A Lot Of Respect: Erasure On The Strange World Of Erasure

Flamboyant, radical, joyous and purveyors of some of the finest pop songs to ever grace The Quietus' ears, this year Erasure celebrate their 30th birthday. Vince Clarke and Andy Bell (with a little help from Mute's Daniel Miller) guide Luke Turner through their beautiful world

Difficult beginnings with Wonderland

Daniel Miller: There’d been Depeche Mode, Yazoo and The Assembly, so Vince had a strong track record. Maybe we were too complacent, and thought ‘well he’s done it three times, he’ll do it a fourth’. The whole of the Wonderland project really struggled, for a number of reasons. The sound of Erasure at that time wasn’t really being played on the radio. We started to get concerned, we put three singles out and none of them got near the top 20. Credit to Vince, he’d been first class air travel touring up to that point, and he went back into a transit with Andy and a couple of backing singers, and went back to his early Depeche touring roots, which I think he really wanted to do. He likes to feel his feet on the ground, rather than being treated like too much of a star. 

Vince Clarke: We made the record and when we knew we weren’t getting played on the radio we made the decision to tour because that’s all we could do. That whole touring part of our beginning, that was everything, that was our lives. We were playing really shitty little clubs and universities, and you could see more and more people turning up to the shows from one to the next. It was a really great time. Our heads were on that rather than dwelling on the fact that Wonderland hadn’t done very well.

Andy Bell: I remember when Wonderland hadn’t worked my parents saying to me ‘are you going to get a proper job now?’ We were doing these little PAs in clubs, which was quite embarrassing. We’d have this choreographed routine for ‘Who Needs Love Like That’ dressed as cowboys. I felt embarrassed for Vince because it was completely out of his comfort zone, it seemed like we were going to these places, coming onto the dancefloor and people didn’t have a clue who we were, and they just wanted to get on with their night.

DM: I think that Wonderland was slightly out of time. When I see those songs being played live and everyone going crazy I do think ‘where were you when we needed you’. But it doesn’t matter, better late than never. It turned out fine in the end, at the time I was relatively inexperienced, well hopefully I still am, so I didn’t understand quite why things weren’t working.

‘Sometimes’ – first Top Of The Pops appearance

DM: We had a studio at that time up in Kings Cross, and they went in with Flood to try and see if they could come up with a new song. They phoned me up and said ‘we think we’ve got something’, I went up to the studio, they said ‘we’re going to the pub, we’ve got something really great, have a listen’. That was ‘Sometimes’, I listened to it and thought that was another level, it was a return to form in songwriting for Vince. We went straight to radio with it, it started to get more plays than anything Wonderland had.

VC: I’d been on Top Of The Pops with Depeche and with Alison, but ‘Sometimes’ was the first Erasure one and it was really exciting. Andy was peeing his pants. Top Of The Pops was a really special show, you could feel the excitement for yourself and the other artists. It was an electric show and an amazing institution.

AB: It was quite amazing. We’d stalled in the UK, and I was really thankful to Vince that he’d stuck by me. I was only really employed as a singer so he could have got rid of me. I was a complete novice! I remember Daniel Miller saying to me ‘oh you won’t be able to go on the tube again after this’. It does feel like your life has changed, because all of a sudden you’re getting picked up in cars and flying around all over the place, recording album after album and doing all these tours. I was really incredibly shy, I remember going to Heaven nightclub for a year before I spoke to a soul, I’d sit in the corner hoping that somebody would talk to me. Part of being in a band was wanting to get over that shyness. 

The Circus & Erasure’s Songwriting Partnership

VC: I’d written most of the songs for the first album already when I met Andy. In the second album he just got more involved in the writing, and to be honest it was a fantastic relief for me. It’s quite tough writing songs on your own, you start repeating yourself. When we started writing together Andy was pushing the boundaries more. I had been writing songs for a while and there are rules that you follow, and Andy didn’t have any of those. It was really refreshing having someone come in from a completely different perspective. 

AB: I was a huge fan of Vince’s work so it was very daunting working with him in the first place. I really lost my confidence in the studio and reverted back to being a choirboy in school. I was running out of breath at the end of lines, and he had me lying on the floor, all kinds of things, trying to get me comfortable. I just came up with the words "Oh l’amour" for ‘Oh L’Amour’ and he gave me 50% of the writing, he was very generous. I thought I’d get sacked after the first album but he stuck by me. When we started recording The Circus it was complete 50/50. sitting down with guitars and the piano, I’d sing the top lines. It started out that we’d think up lines together but eventually I took over. I remember on that album we had two subjects for songs, which was what was going on at the time politically, people losing their jobs, and the other one was somebody coming out to their parents. I love how Vince almost handed the reigns over, all the time he was watching me blossom, and a mentor. When I’ve finished a lyric or a melody I’ll show it to Vince, and it’s almost like having a schoolmaster, he’ll say ‘no I don’t like this bit’, so I’ll go back and rewrite those lines. That’s happened less and less, and I think the best songs that we’ve written are the ones that write themselves. Within those I’d include ‘Ship Of Fools’, ‘Blue Savannah’ and ‘Chorus’.

DM: I think their songwriting is great. I think they have a very good balance, there’s never any ego involved between them, they have a very clear way of working together, nobody treads on each other’s toes, it’s very respectful in that sense. 

Erasure’s Live Extravaganzas & The Swan The Tank & The Balloon

AB: One of our very first shows was at Heaven, and I had this all-in-one bodysuit. We only had a BBC computer, Vince programmed everything himself, all the sounds, even the lights to be in syncopation with the music. On the very first night it crashed halfway through the show, and I though ‘oh my God what do I do now?’ I am hopeless at telling jokes so I just started doing Alison Moyet impersonations and singing Beatles songs acapella until the music came back on. It scared me so much I thought that I really must create this alter-ego, which became part of all the dressing up. I was learning from drag queens who I’d seen, how they dealt with the audience, to make this larger-than-life character. But I don’t think that shyness ever leaves you, you’re still the same person underneath. It’s only in my Erasure job that I switch into that persona. 

VC: We had this idea that we’d do a West End musical type thing with a big stage production. That was the height of everything, it was all these collaborations with the set designer, choreographers, the dancers. It was an amazing thing to be involved in. We both had loads of costume changes and it got very sweaty backstage. We had two wardrobe people, they were on their feet all night, it was like a production line, there’d be a queue at ten past nine when Andy needed to get his hat changed. It was a bit like when you see movies of people doing musicals on TV.

DM: I remember Andy was renowned for having problems getting out of bed in the mornings. He had a driver who picked him up and had to get him to the show on time, and every day it was getting tighter and tighter as to whether he was going to make it on time. The driver was banging on his door to get him out of bed.

Guest vocalists – MC Kinky on ‘Take A Chance On Me’ & Diamanda Galas

VC: With Diamanda Galas and MC Kinky it was to find completely contrasting voices with Andy. Neither of us can rap! We’re both really big fans of Diamanda and she’s on the record label as us, so it seemed like an obvious choice. I believe the Jesus & Mary Chain did backing vocals on ‘Drama’. There’s a crowd shout on that particular song, and I think they were working in the same studio at the time so they came down and did some football chants.  

AB: I thought it’d be great to get a rapper on ‘Take A Chance On Me’ because it’d be such a curveball. I love MC Kinky, she’s got this made-up patois she used to use, she’s reinvented herself now. I thought it’d be something really unusual to do and thankfully it worked out really well.

With Diamanda, well I was so intrigued to meet this lady, I thought the music was incredible, her voice, I’d never heard anything like it. She had quite a fierce reputation! Erasure were sharing an office with her, and on the wall there was a photo of a really handsome man and I said ‘wow who’s that?!’. It was her brother who had passed away, and we clicked straight away. She’s really radical, I love her, I think she’s amazing.

Sex Pop Radicalism

VC: I don’t think we were aware of how radical something like The Swan The Tank & The Balloon was at the time. Andy had been developing this stage persona for quite a time, we wanted it to look glamorous and really showy, we wanted to make a spectacle.

AB: At the time of the Swan… Madonna had the ‘Open Your Heart’ video, which was her dressed up in a basque like a stripper, I thought ‘that’s a really good look, I’ll do that’. I wore this basque, these leggings, I had my hair shaved and died blond. We were in Italy and started the show with me sitting on Vince’s lap at this huge festival. I was really getting off on it because the audience was wolf whistling, and I didn’t realise until after the show that was their version of booing. Another time they showed a clip of us on Top Of The Pops and I was wearing this black rubber leotard and a rubberised circus ringmaster’s jacket, and I remember having conversations with the TV plugger saying ‘no no please, you must wear jeans and a t-shirt in the ‘Sometimes’ video to make it more accessible’ but once they saw that clip on TOTP the single jumped up 40 places in the charts, just because of that outfit. After that they’d say ‘oh can’t you put a dress on?’

DM: It becomes political, doesn’t it? I don’t think they started out wanting to make any statements, but the statements come to you. Andy was just doing what he wanted to do, his statement was that he wanted to be himself. Of course the gay issues in those days were very different to how they are now, especially with AIDS. The fact that you played onstage and were openly gay was a very political statement, even if it wasn’t intended to be, it just was. The media was still really sketchy about that, the tabloid press especially was very homophobic, or at least felt that their audience was homophobic and had to play to that, which I don’t think was the case – I think that the media are more homophobic than the general public. 

Side projects – VCMG

VC: I really love collaborating. It brings a whole new lease of life into your creative process. Apparently Martin [Gore] said in an interview the other day that there’ll be another VCMG album in 20 years so you’ve a while to wait. VCMG and my other work has definitely influenced Erasure, especially when I do remixes for people. If I’m doing a remix and come up with some idea for that it’ll find its way into an Erasure song.

Side projects – Torsten The Bareback Saint

AB: That was from a guy who I’ve come very close with called Barney Aston Bullock. He’s a writer and poet and we first met each other five years ago or more at the Kerrang! awards, and he said he had this character called Torsten in mind that he’d written for me, and would I be interested. I felt like I’d met another Vince, he’s this really amazing playwright.

The Snow Globe Christmas album

VC: I was surprised that it connected with so many people. Everyone’s done a Christmas record, and it wasn’t our idea to make a Christmas record. We tried to make it a little more leftfield – even if it was very traditional songs to try and make the album a dark version of Christmas. I think that’s what appealed to people because it wasn’t just a straight covers record, and it came out much better than I thought it would. From a commercial point of view people think that if they make a Christmas record it’s going to be a hit every year, but really I don’t think that happens unless you’re Bing Crosby. Perhaps when we’re a bit older we should make a Bing-style record.

AB: There was a Roman Catholic priest singing in the next door studio to us, and on the same day we were doing one particular song he was singing the same one. We were at the Strong Room and went for lunch, and there they were sitting in their habits having dinner with us. I thought it was such a coincidence these guys being there at the same time and there must be such a great energy pouring down.

Erasure’s Fans

VC: We are very fortunate. We’ve got some people who are still following us from when we started, and it is absolutely the thing that keeps us going, especially when we go on tour and see familiar faces. It’s a really great feeling. People have grown older with us, and tell us that our songs have changed their lives, which is kind really heartwarming. Laibach were dancing to Erasure at Short Circuit? I didn’t know that, I’ll have to put them on my mailing list. 

AB: They’ve all grown up with us. The fans had a party last weekend in Birmingham and I went and surprised them for an hour, you could just tell they were astonished, some people got a bit teary. There’s always been a close affinity with the fans, and Vince and I always try to stop before or after shows to sign autographs and say ‘hi’ to people. There are a few fans who are very motherly and really look out for us, they’re really protective of Vince and I.

Erasure and Mute

VC: I think that everyone who’s on Mute recognises that it’s a very broad church, that’s what makes it interesting for all the artists. People don’t go to Mute and think ‘oh we’ll make a hit record’ they do it because it’s a really cool label’. Daniel Miller is completely responsible for everything. If we weren’t on Mute we’d probably have been dropped years ago. What’s great about Daniel is he really signs people he likes, he’s a real music fan, he’s not out there to make a load of money – even though he has [LAUGHS UPROARIOUSLY]. He’s always been really encouraging and when we really need someone to kick our arses because we’re not going fast enough he’ll do it. It’s an unbelievable relationship.

Erasure’s 2014 tour

AB: The idea in the first place was to have Vince in a perspex cage that was floating above the dancefloor with a glitter ball hanging from the cage and me dancing underneath and literally hosting, but we didn’t have the budget. It was kind of like being in a disco. I used to love those club divas who’d appear for one or two songs on a podium, that was the ambition we were going for.

DM: The shows were amazing. Have you seen the YouTube clip from the tube station?

Violet Flame & Spirituality 

AB: In the late 90s, early 2000s when I was just dealing with my HIV status, I was going through quite a lot and was looking for answers in places. I had my hips replaced in 2005 and found this really lovely place out in Berkshire somewhere, it was full of old people because they’re the ones who need this respite care. They taught how to do reiki, they had Hopi candles. I’ve been back since, I’m Reiki grade two now, and I suppose I’ve always been interested in mysticism and clairvoyancy. It’s something I turn to now and then when I need to make a fundamental decision. 

Erasure are marking their 30th Anniversary with new releases – Always The Very Best of Erasure is out on 30 October and is a three CD deluxe set including brand new remixes from Vince Clarke, Grumbling Fur and GRN. 2016 will see remastered vinyl and a box set – For more information visit the Erasure site and pre-order here

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