Think Erasure, and you can't help but think of pop music. The duo of Andy Bell and Vince Clarke, a musical odd couple if ever there was one, were responsible for turning out some of the finest pop moments of the 1980s and early 1990s, in fact still do if you take even the most cursory listen to their most recent album, 2014’s ‘The Violet Flame’. A glance down the track listing for ‘Always’, their latest career-surveying compilation issued in honour of chalking up thirty years among the fickle confines of the world of popular music, reminds you of some truly memorable hits – ‘Sometimes’, ‘Ship Of Fools’, ‘A Little Respect’, ‘Stop!’, ‘Chorus’ to name but a few; the kind of songs that deploy the transportive power of music, moving you back in time to school discos, boyfriends, girlfriends, break-ups, youth, anguish, whatever.
In spite of this, Andy Bell doesn't think of Erasure as a pop group, at least now now. “We don't really fit into that category anymore,” he sighs wearily. “It's a young person’s game, and it's completely different from how it used to be. It's all about brands and stuff like that.” And indeed, when you look around, the pop music world is not unlike the lyrics to ‘The Circus’, a track that appeared on Erasure's album of the same name, the album that cemented their role within 1980s electronic pop; where that track surveyed the dismantling and elimination of the last vestiges of industrial Britain, Bell’s wry observation is that pop music as he knew it, as those of us who grow up with bands like Erasure knew it, has been swept away.
But this isn't meant to be a swipe at modern pop music. This is the story of one of music’s unlikeliest success stories, a story of struggle, success, further struggle and success all over again, the story of two people who've made it work for considerably longer than the average marriage, and as with all stories, we need to start at the beginning.
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Erasure wasn't the beginning for Vince Clarke, but in a way, it also was. In 1985, Clarke was in an uncertain place. He'd left – some said abandoned – his first band, Depeche Mode, on the eve of their first American tour and, as their principal songwriter, left them up a musical creek without a paddle; they'd go on to do pretty well for themselves in spit it this setback, all things considered. After Depeche Mode didn't work out for him, Clarke founded Yazoo with Alison ‘Alf’ Moyet, the first of his two musical odd couples given that the duo pitched Alf’s bluesy vocals at Vince’s springy electronic backdrops.
Yazoo split up after their second album, for Vince something of an improvement of sorts on quitting Depeche after just one LP, but it also left Clarke at something of a cross roads. In his post-Yazoo work, successes were matched by failures, and the sensitive Essex boy with a talent for bashing out shimmering electronic pop gems was facing an uncertain future. And it's at this point that Clarke was encouraged to put an advert in the Melody Maker to find a singer. For someone who'd been lauded as a pop music wunderkind, who'd penned tracks like Depeche’s ‘Just Can't Get Enough’ or Yazoo’s ‘Only You’, resorting to sticking an ad in a music paper to find a singer – a move normally associated with bands or artists that were just starting out, not a guy with Top Ten hits to his name – seemed rather desperate. Hence why the process of starting what would, eventually, become Erasure was for Clarke another beginning.
Andy Bell, a shy, openly gay singer with one musical misfire of a single to his name, was the penultimate person to audition for Vince, by which time all manner of unspeakable musical horrors, wannabes and desperately hopeless singers had paraded themselves fruitlessly in front of Clarke. In Bell, there was an instant connection, and Erasure was swiftly formed. Alas, it didn't prove to be the hit machine that Clarke was maybe looking for.
The new duo’s first three singles and debut album ‘Wonderland’ barely registered, and Bell and Clarke were driving from gig to gigs in vans, returning Clarke to a pre-Depeche life of gruelling small shows, nonplussed audiences and punishing graft. For the young Bell, a singer who had been besotted with Yazoo, this could have easily destroyed his nascent confidence, but it did anything but. “Over time I've come to think it was a really good thing,” Bell reflects from the comfortable vantage point of thirty years down the road. “If it had happened overnight, I don't think I'd have been prepared and I think maybe it might have gone to my head more. Because we had to put in some ground work, and because Vince was literally starting from scratch again, it really brought me down to earth. It wasn't like, oh, all of a sudden, overnight, we were going to be rolling in riches.”
“It was nice,” he continues, matter-of-factly, about those early days. “I think that it cemented our relationship really, because we got off to things in a much more normal way, rather than flying round everywhere. We were just driving and being pretty normal.”
Normal though it might have been on one level, Bell was nonetheless rather starstruck by working with one of his musical idols. “I was so impressed being in Trident Studios,” he gushes. “There I was, right in the middle of Soho and going there as my job, with Vince, and with Flood producing us. In the beginning I couldn't quite believe it. I was just in awe watching Vince do his work. I thought it was amazing. I didn't really know what to say. I was like a shy kid, like it was my first day of school.”
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If you immediately think of pop when you think of Erasure, chances are the other thing you'll remember is the outlandish stage presence of Andy Bell. It wasn't ever thus, and those early gigs to promote ‘Wonderland’ saw a very different frontman to the one that would, some seven years later, be found striding around a stage wearing blue rhinestone chaps with his backside in full view. “In the beginning I really didn't say anything on the stage,” he remembers. “I just used to stand there, and when the equipment broke down I felt so awkward. That's why the character of Andy Bell started getting larger and larger as the singles got played, and as the success started coming.”
‘The Circus’ was the point where Erasure started to feel like a partnership proper, the pair writing songs together whereas on ‘Wonderland’ most tracks had been penned by Clarke. Bell finds it hard to remember exactly what happened, but he attributes much of it to the friendship that he formed with Vince during those months on the road. “We hit it off really well,” he smiles. “I wouldn’t say he's an effeminate guy, but he is really in touch with his feelings. I think he admired my bravery, or whatever you want to call it, with me just being so open from the very beginning. We just confided in each other. I wouldn't say we're huge, amazing best friends when we're not working together, but we just have this complete respect for one another, and I think the writing just came out of that.
“He was like my mentor and wanted to see me grow,” he continues. “He was like the Simon Cowell, just wanting to see me develop as a singer and a songwriter so he was really encouraging with whatever I wanted to do. It began with me singing basslines for ‘Victim Of Love’ and then the guitar riffs for ‘Sometimes’. He enjoyed seeing someone a bit younger just having the time of his life. He was very encouraging.”
In their three decades together, little has changed in terms of their writing methods, which are uniformly more traditional than one might expect for a duo associated with synths: Clarke still records acoustic guitar demos to micro cassettes that Bell will wordlessly harmonise over, with Clarke preferring to record over a treasure trove of unreleased rough early versions instead of shelling out on new tapes. “He's tight,” laughs his songwriting partner. “He'll just record over the old ideas. They're all erased now. He did the same thing when we signed to Madonna’s label, Maverick, in the US. She called him and left him a message and said ‘Hi guys, I'm really glad that you're on the label, and I love the album,’ and then he just erased it. I said ‘You bastard!’ because he knew that I was such a huge fan of hers. That's just his humour.”
One of the distinguishing features of much early Erasure material was the absence of very obvious lyrical themes, tracks instead being shrouded in layers of mystery and intrigue that became most pronounced on 1988’s landmark third album, ‘The Innocents’. Produced by Stephen Hague, known for applying his studio nous to songs by Pet Shop Boys, ‘The Innocents’ offered a gamut of themes including social commentary, soulful heartbreak and one of the best anthems celebrating individuality ever penned (‘A Little Respect’). And yet, at times, ‘The Innocents’ felt like it was written in some sort of oblique, impenetrable, fantastical code.
“I was a huge ‘Alice In Wonderland’ fan, and I also really loved Blondie,” explains Bell of his approach to writing lyrics loaded with intrigue. “I wasn't that well read, to be honest, apart from stuff we had to do in school. Really, I like things that are quite nonsensical and that sometimes just evoke a feeling of a place that you've been to, or a certain other mood. Sometimes, on songs like ‘Ship Of Fools’ and ‘Chorus’, the lyrics just flowed completely from beginning to end. That happened quite a lot on B-sides, because you only had a certain amount of time when you were doing those in the studio.”
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With ‘The Innocents’, and the ongoing run of successful singles, Erasure tours began to get bigger and bolder, moving from small venues to stadiums. With the next album, the diverse ‘Wild!’, the duo played their biggest ever show at Milton Keynes Bowl, a relatively audacious move for a synth duo in a venue more normally associated with ponderous rock acts. It was the tour to support 1991’s ‘Chorus’, Vince Clarke’s analogue synth renaissance, that would come to be Erasure's defining moment.
‘Chorus’ was a complex album. Alongside Clarke’s obsessive tinkering with the kit that he'd first used back in the Depeche Mode days, Andy Bell was to be found mining the same mysterious seam of creativity that had made ‘The Innocents’ so enduring. The tour to support the album, dubbed ‘The Phantasmagorical Entertainment’ and taking the form of a lavish, exaggerated cabaret full of dancers, crazy costumes and high theatrics, managed to tease something out of the songs on ‘Chorus’ that wasn't readily apparent on the album. This was Erasure enlarged to ludicrous proportions, and it marked the start of a uncomfortable descent.
Just before setting off on ‘The Phantasmagorical Entertainment’ tour in 1992, Erasure scored their only UK number one single, an EP of ABBA covers that was Bell’s idea. By 1992, the duo were used to seeing their albums sail comfortably to the top of the charts, but the top of the singles chart had thus far eluded them. For Bell, looking back on the ‘ABBA-esque’ EP’s success is bittersweet. “It's a bit of a bugbear that one,” he sighs. “We had this huge flourish going on, and we got swamped in the whole thing. It made people forget we were songwriters, and we were then seen as being a kind of covers band or something, for ages. It took forever to get rid of that.”
“I suppose it just happens. We rode a wave and then it crashed. And that was it. We just had to wait and wait until the tide came up again.” Andy Bell is reflecting on the lack of commercial success that followed The Phantsamagorical Entertainment tour. Nothing between the duo had materially changed, and albums like 1992’s ‘I Say I Say I Say’ or 1995’s ambient opus ‘Erasure’ still saw the pair bashing out quality electronic pop, but during a period where music coalesced around Britpop’s guitar-driven resurgence, the hits started to dry up as the tide went out on them.
“There was a time when I was thinking that we were the forgotten band and that our name really suited us. Like calling ourselves Erasure was a premonition,” Bell laughs, before becoming reflective. “When ‘Loveboat’ came out in 2000, and the radio play was zero, it made us think that we’d done something wrong. All of a sudden you're not flavour of the month anymore. We were very down, musically, during that period but to me there are still some real gems there.”
Despite the frustration of a ten year dry spell, Bell remains sanguine on the experience. “It's human, it’s just natural law and that's just how things go. But I think also it's very good for your mind, and very good for your ego, to have experienced that, and to have to start from scratch again. It really does re-centre you. It gives you a sense of perspective on the whole thing. It makes you think the whole word isn't revolving around you, and that your music is good but it's not that important. It's nice, it's lovely and I love doing it, but it's not like the be all and end all in life. It makes you realise that the world's not going to suddenly end if there are no more Erasure songs.”
Ironically, given Bell’s comments about being perceived as a covers band after ‘ABBA-esque’, the difficult period was bookended by another set of songs written by other people. 2003’s ‘Other People's Songs’ originally began life as a solo Bell project of Phil Spector covers but became an Erasure album proper, with Vince and producer Gareth Jones each selecting songs to include on the project. A cover of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’ provided a much-needed chart hit for the band, serving to remind the record-buying public of Erasure's past glories. The wave that the pair had waited for had come in; it was smaller, perhaps, than before, but it was still a wave. Since then, Erasure have continued to bash out quality albums and singles that find them doing what they do best – namely producing pop songs that are both emotionally fraught and casually euphoric – with last year's ‘The Violet Flame’ sounding like a band entirely re-invigorated.
Career-spanning hits packages like ‘Always’ can feel a little like full stops, but talking to Andy Bell today finds him full of new ideas and excitement for where the duo go next. One possible next move could see Erasure return to the soundscape work that they tentatively explored on ‘Erasure’. “Vince is much more into scoring stuff and into film work these days, and I don't want to be restricted to sitting down and trying to write pop songs,” he reveals. “I said ‘Vince, please make a classical album of your own, that's completely the music you want to do, and then I'll have a listen, and if I feel there's any part that I'd love to put my voice on, then we'll do it’. And that's where we left it really. So I think what we do next will be something much more cinematic than before.”
If all that sounds rather highbrow for someone who was inspired by the nonsensical lyrics of Blondie’s ‘Atomic’, Bell is mercifully still adept at dropping into wry humour. “Vince and I were talking yesterday about an Erasure musical,” he laughs. “It would need to be a non-hits musical, and it would have to be about the story, not about the band – just something completely different.” Stranger things, the Erasure story being one, have certainly happened.
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Words: Mat Smith
Erasure's new compilation 'Always' is out now via Mute.