A Love Like That: Vince & Andy Of Erasure On Vince & Andy Of Erasure

Ahead of their appearance at Roskilde this weekend and next year's mammoth UK tour, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell open up to Luke Turner about the history of the wonderful synth duo... and each other.

After Erasure played the Forum in London in December 2014, members of the public travelling home from Christmas revelries on the Northern Line were serenaded first by fan Neil Francis singing ‘A Little Respect’ before the entire platform joined in. It was a moment at once celebratory and heartfelt, audacious and communal. It couldn’t have been more Erasure. The same happened when, earlier this month they played a similarly fantastic gig at the London Roundhouse, the crowd singing joyously as the queued to leave the venue. It had been a wonderful evening, Vince Clarke in his sharp suit delivering souped-up versions of the hits and new album tracks as Andy Bell strutted, sang, and made us all laugh. Given that Swans had played the same venue two nights previously, it was almost a reprise of the 2011 Short Circuit Festival, when both groups played alongside the likes of Liars, The Residents and the first appearance of Carter Tutti Void. That night was a celebration of Mute Records, one of the very few labels who’ve been able to combine artistic courage with mainstream success. If there was a sadness to Erasure’s gig at the Roundhouse in the spring of 2017 it was that so few groups manage to combine pure milkman whistle pop, experimental attitudes, high camp, sexual attitude, queer power and righteous politics these days.

Why are these songs, some now three decades old, equally at home ringing around the tunnels of the London Underground as turned into football terrace chants, sung by choirs raising money at airport flashmobs, or used as anthems at Gay Pride marches all around the world? It happens because of VC and AB and one of the most enduring friendships in modern pop. After a young Yazoo fan with dreams of working in the theatre was thrown together with a synth boffin with a string of chart hits under his belt at an audition in 1985, Erasure was an experiment that, perhaps, the world never expected to succeed. But succeed it did, after the rocky start of Wonderland (a record that the world wasn’t quite ready for) racking up seventeen top ten singles four consecutive number one albums, from The Innocents in 1988 to 1994’s I Say I Say I Say.

Erasure though are precious for more than just the music. Andy and Vince’s bond comes from that shared experience of being two working class boys from small towns in the culturally-ignored east of England. There’s hardly a moment in Erasure where you can’t hear it. It’s in that wonderful video for ‘Take A Chance On Me’, two normal blokes in jeans and white t-shirt (Andy) and sensible jumper (Vince) suddenly transforming into high heels and feather bower flaunting drag queens – at once funny and fabulous, playful and very serious indeed. It’s there too in all the other costumes and stage sets Erasure have set forth on over the years, yet however extravagant they might have been it’s never been at the expense of all those songs that so beautifully, simply, explore "the infinite complexities of love", as Andy sings in ‘Drama!’. They never change, Vince and Andy, still writing together and surprising with records like Christmas album Snow Globe, some of the best shows of their career, special events for their beloved fans, the most humble duo in music. They don’t like to meet other pop stars. They don’t need to, they’ve got each other. They’ve got Erasure. As Andy has it, "you don’t want to get too big for your britches" – diamanté ones, presumably.

On Andy Bell’s audition

VC: I’d been messing about for a year prior to meeting Andy. I knew that I had to get off my arse and do something and the producer I was working with suggested ‘why don’t you advertise for a singer and do a real band?’ So that’s what I did.

AB: I’d been to one audition for a Bow Wow Wow spin-off at Blackwing Studios, which Vince used to half own. I saw him on the Space Invaders machine – I was like ‘oh my God that’s VC!’ He was always in my mind, I was a huge Yazoo fan, and of Alison Moyet, so I rehearsed to their records the whole time, which is why I had that Moyet intonation in my voice. I phoned up a number on an ad in Melody Maker that said ‘established songwriter seeks versatile singer’. They called back and said ‘this is for Vince Clarke, do you know who that is?’ I was like ‘YES!’ I was so excited to go. I decided that ‘even if I don’t get the job I’m going to really enjoy myself and have a great audition’.

VC: There were some really great-sounding singers but the reason Andy stood out was because he reinterpreted it a little bit. We just immediately felt that he was the right person.

AB: I kind of had this feeling afterwards that I might have got it, and they called me up the next day. They put me on a retainer of £150 a week for about three months until we started working together, and in the meantime Vince had the second Assembly single coming out. I was thinking ‘oh please make it a flop’ because if it did too well I might not get the job. I think I got my karma for that when the first Erasure album didn’t get played.

On the early days

AB: I was a very shy person anyway. When Vince and I first started working in the studio I could not believe I was there, I thought the whole thing was a dream and I would wake up soon. It was a very strange environment being in the studio because I wasn’t really used to it. With the whole Mute lot and all their synthesisers it’s the boys toys club and I’ve never ever been in that club. I was completely silent, just sitting in the corner, really in awe of the situation I was in, especially being in Trident in Soho – it’s like a spaceship.

VC: I felt very comfortable in the studio and Andy didn’t have much experience. I had all my mates around me so I think it was quite intimidating for him, but I kind of knew that was how he felt so we tried to make him laugh all the time to make him feel at ease.

On ‘Oh L’Amour’

AB: I felt that I’d pushed Vince into this Hi-NRG vibe for the album, and I’m not sure if that’s where he’d have gone on his own. It was the end of Hi-NRG on the gay club scene in London, it was something I was really into.

VC: ‘Oh L’Amour’ was the song that Andy first got involved with the writing. We were working in a fantastic studio, we had such a laugh. Ian Levine was upstairs producing Hi-NRG music like a factory, he was churning this stuff out.

AB: They had all these session singers upstairs, there were quite a lot of names I recognised from my days of going to Heaven, and this band called Seventh Avenue that were huge, a boy band on the gay circuit.

VC: Flood and I went to his studio and listened behind the door to what rhythms they were doing, and we thought ‘we’ll use that’. Andy came up with the lyric to the chorus. I don’t speak French. I think we had the tune down, but not the lyrics and he came up with the idea for "oh L’Amour". Then there’s that backing vocal at the beginning, Andy came up with that. We tracked it loads and loads of time and it just sounded really heavenly.

On Wonderland not succeeding

AB: I think maybe it was harder for Vince. For me it was a brand-new experience, I was happy just being there.

VC: I knew that I had found something special in Andy and I really believed that what we were doing was good. Oh the arrogance of youth! It just made me more determined. The songs that we were making were good, the only problem was the fact that nobody else liked them. We thought ‘well radio’s not not playing us, the only way we can get these really good songs out to people is by playing live’ so we started doing the rounds.

On dressing up

AB: Vince was always open to ideas, and bless him even on the first and second video I pushed him into the drag. That’s just how I felt, that’s what I wanted to do, I was being honest. It wasn’t like ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ and David Bowie when he did drag, it was more slapstick. I’ve never been cool and I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve. I think with a lot of the guitar band NME types there’s always been homophobia underneath, they always plump for the more cool groups. We were so in your face, so unapologetic, they couldn’t deal with it. Vince went from being totally cool to being ruined by me!

VC: Andy’s not out and out camp, that’s not part of his personality. He sees himself as a performer and the way we present ourselves or how he presents himself onstage, is part of that mindset, we’re not trying to be drag queens… well we were at one time [laughs]. It’s trying to present the music in an interesting way and people really warm to that, they warm to the ridiculous outfits and sets.

AB: Vince always wants to outdo me, that’s why he’s been a cactus and Mae West. I think it’s the working class straight man. They’re the kinkiest people on the planet.

VC: The cactus has to be my favourite outfit. We did an acoustic song, so I wear a cactus, playing the guitar. There’s a hole in the cactus where my face comes through and a couple of holes for my arms. That one was fun.

AB: I’ve always loved quite off-the-wall things, quite circusy things. I said to Vince I’d love to come out of the music box like the main character in Trumpton, and be this automaton, which is a bit like what we are! I love it to be bizarre. It’s just about being a kid, and dressing up out of the dressing up box, that’s what it’s always been to me.

On ‘Sometimes’

AB: It’s strange because it was our first proper collaboration but in some ways it was quite simple. I remember singing an idea for the guitar riff or the vocal melody to Vince.

VC: When he did that we both looked at each other and thought ‘well this is a hit’. Daniel Miller was coming to have a listen and we didn’t even bother to stay, we left a note saying ‘we think this is a hit’ and then Andy and I went down the pub. Originally the lyric in the chorus wasn’t "sometimes" it was "ooh baby". The guy who mixed it said "you can’t use ‘ooo baby’, come up with something else". It was a Mute studio, they had a record cupboard with all their releases in, and I was looking at lyrics on the backs of all these records. Depeche Mode had a song called ‘Sometimes’ and I thought ‘ah well that’ll work’. That’s how it came about – you’re the first person that I’ve told that to. 

On class & politics

AB: Going to and performing at Gay Pride before it became a commercial venture was amazing. That really was grass roots, that was politics going on. I was living in a gay squat when I met Vince, they were quite political and working for the Gay & Lesbian Switchboard and Centrepoint, going on marches. There’d be old women along the route and they’d get leaflets from us and rip them up and throw them on the ground, then come round again so they could get some more and do it again! It was really funny. We used to chant ‘two four six eight is your husband really straight?’

VC: Back then there was so many things happening that we’d say ‘let’s try and write a song about this’. There’s ‘The Circus’ and ‘Hideaway’ that are like that. We both found it very difficult to make our opinions musical. You’ve got a specific message to say and you’re trying to put that into a song, and it doesn’t necessarily work. The opinions Andy and I spout out in the pub don’t necessarily make great poems.

AB: People are quite unaware of our political side, we’ve always been so low key. For me the most political that we’ve been is playing all these places where people haven’t been before, and they might have one gay bar in the whole district. I remember playing Kansas City in the early days and the local gay bar was firebombed while we were there, things like that. 

On Abbaesque

VC: We were doing one Abba song live, which was ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’, it always went down really well and we enjoyed playing it. Andy said ‘why don’t we make an album of Abba songs?’ We’d never really done covers up to that point and thought it’d be quite cool. We just did four in the end, we thought an album of Abba songs would be too much, too ridiculous and too camp.

AB: Sometimes it’s really good just to sing other people’s songs, it’s not about you writing it, it’s the joy of performing. Songs just get embedded in you don’t they? They become part of your DNA and you get great pleasure in singing them. There’s not many cover versions I like of other people’s, the whole X Factor thing gets on my nerves. 

On fame

AB: We feel like old school entertainers, a vaudeville kind of thing. We’ve never been part of the rock & roll fraternity or whatever that is. We’ve never been included by the press, it just seems like we’ve always done our own thing.

VC: We’ve never tried to be cool, maybe that’s why we’ve been together and people have been interested in our music for so long. Our audience is from all walks of life.

AB: I used to be really concerned about our legacy but as you get older you realise that it’s not important in the grand scheme of things. 

VC: At the end of the day we both come from working class families. I don’t want to spout ‘working class’ but it’s true. I despise that whole celebrity thing. It takes away from the music. I really like what we do and the music we make, and if personality is what you’re selling then you shouldn’t be making music.

AB: I’ve always been for supporting the underdog, trying not to be showing off too much about whether you’ve done well or not in your life, you have to have a certain amount of humility though it’s not humble to say that! I’ve always been a bit more attracted to the showbiz lifestyle than Vince but now I think it gets a bit out of control, it’s so superficial, you have this love hate thing with it. I’m very glad I had Vince to steer me because otherwise I would have gone off the deep end quite a long time ago.

Vince on Andy & Andy on Vince

VC: My happiest memories are of the first album. Andy and I were getting to know each other, I was working with really good friends, we’d have a laugh. We’d be in the studio all day and then Andy would say ‘let’s go to this club’ which we’d never heard of or been to, he’d get us in. It was just a really great time, halcyon days. We just had a ball, taking drugs, drinking, you know what I mean, from a younger person’s perspective it was just fantastic.

AB: I’ve always been very protective of Vince and I probably had more bravado I really do. I pretended I was brave in front of him just to make him feel good – I wanted to show him off! I was so shy and so inexperienced, he really took me under his wing. I think he really liked that.

VC: When I’m working with Andy, if he comes up with an idea and I don’t like it then we just drop it, and vice-versa. Nobody fights for their corner. I know that if I write a song and Andy’s heart isn’t in the melody he won’t sing it very well. That’s key to our relationship. 

AB: We really have a laugh. Vince’s humour is so dry. That’s the worst thing for anyone who doesn’t know him, he can look them directly in the eye and say something, and they think he’s being deadly serious! He’s not being evil, it’s just how he is.

VC: The best moments are when we finish a song. We’re sat in a room with nothing and come out with a tune, and that for me is a miracle. Those miracles will continue, because we’ll still be writing songs together when we’re 90.

Erasure play the Roskilde Festival this weekend and are undertaking a mammoth world tour in 2018. For more information and tickets, please visit the Erasure website

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