Including my edit of ‘Lost Again’ on the first Credit To The Edit compilation in 2005 (also on 12” vinyl) was an altogether more satisfying experience, and its this version that I’ve featured in the mix.