Yello: Shirley and Company

2005 note: Easily my favourite NME piece. Kudos also to the sub who chose the original caption: “Helvetica Bold”

AND SO I’LL be asking Shirley Bassey my questions with all the exultant confusion her semi-fictional glamour forces out of me. And she’ll be saying.

“There’s that brilliant Kraftwerk story. About them hearing a tape of the first Suicide LP, and threatening the man who had it with physical violence unless he got them one too. Sometimes I’m like that about a sound. And I love this exoticism thing between Europe and America, the way these Chicago House kids are hearing Art Of Noise as something magic, weird powerful sorcery – without being all jaded or suspicious, like we are here, because we know where they’re coming from.

“The radical European stuff, I can take or leave, myself. That post-DAF groove. Front 242, Young Gods, Siglo XX – I mean, it’s good that it’s happening, and I can hear why young people get worked up, obviously, especially over the Brussels scene, but in the end I’m an Old Fashioned Girl! I want glamour! Entertainment! A spell, glitter, something that charges me up without having to carry round a shoulder-bag full of political texts, you know? So even Holger Hiller’s too severe for me! I like Kraftwerk, because they’re so straight, so exact, and I just love Yello. I tell you, if Dieter hadn’t phoned me up to do ‘The Rhythm Divine’, my lawyers would have been phoning his!”

And then she’ll break into a peal of irresistible laughter, and the palms will shiver in the tiniest of breezes, and the waves will hiss softly on the blazing white-hot sand, and the tropical Cardiff sun will beat down: “England is insular. Especially now. It’s so shut off from the energy of the world, so old, so stupid. So anything from outside takes on a kind of glitter. The thing that’s special about Yello is that they don’t use that glitter to blind people. They use it to excite them, not to quiet them down.”

And I’ll try to keep her off her first love, her hardcore pop theorising, but she’ll dodge all my tricks, because this private beach is her kitchen, and I’m melting in the heat.

“You see Mark, when you make a judgement these days, you should always ask yourself, would I have been able to tell that blindfolded? Hear with your ears, not your eyes. I’m a professional singer. Even if no one else does, I have to assume that what you hear is what matters most about music.”

DIETER MEIER laughs suddenly. We’ve been talking about pranks and lies and art. And he’s just thought of a peach, a situationist mind-f**k gag that’s been brewing away under this cosmopolitan Swiss-stuff kid – art sober Yello breast, that’s up there with levitating the Pentagon, Swiss-wise:

“The idea I had was this. To take out ads, big posters, all over Switzerland. Really spend money on it, too. And all these posters would say ‘KURT WALDHEIM IS SWISS’! Because, oh, just to get everyone in Switzerland saying ‘Huh? What? Why does he say this? What does it all – mean?’

“Ach, Kurtchen, Kurtchen,” he sighs, and Boris Blank, otherwise silent, laughs at the playroom love-name. “Kurtchen. You know, in all the time he’s been President, who’s he had to visit and stay in his state rooms? When your Prince Charles went on holiday to Austria, Waldheim had to sign a paper saying he would not come within one hundred kilometres of wherever Charlie was. So who’s come to see him on an official State Visit? Arnold Schwarzenegger, that’s who! That’s the closest Kurt can get to a real Head of State.”

The Swiss may be a plain, law-abiding crowd – a little too proper, a little self-righteous – but they’re admirably stubborn, independent, no respecters of false authority or pretension. They are not Good Germans. To a citizen they despise and denigrate politicians. They are natural valley democrats. And it’s because Dieter’s rich-boy naughtiness is so well-crafted that he’s popular. And it’s because his craft is so naughty that he shocks them. He understands his luck. But he still has principles. Tell us about the paint-strewn art-gallery, then Yelloman:

“Ya ha. This is a thing I am very proud of. It took a lot of courage, from me. There is an art gallery in Zurich, and there was an exhibition called Red. And they were convincing me I should take part, because if I do, they have a lot of publicity. I said, I don’t know, if I have an idea on the idea of Red, I’ll do it. And I came with about 20 or 30 litres of red paint, and I wanted – with one swing, WHHCHHWW!! – to create an action, that would go – this red splash – over there, over the ceiling, and down here. And I carefully prepared this action not to destroy any piece of art in there. When I did it, some splashes went on the glass covers of the people’s work, but not a single original piece of art suffered from this thing. I paid for some frames and glass to be replaced for other artists. But it was a huge scandal in Zurich, because of this silly saying, Deiter Meier is destroying other people’s works of art.”

He’s very plausible. With that ‘tache, with that suit, with this manner, he would sway every member of the Court of Revolutionary Justice. Some people are born adventurers. Both of Yello look that way. When Boris first arrives, Deiter points to him and says:

“He looks fantastic today. He looks like a young duck.”

THE LIGHTLY SKIPPING irony of Billy Mackenzie’s Dundee accent could easily be missed over the phone (he’ll get himself into trouble one of these days). He’s telling me about the Bassey magic, the glamour-rush. He’s serious. Some things you don’t joke about:

“To me, Shirley Bassey had always been one of those otherworldly creatures. I’m not one for being unduly impressed. But she’s hilarious. She’s a prankster, 15 going on 18…

“I grew up on that ’40s singer thing, that ’50s sweep of a voice, on Jim Reeves and Brook Benton. Working with her made everything valid with my mum and aunties. It’s smoothed out those family wrinkles.”

Billy’s absurdly agile effortless song needs tight direction. On its own – up to now – it’s always been likely to go cracking off into regions of self-indulgence where only Mackenzie-crazies will follow. Meier and Blank sport the jodhpurs and whip and megaphone for the moment, naggingly successfully. Their casting touch is also perfect.

“I must say we were lucky. To our big surprise, Shirley Bassey liked Yello music. A lot. She listened to our albums, and she agreed to do it. So we could not refuse.” Deiter laughs. “To me, she is one of the great voices in showbusiness.”

IN THE YELLOWORLD, all the world falls into sharp short scenes. Boris scores, Deiter directs: and both have long realised that cine-verite techniques will smother the strangeness of reality abroad or at home, that cartoon-speeds are essential to juggle with stereotypes before discarding them. So they’ve learnt to move fast. And their cartoons don’t tell you nothing. Then again, ain’t nothing tells you nothing.

“The African influence on Cuban music had been very much oppressed by the government before this one, by this Batista schemer. Castro really emancipated black people in a way I’ve not seen. I’ve not seen black people emancipated, not hypocritically, but really emancipated, like I’ve seen in Cuba. And part of this is that they’ve found an identity through their music. It’s really incredible the kind of African music you find in Cuba, really very beautiful.”

And this is a travelled man. In a minute or two he’ll be comparing Havana room-service with London’s:

“I asked for a boiled egg. You know, a four-minute egg. They went away for three quarters of an hour, then came back with an egg, uncooked, and a little bowl of warm water. They said, could I do it myself, as no one in the kitchen had a watch!”

AND I’LL ASK her about rhythm, and what it means to her, and she’ll say: “Rhythm is the manacle of a song, I suppose, and also its charge, its demonic electricity. At the same time. ‘Words are inside breath, as the earth is inside time, enslaved to its rhythms. The singer’s body finds its release in such confinement.’ I’m sorry, I read that somewhere. It sounds terribly pretentious out loud. But it’s true!”

And she’ll wink, and I’ll ask her if it’s not all escapism, and she’ll frown for a moment: “I think it’s such a false target. It’s not as if anyone suffers from being totally caught up in it. Apart from a few Barry Manilow fans! These things don’t contribute to a dulled existence. You know, the forces of melody, rhythm, flirtation, glamour, sorcery. If all your senses are tuned up to hyper, you’re not going to continue evading the Real when you leave the theatre, are you? I mean, that’s what I think, Mark.

“It’s like what we were talking about, that idea of playing two records at the same time, Virgilio Marti and New Order simultaneously. I don’t think I could really get into it, but I do see what you mean. And that’s exactly how Yello work. They set up their little play against the darkness of your life, and set everything off at once. And it gives you a kick as well as two conflicting perspectives. It helps you concentrate.”

In the film-scape of your heart, you can dream her saying all these things. And you can dream yourself agreeing.

© Mark SinkerNew Musical Express, 27 June 1987

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