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The Outer Limits: Yello

We ask: how prog are Yello?

To call Dieter Meier, frontman with Swiss techno-pop duo Yello, one of a kind in the rock world would be something of an understatement.

 In fact, if prog is synonymous with adventure and derring-do, then he’s one of the proggiest men alive. He’s the former professional poker player and one-time member of Switzerland’s national golf team who owns a farm in Argentina and a restaurant in Zurich, manufactures watches, has his own brand of ready meals and is now involved in chocolate production. 

The mustachioed art prankster whose deep baritone wryly defaced the baroque splendour of his Yello partner Boris Blank’s maximalist sound paintings – including hit singles Oh Yeah, Vicious Games, I Love You and The Race – lives the life of an aristocratic millionaire, jet-setting from one curious project to another. If he didn’t exist, you could never make him up, mainly because he would seem too far-fetched.

“That’s actually true,” he says. “I had to learn to live with these things. So when I look back – which I rarely ever do – it seems pretty unreal. But obviously I had to accept that I have a life like these Chinese jugglers who have these 20 plates on sticks and they have to move these sticks so that the plates don’t fall down. This seems to be my life, and I enjoy it.”

He began his brilliantly haphazard, accidental career in the late 60s as an experimental filmmaker and conceptual artist. Today, 45 years later, he’s a sort of postmodern Willy Wonka, about to unleash a new cocoa-based taste on an unsuspecting populace. 

“It’s a fantastic new project,” he announces. “I met one of the world’s leading scientists for aroma and he researched how to get five times more flavour out of the cacao bean. Now I’m going to revolutionise the chocolate world. I call the brand name Chocolate Freak: The Essence Of Cacao.”

Meier, 70 next March, is probably alone in straddling the alternate universes of confectionary invention and quirky electronica. He is certainly the first person in Prog’s experience to spend much of his interview discussing the pros and cons of the hazelnut. Immaculately dressed, surreally suave, he’s like a Dada Bryan Ferry.

“I don’t know about that – Ferry is a very serious, very elegant man,” he parries, then reconsiders. “Maybe it’s not so bad to say I’m a Dada version of Bryan Ferry. I like a good pair of shoes and a well-made jacket.”

Is he bemused by the notion of the authentic rocker, by the scruffy, degenerate hedonist or guttersnipe punk that generally populates the rock milieu? “Well, I definitely was never the tortured, suffering artist,” he replies. 

Nevertheless, despite their uniqueness and strangeness, Yello managed, with their combination of Meier’s bluff croon and Blank’s unusual rhythms and lush productions, to become commercial oddities, chart regulars and soundtrack staples on both sides of the Atlantic. The extracurricular activities may keep him busy, but it’s Yello’s luxuriant, idiosyncratic progtronica that has been Meier’s passport to wider recognition.

“When I travel to the USA, these quite unfriendly immigration officers, when they read ‘Musician’ on the form, they ask, ‘Is there anything that I should know?’” he recounts, adopting the sceptical tone of an unimpressed customs official in his faltering English. 

Then he remembers the trump card that he plays at airports, in his inimitably resonant voice. “I say, ‘Oh yeah.’ And they go, ‘You’re that guy!’ It’s fantastic, my passport to a better service. Suddenly they remember Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or some Budweiser commercial [that used Yello’s music] and it’s OK.”

For Kevin Feazey of noise-rockers and Prog favourites The Fierce And The Dead, it’s the way Yello make their askew club music richly detailed and intricate while managing to reach a mainstream audience that impresses most.

“It’s very easy to be avant-garde and progressive when nobody is listening,” says Feazey. “It’s far harder to be surreal and innovative and have original ideas while having hit records. I’ve always looked up to those bands like Yello who are able to be artistically interesting and also commercially appealing.”

Feazey reckons Yello are a cross between a synth-pop act and a krautrock outfit: “Pet Shop Boys meet Can,” as he puts it. “Growing up, I was aware of them. Then, as I got older, I became aware of their genealogy. They’re like Stockhausen with a touch of street-level dance, and they satisfy a lot of people on a lot of levels. 

“The general public clearly have a lot wider listening potential than they’re given credit for. Yello, like Talking Heads and The KLF, infiltrated the mainstream, implanting ideas without people realising. That’s really clever, and quite subversive; populist but with massive amounts of intellectual meat behind it. Joe Public can enjoy their songs for their pop catchiness, but you could hang them in an art gallery or write a dissertation on them. 

“Even though we’re an instrumental guitar-bass-drums band and they’re an electronic duo, Yello definitely feed into what we do. There’s a real progressive quality to their work.”

Yello formed during Christmas 1978, mere months, as Boris Blank explains, after being exposed to the strange, urgent new DIY electronic sound of The Normal. The latter turned out to be the alias of one Daniel Miller, a former student at the Guildford School Of Art and later the boss of Mute Records. Miller had grown weary of the restrictive nature of guitar music and had discovered the radical potential of the synthesiser. He used a Korg 700S and a four-track tape recorder to create TVOD and Warm Leatherette. Blank had never heard anything quite like them. “Hearing those songs was a key event in my life,” he recalls. “It was historic. I’d like to personally thank Daniel Miller for that.” 

Yello – Blank, Meier and Carlos Perón (who left in 1983) – issued Solid Pleasure, their first album of exotic, quixotic world music-inflected cabaret disco, in 1980, and followed it with 1981’s Claro Que Si. At that point, they were regarded as little more than a Euro novelty, nearer to Trio than Kraftwerk. But by 1983’s You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess, which saw Blank reach new levels of pristine production and Meier scale new heights of crazed invention, Yello began to earn a reputation as serious players in the field of experimental electronic dance pop. They were the next logical step after The Human League et al, like a comical Cabaret Voltaire, or Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft with Groucho Marx moustaches. 

By 1985’s Stella – their first album without Perón – they became the first Swiss group to reach No.1 in Switzerland, they were big in the States, and suddenly Yello were no joke. One Second (1987) featured collaborations with Billy MacKenzie of Associates and Shirley Bassey on a series of alternative torch songs and propulsive beats at right angles to Detroit techno and Chicago house. Then 1988’s Flag gave Yello their biggest UK hit to date in sports TV staple The Race

Since then, Yello have continued to release albums while Meier has proceeded along his divergent paths. Today, nobody in their right mind would confuse them with Trio. In fact, Prog suggests that with their lavish sonics and grand ambition, they have more in common with Yes and ELP.

“Maybe a little bit,” concedes Meier, considering the haphazard genius of his other half in Yello, “but those guys were trained musicians whereas Boris and myself were total dilettantes. Boris doesn’t really compose in a traditional way. He’s a sound painter who mixes his colours endlessly. Each brush stroke leads to another, and at the end he surprises himself with a painting. But it’s a totally unstructured way of composing, handing yourself over to the brushstrokes and the canvas and the dynamic of the brushstroke.”

In some circles, Yello are acclaimed as founding fathers of Eurotronic soundscapes on a par with Kraftwerk. Does he agree with that description? “Yeah, but Kraftwerk are minimalists and Boris is a maximalist. I always compare Kraftwerk with the painter Mondrian and Boris with Rousseau, the man who invented jungles and fantasies and came up with these rich, lush, naive paintings.”

Ironically, after 36 years at the forefront of proto-electronica, Meier, at the age of 69, has just made his first solo album, and it’s not a synthetic-fest at all. Titled Out Of Chaos, it includes forays into chanson and conventional balladeering, with Meier actually singing instead of drolly barking, and features real, live musicians such as Thomas Wydler (drummer in Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds), Nackt (producer for Mute recording artist Apparat), Ephrem Lüchinger (piano), Tobias Preisig (violin), Nicolas Rüttimann (guitar), Ben Lauber (producer, synthesizer) and electropunk T.Raumschmiere, aka Marco Haas. The album has even seen Meier do what Yello hardly ever did: play live. It’s like seeing Kraftwerk go country and western. Was Blank horrified by Meier’s solo excursion?

“Not at all. He actually came to see me in concert and he said, ‘Dieter, you pulled it off!’ He was sceptical because he’s a perfectionist; he likes things very polished and smart and slick, and of course this is the opposite – rough and emotional and authentic. But he loved it! He’s a fan, absolutely.”

So why is the new solo album called Out Of Chaos? “It’s a comment on how, whatever I do, chaos is the mother of invention,” he says. “With an unstructured idea you can come up with something interesting. If you’re walking footsteps you’ve walked before, you’re just an epigone of yourself and not therefore interesting. I always start in chaos and slowly find some structures, only to leave these structures again, hopefully to enter another chaos.”

So is this avant-chanson version of Dieter Meier the ‘real’ him? “Well, this is definitely the real singer me. Of course, it’s all at the level of artificiality – in my real life I’m not singing – but this is the identity of Dieter Meier as the singer onstage or in the studio, whereas in Boris’ sound paintings I’m more of an actor in a not-existing movie, and I have all these different characters, different voices and approaches.” 

From absurdist electro iconoclast to left-field troubadour with a twist. What has he learned from his chaotic journey through music’s different genres? “I’ve learned not to take myself over-seriously,” he says. “Not to take yourself too seriously is a very serious business. I hope I’m getting to a point where in 50 years, when I’m 122 years old, I can say goodbye with a smile on my face. That’s basically the idea.” 

Out Of Chaos is out now on Staatsakt. See www.outofchaos.de for more on the album, or www.dietermeier.com. 

"What they do is clever, and subversive; populist but with lots of intellectual meat behind it." Kevin Feazey

Were Yello pop or prog?

“Why not? Electronica itself is a close cousin of prog anyway, via Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Can, Jarre (yes he is prog!), Hillage, Hawkwind, Floyd, early OMD, Japan, Human League and others. Let’s have a feature on OMD etc please!” Jason Richards

“The guys that did that Oh Yeah song? The use of synthesizers does not make a group prog. They are pop music. Period.” Rob Pociluk

“Their first album Solid Pleasure, which was on The Residents' label (Ralph Records), was quite proggy.” Richard Collins

“Yello, cutting edge, inventive – listen to Pocket Universe and perhaps you may hear why they could have a prog tag. I think if Sigur Rós have a prog tag then so should Yello.” Simon Jones

“_Flag _had some Berlin School prog-electronic vibes, but I've never really considered prog-electronic to be a true form of prog, so not really.” Daniel Hey

Solid Pleasure _was a great album. If not really prog, they have something which seems to be commonly liked by prog fans. If people judge them only by _The Race _or _Oh Yeah, they’re missing out on some great album tracks.”  John Chivers

“Yello Pages was quite prog with all those long numbers.” David Bishop

“I like prog and I like Yello. They had some progressive moments.” Phil Walling

“If by prog you actually mean ‘not at all prog and we're just havin’ a laugh with you, dear readers’ then sure, maybe they were.” Chris Anderson

“More electro-pop and orchestral – they owe more to John Barry than Pink Floyd.” Leslie Moyes

“Whatever they were, they were beeaauuutiiffuul…” Duncan Parson

“As prog as they are purple.” Howard Canning

“Try them Live at The Roxy in ’83. Certainly not dance or pop.” Wayne Roberts

“Yello? What are you on this time?” Karl Hautakoski

“I think they invented some new styles in music and tried to walk on different paths. So in my opinion they were prog.” Heike Lepkkes

“Not prog!” Des Walsh

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