2nd of January 2003
Homage to the past
An unlikely project is bringing electronic superstars Erasure back into the spotlight. By Craig McLean
When we meet in his local pub in Hampstead, mega-selling pop star Andy Bell is dressed in jeans, anorak and flat cap. For much of the late Eighties and early Nineties, however, you would have found him prancing around the concert arenas of the world, quite probably wearing a leotard. As lead singer of Erasure, the duo he formed with computer wizard Vince Clarke in 1985, he was sporting bum-flashing cowboy chaps before Christina Aguilera was even born. Along the way, Bell and Clarke sold 20 million records and notched up five number-one albums.
If their contemporaries the Pet Shop Boys were pop-opera, Erasure were disco-panto. Where the Pet Shops were arch and aloof, Erasure were brazen and without irony. Their knack was to make brash, sleazy pop for a brash, sleazy era. As he had shown with his earlier bands, Depeche Mode and Yazoo, Clarke was a hugely talented songwriter. In Bell he found a gutsy, gifted singer whose taste for skimpy and outlandish outfits gave him a compelling, what-will-he-do-next appeal.
For nearly 10 years they were never far from the upper reaches of the charts, both in Europe and in America. But where the Pet Shop Boys seemed to move effortlessly though the 90s, by the tail end of the decade Erasure's popularity was beginning to dwindle. From 1995, three successive albums failed to sell. The publishing and recording companies who had advanced them money were asking for it back.
The lowest point, Bell says, was in 1999 (This should be 97 - J). Supporting David Bowie, Erasure trouped round South America and South-East Asia. "That got to me. Your clothes are soiled, nothing's clean. You just feel bedraggled. Like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards." He thought about leaving the band. There was, he says, outside pressure - "from lawyers and people like that" - to quit.
What has helped to pull him and Erasure back from the brink is an album called Other People's Songs, (released on January 27), which does what it says on the sleeve: features Erasure in cover versions of other people's songs. It contains tracks as diverse as Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill, the Walker Brothers' Walking in the Rain and Gamble and Huff's When Will I See You Again?, and while it is no return to the rousing showboating of The Innocents or Wild!, it's certainly a lively, interesting album.
Bell originally conceived it as a solo project. He had in mind an album of Phil Spector covers, or one on a country and western theme - anything that would showcase his talents as a singer. But then Clarke caught the covers bug too. The first single (out on Monday), a gently motoring version of Solsbury Hill is his choice, as is Buggles's Video Killed the Radio Star. Meanwhile, Bell, 38, reveals himself as a "frustrated crooner" in his choice of torch songs such as Walking in the Rain, Buddy Holly's True Love Ways and the Righteous Brothers' You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'.
"When I saw Gareth Gates doing Unchained Melody, on Pop Idol, I thought, 'You bastard, I wanted to do that'," Bell says with a grin.
Other People's Songs is not Erasure's first excursion into covers territory. That came in 1992 with the chart-toppping ABBA-esque EP. Bell says: "It was going to be a whole album as well, but that would have been too much. Our motivation was pure lust - for the songs, for the whole ABBA thing. It wasn't meant to be kitsch or camp. It's the same with this new album." Erasure's covers, he says, are reinventions, homages by a pair of music obsessives to the music that made them. "There's a sincerity about it. It was a reaction to the Popstars thing: it's about the song, not just a quick route to a hit."
Erasure's own enduring appeal was underscored when American rockers Wheatus had a worldwide smash in 2001 with a cover version of the Erasure song, A Little Respect. Bell thinks he must have made around £250,000 from this because he owed his song publishers £500,000, and he noticed that half had been paid off. Why did he end up owing so much? "Because they gave us loads of money, then we had three flops," he says, of Erasure's trio of low-selling late Nineties albums. "That's the way it goes!"
Thanks to their new album, Bell and Clarke feel reinvigorated. Their faith in Erasure restored, they are already at work on a new album of original material. And a tour is planned which, in an obscure nod to the historical aspect of the new album, has been given an Edwardian theme. It will come as no surprise to Erasure fans that Andy Bell will be appearing on stage wearing a bustle.
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