“Erasure pop legend Andy Bell ‘turned down sex with alien’ because he’s gay,” screamed the headlines at the turn of the decade. No shit, Sherlock. Well, that’s one way to see in 2020, I thought.
In typically tawdry tabloid language, the “stories” in the Daily Trash went on to say that Bell ‘revealed’ how he was paid a special visit by 1,000 spaceships and “flying angels” one night. But he apparently turned down a randy rendezvous with the space oddities who turned up at his home in Limehouse, east London, but only because he is gay.
“One of the angels asked whether I would like to experience what it would be like to make love to an alien, but I just thought, ‘No’. I just thought I’m not quite ready for it yet, because they are all sexualities, all together, all mixed up, and they’ve got like one tentacle.
“The thing that stopped me from doing it is because I say that I’m gay and their sexual experience is neither gay nor straight, female nor male, it’s all mixed up together. I didn’t want to go with a woman. That’s just how I am.”
The pop parvenu claims he has seen UFOs like “hairy” drones over London before. Whether a press distorted concoction or the product of mind altering substances, it was typical of a group not always known for their sense of cool or media savvy.
Upon closer investigation, the intergalactic invitation was said to have taken place in March 2019, which also happened to the month I conducted an interview with the man who stayed on earth himself: he in his Limehouse lair (“I’m just in the middle of burning the pancakes!”), and me in Havana, though Andy does also share a Magic City condo with his Floridian hubby Stephen Moss, just off Miami’s famed South Beach and where I was headed later that week, though for tax purposes, “I can’t live more than 180 days in America in any three-year cycle, so unless I’m working I try and limit it to November through January here, and I love it.”
Talking of American icons, I was fortunate enough to be invited to be the only print journalist that accepted the invitation to cover Blondie’s first concerts in the Cuban capital (billed as a ‘cultural exchange’ to get around travel restrictions reimposed by the orange ogre). So being an even bigger fan of the band than you or I, the ebullient frontman whooped with delight when I told him what I was doing, and shrieked with delight when I passed on a message from Debbie Harry that she sends her love and hopes she’ll see him soon: “Wow! Oh my God! I love her so much!”
I think we had an idea.
One of the more refreshing, or, depending on your point of view, frustrating aspects of the phone chat was how little we discussed Erasure and musical partner Vince Clarke. After all, the band that gave him his fame and fortune have enjoyed impressive longevity, with 24 consecutive UK Top 40 hits between 1986 and 2007 alone, such as giddy pop confections Sometimes, Stop and A Little Respect, and, while we’re at it, my personal favourites Drama!, Breath Of Life, Am I Right?, and Stay With Me.
With four No.1 albums and a smattering of side projects, their elliptical path became ever wider, and yet to many they will be best remembered for the music-hall dragfest of their Abba-esque EP, with its quartet of covers of Take A Chance On Me et al. I freely admit it was the first Erasure item I purchased, though I thought it best not to tell Andy it was a Polish bootleg cassette, bought from a market stall in Warsaw for the equivalent of about 20 pence.
As you would expect, Andy Bell is a thoroughly engaging and disarmingly down to earth interviewee. A voracious consumer of popular culture who can enthuse about the most random, run of the mill subjects; even the likes of EastEnders and being homesick for sausage rolls when he’s away. As with his music, he proudly wears his heart on his sleeve in everything he does and says.
Other than Blondie and Brexit Britain (“It’s amazing how it even functions”), our communique covered a whole host of topics from long-distance relationships to being neighbours with Ian McKellen, David Bowie, George Michael, and lending his distinctive timbre to Torsten In Queereteria, the latest in a series of theatrical collaborations with the playwright Barney Ashton (“I’m the storyteller, really”).
The album features a team-up with New Wave warbler Hazel O’Connor and, at one point, cheekily parodies “She doesn’t have the range,” the infamous battle of the Bond belters when Shirley Bassey mocked Tina Turner’s GoldenEye in an often hilarious BBC documentary that would spawn a Rock Profile sketch and viral internet meme.
Talking of delectable divas, thanks to Andy being an admirer of those indisputable gay icons Dusty Springfield and Liza Minnelli I managed to slip in a few questions about that other synth pop duo Erasure often are so often tediously compared to, the Pet Shop Boys (“We were rivals, yeah. It was kind of that frisson.). As they say, watch this space.
One thing that we didn’t get round to exploring was the Bush. Kate Bush. We’re both Bush aficionados, with Andy regarding her musical catalogue as “fantastic” and concluding in 2003, topically then as now, that “Army Dreamers and Breathing are two of the greatest anti-war songs ever.” He would go on to cover the latter in typical theatrical fashion in 2014 on Dark, the third volume of B.E.F.’s Music Of Quality And Distinction series.
It was widely known that back in the day Erasure had approached Kate Bush about producing an album for the duo, with Vince Clarke later conceding that the famously self-sequestered singer “didn’t feel that that was her area.”
But it wasn’t until I read Bell’s interview in the NME a month after our conversation that it was specified which LP they were referring to. This is the quote:
“We tried to get her for the Wild! album but she was working on The Line, The Cross And The Curve, which was the film that accompanied her album The Red Shoes. We went round her house in south London – she had lots of cats, and we had lots of tea and homemade cake. We were disappointed but she said she was too busy and felt she couldn’t bring what we wanted to the album. Then I chit-chatted away for about an hour on the phone with her, and I haven’t seen her since.”
If you know your Bush there was something a trifle off with the chronology, so in subsequent mini-interview exchanges over the phone, iPads and emails, I think I can safely say I’ve finally got to the bottom of when and what.
SP: “The thing is, The Line, The Cross And The Curve was five years after Wild!. Did you mean Kate was working on The Sensual World, perhaps?”
AB: “I do get a bit mixed up! But a recent interviewer told me we wanted her for I Say I Say I Say, which was post Abba-esque so would have been around ‘93 ’94. Does that fit? If so, I was mistaken about The Red Shoes period.”
SP: “This makes more sense. I Say and her film were both ’94, promoting the Red Shoes album from the previous year. Sadly, Kate Bush has never produced another artist to this day, let alone a synth-based one. Did you discuss technology or going down a more organic path with her or what you thought she could bring to the project in production terms?”
AB: “I just wanted to be in the same studio as her and see how she worked, which I imagine would be intensely personal. In all probability she didn’t want to open herself up to that route, and I would have been so enamoured of her it might have been a disaster!”
SP: “What do you think it would have sounded like if she’d said yes?”
AB: “It’s hard to say, but I think maybe she would have made it more theatrical and ethereal, and brought in an otherworldly essence. But perhaps we were a bit too electronic dance pop for her.”
So there you have it. The job of producing I say I say I say was eventually won by B.E.F./Heaven 17 maestro Martyn Ware.
According to the Erasure website, they recorded a version of Running Up That Hill, around the same time as Placebo did the same, for their covers album Other Peoples Songs, but it failed to make the final cut and there are no plans to rescue it from the vaults. Never mind, because what has just been released a matter of hours ago is a brand new Erasure single. As “Ver” Smash Hits would say, they’re back, back, back!
With its deliciously buoyant, glittery sound, Hey Now (Think I Got A Feeling) is unmistakably Erasure doing classic Erasure. In fact, it sounds like Erasure’s greatest hits distilled into three minutes and forty-five seconds, though Bell says the essence of the sound was actually some of the duo’s favourite Eighties bands like Eurythmics and, of course, Blondie.
And is “Wear the stick of warpaint” a cheeky reference to the insect warrior himself Mr Adam Ant?
Hey Now (Think I Got A Feeling) is a taster for the duo’s forthcoming 18th album The Neon, due for release in August. A phantasmagorical light spectacular awaits.
Which reminds me, when I played back the first interview recording, I realised Andy had dropped in a reference to the UFO story and, not having seen any other reports at the time I’d failed to pick up on it.
“You do get lots of strange things coming on in the sky sometimes”
And as David Bowie once invoked, there’s nowt wrong with a bit of strange fascination. From Moscow to Mars, welcome back Erasure.
Part two of the Andy Bell will follow one day. Until then, in case you were wondering about the Debbie artwork…
BONUS BEATS: Andy Bell and Kate Bush did actually appear on the same record. Appearing on 1987’s Ferry Aid, a horrific cover of The Beatles’ classic Let It Be didn’t exactly do either of them any favours either. Organised by The Sun, produced by Stock Aitken Waterman and featuring Bananarama, Paul McCartney, Visage’s Steve Strange, and Gloria Hunniford, it was left to the likes of brutally honest George Michael to come up with the perfect reason not to appear, telling The Sun’s rival newspaper the Daily Mirror: “I didn’t really want to appear on a record with Ali from EastEnders.” Quite.