Sometime in New York...well, three minutes actually. That's the average Erasure type song. David Quantick crosses the Atlantic with the synth-pop duo to find out what lengths they go to to reach perfection...
"AAAAAAAABBOTT!" - Lou Costello
Here we are, walking down Broadway, Entertainment USA Street
itself: Sylvester Stallone in Cobra! Frankie Vaughan at Radio City
Music Hall! Trouble Funk live at the Palladium Club! Robert Lindsay
in Me And My Girl!
Robert Lindsay? In Me And My Girl?
There's something about the English that jars a tad with this New York bit. For instance, I have in tow a pair of rock stars. They are not, however, snorting coke as they go, or hurling television sets at cab-drivers. They are simply sauntering along, looking politely at skyscrapers and cars. They are Vince Clarke and Andy Bell, also known as Erasure. Last night Vince had a massively exotic seafood meal in the hotel. He got food poisoning. Andy ordered some strawberries in the bar, but when they wouldn't serve him any, he didn't shoot the waiter or burn himself with a flamethrower. He said, "Oh. Well, there's a picture of some strawberries on the wall up there."
"What are you doing?"
"I'm a group"
"What, all by yourself?"
- Morcambe and Wise
Vince and Andy have just released their first LP, 'Wonderland', which is chockablock with crackerjack tunes.Vince's pop talents finally meet someone he can talk to,and Andy's voice and writing abilities find a proper home. It's a nifty combination, this double-act; not only do they actually like each other, but they write and work well together.'Wonderland' finds them running the whole gamut of the pop song, from the devastated dance-floor lament of 'Oh L'Amour' to the ludicrously chirpy 'Love Is A Loser', and naturally gets in the morbidly dank melancholy bit on 'My Heart ... So Blue'.
Andy, front-man and therefore more reckless, is naturally tempered by the common-sense of his stooge.
"Sometimes Vince might be a bit stick-in-the-mud about the lyrics. Like 'Love Is A Loser'. I thought, let's write a song about VD, and I started making up all these verses. Then Vince and me thought, oh no you can't do that, so we rewrote it between us. 'Pistol'. . originally I wanted to write a song about meeting pretty policemen in toilets, but that was too blatant. So I changed it."
Erasure, pretty policemen aside, are extremely traditional for a synthesiser band. 'Love Is A Loser' owes more to Marie Lloyd's music-hall classic 'I'm One Of The Ruins That Cromwell Knocked About A Bit' than more current strains in pop. And despite the wealth of technology that can surround the modern synth user, Erasure's arrangements are so simple, so sparse, that next to their other stuff, Vince and Andy's version of Abba's 'Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)' sounds like Phil Spector trying to eat the 1812 Overture. You could also play these songs on the piano, should you want to. "Our songs are now more simple than they were with Yazoo, it's like getting back to basics, y'know?" It certainly is.
In Liverpool a few months ago, Vince's gear broke down. Andy and the backing singers entertained the crowd with accapella versions of their songs. All this seems a little remote from the European coldness that tries to associate itself with the synthesiser. Why are you a pop group who ignores the rich tradition of the synthesiser, Vince?
"Why should the thing you hit make any difference to the category
you go in? 'Cos synthesisers are weird, you mean?"
Why should the answers a pop group give make any difference to the category they go in? Well ... let's talk about pop songs with Vince and Andy. The premise is this; Erasure, being like I say, traditionalists, stick to the good old pop song formula. Pop songs being traditionally verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus. And, er, three minute long ...
"I dunno why," says Vince, grasping the wrong end of the stick with a will, "but I've always found it easiest to write songs that are three minutes long." "Before I met Vince," reveals Andy, "me and this other bloke, Pierre, did this song that was seven minutes long. It seemed to keep going and going". Andy pauses, overwhelmed by the seven-minute song. "I think it's really good to write three-minute pop songs, but when you get something that's a minute long and it's stretched out for three minutes, that's really terrible."
It is. Vince will not be outdone, however. 'I used to think the best song would be a minute long. And the best gig would be 15 minutes long.' Andy's got an answer to that one: "I don't think a minute is long enough for someone to get into a song." Rarely have I seen the topic of three-minute songs covered with such thoroughness. If Rowan Atkinson had written that conversation, he would be rich.
"Can I keep my black leather underpants on?"
- Eric Morcambe
Andy and Vince play The Ritz in New York. They go down a storm. Millions of young people jump up and down to the songs, and two lone punks attempt to jump over each other. Andy marches about the stage like a muscular Spotty Dog, encased in a tasteful leotard. His face does not know if it's Steve Martin or Hilda Bracket. Vince stands behind a load of synthesisers, grinning and dressed like a boy detective. Sometimes he grins behind a guitar. Several members of the audience know the words of the songs, and it seems that old-time synthesiser pop has taken New York. "I really enjoy playing live after the fifth song," Vince smiles, "I'm so nervous during the first song - so many times you push a button and nothing happens."
Andy is also a worrier. "I enjoy it, but all the time I like
things to get better. If there's a gig that I think wasn't as good as
the last one, I won't be too chuffed about it. If people say that was
a great gig, I just shrug my shoulders ... Because I've been slagged
off for sounding like other people, and it's,'ah, this is Vince's
new singer; and because the singles haven't necessarily taken
off, I think 'is it my fault, and am I up to scratch?'. I see the
gigs as one field where I can prove myself... It's a really difficult
thing for me to cope with, being slagged off. Vince keeps telling me
it's all right, this is a secure thing, you're not gonna get sacked'.
. . After gigs, you want people to come up to you and say 'you were
brilliant', and they do, but they don't really mean it. I get really
jealous of the backing singers. Sometimes I think they're stealing it
away from me if they're doing too much ... but that's my paranoia,
and that's what I've got to cope with ...
"I want people to like me ... When I'm on stage, that's what I'm saying all the time, 'I want you to like me'."
Thus the problems of Andy Bell, the eternal pleading of the entertainer. But what of his partner? What does Vince think of all this? "I dunno," he grins, "I think he does a good job really, doesn't he?."
"Side byyyyy siiiide!"
- Morcambe and Wise
They're an old-fashioned duo, Clarke and Bell. They worry a lot-Vince and his synthesiser, Andy and his paranoias- but ultimately they'll be all right. My enduring image of Andy is his sauntering wildly about a stage madly. My favourite memory of Vince is this whirlwind under a crop charging at me on the Staten Island ferry launching himself into the small of my back, screaming "Come on! Get OFF the BOAT!"
As for the future, one suspects that Erasure will get their hits, their TOTP appearances. Eventually they'll even get their own cartoon strip in Look-In, like the one with Cannon and Ball. Vince will be terribly droll and try not to get into scrapes. Andy will rush around the place and involve himself with custard pies and irate shopkeepers. But it'll be sorted out at the end, and Vince and Andy will sit down in their communal house and have a nice cup of tea. Occasionally writing some three- minute songs. It's a strip that could run for years.
(Wow, was this bloke psychic or what?...well, apart from the Look-In thing..- Jackie)