Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 25 / 22 June 2017
 

Andy-gram

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Erasure's Andy Bell headlines Great America's Gay Day


Andy Bell performs at Great Amercia's Gay Day in Santa Clara on May 22.
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It's been years since their last concert in the Bay Area, but now those willing to trek to Santa Clara can enjoy a solo set by Andy Bell, front man for the popular British duo Erasure.

Bell is making the rounds of various U.S. gigs to promote a greatest hits collection. The Total Pop! Deluxe Box includes three CDs of Erasure's first 40 hit singles, and a DVD of many of their early television appearances, specifically the U.K. show Top of the Pops.

"Seeing the box set when it arrived, I was really amazed by how it looks," said Bell in a phone interview from England. "I thought, wow, this is what I've been doing with my life all these years."

What he's been doing, along with composer Vince Clarke, is sell more than 20 million albums while becoming one of the world's more prominent gay male singers who's never been in the closet. Bell also came out as being HIV-positive in 2004. Clarke, who is straight, moved to the U.S, a few years ago, and has a wife and son.

Born Andrew Ivan Bell in Peterborough, England, Bell, now 45, won out over nearly 50 other singers when he auditioned for Vince Clarke, who at the time had helped create the bands Depeche Mode and Yaz.

Vince Clarke and Andy Bell in their early years as Erasure.

Having already established synth-pop as a new sound, Clarke wanted to further his innovations with his own group, and Bell, then working at a meat packing plant between various singing gigs, won out among dozens of others.

Bell deserves accolades for crooning some of the most catchy tunes in modern pop history (twenty-four consecutive Top 20 hits in the UK). Although known as the definitive synth pop band, recent collaborative efforts include the acoustic-country-focused Union Street, and various solo works. Recently, Bell's schedule's become a bit more relaxed.

"I had a break from Erasure for about a year and a half," said Bell. Along with DJing at the Palm Springs White Party, and a recent Total Pop! promotional signing in Los Angeles, Bell has been selective about his recent gigs, which included True Colors, the Cyndi Lauper tour of concerts with several gay and lesbian and LGBT-supportive acts.

"It's really nice to do those gigs," said Bell. "I love being on tour, but it takes a lot of planning when you want to put on a good show."

Bell said he's enjoying the simpler solo performances of late. "The box set was kind of a good reason to go do some shows," he said. "It's been 22 years nonstop, really, apart from a bit in the middle where we took a break."

Erasure's CD/DVD collection

From their first moderately successful album to their third, 1988's The Innocents, which went triple platinum, Erasure and their sound have enjoyed peaks and valleys in the capricious music world. Along the way, they recorded dozens of memorable hits.

With such a bounty if songs and fan favorites, how does Bell deal with frequently shouted song requests? For some of the more popular singles likeĀ  "A Little Respect," "Blue Savannah" or "Chains of Love," he said, "You can't not play them. Whenever you go out on tour, you're performing a new album, so of course you want to play those songs. Sometimes the old ones get a bit boring, for us, anyway. Sometimes, I want to sing songs we've never done live, like 'It Doesn't Have To Be Like That' (included in both the CD and DVD on Total Pop!) "Other songs like 'Heavenly Action' get more request in England than in the States."

The DVDs on the box set include some unintentionally funny performances by Erasure, including deadpan Vince Clarke intentionally playing along to the frequent lip-synched performances on instruments that aren't played in the songs. Another performance includes an elaborate machine-filled set, and multiple imitation manikins of Clarke, an amusing joke on his stone-faced onstage demeanor.

"I wasn't aware how much we did it," said Bell of their early TV performances. "It's like looking through a family portrait album. Also, all those TV appearances are a bit strange. You're a bit naff and performing for the camera, stuff like that. Usually, you don't mind on those programs. They've had periods where they didn't want it [lip-synching], or sometimes they weren't set up for a live act." The live performances prove Bell's merits as a singer.

"I think that's one misconception about our music," said Bell. "People think because the music is programmed, we can't play live. They can't imagine I could possibly be singing, because the music is synthesizers."

Andy Bell

Of course Bell is not like certain pop stars who reportedly never sing live. Arena shows may be problematic, but not impossible for Bell. For example, the Gay Games VI Opening Ceremonies, held in Chicago, were a challenge.

"That was completely bizarre, the Gay Games," he said. "You're standing on a box in a stadium under a spotlight. You can't see a soul, and even though you've got your inner earphones on, you can hear the echo of yourself coming back a split second later."

Nevertheless, Bell and his back-up singers managed, to wild acclaim.

"I don't like playing huge venues. We don't play stadiums much," said Bell. "An outdoor venue that's not round can be better, acoustically."

Theatres also serve Erasure well. Their lavish show, which played at San Francisco's Orpheum Theatre along its worldwide path, cost nearly a million British pounds to tour, according to Bell. The show includes more than a few dazzlingly wild costumes, from glitter chaps for Bell to a foam cactus suit for Clarke.

"The fun thing that I love about show business is taking things out of the box, making it as creative as possible."

A creative dare that preceded the massive trendy musical and subsequent film, Erasure enjoyed a big boost of popularity with the release of its ABBA-esque EP of cover songs.

"That set the whole thing in motion, the idea of campy covers," he said. "We gave it some kind of credibility, especially here in the UK. We had a good run with that. We then had a few hits, but after ABBA-esque, it was hard to recapture that. We almost drowned in the ABBA, because people saw us as a cover band. Our work is mostly original material."

Andy Bell performing live

With trends coming and going, Erasure's signature electro-pop fell from popularity, except in gay dance clubs. "I do get a bit peeved about that," said Bell. "I do feel we're one of the hardest working bands around. We've had 13 albums, mostly all hits."

Do critics take Bell's vocal range for granted? Bell admits that he smokes cigarettes. That, and, he said, simply getting older, have gradually limited his once-soaring vocal range. "My voice has gotten lower, so we drop the key of the songs when we perform them. It comes and goes depending on how many cigarettes I smoke. I know. It's terrible," he says of his habit.

How did the duo come up with those soaring vocals over the years?

"When we write together, Vince comes up with chords, then I write the top lines. We'll go through a variation of keys, to see which one sounds the best, with me usually trying to stretch it as far as possible."

Which is the most difficult, range-wise? "'Blue Savannah' is quite a good challenge," said Bell. "But the highest is the one chorus in 'A Little Respect.' I do get kind of shocked that I managed to sign that high for so long."

Mixing his DJ work with his singing, Bell sometimes performs to recorded remixes of Erasure hits. "Since so many DJs want to remix our songs, instead, we made our own dance versions of songs," he explained. "One of the songs I'm doing is a remix of 'Drama,' but it's just the chorus over and over. It's hard to learn those 12-inch mixes. They repeat so much, then you have to sing it again. It's not like singing a full song."

While discussing the DVD performances in Total Pop!, Bell reveals that his iconic fashion decisions from these TV shows weren't that intentional. Both Vince and Bell appear in a variety of 80s jeans-clad gay clone looks, with Bell performing in an increasingly festive array of costumes.

"For the first video we did," said Bell, "Vince and I both did drag for our first single, 'Sometimes.' After that, it was pretty much our '80s gay clone look. After a bit of a sales slump, our record company's promotions people said, 'Can you wear a dress again?'"

They politely declined.

"I've never really been that good at fashion," said Bell. "But I do mix up my colors. I have worn rubber swimsuits and boas in shows. But I've never been one for wearing designer gear. And I'm not Cher. One time, a tour manager asked if I might wear a different outfit every fifteen minutes. I couldn't do that!"

Erasure's Andy Bell headlines Gay Day at Great America, an LGBT day at the theme park, Friday, May 22, with performances by the Perry Twins, Dixie Longate, Josh Klipp and Freeplay Dance Crew, Heklina, Soul Con, Desi, Expose, Flava; screening of Milk in the Showtime Theatre, 9pm. $50. Rides 5pm-12am. Dancing til 2am. 4701 Great America Pkwy, Santa Clara. www.cagreatamerica.com/special/gayday






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