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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Raw Like Sushi: the arrival of Neneh Cherry

I can still remember the first time I heard Buffalo Stance. Rarely has a record so instantly forced my attention and so quickly become entrenched in my music memory. The word "fresh" has a distinct connotation in the hip hop world, but this song and its performer were literally that: a blast of fresh sound and attitude in the dying days of pop's greatest decade. Central to the appeal was Neneh Cherry, who combined electric charisma with a confident, authorial vocal style. The debut album that followed, Raw Like Sushi, managed to live up to the promise of that extraordinary single and proved that Neneh was no novelty fluke.

The origins of Buffalo Stance are slightly peculiar. In 1986 a much touted pop duo, Morgan McVey, released their debut single Looking Good Diving to a less than ecstatic reception. It was a smooth cut of 80s boy pop (think Curiosity Killed The Cat), but to be fair was a bit more style over substance. Cameron McVey had got to know Neneh and asked if she'd provide a rap over the track for the B-side, Looking Good Diving With The Wild Bunch. If you've ever wondered what a Buffalo Stance is, it comes from the group of fashion trendsetters led by stylist Ray Petri and including Neneh and Cameron, who were known as the Buffalo group, hence a Buffalo stance is a particular type of fashion photography pose, made famous in the pages of the influential magazine The Face. Neneh would go on to become one of the magazine's key style icons.

The performance Neneh delivered transformed a humdrum pop song into an international smash hit, as the core ingredients of Buffalo Stance are all to be found in this extraordinary takeover. Morgan McVey were inevitably dropped after that one flop, but Cameron McVey knew that Neneh had raw talent and switched from pop star to producer and helped Neneh land a deal with Virgin. The two had also become an item and together they created the songs, style and sassiness that would make Raw Like Sushi an international smash. If you're looking for Cameron's credit on the album, he changed his name to the more hip hop-friendly "Booga Bear".

The magic touch in taking Buffalo Stance from B-side to worldwide hit was provided by producer Tim Simenon, whose own act Bomb The Bass was at the cutting edge of UK dance music. Simenon did not have to reinvent the song, just add the latest sounds and beats to make it current. The music video was a perfect introduction to Neneh as a performer; it was cool, cheeky and mesmeric.

Even better was her performance on the legendary UK chart show Top of the Pops, where Neneh rocked her very visible baby bump at a time when most still thought confinement was preferable for pregnant ladies. The single went to number 3 in the UK in December 1988 before going on to conquer the top ten in multiple territories, including number 3 in the US and number 1 in the Netherlands and her native Sweden.

There is a moment in Buffalo Stance that for me sums up the magic of Neneh Cherry. The song slows and Neneh sweetly sings:

Wind on my face, sound in my ears, water from my eyes and you on my mind...

That was when I fell.

That amazing debut was always going to be tricky to follow-up, but Neneh's next single would become one of my favourite songs of all time. Where Buffalo Stance was achingly trendy and insistent, Manchild was reflective and hypnotic. The song explores themes of masculinity under threat, not least from female empowerment, with the inherent truth of latent male immaturity laid bare. What makes it work though is the love in Neneh's voice. This is no lecture, it is a clarion call to men, willing them to overcome. The production perfectly sets the tone, providing a sensuous and lugubrious backdrop to Neneh's warm vocal, proving that Booga Bear had learned a great deal from hanging with the likes of Simenon. What makes the song for me though is the rap.

While Neneh was by no means the first female rapper to hit the pop charts, she was one of the first Europeans to do so and her style is markedly different from her transatlantic peers. There is an accessibility to Neneh's raps that make them almost conversational rather than confrontational. There is also a fluidity between her singing and her rapping which is rare in that genre, meaning that one flows into the other creating a single voice, not a competition. While the sung parts of Manchild are gorgeous and sensuous, it is the rap that is the heart of the piece. Instead of disrupting the song like many ubiquitous rap sections can, this rap is organically part of it, crystallising the essence of its message and speaking directly into your soul.

The music video was a stunning visual feast, featuring baby Tyson who had made an appearance since her Top of the Pops performance in utero and another electric performance from her mother. It was directed by the legend that is Jean-Baptiste Mondino and it perfectly captures his unique style. Mondino was also responsible for the iconic images of Neneh used on the album artwork and in The Face.

Manchild was another top 5 hit in the UK and across Europe, but somehow failed to make an impact Stateside. The third single, the poppy Kisses On The Wind did give Neneh another top ten hit in the US and helped the album into the Billboard Top 40. In the UK the album was an undisputed smash, peaking at 2. On tracks like Inner City Mama (the fourth and final single from the album) and The Next Generation Neneh explored the importance of motherhood and child-rearing, showing a thoughtful, connected and caring woman using her medium for more than creating radio-friendly hits. And there has rarely been a more compelling personal statement than the album closer So Here I Come.

It was pretty hard to avoid Neneh in 1989 (though why would you ever want to) and Raw Like Sushi was the soundtrack to my summer that year.Although Neneh's subsequent output has been sporadic, for a number of understandable personal reasons, nothing can detract from the enormous impact she made in her breakthrough year and the indelible impression of her debut album that showed Europe could produce female hip hop every bit as "fly" as the USA.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Bowie's Best Kept Secret: Gail Ann Dorsey

This week saw David Bowie, one of pop's precious few innovators, release his new album The Next Day. Bowie's very welcome return was a surprise to many and a rare well-kept secret in the famously gossipy music world. While for many that was celebration enough, for me the real joy of Bowie's comeback is getting to hear the contribution of his long standing bass player and occasional guest vocalist, the quite marvellous Gail Ann Dorsey. I have been a devotee of Gail's since she launched a solo career in the late 1980s and to date she has released three simply stunning albums of her own. If you've maybe glimpsed Gail in one of Bowie's performances over the last two decades, or been lucky enough to see one of his live shows, then you are sure to have shared the Thin White Duke's own fascination with Gail that led him to seek her out for his band. So if you're interested in finding out more about Bowie's, if not music's best kept secret, then here is my guide to the some must-hear GAD tracks.

Where Is Your Love? (from The Corporate World, 1988)

Gail's debut album, The Corporate World, was chock full of wonderful songs, picking just two to recommend was like a musical Sophie's Choice. The album was potentially a tricky sell, with some unapologetically political attacks on everything from environmental destruction to nuclear proliferation. It also was risky preaching about corporate greed while signed to global behemoth Warner Bros. The reason the album succeeds is that the quality of the songwriting and the brilliance of Gail's performance make you unquestionably believe the sincerity in her messages and that the joke is really on the major label for allowing her to use their resources to push her leftist propaganda. Needless to say as a lefty boy I loved it!

The second single from the album was the hypnotic Where Is Your Love?, in which Gail questions where, in amongst all our mod cons and daily distractions, does love fit in to our busy lives? The track powers along with the verses landing like much needed "wake up!" slaps, only for Gail to hug you close with the irresistibly hooky chorus. Given this was released at the peak of 80s consumerism, it hit a nerve in many people who saw a growing divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" and very little compassion from the former to the latter. Now a quarter of a century later on this side of the economic collapse it seems prophetic. If only we'd listened Gail and found the love; it might all have been so different.

So Hard To Let You Go (from The Corporate World, 1988)

The album wasn't all politicking, Gail found plenty of room to address more comfortable subjects for pop records, like love and stuff. In fact the album contains three of the most beautiful ballads you could ever hope to hear. On the blissful end of the spectrum there's the gorgeous Carry Me Off To Heaven, which accomplishes just that for this listener. On the more wrist-slitty end there is the ache of separation on If Only You, which captures eloquently that feeling we've all experienced where you think you're the only person on the planet in such pain. But by a whisker I'm giving my recommendation to a classic tale of unrequited love.

While Gail is best known in the music world for her masterful bass-playing, not many people realise she also has one of the richest voices of her generation. Like all the greats, Gail does not sound like anybody else, her voice is unique and unforgettable. Her performance on So Hard To Let You Go is one of her best, the lyrics are full of sorrow, yet she beautifully underplays the pain, letting the subtleties of her extraordinary tone tell the story. If you haven't heard Gail sing, you know that feeling when the most delicious chocolate you've ever tasted melts onto your tongue and every taste bud you possess is in orgasm, that's what it feels like for your ears.

California (from Rude Blue, 1992)

For her second album, Rude Blue, Gail jumped ship to Island Records and delivered another strong set of songs. This time the production was pared back, leading to a rawer, funkier sound. Again picking favourite tracks is a challenge, but I'll start with a song that has changed its meaning for me recently. California paints the Golden State as the destination of escape from more humdrum environments. Though a recognisable meme, it has rarely seemed so attractive against the picture Gail paints of the alternative. The song has a great lyric, with clever insights like "time is a weapon, it used to be a gift" - think about it. The melody is pretty bitchin' too.

As a recent Californian immigrant this has become a bit of a theme song for me. Sure it's dripping with irony, but it's hard to get too cynical when the sun shines pretty much every day. As Gail says, "got to go west if you're looking for gold".

More Than I Can Give (from Rude Blue, 1992)

The standout track on the album is More Than I Can Give, which could be the thoughts of the unheard partner from So Hard To Let You Go. Here Gail is feeling overwhelmed by the demands of her lover, who wants and needs more than she is able to provide. If you've ever had to end a high maintenance love affair then you'll wish you knew this song existed. All you'd have needed to do was play the song to your pestering partner and, assuming they possessed even a little self-awareness, not only would they have known it was over, they'd most likely have apologised!

The song is so gentle and loving and the backing so perfectly spare that Gail's voice is allowed to truly shine, switching effortlessly from expressing love to repressing exasperation. The lyrics are pure poetry, it is one of the truly great break-up songs and for once you are unquestionably on the side of the dumper. As the needy, demanding type it also helped me mend my ways, for which I will be eternally thankful to Miss Dorsey.

Under Pressure (from Hallo Spaceboy, 1996)

Gail joined David Bowie's band in 1995 at his invitation for his co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails. David had seen her on TV in the UK plugging The Corporate World and had decided then and there they would work together when the right opportunity arose. Although Gail claims to have been understandably intimidated by Bowie at first, this was not apparent in their onstage chemistry and she soon proved to have been an inspired hire.

One of the highlights of that tour was when David and Gail duetted on Under Pressure, without question the funkiest pop song ever written by white guys. Gail gave real resonance to the lyrics, wisely choosing not to try and imitate Freddie Mercury, but instead creating her own uniquely soulful vocal take on the track. She also played the hell out of that iconic bassline, which frankly is just showing off! Happily the track was released as a B-side to Bowie's Hallo Spaceboy single, so this epic performance has been captured for posterity. Pure brilliance.

This Time (Barely Alive) (from I Used To Be..., 2003)

It was a long decade before Gail's third album appeared, but it was worth the wait. I Used To Be... is perhaps Gail's most cohesive album, freed from major label demands to sound "current" or "commercial", Gail is free to explore her sound and the result is something truly unique. A perfect example is This Time (Barely Alive), which could be read autobiographically as the story of Gail's career: "I'm not sure what I'll bring this time, I'm barely alive... I'm not sure what I'll sing this time..."

Gail's songwriting is spectacularly good, her lyrics are always fresh and riveting and she knows how to spin them into a layered melody. That this song can be read on many levels is testament to that, I like to see it as song of survival, despite the fact "the planets are aligned for indifference", talent like Gail's demands to be expressed and deserves to be heard. Gail, if you didn't already know, what you brought this time was perfection.

Whether You Are The One (from I Used To Be..., 2003)

Indecision is not the usual stuff of love songs, but on this sublime track that is what Gail treats us to. Given the choice whether to leap or leave is part of every love story, it's surprising there aren't more songs covering this phenomenon. This is another amazing lyric by Gail with the usual bevy of memorable lines, like "here I stand together, heart like a loaded gun". The track almost imperceptibly builds from a sparse intro to a multi-layered soundscape and Gail's vocal floats and twists within its lush boundaries. Though there is no clear resolution by the song's end, a feeling of completeness suggests that this love might not be "the one".

I Used To Be... is a real showcase for Gail's talents as a songwriter, bassist and vocalist, she really is a triple threat! I can't believe the album is now ten years old, it still sounds fresh and relevant. A new album has been rumoured for quite a while, but is yet to materialise. Until then I must make do with spotting her telltale touches on her many session appearances for everybody from Gwen Stefani to Lenny Kravitz. Oh, and there is that small matter of a new Bowie album to enjoy. For me though, nothing can match Gail solo, so if you've not had the pleasure, then happily I Used To Be... is available on iTunes. Buy it. Now.

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Friday, March 1, 2013

Oscar's Golden Girls

It was most fitting at last Sunday's Oscars that music was put front and centre in the ceremony. Film and music exist in such symbiosis that most of our iconic movie memories are tied to a particular theme or song. For diva fans, the show was an absolute dream. Jennifer Hudson showed why she won an Oscar for her role in Dreamgirls, by reprising And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going, while Barbra Streisand gave a moving tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch, singing his Oscar winning theme for The Way We Were. There were musical numbers from Chicago and Les Miserables. We even got a surprise rendition of Goldfinger by the ultimate Bond diva Dame Shirley Bassey, proving that at 76 she has lost none of her power. Then her heir apparent Adele delivered a perfectly tense rendition of Skyfall shortly before collecting her first Oscar for Best Original Song.

In a good year the awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Soundtrack might merit a passing reference in Oscar write-ups, but Adele currently rules music and she seemed to get more coverage than Daniel Day-Lewis and Jennifer Lawrence combined. Adele is not the first female artist to win that coveted award, although as it is given to the songwriters and not the performers, it is a select crowd. Here are my favourites of the other female artists that have a little shiny man in their lives.

Irene Cara - Flashdance... What A Feeling - 1983

Irene Cara had already been the performer of an Oscar winning song with Fame in 1980, but she got to hold the trophy when her iconic theme to the movie Flashdance conquered all three years later. Irene came to prominence with her role as Coco in the movie Fame, but she passed on continuing on the spin-off TV series, choosing instead to focus on her music career. Initially Irene was reluctant to team up with the legendary disco producer Giorgio Moroder to work on Flashdance, fearing she would be compared with Giorgio's main collaborator, Donna Summer. Luckily she took the risk and together with lyricist Keith Forsey they created one of the truly great movie theme songs. Irene's vocal on the track is fantastic, from the tentative, gentle opening, right through to the blistering dance anthem the song becomes, she shows the great range of her voice. Sadly this was to be the peak of Irene's career, as battles with her record label led to an under-promoted follow-up album and a prolonged absence from music. I have a major soft spot for Irene, so we'll leave it there for now, as I will be covering her career more fully in a future blog.

Barbra Streisand - Evergreen (Love Theme From "A Star Is Born") - 1976

Like Irene, Barbra had performed an Oscar winning song, The Way We Were, before writing one of her own. For her remake of the Judy Garland classic movie A Star Is Born, Barbra wrote the melody for a song, which lyricist Paul Williams then found just the right words to fit. Evergreen went on to become one of Barbra's biggest hit singles, as well as helping the film's soundtrack album to shift almost 15 million copies.

Carly Simon - Let The River Run - 1988

I know, I've already written about this one in my blog on Carly's many great songs for movies, Nobody Does It Better, but no rundown of my favourite Oscar winning songs would be complete without this theme from the movie Working Girl. This song is among Carly's crowning achievements, it absolutely works as a movie theme, but it also transcends that role and has, for many of her fans (myself included), become an almost spiritual piece. The lyrics pull off the difficult trick in pop of being true poetry while also accessible for the casual listener. The production is superb, the crashing drums, the soaring choir, it is a masterclass in creating an anthem. Carly revisited the song on her 2009 album of self-covers, Never Been Gone, creating a sparser, acoustic version, which is well worth a listen. That the song works both as a stripped back poem and a movie power ballad is a mark of the quality of Carly's songwriting.

Annie Lennox - Into The West - 2003

Annie has ventured into movie music a few times, probably most memorably when she and Dave produced the entire score for the movie version of George Orwell's 1984, released that very year. My personal favourite was her Love Song For A Vampire, written for Francis Ford Coppola's take on Bram Stoker's Dracula. However, it was her co-writing and performing of this achingly beautiful theme from The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King that caught Oscar's attention. Annie gives a suitably haunting vocal on this gentle track, that builds slowly to a gorgeous, swelling chorus. It provided a fitting end note to one of cinema's most epic film series.

So as you can see, Adele has indeed joined an elite group. While they may not be the most high profile awards, the Oscars given for Best Original Song and Best Original Soundtrack are an important recognition of the role music plays in bringing movies to life. And finally a Bond song won!

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider sharing it or linking to it from your Facebook, Google+ or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts above or follow me on Twitter. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link:Oscar's Golden Girls

Friday, February 15, 2013

Fingerprints, On Me From You: the lyrics of Suzanne Vega

I like a good lyric. There, I've said it. Yes, primarily for me music is about the chemical reaction of voice to ear, but it's also important that what that voice is saying has power too. Maybe that's why I've never really gotten into scat jazz signing: I need words. At its best, a song lyric is a piece of poetry. It can work its magic read on a piece of paper, as much as being transformed with the addition of notes and instruments. Any writer knows the challenge of finding that perfect word, that ultimate sentence to convey the precise meaning they intend. It's easy to tell when a lyric has been painstakingly crafted, when a writer has pored over every word, poking it and prodding to make sure it fits exactly into the void it replaces. One of the best lyricists in music has to be Suzanne Vega, which is why I was not surprised to find her performing as part of the Whittier College Writers Festival here in LA last Sunday.

"Observe the blood, The rose tattoo, Of the fingerprints, On me from you..."
(from Marlene On The Wall, 1985)

I've seen Suzanne live a few times and have collected her works since I was first captured by Marlene On The Wall, a song so alien to the pop charts it invaded you had to stop and listen. I remember studying the lyrics to try and work out why it moved me so much, working out the metaphors and marvelling at her choice of phrase. Over the years Suzanne has written many more songs that have similarly caused me to pause and reflect on a lyric and there is often a particular line or phrase that is so resonant with me that it takes permanent root in my mind. I know music is a highly individual sport, but I wanted to share a few of those lyrics and try and explain what it was about those words that moves me. In the process I hope it makes you listen to Suzanne's songs and give yourself the time and space, so rare in our busy lives, to really hear what she is saying.

"If you lie on the ground in somebody's arms, You'll probably swallow some of their history..."
(from In Liverpool, 1992)

You know that feeling when you are in a strange city? There are buildings and people and nature and light and shade, but they are not your buildings, people, nature, light, shade? Everything is knowable, yet unknown, strange and unsettling. In this song Suzanne finds herself in Liverpool in that state of mind, except there are things that seem oddly familiar, landmarks described by a Liverpudlian boy she once had a romance with, that cause her to reflect on the power of memory and longing. How she knows these things is because of the kind of osmosis that happens when you are physically close to another person, how you accidentally and incidentally "swallow some of their history".

Apart from being my favourite Suzanne song, this lyric is for me the perfect explanation of the invisible transaction that happens between lovers and is a possible explanation of why, years after an affair has ended, that person still has a connection with you. Quite often we wish this wasn't so, that we could leave those ghosts to the past, but it is that act of bonding that lingers, that tangential exchange of histories that creates an indelible link between two people that echoes down the years.

"And they'll never know the gold, Or the copper in your hair, How could they weigh the worth, Of you so rare..."
(from World Before Columbus, 1996)

For Suzanne this is a love song to her daughter, a brave attempt to imagine a world where that love was taken away; how flat, colourless and dark it would be. She describes the treasure of her daughter as riches beyond the understanding of those piratical men that plundered the New World for its precious metals. I've always thought it challenging for a parent to write about their love for their children, it is so easy to gush and slide into sentimentality (as so many have). Suzanne's beautiful poem, set to a lush and lilting arrangement, shows it can be done with finesse and quiet power.

Like any great love song it is easy for the listener to fit their own autobiography into the lyrics. I remember lying with my husband one afternoon, he had a rare length of beard, so it must have been on holiday. I noticed his beard had little flecks of blond and ginger, unlike the hair on his head, like precious secrets revealing themselves to me only. This line came into my head and I understood. Love.

"She's happy that you're here but when you disappear, She won't know that you're gone to say goodbye..."
(from New York Is A Woman, 2007)

Although born in California, Suzanne grew up in New York and like many artists before her the city has had a profound impact on her work. Like any great city there is an unspoken tension between those that call it home and the many millions who pass through, for business or pleasure (or both). As an immigrant Londoner for many years I understand the frustrations of battling straggling tourists on your way to work, but I also appreciate the wonder and majesty of these world cities and why outsiders are drawn there. In this song Suzanne imagines New York in the form of a femme fatale and describes how a visitor from suburban America is drawn in to "her beauty and her crime".

I love Manhattan, I visit whenever I can, but I've always had a peculiar feeling when I'm there. New York City is amazing, it is simply the most electric place on the planet. Yet I always feel strangely uneasy there, insignificant almost within the hive of humanity. I'd always struggled to explain this feeling until I heard this song, then I realised the truth: 

"New York is a woman, She'll make you cry, And to her you're just another guy".

These are just a few examples of the many times a Suzanne Vega song has enriched my understanding of life. She is a true poet, as adept with words and she is with crafting subtle melodies to set them in, and possessing a soulful, singular voice to communicate them. Happily Suzanne debuted new material at her show, with the promise of a new album later this year. I'm excited to see what new insights and adventures await.

There is a volume of the collected writing of Suzanne Vega, "The Passionate Eye". Suzanne has also re-recorded her back catalogue and released as a four volume collection called "Close Up", available from 

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider sharing it or linking to it from your Facebook, Google+ or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts above or follow me on Twitter. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Fingerprints

Friday, February 1, 2013

Essex Girl: the Alison Moyet story, part one

Loyalty is rare commodity in life, but for some reason we happily bestow it on musicians, perhaps because of the indefinable and immeasurable richness their music contributes to our lives. One of the great joys of becoming a fan of an artist early in their career is the opportunity to be part of their journey. You are there through the white heat of stardom, the inevitable difficult periods and, hopefully, through to their triumphant blossoming into the artist they always wanted to be. I have loved Alison Moyet since I saw her debut appearance on the legendary BBC show Top of the Pops in 1982 and have kept the faith ever since, despite some lengthy gaps in output (hey, I'm a Kate Bush fan, time means nothing to me). With breaking news that she has signed to the very cool Cooking Vinyl label, home of such individualists as Billy Bragg and Marilyn Manson, Alison is sure to further push the boundaries of her music.

Alison's story is truly a game of two halves (she'd love the football reference), the first of an artist struggling to find her voice, while also navigating the narrow expectations of her record label. In the second act of Alison's career, she has finally seemed to achieve her vision, both in terms of the material she has recorded, but also as a vocalist. In this two-part retrospective I shall try and map the journey Alison has taken to become the artist she is today through her songs. First, let me take you back to that Borehamwood studio, where Alf and Vince are causing a stir in Britain's living rooms.

Only You (1982)

It's hard to believe that Yazoo (Yaz in the US) were together for only 18 months, such is the lasting legacy of their music. They only released four singles and two albums and toured once in that brief window of time and it was not a happy union, but nonetheless there was something alchemical about the combination of Vince Clarke and  Alison "Alf" Moyet. Alison has said she modeled her voice on male singers and loved old-style rhythm and blues and it is this vocal rawness combined with Vince's electronic mastery that gives Yazoo its unique edge.

Vince had just left Depeche Mode, who at this time in their career where one of the hottest "new wave" pop bands in the UK. Vince was unhappy with the "darker" direction the group wanted to take, so he left to pursue his own unique brand of pop. At the same time fellow Essex native Alison was looking for a band. An ad she placed in Melody Maker led to the two joining forces, though rather than Alison's stated ambition of moving from third pub act on the bill to top pub act, Vince's connections and reputation led to an instant contract with indie label Mute, the attention of the music press and radio and, very quickly thereafter, a big hit single.

Only You is a classic Vince Clarke composition; a deceptively simple, yet instantly memorable melody paired with an equally straightforward, yet poetic lyric. His arrangement of the song, though very 80's in its synthtasticness, is masterful in its careful layering of sounds, creating the perfect tone for the heartache of the song. Then there is Alison's vocal. For a first attempt at professional recording it is pretty astounding. The first thing you notice is the strength of her voice, it has depth and warmth and a real presence. The next thing you realise is that this is an emotional singer, by which I mean she is not simply performing the song, she is connected to it on an emotional level. A singer in command of their emotions does not need to rely on histrionics, so the vocal is restrained, yet Alison takes us right to the edge of her pain and shows us the hurt. A perfect moment in pop.

The single peaked at no. 2 and the follow-up Don't Go was another piece of pop perfection, this time an up-tempo plea for love and, with the most ridiculously infectious hook I have ever heard, it reached no. 3. With the album Upstairs At Eric's peaking at no. 2 there have been very few bands who experienced such instant success, but then for Alison that was the problem.

Nobody's Diary (1983)

The circumstances and speed of the formation of Yazoo sowed the seeds of its destruction. Alison and Vince were strangers with little in common and their very different musical styles and interests meant there was no real meeting of the minds on a creative level. Vince wanted out, but was persuaded to make another album, ironically entitled You And Me Both given Vince and Alison worked separately in shifts in the studio to complete it. However this dissent was not apparent in the quality of the music and one of Alison's compositions, Nobody's Diary, was chosen as the lone single.The haunting ballad has a similar vibe to Only You, but is more intense in both melody and lyric. Vince again produces a mesmeric backing track and Alison delivers a powerful and gut wrenching vocal.

With the group's break-up announced even before the album was released the song seemed almost like documentary. Although Alison made an attempt to get Vince to reconsider, he was adamant that Yazoo was over. With no clear plan for what was next she was persuaded to sign with a major label, CBS, by her lawyer and accountant, who advised her she had no ties with Mute. This was true for the UK, but a deal with Sire records in the US to release Yazoo's output meant Alison's deal with CBS left her in breach of contract. A long year of legal wrangling left Alison unable to record and she was forced to agree a punitive deal with Sire to move forward. Alison was severely isolated at this time, having lost her punk mates, who thought she'd sold out, and with her professional advisers proving less than competent, she finally embarked on making her first solo album.

Love Resurrection (1984)

Few people knew at the time what Alison had been through, so her solo launch seemed like a fluid, inevitable step to superstardom. CBS clearly thought they had signed a singer, rather than an artist, and simply wanted Alison to work with the hottest producers and record an album that would satisfy the mainstream pop audience. With little leverage to argue, Alison agreed to work with top producers Swain and Jolley and the result was Alf. The lead single was the lyrically playful Love Resurrection, whose double entendres sailed over my teenage head for a while. The song is tough and uncompromising and Alison sings it with relish, no doubt relieved to be making music again.

Love Resurrection was a top ten hit and was followed by the power ballad All Cried Out, which seemed tailor-made to showcase Alison's mesmerising voice. The album hit no. 1 in the UK, selling well over a million copies. Alison also had respectable success in the US, particularly with the track Invisible, written by the legendary Lamont Dozier and perfect for US radio. The album was definitely a departure from Yazoo, with a smoother, more mainstream production. Despite the success, for long afterwards Alison saw Alf as something of a millstone around her neck, creating an image and expectation that seemed far from the vision for her career she had for herself.

That Ole Devil Called Love (1985)

Thrilled with the success of Alf, CBS decided it would mould Alison into the Streisand of her generation, a power singer of other people's songs. Alison herself was experimenting with jazz at this time and recorded a TV special where she played with a big band. Out of this period came Alison's biggest chart hit, a cover of the Billie Holliday standard, That Ole Devil Called Love. It is a brave singer that takes on Billie, but Alison succeeds because her recording is authentic and natural, revealing her own heart in the way Billie templated for every singer that followed. It was perhaps the staggering success of the single that made Alison pause to consider what she was doing with her career. Was she really destined to be a standard-singing diva, or would her inner punk reassert itself in her music...

Is This Love? (1986)

With hindsight it is easy to see how Alison's next album is a compromise between managing the expectations of CBS and her pop fans and going with her instincts as a musician. Raindancing seems to tick all the boxes: radio-friendly pop hits, check; stirring ballads, check; hit producers, check. But a few of the songs are also rawer than on Alf, dare I say it, almost punky in their attitude. Alison co-wrote the lead single Is This Love? with Eurythmics' Dave Stewart and it is a great melding of their talents. It sounds genuinely happy, like Alison is singing it purely for her own enjoyment rather than meeting some external need. The album is full of astonishing moments, like the sparse ballad Blow Wind Blow and the orgasmic duet Sleep Like Breathing. The album was another international success, reaching no. 2 in the UK and staying on the charts for a full year.

By now Alison had some clout, nothing makes a label sit up and listen like selling millions of records, so she decided the time had come for her to take stock of her career and really think about the type of album she wanted to make. It took her four years and when it came it certainly took everyone by surprise.

It Won't Be Long (1991)

From the second the indie-rock guitar swirls into the mix it is clear that It Won't Be Long is the calling card of a very different Alison Moyet. Gone is the polished pop production to be replaced by a grittier vibe, the suggestive lyrics are now single entendres and the vocal is no longer constrained, but raw, guttural and completely fabulous. Over twenty years later it sounds as fresh to these ears as it did when I first listened to it with my jaw literally dropping - not from disappointment, but from excitement. This felt like Alison unleashed, inhabiting her own skin and owing her artistic power. She sounded like a veteran rock singer who'd clocked up a few decades on the road, while still dripping every syllable with meaning. By the end of the track you are left in no doubt of her feelings, it is a total tour de force.

The album Hoodoo followed in the same vein, from the bluesy Footsteps to the raucous title track, each song feels like a statement, basically Alison saying "this is what I sound like". I was lucky enough to see Alison live for the first time in 1991 at the intimate UEA in Norwich and I was down the front singing along with every lyric... unlike most of the audience who seemed slightly bemused by this leather-jacketed rock chick, when they had expected an evening of light entertainment. I didn't care and neither did Alison who totally seemed in her element. Her voice live was every bit as impressive as on record, actually more so, it is simply a force of nature. Hoodoo quickly became my favourite album and I bored many a friend with my endless extolling of its virtues. Sadly neither CBS nor mainstream radio seemed as impressed and airplay, promotion and sales were not forthcoming. Only one of the singles scraped into the UK top 40 (just) and the album stalled at no. 11. Alison's label and contract had by this time been bought by the mighty Sony corporation, who were less than impressed with this new direction. The scene was set for an epic struggle over the future of Alison's career.

Whispering Your Name (1994)

Alison was but one of Sony's artists struggling to fulfil a new commercial drive as the suits sought to make good on their investment. You may recall a certain George Michael was having similar issues. Not willing to compromise Alison delivered a new album to Sony, affectionately entitled for her native Essex. The album developed the rawer, edgier sound she had unleashed on Hoodoo, but this time the vibe was more relaxed, as demonstrated by the glorious lead single Falling, a trippy mix of mysticism and euphoria. However, when it stalled at no. 42 Sony called a halt and demanded that Alison remix some of the tracks on Essex to create a more commercial product.

The prime example of this was the makeover given to Alison's plaintive reading of Jules Shear's Whispering Your Name. The original version, kept on the album, is an acoustic unplugged affair, allowing Alison's voice to soar. It is a stirring performance, given extra power by Alison's "so what" decision not to change the personal pronouns in the lyrics from female to male. Lesbians of the world rejoiced! For the single release Sony required a pop makeover, with a full-on synth backing track and an almost Stock Aitken Waterman drum machine. Frankly, you wonder whether Alison was taking the piss when you listen to the two versions side-by-side. Infuriatingly though it became Alison's biggest hit in years, not hindered by a totally hilarious performance in the video from Alison's mate Dawn French.

Alison remained unmoved by a return to the pop limelight, she knew how to have a hit single, it was simply that she was no longer interested in making music just to sell records: it had to mean something. Despite the compromises she had to make, Essex is one of Alison's strongest albums, featuring gems like Satellite, one of the best songs Alison has ever written, like an adult lullaby mixed with a torch song. It was though to be her last album for eight years as she decided to fight Sony for her freedom rather than compromise any further. When she re-emerged it was clear that her time away had allowed Alison to fully reflect on the kind of music she wanted to make, but more on that another time.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider sharing it or linking to it from your Facebook, Google+ or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts above or follow me on Twitter. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Essex Girl