On the surface Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke were a startlingly mismatched pop couple. But together they crafted a synth pop classic.
Clarke had been a formative member of Depeche Mode who had, on their debut ‘Speak & Spell’, explored similar sonic textures as displayed on The Human League’s ‘Dare’. The two seminal albums, which were released weeks apart in the autumn of 1981, confronted the alluring anonymity of the disco in contrast to the drudgery of suburbia.
Using Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder as jump off point he added a breezy, “boys from Basildon” pop sensibility in tracks like ‘New Life’ and ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. It ushered electronic music snapping and heel-clicking into the new decade. Their label, Mute, became a lightning rod for bold progressive electronic music.
But Clarke was disillusioned. He decided to jump ship after ‘Speak & Spell’’s Top 10 success, saying “It would be out of order for me to say that their attitude was wrong. It was just different to mine.”
He continued to pen songs, but needed a vocalist to accompany him. 21 year old Alison Moyet was a blues singer who was gigging around the Basildon pub circuit. At the time, she says, she was looking for something more grounded.
“I put an ad in Melody Maker looking for a semi-professional band. Not someone who’d just had a massive hit album,” Moyet recalled.
Clarke was familiar with Moyet’s powerful voice and he felt that in embodied exactly the texture he needed on the new songs he was writing:
I wanted (my) songs to be sung with a lot of emotion. I didn’t know how it would work, but I wanted to try.
Moyet was compelled by the idea, as if there was a perverse attraction to the contradictions involved in a pub singer pairing up with a big time producer, which essentially was what Clarke was. She said: “It (was) almost freak like, this idea of someone from Basildon moving out and actually doing something.”
The two hooked up and began working on a track which had been offered as Clarke’s parting gift to Depeche Mode but rejected. That song was ‘Only You’.
On the track it was the pairing of the glacial synths and Moyet’s almost masculine, bluesy vocal which created the sound of torch song alchemy. The lyrics flowed along with a sad resignation about the end of an affair. Doors are closed, departing scenes are shot from windows above, and love is likened to a game. Clarke may have been talking about his uneasy relationship with Depeche Mode, but with Moyet cast in the lead role, the story changed. She was the woman looking through a scrapbook of photo-like memories, she was lonely and weak, but still the muscle of her vocal suggested she would survive.
The finished track, which was still envisioned as a demo, was taken to Clarke’s former Mute label boss Daniel Miller. “I got the distinct impression he was not interested. ‘That’s that,’ I thought. ‘Get a proper job’.”
Miller’s response was just a poker face, as it turned out. The track was released and hit Number Two in the charts. Over the years, ‘Only You’s reach has been wide and diverse. Flying Pickets took to the Christmas Number One in 1982, whilst Enrique Iglesias took it to the summit of the Billboard Latin charts in 1997. It was also used to Richard Curtis-style effect in the final episode of The Office. But ‘Only You”s power is the melding of Clarke and Moyet’s opposites into pure pop majesty.