To accompany the release of a deluxe reissue of Erasure’s 1991 monophonic analogue opus Chorus, I put together a series of additional short written pieces focussed on the album’s four distinctive single videos, along with Andy and Vince’s recollections of The Phantasmagorical Entertainment tour that followed in 1992.
For this final piece, we delve into the myriad influences and reference points that cropped up during the interviews I undertook to prepare the reissue’s liner notes.
Featuring remastered tracks, new remixes, rare session tracks, live recordings and an essay on the creation of the album by me, the deluxe reissue of Chorus is available from Lexer Music.
Deee-Lite – What Is Love? (1990)
Why, Vince Clarke, does Chorus sound the way it does?”
“I tell you why,” he answers. “It was because of the B-side of ‘Groove Is In The Heart’ by Deee-Lite, a remix of a track called ‘What Is Love?’. I was thinking that the timing on that was so incredible. I’d been pissed off with the timing of MIDI sequencers for a long time, because they just weren’t very good, and I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to try and make a track with an MC-4’. The Roland MC-4 is a basic analogue sequencer. But the MC-4 could only trigger one monophonic synth at a time, it couldn’t do chords, really.”
And so that’s why Chorus was an exclusively monophonic, analogue synth-heavy album. Thanks Deee-Lite.
Londonbeat – I’ve Been Thinking About You (1990)
Martyn Phillips came to produce Chorus thanks to two previous projects. The first was The Beloved’s Happiness from 1990, and the use of electronics on that album was a major draw for Daniel Miller. What clinched it though was his work on a much more pop-oriented LP.
“I was also riding high because I’d produced Londonbeat’s first album,” recalls Phillips. “We had a very big hit off that called ‘I’ve Been Thinking About You’, which got to number one in over 20 countries. It was an enormous record. It’s the most heavily-played record on German radio ever, I think. So Daniel, obviously being a sensible businessman, thought ‘Maybe he could do something with my lot?’”
“That song struck me,” says Daniel. “It was quite a catchy song, and I liked the sound of it very much. It was kind of minimal and quite chunky sounding, to my ears, and I thought that would be interesting to apply to Erasure.”
Phillips’ nous with analogue synths gelled nicely with Vince Clarke, and both brought their own ARP 2600 into the three studios where Chorus was recorded. “He’s a nice bloke,” says Vince, ever the man of few words.
Inspiral Carpets – Please Be Cruel (1991)
Dave Bascombe was no stranger to Daniel Miller and Mute, and his biggest contribution to the label by 1991 had been his work on Depeche Mode’s transformational Music For The Masses LP a few years earlier. He specifically joined the Chorus project thanks to the single remix he was commissioned to undertake of Inspiral Carpets’ ‘Please Be Cruel’, taken from the group’s second album The Beast Inside.
“I was in the studio doing the mix of Inspiral Carpets, and Daniel played me the ‘Chorus’ single,” Bascombe recalls. “I think he just wanted my opinion on it and whether I thought it would make a good first single. I mean, obviously I hadn’t heard anything else, but I immediately fell in love with it, and was gushing about it, and said it was absolutely great. So that’s how I got involved.”
Of his mix of the Chorus LP, Bascombe is straight to the point. “I just brought some balls to it.”
Charlie Rich – The Most Beautiful Girl (1973)
When I spoke to Andy Bell for an Electronic Sound Under The Influence feature back in 2015, he called out three things that had left a lasting impression on his younger self. One was the singing lessons and confidence-boosting performance techniques he was given by his choirmaster Mr. Morris as a child, and another was his enduring love of steam engines. Yes, steam engines.
The final one was the song ‘The Most Beautiful Girl’ by US ‘countrypolitan’ singer-songwriter Charlie Rich from 1973 that he used to hear playing every Saturday morning at his local Peterborough roller rink. “I was a bit of a country and western fan,” he confessed at the time. “My parents had a lot of those records, and this song seemed to have a bit of a country twang to it. I took it as one of those songs that was very truthful.”
A country influence had crept into Erasure’s music in fairly subtle ways prior to Chorus, in tracks like the banjo-led ‘Don’t Suppose’ from the ‘Chains Of Love’ single. On Chorus, Andy’s love of country music and Charlie Rich’s smash hit single was a direct influence on the yearning, bitter ‘Waiting For The Day’ from the album. On The Phantasmagorical Entertainment tour in 1992, the band covered Tammy Wynette’s ‘Stand By Your Man’ while Andy was dressed as a rhinestone-clad cowboy, a country influence was pretty self-evident on the Cowboy LP from 1997, and the band worked up countrified versions of their back catalogue for the charming Union Street in 2006. It can all be traced back to ‘The Most Beautiful Girl‘.
ABBA – The Day Before You Came (1982)
‘The Day Before You Came’ was taken from the abortive sessions that followed ABBA’s final studio album, The Visitors, a record that was to Agnetha, Anni-Frid, Benny and Björn what Let It Be was for The Beatles – namely the sound of a band bitterly falling apart. This unlikely single, presented as an almost exclusively electronic pop song, was delivered in a flat, diaristic fashion by Agnetha. It documents the quotidian events of a perfectly humdrum day, which turns out to be the day before someone important comes into her life and turns everything upside down.
This was the group of ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ and ‘Voulez-Vous’, upbeat disco-tinged songs that might have a sense of longing within them, but which were broadly upbeat and positive. We never find out who the person is that arrives the following day, but something about the tone of this song, its emotionless, near-spoken delivery and the minor chords of its chorus suggest it wasn’t someone positive. Written by Björn, it documented, in relatively shrouded terms, his feelings as he went through his divorce from the singer.
Andy Bell acknowledges that the song was an influence on ‘Am I Right?’, and you can hear that same sense of mystery – and of never quite knowing what tragic event has occurred – in the lyrics and presentation of the album’s third single.
La Belle et la Bête (Dir. Jean Cocteau, 1946)
Jean Cocteau’s movie version of the Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 1757 Beauty And The Beast story was a strange mix of cinematic flourishes designed to evoke the art of Gustave Doré and Jan Vermeer, presented with an air of grim, sinister foreboding not dissimilar to early horror flicks.
Andy Bell remembers trying to capture some of La Belle et la Bête’s distinctive essence in two tracks on Chorus – ‘Home’ and ‘Siren Song’ – but not necessarily the sense of turbulent love and mournful longing that Belle displays in Cocteau’s film, which might have been a more obvious reference point. Instead it was some of Cocteau’s film effects that particularly inspired Andy. “There’s a scene where they show this kind of backwards segment of flames being blown out,” he recalls. By modern film-making standards, reversing some tape seems pretty basic, but in 1946 this – and scenes of hands poking through walls holding lights – were what gave La Belle et la Bête its distinctive presence.
To achieve something similar to the visual effect he admired so much, Andy turned to producer Martyn Phillips to create a suite of evocative vocal equivalents. “We loved turning the tape round and doing backwards singing,” says Andy. “There are quite a few backwards harmonies on songs like ‘Siren Song’. It’s just a trick, really, but I just loved that idea of just turning it around and singing on top of the backwards noise.”
Das singende, klingende Bäumchen (Dir. Francesco Stefani, 1957)
Beauty And The Beast wasn’t the only weird fairytale whose influence crept into Chorus. Another was the obscure Grimm Brothers story ‘Hurleburlebutz’, filmed as Das singende, klingende Bäumchen by the East German state-owned film studio DEFA in 1957. A remarkable success at home, Britain’s BBC picked up the film and sliced it into three episodes, forming part of a 1964 series called Tales From Europe.
The Singing Ringing Tree’s weird, freaky, fantastical edge left an indelible mark on anyone growing up in the Sixties that happened to find themselves watching it at teatime. Two of those children were Martyn Phillips and Andy Bell.
“We’d trade visual images,” says Martyn of Andy’s process of writing the lyrics for Chorus. “One image that cropped up a lot was The Singing Ringing Tree. It was one that seemed to capture what Andy and I remembered from watching that film, as kids, on TV. It was black and white, set in this hobbit land with all these strange, magical creatures wandering around. So we’d discuss the energy and the feelings of that, and then hone in on what the words might be saying and what sort of backing vocal blocks we could stick in the background.”
The film’s influence can be most felt again in ‘Siren Song’. “Andy kind of chipped away at that song like a sculpture,” continues Martyn. “Everyone sort of chipped away at it from different ends, but everyone was seeing something quite similar and so you eventually come up with something nice. The influence of The Singing Ringing Tree is definitely there in that song.”
I mentioned the film to Andy a short while after I spoke with Martyn. He had, coincidentally, just bought a DVD of the film for a friend and confessed to still being a little freaked out by it. Sticking with foliage-related matters, Andy then went on to tell me that he’d always wanted to own one of The Music Trees from The Clangers, undoubtedly a relative of the enchanted tree in Stefani’s film. One of the B-sides on ‘Am I Right?’ was, of course, ‘Carry On Clangers’.
C. S. Lewis – The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (1950)
I grew up with the Narnia books. The idea of finding another world lurking at the back of a wardrobe seemed to have a major sway over my imagination as a young boy, a long time before the realities of real life fully set in. I’ve re-read the books countless times into adulthood and watched my two daughters see the magic in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe when they themselves pulled the book down from the shelves of their school library.
In spite of that familiarity, the obvious influence of the most famous of the Narnia stories on ‘Home’, the final track on Chorus and a song originally intended as the album’s first single, had never occurred to me until Andy pointed it out. Yet it’s all there, hiding in plain sight: the child who doesn’t want to go home because he thinks he’s ‘having a good time’ (Edmund Pevensie, a boy forever trapped in his brother’s shadow), the cold wintery landscape, a mystical force that ‘ices over and freezes life’, the roar of the lion (Aslan). It’s pretty obvious when you know where it came from.
Another fantastical literary reference point would come with the Alice In Wonderland-themed video for the album’s final single, Breath Of Life.
The Tornados – Telstar (1962)
Joe Meek was fascinated with electronics from an early age, becoming an obvious fit for the role of radar operator during his National Service, that experience honing his understanding of nascent technology and allowing him to secure a job as an engineer for Radio Luxembourg. From there it was a short hop to engineering records and producing groups, his progressive techniques rightly giving him the acclaim as being the first to use the studio as an instrument itself.
1962’s instrumental ‘Telstar’ by his group The Tornados was electronic pop before electronic pop had even been dreamt of (although Meek probably had dreamt of it, if we’re completely honest). The track was loaded with joyous ahead-of-its-time phasing, giving it the astral effect that Meek wanted to encapsulate for a song celebrating the first TV satellite. However, it was the lead instrument that was totally out of this world – the Clavioline, first heard in a pop context on Del Shannon’s ‘Runaway’, and a predecessor to the monophonic synthesizers that Vince Clarke used to give Chorus its distinctive sound.
Joe Meek recording hit records in his rented residence, equipment and cables strewn across the landing and with instruments, tape machines and microphones set up in every room, provided ‘Love To Hate You’ director David Mallet with the inspiration for Vince’s manic, driven character in that video. The inference was that the singular vision that Vince brought to the studio for Chorus was comparable to Meek’s own genius, and its hard to disagree with that.
In Mute-related Meek matters, Daniel Miller recorded a cover of ‘Just Like Eddie’ for his 1980 Silicon Teens LP Music For Parties. The track had originally been recorded by the singer Heinz in 1963 and was produced by Joe Meek.
Frank Sinatra – Songs For Swingin’ Lovers! (1956)
Sticking with Mallet’s ‘Love To Hate You’ video, if you look very carefully, within the opening moments of the film, you see a brief glimpse of a Frank Sinatra CD among a pile of detritus. Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!, Frank’s 1956 album, was a collection of standards recorded in a hip, jazzy style which directly appealed to the tastes of pop music buyers at the time.
Including that CD was a cheeky in-joke by Mallet. Joe Meek routinely admitted his love of Sinatra’s music, and the inclusion of his crossover pop LP in the environs of Vince’s portrayal of pop producer Meek was entirely deliberate.
Speculation is rife that Meek was involved in the recording of Frank’s 1962 TV performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall – the same year that ‘Telstar’ secured him a massive hit – but if he was, he took that with him to his untimely and tragic grave. That said, Meek believed you could use electronics to communicate with the dead, so someone in the modular synth community might be able to ask him.
Words: Mat Smith
Interviews conducted as part of the BMG / Mute Erasure Chorus reissue project, November 2018 to February 2019 in London, New York, my dining room, a hotel room in Edinburgh and a taxi back from Heathrow. Thanks to Zoe, Shaun and Richard.
(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence for BMG / Mute