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Jul 10

YAZZ AND THE PLASTIC POPULATION – “The Only Way Is Up”

FT + Popular55 comments • 4,270 views

#613, 6th August 1988, video

It may have come out in time to lord it over the charts during the Second Summer of Love; it may have a production credit for Coldcut – but there’s nothing outrageously radical about “The Only Way Is Up”. It’s the fifth cover version to get to number one in 1988, and nobody who’d heard “Don’t Leave Me This Way” then this would feel the ground of pop had shifted dramatically.

If there’s something new here it’s in the record’s self-assurance, the way it acts like that ground has indeed moved. Even that might be a trick of hindsight – The Communards sound to me more subcultural than they were, because the hi-NRG music they’re drawing from never broke as big as house. Whereas Yazz And The Plastic Population are working within what has turned out to be the basic grammar of dance-pop for most of the next two decades: uplifting lyric, house rhythm, big diva voice up front. So from the moment “Only Way” announces itself – with that glorious express train horn sample – it makes everything else sound like it’s trying too hard. Don’t worry about that stuff, it says, this is what pop music sounds like now – and it’s only going to get better.

This effortless quality meant I soon felt “The Only Way Is Up” had been around forever, and people talked up Yazz as a natural star. Ever since it’s been a record I take for granted rather – I never had to work at liking it and perhaps for that reason I never loved it. This despite its excellent qualities – Yazz herself is a good deal more subtle than a lot of the house divas to come, and her warm, chuckling performance helps the song evolve from one about hope in the middle of desperate poverty to a more generalised having-it-large deal. (You could take this as a criticism, I admit, but Coldcut and Yazz are pragmatists: that chorus is too enormous simply to use on social concern!) What I like most is also what dates the record most: the bustle of the production, that excitable rhythm-and-sample chatter from S’Express still bubbling away under the more structured song.

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Comments

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  1. 26

    much too close to this to have an opinion that isn’t direct friendly fondness: i was in a band w.matt of coldcut at college, and saw him evolve from anxiously smart PPE student and t.heads fan to speedy computer whizzkid (his first job after college) to pirate DJ and dance-music expert, to laidback label producer and boss

  2. 27
    Mike Atkinson on 2 Jul 2010 #

    I’m surprised that so many people are lukewarm about this; what’s not to love? Yazz turned out to have her limitations as a vocalist, as (unlike Erithian at #11) I thought “Fine Time” exposed, but here she’s the perfect singer for the job: a beaming, slightly gawky, inclusive presence on Coldcut’s propulsive, rough-edged, DIY-ish re-contextualisation of Otis Clay’s masterful original. The squelchy acid synth was bang on for the summer of ’88 – an instant pop assimilation of the dance revolution, and soooo much better than D-Mob’s bloody awful (and, in my experience, floor-clearing) cash-in. I also like the way that the soaring, Al Green-style string counterpoints from Clay’s original are retained in Coldcut’s chorus arrangement. This was my biggest floor-filler of the summer (until Inner City’s “Big Fun” deposed it), and I can’t hear it without visualising dozens of fists punching the air (“the only way is UP – POW!“) on my dancefloor, week after week after week. A nine from me.

  3. 28
    Rory on 2 Jul 2010 #

    Never got its hooks into me the way it did most of you, so I’ll give it a 6. I like the lazy trumpets. Number 2 in Australia, and number 1 next door in NZ.

  4. 29
    punctum on 2 Jul 2010 #

    Cor blimey, what a dreary old bunch of grumbling, fun-hating hippies you lot sometimes are! I bet you were all listening to Fields of the Nephilim and à;GRUMH at the time.* No offence…

    As it happens I have quite a lot to say about this – 1,354 words, I make it – but like “Wuthering Heights” it’s far too personal to go on here. Anyone wanting to read my take on the record, email me at marcellocarlin at hotmail dot com and I’ll send you a copy.

    *look, so was I, but hey I was digging pop also as well (© Gary Crowley) and along with Ornette’s Virgin Beauty this was top sunshine listening in ’88 London.

  5. 30
    Paytes on 2 Jul 2010 #

    Interesting comparison with Communards’ ‘Don’t Leave Me’. Yazz & The PP’s update of Otis Clay is sooo much more adventurous in terms of where the song was taken.

    Burbling acid b-line, vocal cut-ups, wailing house horns compared with Jimmy C and Co’s flat xeroxing of Themla Houston’s definitive version of DLMTW…

    A 9

  6. 31
    punctum on 2 Jul 2010 #

    The great thing is that when first I heard this on the radio it sounded like a bootleg, whereas “DLMTW” has all the life produced out of it.

    Is “Doctorin’ The House” the only top five hit to feature the (sampled) voice of Simon Bates (“THE MUSIC MAKER”)?

  7. 32
    Erithian on 2 Jul 2010 #

    Surely not, Marcello, as the (actual) voice of Simon Bates is buried deep in the mix of the Ferry Aid record!

  8. 33
    Paytes on 2 Jul 2010 #

    PS. is this the first Popular No1 record cover to be from the CD single?

  9. 34
    mike on 2 Jul 2010 #

    Which reminds me – we bought our first CD player in the summer of 88, and I bought my first two CD singles: EBTG’s cover of I Don’t Want To Talk About It, and Leonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan. But I wouldn’t make the full switch to CD singles for another four years.

  10. 35
    Billy Smart on 2 Jul 2010 #

    Number 2 Watch: More SAW: A whole four weeks of Kylie Minogue’s The Locomotion – I knew that *that* was a cover version! – and then two weeks of Brother Beyond’s ‘The Harder I Try’.

  11. 36
    Gavin Wright on 2 Jul 2010 #

    I’m pretty sure I’ve never once listened to this song of my own accord but I do quite like it – this is mainly down to the fond memories I have of it being played at childhhod birthday parties alongside Belinda Carlisle and the entire SAW catalogue. I also think that the big, booming, mid/late-’80s production is really effective – it’s not a style I’m normally a fan of but it occasionally works brilliantly in Hi-NRG pop (‘Always On My Mind’ is probably the best example). A 7/10 seems about right.

  12. 37
    Billy Smart on 2 Jul 2010 #

    Hm. I know that its good, I knew so at the time, but its so overfamiliar as to hold few surprises for me. Like ‘Perfect’ a few entries ago, it has a chorus that’s easily extractable for TV clips and I find it hard to reconnect with its original pop single context.

    My old landlady saw Yazz perform at her Surrey church last year! ‘An Evening With Yazz’, £5. She talked a lot about the people who she had worked with in euphemistic terms – “I could tell that UB40 were in a troubled place when I met them”, etc

  13. 38
    punctum on 2 Jul 2010 #

    “The Harder I Try”: the closest the Isley Brothers ever came to a UK number two hit (it samples the drum intro from “This Old Heart Of Mine”). Follow-up “He Ain’t No Competition” very underrated; the sitar FX make it sound like SAW are tackling the theme to Sir Prancealot (one for the teenagers there).

  14. 39
    Mike Atkinson on 2 Jul 2010 #

    FUN FACT: According to my mate Nick’s new book 101 Forgotten Pop Hits of the 1980s, the first chapter of which is dedicated to “The Harder I Try”, Pete Waterman described “He Ain’t No Competition” as their “message to Matt Goss”.

  15. 40

    “I could tell that UB40 were in a troubled place when I met them”

    This euphemism means: “Their records are unutterably whiny facepalm but my faith teaches me to turn the other cheek, UNFORTUNATELY”

  16. 41
    punctum on 2 Jul 2010 #

    Hiiiii, it’s Daaaaale, and we’re going back forty-one years, all the way to 1988, and at number 15 it was UB40 with the nineteenth of their seventeen consecutive number nineteen hits. Here they are with the LOVE-ly Chrissie Hynde and “Breakfast In Bedfordshire”…

  17. 42
    Mike Atkinson on 2 Jul 2010 #

    FUN FACT (2): Yazz ended up marrying the head of her record label. His name was Jazz. Too cute!

  18. 43
    Steve Mannion on 2 Jul 2010 #

    Had three beautiful boys – Gaz, Baz and Daz

  19. 44
    Mike Atkinson on 2 Jul 2010 #

    I should also mention the very servicable Bam Bam remix of TOWIU, which came out as a separate 12″ a few weeks later and extended the track’s dancefloor life for a couple more weeks.

    As for the fabled Summer Of Love, the full force of the revolution rather passed us by in Nottingham, but a few acid tracks worked well at my club nights: Mr Lee’s “Pump Up London” (complete with Nottingham name check), Baby Ford’s one-sided “Oochy Koochy (F.U. Baby Yeh Yeh), Jolly Roger’s “Acid Man” and Dave Dorrell’s Afro Acid mix of Mory Kante’s “Ye Ke Ye Ke”. We had just moved our night to a bigger club, and had upgraded from fortnightly to weekly events, with a good core crowd of regulars. And oh joy, the new club had a SMOKE MACHINE and a STROBE… except that it was a rather shonky strobe, which you had to switch off for about half an hour between uses.

    I used to save my smoke-and-strobe moments for Patrick Cowley’s remix of “I Feel Love” (which suddenly sounded contemporary all over again), running Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech over one of the extended instrumental sections. It was hardly Shoom or Spectrum, but we tried to keep up, in our own sweet provincial way…

  20. 45
    punctum on 2 Jul 2010 #

    WHY OH WHY HAS THERE NEVER BEEN A GROUP CALLED SHONKY STROBE

  21. 46
    LondonLee on 2 Jul 2010 #

    This is an 8 or 9 easy, full of the joys of summer and pretty much my idea of perfect club music (though I agree that Yazz’s voice can’t quite handle the chorus) of which there started to be a steady stream of at this point (like ‘Big Fun’ as mentioned above)

  22. 47
    Chris Gilmour on 3 Jul 2010 #

    The sound of the summer holidays twixt middle and high school, love the pseudo-acieeed bass squelches and popping percussion track. Funnily enough, I had known this was a cover at the time, unlike many others, but for years I had it in my head that it was by Otis Redding, not Clay. I was no doubt misled by Bruno Brookes or one of his ilk.
    I get the feeling that if Coldcut had carried on in this vein (also evidenced by the marvellous ‘People Hold On’) then the post acid-house pop landscape would have looked quite different. As it is, the Beatmasters produced the follow up, ‘Stand Up For Your Love Rights’ which now sounds a lot better than I remember it.

  23. 48
    Billy Smart on 4 Jul 2010 #

    TOTPWatch: Yazz & The Plastic Population thrice performed ‘The Only Way Is Up’ on Top Of The Pops (we’ll come to the Christmas edition in the fullness of time);

    28 July 1988. Also in the studio that week were; Shakin’ Stevens and Siouxsie & The Banshees. Gary Davies & Nicky Campbell were the hosts.

    18 August 1988. Also in the studio that week were; Aztec Camera, Chris Rea, Fairground Attraction and Julio Iglesias. Mike Read & Simon Mayo were the hosts.

  24. 49
    intothefireuk on 7 Jul 2010 #

    Have to disagree with the majority here.. disliked this intensely then and still do. The train horn is the first irritation and it speeds downhill quickly after that. Every sound on the record irks but mostly it’s Yazz’s over-reaching, souless voice combined with the obvious easy sentimentality of the lyric which sink the whole affair for me. It does sound exactly like a SAW abomination and is all the worse for it. It gets a 1 just because it isn’t. Now ..where’s my Fields of the Nephilim 12″ ?

  25. 50
    vinylscot on 7 Jul 2010 #

    I definitely did not like this one little bit. All that “punching-the-air” every time the title was sung really did my nut in. (OK, so I have no sense of rhythm whatsoever, and could never time my punch right, resulting in me looking like an even bigger tw*t than I actually was/am)

    Aside from that I really didn’t think it amounted to much then, and I haven’t changed my mind now – it does sound rather sub-SAW to me (was the train-horn supposed to be “wacky”?) – not my thing at all.

    …and did no-one else just think that Yazz was just a bit, well, scary?

  26. 51
    punctum on 7 Jul 2010 #

    #49: How do you know it’s “souless”? I’m being hard on this because I happen to know at least some of the backstory behind this record – which is one of several reasons why I haven’t posted at length about it here, and even on what I’ve written privately I’ve been careful not to name names; it’s not really anybody’s business but nevertheless I do know some of the things which provoked it and what it represented to the people who made it – and really if we can’t move beyond the trope of “soul” (whatever that word was ever supposed to mean, other than a convenient musical genre label; see Phyl Garland’s The Sound Of Soul for a full explanation of how and why “soul music” came about) then we’re not going to get anywhere. Maybe you think that cheery Yazz doesn’t communicate the thinking behind the song or the record adequately enough, to which I would suggest that worthiness and needless melisma would have dragged the record down to a level where we wouldn’t be discussing it here (and likewise the Otis Clay original does not go down that route).

    Also, what’s wrong with “obvious easy sentimentality”? Don’t you think that the words would resonate with and touch listeners in that kind of situation? On a personal level, I can assure you that in at least three cases it did, and maybe still does. Do you want every pop song to come across like Geoffrey Hill wrote the lyrics? That would be a dry, barren life for sure (no offence to GH – I voted for him – but you can’t just have that).

  27. 52
    intothefireuk on 7 Jul 2010 #

    #51 In this instance I would describe ‘souless’ as lacking the ability to convey emotion/feeling/warmth through her voice. Of course to another listener it may just do that but I can only judge what I hear. There may well be good intentions at heart but, to me, it hasn’t translated through the record. I have no problem with positivity in pop but I don’t don’t like the way it gets there and there’s little of interest to me here …and certainly the production including the parping makes me like it even less.

    #50 Yes she also scared the pants off me.

  28. 53
    Lena on 14 Jul 2010 #

    22 years ago today I arrived for the first time in London; and this was the song which startled me, which gave me hope, which was just plain *there* and that I remembered best when I came back home nearly a month later. I will write more about just why I was in need of good cheer, but this song provided it on the hot pavements and warm parks that long summer…

  29. 54
    abaffledrepublic on 16 Jul 2010 #

    Supposedly written about the experience of squatting.

    The production is a tad thin in places, but Yazz’s soaring vocal more than makes up for it. Despite this, it’s always been a record I’ve liked rather than loved. 7 is about right.

  30. 55
    Weej on 9 Mar 2013 #

    Something that doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in the thread above is that the first Yazz album (which included TOWIU) was produced by Rob Gordon of Sheffield’s FON studios, soon to be founder of Warp records. So we’re sitting at the fulcrum of Ninja Tune (founded by Coldcut) and Warp here, not SAW.

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