April 1, 2020
Todd plays "Oh Yeah" on the piano.
YELLO - OH YEAH
A one-hit retrospective
Todd: Chick, chicka chicka. Welcome to One Hit Wonderland, where we take a look at bands and artists known for only one song. Folks, I am not a sophisticated man.
Clip of Katy Perry - "Firework"
Todd (VO): I listen to and review pop music, the most popular and accessible of musics. Todd: I am a lazy listener.
Live clip of Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band - "Steal Softly Thru Snow"
Todd (VO): I just don't have the patience or interest in any of that artsy, experimental crap. Todd: Yet sometimes, [song starts] in defiance of my limited taste, the two will intersect anyway.
Clip of Yello - "Oh Yeah"
Dieter Meier: Mm, oh yeah
Todd (VO): Yeah, you know this one. Todd: A bunch of you didn't think you knew it, but you do.
Yello: (Bow bow) oh yeah (chick, chicka chicka)
Todd (VO): Once upon a time in the middle of the most pretentious, [gif of SNL Sprockets sketch] black turtleneck and sunglasses-wearing part of Europe, two conceptual artists started a musical project. [picture of the band] They called themselves Yello, and they were not particularly looking to become popstars or have a hit song.
Todd: And you could argue that they never did, at least in this country.
Todd (VO): Their best-known single, "Oh Yeah", never [shot of Billboard Hot 100, with "Oh Yeah" at number 51] quite cleared the bottom half of the Hot 100, so technically it wasn't a hit song.
Todd: Arguably, it's not even a song exactly.
Todd (VO): It has none of the structure of a pop song, no chorus, no verses, not even really a riff or a musical phrase. It's just a clattering assortment of beats, bass, catchphrases and random mouth sounds.
Yello: ...chicka, doo bow bow
Todd (VO): We're well past the [brief live clip of Martin Garrix] EDM revolution now so we're used to it, but...
Todd: ...imagine how...
Todd (VO): ...weird this must have sounded in the mid-'80s.
Boris Blank: Chicka chicka
Todd (VO): And yet, thanks to a couple key placements in a few hit films, this eclectic collage of sounds is one of the most instantly recognisable songs of the entire 1980s. Todd: And in a supreme irony, this band that had zero interest in commercialism...
Clip of Ferrari scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Todd (VO): ...became the soundtrack of yuppie '80s materialist hedonism. Todd: Anyone who has ever...
Clips of people adjusting their sunglasses
Todd (VO): ...lowered their sunglasses to better demonstrate their sheer, unchecked selfish desire has had this... Todd: ...song playing in their head.
Clip of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Mac and Charlie: Day bow bow
Charlie: Chick, chicka chicka
Todd (VO): The fact is that Yello were a [clip of Duffman from The Simpsons] lot more than one overused soundtrack joke. [clip of Yello performance] Their work is so wild and varied across multiple media [cover of Yello: Boris Blank und Dieter Meier by Daniel Ryser] that several books had been [cover of Dieter Meier Works 1968-2012 and the Yello Years] published about their works. Todd: Those books are [$90.00 on Amazon] very expensive and in German so I didn't read them but...
Clip of "Oh Yeah"
Todd (VO): ...I am gonna do my best to pay tribute to one of the most wilfully bizarre acts ever to hit it big. Todd: Oh yeah. Day bow bow!
Boris: Chicka chicka
Before the hit
Clip of "Bostich"
Todd: [Todd's camera mimicking fast zooming effect in "Bostich" video] Aaaaaaaahhhh!
Dieter: Standing at the machine every day for all my life I need to do and I need it it's the only thing I want it's just a rush
Todd (VO): This, I think, is the first video that Yello ever made, "Bostich". It's what the whole Kraftwerk, Krautrock sound was turning into right at the turn of the '80s. This is cool, I like this. But these guys, who are they? Well, why don't we start even further back? Todd: We will eventually hit every country in Europe on One Hit Wonderland, and today we've got a new pin to put in the map.
Todd (VO): Switzerland! [pictures of people blowing alphorns...] The land of yodelling. [...Swiss cheese...] Incomplete cheese. [...and Swiss army march] A largely unused but surprisingly intense civilian army. Todd: A nation of no artistic importance...
Clip of The Third Man
Todd (VO): ...if you believe Orson Welles.
Harry Lime (Orson Welles): They had 500 years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
Todd (VO): That's actually very important, I'll have you know. [picture of cuckoo clock with cuckoo clock sound in background] A cuckoo clock is a strange, noise-making machine, and [picture of Fairlight] strange noise machines were the inspiration of one [picture of Boris using a Fairlight] Boris Blank, who, even as a kid, just really liked making random noises with his tape recorder. Todd: Not songs or music exactly, just sounds.
Clips of The Residents - "Hello Skinny"
Todd (VO): He liked all the avant-garde noise artists like The Residents, [clip of Throbbing Gristle - "Hot on the Heels of Love"] the really early electronica artists. You know, just the deconstruction of music. [clip of interview with Boris] Eventually he built up a giant library of random sounds that he mostly created himself and he [picture of Boris and Carlos Peron] turned it into a musical project with a guy named Carlos Peron, whose only credited instrument is "tapes". Todd: I have no idea what that means, I like to believe he just [picture of VHS tapes] banged VHS tapes together. [back to Todd] But they weren't quite complete yet, 'til they met this guy.
Clip of Dieter Meier interview
Todd (VO): This is Dieter Meier, and this guy is nuts. Todd: Every article I could find about him...
Shot of highlighted quote: "a millionaire, an industrialist, a technological entrepreneur, a professional poker player, a songwriter, an organic farmer, pioneer of MTV videos and, yes, a performace artist."
Todd (VO): ...starts with his insane resume. Concept artist, millionaire industrialist, professional gambler, member of the Swiss golf team.
Todd: For what it's worth, I saw at least one article that suggested that this was all probably bullshit, but upon further research, it seems to be mostly true.
Todd (VO): He comes from a rich family, as do most successful artists. His dad was a banker. And he seems to have just leaned into it, judging by the fact that every picture I've seen of him, he looks like the Monopoly guy. Honestly comes off as almost, like, a parody of a rich weirdo. The more I found out about him I...
Todd: ...kind of expected to find out that he owns an [clip of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory] eccentric chocolate factory or something like that.
Clip of CNN interview: "Meier on his own chocolate production"
Interviewer: And you want to revolutionise the chocolate market?
Dieter: ...and I started with my first small factory, they now all have to agree that the product is outstanding.
Todd: [beat] Your dad [picture of Credit Suisse bank] was a banker, [clip of interview from before] you make chocolate. [back to Todd] Is it possible to be too Swiss?
Clips of Dieter's art
Todd (VO): Well, in any case, he had already made a name for himself in the late '70s as an artist, and according to his website, his art was stuff like... Todd: ...a film showing where you just [Todd demonstrates] sat and held a blank sheet of paper in front of your face for 2 minutes. [text shows onscreen: "Really makes you think."] That kind of thing. But he was getting tired of that whole scene when he met Boris.
Clip of Yello interview
Todd (VO): Now Dieter just wants to try everything, so he's like "You got a music project? I can sing!" And Boris was like "[scoffs] My pure genius vision would be ruined by even a great singer, which, you ain't". Todd: But the two just had Sympatico sensibilities so he wound up joining the band anyway.
Clip of "The Evening's Young"
Todd (VO): So you got these three guys who all look like side characters in Casablanca making avant-garde art music. They called themselves Yello 'cause they wanted a short, punchy name, like Lago. [shot of L8Rcable! home screen showing logos for Sling, Hulu, Fubo, Philo etc] Most big websites operate under the same principle.
Clip of "Lost Again"
The thing to understand was that they were not intended to be listened to like your average pop song. Let me say that this stuff is... a little obtuse. Or at least it is if you were only listening to Hall & Oates at the time.
Todd: Or even a lot of new wave acts. [clip of Devo - "Whip It"] Those guys still used recognizable choruses and lyrics and stuff.
Todd (VO): There are these early electronica songs with a whole lot of pump-up energy behind them, the lyrics are all kinda, like, spoken word pieces. Yello weren't as avant-garde as their influences like Kraftwerk and stuff like that, but it's still pretty out there.
Todd: The closest one I heard to an actual pop song was called...
Todd (VO): ..."Pinball Cha-Cha", which appears to be some kind of Mexican-themed parody of "Pinball Wizard". But their stuff was very popular in the early days of MTV, back when basically all music videos were experimental art projects. Todd: Yeah, this stuff is definitely in its own genre, in that I literally don't know what to call this kind of music.
Live clip of Yello
Todd (VO): I mean, they're not synthpop because they're not pop, or even really necessarily synth. It's got some similarities to house or dance music, but you can't really dance to it. I don't think "techno" existed as a term yet but that's probably the closest.
Clip of "Desire"
Todd (VO): Anyway, Carlos went solo after the first couple of albums leaving them as a duo. And the odd thing is that as their career continues you can hear them starting to become a little more accessible.
Dieter: The streets are naked
In the morning sun
It's not like their sound changed, it's more like the '80s caught up to them. [clip of Animotion - "Obsession"] Like, you can hear a lot of the sounds they're making filtering through the songs that came after them, like, [clip of "West End Girls" by...] The Pet Shop Boys especially seem like the accessible, pop version of Yello, [clip of "Everybody Knows" by..."] or even, like, the later Leonard Cohen stuff too. [Clip of "I Love You"] And the two of them just have, like, this interesting dynamic. Boris is this intense, perfectionist artiste, [Clip of "Blazing Saddles"] and Dieter is a flighty weirdo who does this for fun, and the songs just kinda go wandering into places that was clearly different from the original idea. Todd: I don't want to make them sound too off-putting. Their music isn't ugly or random. These sounds all go together, it's just that no one had done it before.
Clip of "Vicious Games"
Todd (VO): Now, these songs were all kinda catching on in the Deutsch-o-sphere, but their big breakthrough was to come. A big breakthrough called Ferris.
The big hit
Clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderwick): Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.
Todd (VO): So, the year is 1986. John Hughes makes one of his masterpieces, Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Like all John Hughes movies, it makes great use of music. [Clip of...] You may or may not know The English Beat's "March of the Swivelheads", but hearing it will always bring up the image of Matthew Broderick racing through backyards. [Clips of...] Both "Danke Schoen" and The Beatles' version of "Twist and Shout" are now definitively owned by Ferris Bueller. Todd: But the biggest song launched by this movie does not belong to Ferris. It belongs to Ferrari.
Cameron Frye (Alan Ruck): The 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California.
"Oh Yeah" begins playing
Deiter: Mmm, oh yeah
Todd (VO): The thing about this scene is that it is not actually very memorable on it's own. It's not like the shots are especially amazing, or that it has any big lines of dialogue, or any big showy acting moments or plot twists or anything. The thing that makes it memorable is just that song.
Cameron: Hey, remember...
Todd (VO): This was not, like, a single before this. Like, it's not really the kind of music that typically shows up in John Hughes movies, either, so I have no idea how it wound up on his radar. But it just fit the scene so perfectly. The entire emotional climax of the movie doesn't make sense unless you believe that that car is the hottest, most precious object that ever existed.
Todd: I don't know or care a damn thing about cars. To me, that's just another car.
Todd (VO): But I absolutely believed in its hotness because of Yello's slick beats going, "Oh yeah...". [Clip of ending credits] Hughes must have realized that he found something special because they play it over again in the credits.
Todd: It is just so instantly memorable from the opening beats and then just the lowest bass you've ever heard.
Clip of "Oh Yeah" music video
Dieter: Mmm, oh yeah
Todd: [imitating Dieter] Ooooh, yeah....
Dieter: Oh yeah
Todd (VO): Now that I've listened to the full Yello discography, it's really different from their other songs. I guess you wouldn't call their work very lyrical, exactly, but they are very wordy. Todd: "Oh Yeah" is the exact opposite; it has almost no words.
Todd (VO): Dieter wrote the few lyrics it has as just, like, a starting point, and he had a whole bunch of other lyrics too, but Boris was like, "Nah, we're good".
Dieter: Such a good time, a really good time
Todd (VO): The funny thing is that even this is "the Ferris Bueller song", [image of..] if you look at the single cover, you'll notice another movie on there too.
Clip from The Secret of My Success
Todd (VO): The year after Ferris Bueller, there was a big Michael J. Fox movie, The Secret of My Success. People don't remember this one as much because it's crappy and bad, but at the time, it was basically just as big as Ferris Bueller.
Todd: Like, Ferris Bueller's Day Off made that song.
Todd (VO): But I think The Secret of My Success is what cemented it in peoples' minds because it uses the song...
Todd: ...in almost exactly the same way.
Todd (VO): It's the scene where he's checking out his boss's wife right before they bang...
Dieter: Mmm, oh yeah
Todd: It's essentially identical. [Clips of Ferris Bueller...] A luxury car, [...and The Secret to My Success] a woman's body, you know, basically the same thing.
Clips from Chuck episode "Chuck vs. the DeLorean"..
Todd (VO): And that's how the song has been used ever since. To showcase some fancy material object, [...She's Out of Control...], and/or sexy person, [...and K-9] and/or sexy dog.
Detective Michael Dooley (Jim Belushi): You got ten minutes.
Dieter: Doo, bow bow
Todd: There's no other way you can use it.
Clip from "Oh Yeah" music video
Dieter: Ooooh, yeah
Todd (VO): No song has ever meant one thing like this one. It means, "Oh, yeah...". And that "oh, yeah" is not, "Oh, yeah, that's some [image of embroidered flower design] excellent needle work, Karen. Where did you learn to embroider like that? ["Oh Yeah" continues] No, it's clearly appreciating something very high-end and expensive. And not the classy kind of expensive, either. You can't.. you can't use it to mean, "[image of man sniffing a glass of wine] Oh yeah, this Sauvignon Blanc is especially crisp this year". No, that "oh yeah" is expressing appreciation in the most crass, sweaty, leering, gross way possible.
"Oh Yeah" continues
Dieter: Oooh, yeah
Todd (VO): Like, if you look at the lyrics, it's about.. Todd: ...appreciating the sun and the moon?
Dieter: Moon, beautiful
Todd (VO): That sure doesn't seem like what it's about, though. That only feels right if he means...
Todd: ...the sun and the moon are providing good lighting for a girl's ass.
Todd (VO): I mean, you don't have to be told to know this is the sound of someone jerking off. I mean, it literally uses the sounds "Bow chicka wow wow".
Todd: I mean, not in that order, but they're all there.
Dieter: Bow (chicka), bow bow
Todd: See? Deconstructing music.
Todd (VO): With just a handful of words and beats and nonsense sounds, they truly captured something about culture in the '80s. [Clip of 1980's beach resort] Cause it's just absolutely insane how materialistic that decade was. Yes, there's no time in history where people weren't trying to make and spend a lot of money, but the extent to which it dominated culture in the '80s is absolutely staggering to look back on. ["Oh Yeah" continues] So, this song is what the '80s sounded like. It's sexy, it's luxurious,...
Todd: ...and it's also kind of repulsive.
Todd (VO): Boris said he imagined a fat little monster making this sound, and that's exactly what it sounds like.
Todd: This is the sound of [images of...] Jabba the Hutt and/or a bald fat guy having a midlife crisis. And look, personally, I just have a soft spot for songs that become the stock soundtrack..
Todd (VO): ...for certain story beats like this one has become. [Clips of Queen's...] I'm talking, like, "We Are the Champions", [...Marvin Gaye's...] "Let's Get It On", [...James Brown's...] "I Feel Good", [...and Right Said Fred's...] "I'm Too Sexy".
Todd: These are songs that capture a specific mood so perfectly...
"Oh Yeah" continues
Todd (VO): they're just too on-the-nose to even use. "Oh Yeah" is like that. Nothing has ever come around to replace it because nothing sounds like this. What drum track has ever been as instantly recognizable? When has bass ever been used that well?
Dieter: Bow, bow
Todd (VO): "Oh Yeah" may last forever, but it also captures a very specific moment in time. They were not a band designed to have a long career with a lot of pop success.
Todd: There was no way they were ever gonna follow this up. [beat] Right?
The failed follow-up
Yello - "Call It Love"
Todd (VO): Yello were one of those one-hit wonders where you can't really say the follow-up failed, exactly. The follow-up couldn't fail because having a big, well-known song was just a side benefit to begin with. It's not how they defined success. They were not that kind of band. Todd: But also, their follow up was very successful.
Image of album artwork for...
Todd (VO): See, "Oh Yeah" was off their fourth album, Stella. [Clip from Miami Vice] The album got some good reviews, some of their songs ended up on Miami Vice, [clip from Yello - "The Rhythm Divine"] they moved on to the next album, there's some interesting stuff on there too, and their stuff was starting to get a lot moodier and more atmospheric. Including a cool duet with James Bond theme singer Shirley Bassey. [Clip of...] But, by that point, The Secret of My Success had happened, "Oh Yeah" started taking off, and in America, the label added "Oh Yeah" to that album [image of album artwork for One Second] too. And that's when the song jumped to the Hot 100. Todd: And then they followed up that album with their biggest pop hit yet.
Yello - "The Race"
Todd (VO): By pop hit, I mean in Europe only. But, you know, just measured by the charts, this song, "The Race", is their biggest hit. Maybe even their signature hit. Todd: This was a Top Ten hit in three countries, including the U.K., where it seems to be at least comparable in fame to "Oh Yeah".
Dieter: Count on me, I'm gonna win the race
Count on me, I'm gonna win the race
Todd (VO): [imitating John B. McCrea of Cake] "He's going the distance!"
Todd: And it's definitely their most pop-friendly hit.