Photo: Dirk Lindner
We’ve been having a heated debate here in glamorous PM Towers about longevity in popular music, and how to achieve it. Who, we ask ourselves, out of today’s crop of hip young things will still be around in twenty years? Frankly, we haven’t a clue. Today, however, I’ve seen the light. Forget meaning, forgo relevance, and alliterate the hell out of socio-politics. If you want to spot a contemporary act who’ll still be around in twenty years, look for two English guys with a computer, a hatful of strong tunes, and an adoring audience of dancing queens (and the girls who love them).
I generalize, of course. But Andy Bell and Vince Clarke know what I mean. And they know a touch of theatrical flamboyance never goes amiss.
The curtain rises on the Erasure Show as the pair’s new ballad “No Doubt” begins to swell. The scene is Oberon’s forest by night. Flanked by a pair of somehow inevitable purple fairies, Bell has the wings of an angel, but not the voice. On the new album, Nightbird, he no longer displays the full set of pipes that so graced the ‘80s and ‘90s, and tonight on the 41st date of this tour, just a week after two shows were cancelled due to Bell’s “flu”, we all have reason to be grateful for the vocal support of his fairy helpers. Bell’s voice is tired and sore, and while he proves capable of rising to the occasion at all the key moments, you can’t help but worry for him.
For his part, Vince Clarke has come a long way since he left the fledgling Depeche Mode to pioneer the electro-pop duo paradigm. Back in the much more minimal days of Yaz(oo), he stood smiling stage left and pretended—just a little—to play his irrelevant keyboard while Alison Moyet did all the real work. Today, he’s all the way over on stage right and he’s sharpened his act. He’s perfected a thousand yard grimace, and he occasionally pretends to play guitar, while Andy Bell and the girls do all the real work. Back then, a thoroughly dressed-down Clarke would stroll away from his keyboard mid-song to join Moyet in the centre of an otherwise empty stage, to take photographs of their audience. Today, he debuts in a outfit that just screams Second-Nazi-Torturer-In-An-Indiana-Jones-Movie, subjects himself to a costume change at half time and looks for all the world like an uncomfortable pop gnome caught in an enchanted elven forest, nailed to the spot by an unforgiving cousin of Orlando Bloom. That’s showbiz.
Nightbird is subdued in comparison to works such as Wild! and The Innocents, but has a quiet, uplifting beauty of its own. A lot has been made of Bell’s announcement that he’s been HIV positive since 1998. It certainly adds an extra level of emotion and concern to the Erasure Show, and it’s obviously possible to imply that it’s informed the mood of the new album. But then we’re all older than we were 20 years ago, and both Bell and Clarke are now 40-somethings deep in long-time relationships. A certain maturity was bound to creep into their work anyway.
Presumably it’s this new-found maturity that’s resulted in a total absence of giant penises, tanks, and tutus. However, while the show never approaches the absurd heights reached on previous tours—and particularly the Phantasmagorical Entertainment experience—the current performance is hardly a quiet, reflective affair. The angel and fairies yield to a matador Elvis and a pair of Seven Year Itch Monroes, while Clarke morphs from Herr Doktor Zweiter-Torturer into a grumpy groom complete with a gold lamé tuxedo. For the most part, the music keeps with the pace. Sadly, there are no glorious ABBA moments, but classic Erasure hits such as “Oh, L’Amour”, “Sometimes”, “Stop!”, “Who Needs Love Like That” get the party started. They set up the groove and pump up the volume with their old school beats, creating a setting for Clarke and Bell to showcase a number of Nightbird moments, including the excellent “Breathe”.
Sadly, the wheels come off during the half time show. Bell offers a brief a capella adaptation of an early Blondie hit: “Debbie, Debbie, I’ve got a crush on you ...”, and then a keystroke from Clarke launches an awkward, ill-fitting cover of the divine Ms. Harry’s “Rapture”. Bell sings his part, then scampers off stage for a costume change. Clarke attempts an ironic deadbeat rap, and fails. The girls step into the spotlight, and struggle to maintain momentum. It’s a poorly conceived mess, and it gets worse. As Clarke and the backing singers leave the stage, Elvis Bell returns to deliver a torpid solo “Ave Maria”. It is perhaps intended as a knowing wink in the direction of Vegas Elvis, with a touch or two of the Catholic guilt I always read into Erasure’s finest moment, “Drama”, but by the time he’d finished with the corpses of Fat Elvis and Mary, Full Of Grace, I was absolutely longing for a return to the ruby red slingbacks and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.
Of course, you can’t keep two good men down, and by the time “Breath Of Life” segues into “A Little Respect”, the mood, moment, and momentum have all been regained. The Marilyns are starting to look like Aretha, Bell is throwing Madonna accents into the mix, and we’re marvelling at the fact that a man with two artificial hips can still dance so energetically, and badly. Which brings us neatly back to longevity.
While Erasure will probably always be tagged as an ‘80s phenomenon, they’re not a “heritage act” in the same way as, say, Duran Duran. The duo has continued to record, release, and tour throughout the ‘90s and this new millennium. Yes, they’ve retained a faithful following throughout their 20+ years, but they’ve also acquired new, younger fans. And with Bell delighted to display his robust good health by stripping down to a pair of shiny briefs for the closing numbers, there’s every reason to believe they’ll continue to do so for some time. Certainly, Bell has a solo album—his first—scheduled for release later this year, and Erasure reportedly has an acoustic album lurking in the vaults just waiting for the right moment to pounce. So let’s hear it for the staying power of the English electro-pop duo, and for the winning combination of good tunes and showmanship of the flaming kind.