A problem of image

'You can go on for only so long being told that you're naff,' say Andy Bell and Vince Clarke of Erasure. But their Top 10 chart entry this week should ease the pain, says Chris Mugan
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The Independent Culture

When Erasure's front man admitted that he was HIV positive in December, cynics assumed that it was a ploy to garner column inches ahead of the duo's forthcoming album. Fortunately, for fans of British reserve, the truth was more prosaic. In a series of interviews ahead of the release of Nightbird, Andy Bell let slip that he was diagnosed with the illness in 1998, albeit only to the Finnish tabloid Ilta-Sanomat. It was then up to eagle-eyed fans to post the news on message boards on Erasure's official website for it to become widely known.

When Erasure's front man admitted that he was HIV positive in December, cynics assumed that it was a ploy to garner column inches ahead of the duo's forthcoming album. Fortunately, for fans of British reserve, the truth was more prosaic. In a series of interviews ahead of the release of Nightbird, Andy Bell let slip that he was diagnosed with the illness in 1998, albeit only to the Finnish tabloid Ilta-Sanomat. It was then up to eagle-eyed fans to post the news on message boards on Erasure's official website for it to become widely known.

It was typical of a group not known for their sense of cool or media savvy. Erasure have enjoyed an impressive record of chart success, with some sublime pop hits throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties, such as "Sometimes", "Stop" and "Blue Savannah". Yet still they will be best remembered for the music-hall dragfest of their Abba-esque EP, with its cover of "Take a Chance on Me".

Their label, Mute, pointed out that Bell was preparing to reveal his illness in a book due to be published this year, written by his partner of two decades. But with his musical other half, Vince Clarke, out of the country, Bell, at his most relaxed in years, clearly found this plan hard to stick to.

In the past couple of years, Clarke had tied the knot and settled with his wife in the United States, first in New York City. That left Bell to handle press duties on his own. At a private members' club in London before Christmas, he was so laid-back he was lying, rather than sitting, in a saggy armchair. He looked as carefree and cherubic as in early appearances, if a little chubby in his tracksuit bottoms and zipped jumper. So, even when he admitted that he'd had pneumonia, alarm bells failed to ring.

Bell was getting back into shape after two hip-replacement operations. His bones had weakened alarmingly quickly, possibly due to the drugs he had taken to combat the pneumonia he caught in 1998. In fact, only a few weeks before, Bell had been on crutches at the Trevor Horn tribute gig at Wembley Arena. Now, he said, he was looking forward to getting back on his feet. "I haven't danced for three years. The last tour, I was in agony, but what was worse was not knowing what was wrong. The X-rays showed that the top of my femur was blurry, but the doctors said I was OK. I went back again and the joint had just crumbled away. I asked if it could be from coke, and they said, 'Not really'."

Training has involved sessions with an expert that has worked with the England rugby-union team, so Bell had expected to get back his former flexibility and strength. He had enjoyed the Horn tribute, especially the appearance by Grace Jones, but could see no place for himself yet on the nostalgia circuit. "I still think that we have something to offer," he said, firmly.

However, Bell was happy to admit that two of the last three albums of new material by Erasure - 1995's Erasure and 1998's Cowboy and Loveboat - had been below par. "We were getting a bit fed up with it, a bit sort of jaded. Well, a bit bored, I suppose. I love Erasure, because it was experimental and a bit druggy, but I was a bit depressed about Cowboy. I just couldn't expect fans to go and buy it. Then came Loveboat and I just didn't like Flood's production. He kept treating my voice and making me sound really weak. It just wasn't us."

After Loveboat sank without trace in 2000, the duo took a break, of sorts. Unable to stay apart for too long, they recorded a covers album that saw them rediscover their love of music. Bell originally wanted to do a Phil Spector covers album as a solo project, but Clarke soon became intrigued and so the Erasure covers album was born. The sense of fun was so palpable that their incongruous cover of Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill" reached the Top 10, better than anything from the band's last three efforts.

Later, in a call from his new isolated farmhouse in Maine, Clarke agreed that the duo had benefited from a break from songwriting. "At the time, we did the covers album for a bit of a laugh, but I think it did us some good to take other people's songs and tear them apart. We'd got into a bit of a rut in the way we put songs together."

Following the success of Other People's Songs, the duo sanctioned a greatest-hits compilation in 2003 to maintain the momentum. That year, the pair reconvened in New York. Then living in Brooklyn, Clarke had set up a home studio in his basement. This gave them the chance not only to record demos at a leisurely pace, but also to lay down tracks for a project that had long been on the back burner - an Erasure acoustic album.

Since the abiding image of Clarke is of an impassive face behind a bank of keyboards, you might be surprised to hear that the pair write songs on his guitar. Go back to something like "A Little Respect", and you can imagine him banging out the tune on a battered acoustic. "It's a different way of singing," Bell explained. "You can hear your voice more, because with the synths you are always fighting against the frequencies. They soak up all the ambience of the voice."

For Bell, this was an easy album to make. "I was looking forward to my operations, and Vince, well, I've never seen him so happy. We were just so relaxed. There was no plan to make it sound a certain way or any intention to write a hit. We just wanted to have a good time doing it." With the songs written, Bell returned to London to record his vocals. He e-mailed them to Clarke, who combined them with his music, then sent the nearly finished product to a London studio to be mastered.

Another source of confidence has been a younger generation of pop fans that has discovered for themselves the joys of synthesised music. Scissor Sisters and Fischerspooner were emerging from the States, while in the UK, Bell was enjoying the likes of Goldfrapp and Ladytron. "I started going to all these bars, Nag Nag Nag and The Cock. I met Marc Almond down there and Pete Burns [Dead Or Alive]. I started seeing these people out again. There was a lot of camaraderie.

"You can only go on for so long being told that you're naff. We've grown up a bit, so it doesn't matter to us so much these days, but it does help when you have the respect of kids who come and ask for advice."

What has emerged from this process is Nightbird, Erasure's best work in 10 years. After the wishy-washy ambient sounds of Erasure, the low-key Cowboy and the timid Loveboat, the duo have conjured up a collection of songs that sound like classic Erasure, but with a twist. The songs are more thoughtful and subtle, with lyrics that take in the nuances of long-term relationships rather than the pillow fights of "Love To Hate You".

Both Clarke and Bell believe Nightbird to be their most upbeat album in the past decade, though this emerges in confidence rather than tempo. It contains their most thoughtful set of songs to date. The regret and affection is born of experience, rather than a lovers' tiff. "We don't want to bash people on the head with a brick," said Bell, with just a hint of regret. "It's hard for people of a certain age. I know Kate Bush is older than us, but she has done an album that's been ready for two years, but she's a real perfectionist and if there's one little thing wrong, she won't release it until it's right."

If there is a connection between Bush and Erasure, it is fighting against the straitjacket of market segmentation. They are meant to be seeking the recognition of Parkinson and Wogan, rather than pining for Top of the Pops. Yet Erasure still feel that there is a place for them on the chart shows. That's why they released their first single, "Breathe" from Nightbird, in the first week of January, a notoriously quiet period. "We wouldn't stand a chance otherwise. It is so hard to get on playlists these days. People always refer to us as an Eighties band, and I think, 'It's not like that'." The strategy worked - "Breathe" entered the charts at No 4 this week.

Bell finds it hard to countenance a pop market that aims at an ever-younger clientele, from teens to pre-teens to tweenies. "All the people who liked us when they were teenagers are now mums and dads. It's hard to get fresh fans. There's this image problem with Erasure, because we've never been on CD:UK. We're meant to do daytime TV, which we're fine doing, but we've never been seen as hip. It's a typically British thing, where they don't recognise what they've got."

This is the year when Erasure come of age, after 21 years in the business. Not that the pair especially want to look back at former glories, not with the new album and possible acoustic record to come. Bell himself has at last recorded his own solo album, using young electronica producers but with some old friends on board, notably Propaganda's Claudia Brucken. Before that, though, comes the tour, always an important means of connecting with fans when you don't get to play CD:UK. Yet again, the introverted Clarke will find himself being dressed up in an outlandish outfit. "Last I heard, it's going to be an enchanted forest, with Andy as some kind of warped Elvis character and I might be Gandalf!"

Not that Clarke is keen on marking the anniversary. "It doesn't feel like 21 years, because the songwriting is always so fresh. It is like a new experience every time. It still amazes me that we can sit down together without any plans, and an hour later we have a song." In an age when every pop moment is planned to the finest detail, this should be celebrated. Many happy returns, boys.

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