Erasure – Chorus : References & Influences

chorus-exploded-square

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)

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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)

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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)

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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

MixBus With Kevin Paul

On January 10 2020, producer Kevin Paul begins a series of podcast interviews with fellow studio stalwarts including fellow former Konk resident Dave Eringa and other names familiar to Mute collectors such as Dave Bascombe, Flood, Danny Briottet, Pascal Gabriel and Gareth Jones.

“It came out of listening to podcasts about the recording studio and music production,” explains Kevin. “I could hardly find anyone talking about people from the UK. I thought, ‘I know a few people, so I’ll call them and ask if they want to speak to me and if I get 5/6 then I’ll start a series.’ Incredibly, everyone said ‘Yes’ and I thought ‘Oh my god, I’d better get going!”

Key to the format of the podcast is a relaxed, accessible tone distinct from similar podcasts which go heavy on technical detail. “It’s just me and my guest talking informally about their career and their approach to music,” continues Kevin. “It’s designed to let the guest just talk openly about whatever they want, really. There’s plenty of people who do super technical podcasts already and they do that very well. I’m hoping anyone interested in how records are made can enjoy my podcasts.”

Kevin is himself no stranger to Mute, having worked on countless records for the label between 1992 and 2012. His association with the label began with work on the Pro-gross Three remix of Nitzer Ebb’s ‘Ascend’ and Phil Kelsey’s expansive remix of ‘Take A Chance On Me’ from Erasure’s chart-topping ABBA-Esque EP. “I ended up at Mute through my time at Konk studios,” he recalls. “‘Ascend’ was actually the first record I’m credited on so carries a special place in my career. Mute was such a creative place to be that there are too many highlights to list: I worked with pretty much every artist on Mute and its subsidiaries at one point, including The KLF, Appliance, and Paul Smith’s Blast First. I mixed Goldfrapp’s first album, Lovely Head. I met and worked with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and David Bowie, who spent time at Worldwide Studios recording some of his Hours… album, and I worked on the 5.1 remixes of the Depeche Mode back catalogue. That’s just a few of the things I’m really proud of.”

Nitzer Ebb – Ascend (cdmute145, 1992) featuring Kevin Paul’s first credit (track 2).

Kevin’s series arrives at a time where the ease with which artists can make music without relying on expensive studio time potentially puts the traditional roles of producer, mixer and engineer under threat. Nevertheless, he still sees the value that a good quality studio team can provide. “Studio people are there to help artists make the best music they can make, in whatever form that takes,” he says. “In order to achieve that, we must do whatever that entails.”

The KP MixBus podcasts will be available from January 10 2020 on your favourite podcast app on iOS and Android, and from www.kpmixbus.com. The first in the series finds Kevin chatting with Catherine Marks (St. Vincent, Local Natives, Wolf Alice, White Lies, PJ Harvey, Frank Turner and many others).

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

Andy Bell – Judgement (from Variance III – The ‘Torsten In Queereteria’ Remixes)

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Erasure’s Andy Bell releases Variance III – The ‘Torsten In Queereteria’ Remixes as a limited edition CD through Strike Force Entertainment / Cherry Red on December 6th.

The counterpart to the music from this year’s sensational third part in Barney Ashton-Bullock and Christopher Frost’s visceral musical about the semi-immortal polysexual Torsten, Variance III includes brilliant, shimmering remixes of tracks from Torsten In Queereteria by Bronski Beat and Matt Pop. Tangerine Dream’s Jerome Froese delivers a thunderous, dark-edged version of ‘Lowland Lowriders’, one of the most poignant moments from the show and Andy Bell’s accompanying soundtrack album, while Shelter reprise their work with Andy Bell on their joint iPop album from 2014 with a stunning mix of the ordinarily wistful ‘We Hadn’t Slept For Twenty Years’.

The collection also includes a solo version of the standout nod to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, ‘If We Want To Drink A Little’, originally recorded for the Torsten In Queereteria album by Bell and Hazel O’Connor, various single edits and radio-friendly versions of tracks from the original album.

Variance III also includes two new, unreleased tracks from the third instalment of the Torsten series, ‘Judgement’ and the lurid lounge jazz-funk of ‘Lead Me’. Documentary Evidence is today delighted to share the exclusive first play of the anguished, beautiful ‘Judgement’. The song is accompanied by previously unseen stills from the photo shoots for Torsten In Queereteria, finding Bell effortlessly evoking the essential inner turmoil of a character that he has made his own since he first took it on for a limited run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014.

Watch the extract of ‘Judgement’ below. Order Variance III from Cherry Red.

Related: Andy Bell – Torsten In Queereteria : Redux (interview)

Sincere thanks to Barney Ashton-Bullock.

(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence

New Release on Vince Clarke’s VeryRecords: Brook – Built You For Thought

VERYRECORDS is pleased to announce the release of Built You For Thought, the debut album by UK electronic duo BROOK. The album will be released on 20th September 2019.

Built You For Thought, the debut album by new electronic duo Brook, combines the captivating vocals of Beth Brooks with a delicate, sensitive electronic palette from Howard Rider.

The ten highly personal songs on the album are delivered with an arresting power and a towering emotional resonance. Beth, a seasoned soul and blues vocalist from the UK’s Midlands possesses a technique unlike any other, capable of switching from quiet introspection to blistering urgency, sometimes within the same song. It’s an effect that can lead the listener to mistakenly think they are hearing a choir of many voices instead of just one.

“I was profoundly deaf until I was about four and I had to endure loads of operations,” explains Beth. “From then on, I started to try and replicate certain sounds and the way people sang, and I think that’s where all those different voices come from.”

The temptation would be for Howard’s music to follow Beth’s lead. After encouraging his brother to sell his Renault 5 to buy a drum machine when he was fifteen, Howard was weaned on a diet of dance music. Having previously released upbeat electronic music loaded with melodies, it would have been all too easy for Howard to put Beth’s vocal in a loud, similarly-intense setting. Instead, the music here is a conscious exercise in self-restraint: reflective passages and quietly turbulent, stirring juxtapositions, occasionally coalescing into sequences and arrangements laden with tension and robust rhythms, or nodding to the eclecticism of modern classical composition.

The album’s diaristic lyrics deals finds Beth in the role of observer, ruminating nostalgically on her time living in Australia (lead track ‘Diamond Days’), trying to fathom a loved one’s incomprehensible anger and mood swings (‘Rage’) and contemplating what the world would have turned out like if only Adam had bitten the apple instead of Eve (‘Applaud’).

Elsewhere, the muted electro pulse of the album’s title track finds Beth wondering why so many old buildings are ignored in favour of derivative modernity, while the standout ‘Prince’ places Brook on the sound system of a New York nightclub in the years before house music took over, its lyrics shining a bitter torch on the fairytale notion of waiting for one special person to arrive in your life.

Built You For Thought is the product of two years of work. The tracks began with Beth recording alone with an acoustic guitar before Howard began wrapping her vocals in layers of intricate synths and textures to create the ten fragile pieces here. “While we were making the record, someone said to me that we should keep it simple,” says Howard. “If this had been a solo project I’d have probably made this all sound a lot crazier, but gradually I began to realize he was correct. What we needed was a lot of space for Beth to be the central focus of these songs.”

The result is a suite of songs that are deliberately and delicately understated, presented in such a way as to put Beth’s many voices and her individual outlook on life, society and relationships at the very heart of each song; songs that cannot help but leave a mark on you and which will stay with you long after Built You For Thought has finished.

Built You For Thought will be released as a download, stream and CD.

Track listing

1. Ewes
2. Prince
3. Damage
4. Everglades
5. Trying To Forget You
6. Built You For Thought
7. Diamond Days
8. Rage
9. Wasn’t Meant To Be
10. Applaud

About VeryRecords

VeryRecords was founded in Brooklyn by Erasure’s Vince Clarke in 2016.

veryrecords.com

Press release (c) 2019 Mat Smith for VeryRecords

Andy Bell Is Torsten In Queereteria TV (Clash feature, 2019)

The third instalment of Barney Ashton-Bullock’s Torsten series kicks off at Vauxhall’s Above The Stag theatre on April 10 and finds Erasure’s Andy Bell once again taking on the role of the half-Norwegian, half-English polysexual semi-immortal Torsten.

Amid the maelstrom of press interviews that Bell has undertaken to support Queereteria TV, managed to get some time with Andy and Barney during rehearsals to talk in detail about the latest postcard from the hotspots of the 114-year old Torsten’s memory.

My interview went live on the Clash website earlier today and can be found here. A longer version will appear here on Documentary Evidence during the show’s run.

Queereteria TV runs at Above The Stag from April 10 to April 28. Tickets are available at abovethestag.com. A new album, Andy Bell Is Torsten In Queereteria is released by Strike Force Entertainment on April 12.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Clash

Depeche Mode – The Singles 81 – 85 (Mute compilation, 1985)

Depeche Mode ‘The Singles 81 – 85’ original artwork.

The Singles 81 – 85 was Depeche Mode‘s first UK compilation album, gathering together all their singles up to that point in sequential order, tacking on the new tracks ‘It’s Called A Heart’ and ‘Shake The Disease’, the latter of which has become something of a live staple for the band and a firm favourite among fans. Both tracks were released as singles to support the compilation.

The Singles 81 – 85 was also the first of a sporadic series of artist compilations issued by Mute, the catalogue codes for these albums ditching the familiar STUMM tag in favour of MUTEL. The idea was to cheekily reference the K-Tel budget collections of yesteryear but most people didn’t get Mute’s in-joke. The track list on the reverse reflected each track’s success in the singles charts rather than being in the order they were released in, a strategy Mute used again on the first Inspiral Carpets collection ten years later.

Even if you’re familiar with the Depeche Mode journey from Basildon synth-pop boyband to the stadium-conquering electronic rock act they became toward the end of the Eighties, listening to the singles in order, the band’s rapid progression still feels remarkable. There are just two years between the trio of Vince Clarke-penned singles and the ambitious recording techniques and early sample experiments that birthed songs like ‘Love In Itself’.

While you could argue that the band simply benefited from having access to some seriously cutting-edge technology and talented, forward-looking producers in Gareth Jones and Daniel Miller, that would fully ignore the huge leaps forward in terms of arrangements and Martin Gore‘s songwriting.

Gore’s lyrical development from ‘See You’ (a cutesy, endearing single penned as a teenager) to the harrowing introspection of ‘Shake The Disease’ showed a dizzying level of maturity in the briefest of timeframes. ‘Somebody’ (excluded from the LP edition, presumably because of space) remains Gore’s most powerful, fragile ballad, his tender lyrics interspersed with darker considerations and ruminations; elsewhere, tracks like ‘Everything Counts’, ‘People Are People’ and ‘Blasphemous Rumours’ were casually and effortlessly cynical, the latter getting the band into hot water with the Church of England given its pondering about the existence of a cruel God.

The Singles 81 – 85 was re-released in 1998 with a different sleeve to tie in with the the branding of the follow-up singles collection, the LP edition restoring ‘The Meaning Of Love’ and ‘Somebody’ to the collection and making it a double, rather than single, album. That new version tacked on the extended Schizo Mix of ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and the version of ‘Photographic’ from the Some Bizarre compilation. The newer version might look more modern, but for me I still prefer the slightly garish and simplistic T+CP sleeve from the 1985 edition. Mute also released a three CD boxset containing both compilations in 2001.

Depeche Mode ‘The Singles 81 – 85’ reissue artwork.

Over in the US, Sire had released a compilation of Depeche Mode tracks the year before called People Are People, while a compilation using more or less the same sleeve as the UK Singles 81 – 85 album was issued in 1985 as Catching Up With Depeche Mode, featuring a totally different tracklisting. That edition also included the old photos of the band from the gatefold sleeve of the UK LP (something the UK CD didn’t include) and in among those are some lovely, candid – but too small – photos from the formative years the original band members spent at Southend Tech.

Personal recollections

The Singles 81 – 85 has a special place in my memory for a couple of reasons.

I first came upon the CD in my local library in Stratford-upon-Avon in the summer of 1992, right at the start of my exploration of the Mute back catalogue. Up to this point my only interest in Depeche Mode was with the early Vince Clarke years. I hated Depeche Mode at that point, detested ‘Personal Jesus’ and the band’s image, resplendent on the folder of a girl in my English class called Sarah.

If it wasn’t for the Documentary Evidence brochure that fell out of my 12″ copy of Erasure‘s ‘Chorus’ the year before, I may never have bothered borrowing The Singles 81 – 85 from the library. Given how much I detested the band, finding out through that pamphlet that Vince had been a member of Depeche Mode in their early years made me groan, as all of a sudden I felt obliged to listen to a band that I had decided I didn’t like. Looking back, it’s no surprise to me that I started my collecting of Vince’s other music with a copy of Yazoo‘s Upstairs At Eric’s, bought on cassette from my local Woolworths, instead.

So The Singles 81 – 85 represented my first real exposure to the music of Depeche Mode and for a while I’d deliberately only play the Vince Clarke singles; I couldn’t bring myself to put on the other tracks. When I eventually did, I wanted to be cynical (I initially sneered in agreement with the self-deprecating display of journo quotes included in the sleeve against each song), but I more or less instantly fell in love with those songs and kickstarting the process of building up a collection of Depeche Mode albums that meant, by the time of Songs Of Faith And Devotion the following year, I considered myself a fan. My bedroom walls were quickly adorned with posters bought from Athena of the band circa the Violator era – something of an irony given how much I’d loathed the similar images on Sarah’s folder.

The other reason I have fond memories of this compilation is because of a girl. In 1992 I was a shy, unconfident 15-year old besotted with a girl called Katie that I couldn’t even talk to, let alone ask out.

I was listening to The Singles 81 – 85 in my dad’s favourite armchair one evening during the two week hire of the CD and Katie walked past my lounge window with another girl I knew from school. Katie lived way out of town, so her appearance outside my window was sort of strange. I don’t think it was intentional, as I don’t think she knew where I lived, but that didn’t stop me thinking that it was. For days after, I resented myself for not rushing outside as she walked past to say hello and talk to her.

From that moment, I began to latch onto Martin Gore’s lyrics to help me understand myself to some degree. Through his introspective words I was able to accept that it was perfectly okay to be the quiet kid at school, and from then on I found inspiration in his lyrics whenever it felt like events or people (or just my own thoughts) were conspiring against me.

First published 2013; edited and re-posted 2019.

With thanks to David McElroy.

(c) 2019 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Camp Christmas (Channel 4 broadcast, 24 December 1993)

Title from ‘Camp Christmas’.

Twenty years BSG – Before Snow GlobeErasure‘s Andy Bell and Vince Clarke participated in Camp Christmas, an alternative Christmas show broadcast by Channel 4 on Christmas Eve 1993. The broadcast formed part of the British broadcaster’s New York-themed suite of programmes that evening, though what Camp Christmas‘s connection to that was now seems lost forever. (I only even remember that because the ident for Channel 4’s NY Christmas programming theme was to be found at the start of my VHS recording.)

Camp Christmas was hosted by Andy Bell and Melissa Etheridge and saw the pair shacked up in a log cabin amidst a seasonally snow-filled studio set, joined on their Christmas vacation by Julian Clary’s wisecracking wall-mounted reindeer head, director Derek Jarman (who died from an AIDS-related illness early the following year) and footballer John Fashanu. Christmas video messages were included from Martina Navratilova and Ian McKellen, the New York Gay Men’s Chorus delivered a humorous song from the Wollman Rink in Central Park while Lily Savage played the role of the party’s hapless caterer.

East 17 made an unlikely appearance – unlikely because they were more or less the only participants on screen who weren’t gay – and Quentin Crisp delivered a soliloquy based on an alternative version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In a programme filled with strange moments, Simon Callow (currently performing his own one-man Dickens show at London’s Arts Theatre) delivered a bizarre hybrid of Shakespeare and panto which is probably not the highest point in his career as an esteemed thesp.

Vince worked as the ‘musical director’ for the broadcast, aided by Martyn Ware and Phil Legg – essentially the team that worked on the I Say I Say I Say album that would get released the following year. The songs for Camp Christmas were recorded in the same sessions with Ware and Legg.

Andy sang three songs with Etheridge (‘Walking In A Winter Wonderland’, ‘Sleigh Ride’ and a very special rendition of ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound Of Music), a lovely solo rendition of ‘Take Me To The Emerald City’ from The Wizard Of Oz and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, joined by the assembled studio cast on the final chorus. It’s fair to say that the musical moments are the points where Andy seems at his most comfortable, and Vince’s accompaniment is nothing short of lovely, blending wintery chill with analogue wackiness as only he knows how.

Still from Andy Bell singing ‘Take Me To The Emerald City’.

Music to one side, Camp Christmas manages to work its way from sublimely daft to frankly cringe-worthy. One such audacious moment comes with Pam St. Clements – Pat Butcher from EastEnders – pretending to be a fairy on a Christmas tree, delivering a song I don’t recognise about farting. It’s ludicrous, naturally, but Vince somehow managed to work his magic effortlessly, even on such a ridiculous piece of over-the-top cabaret.

Channel 4 have always had a reputation for adventurous programming, and Camp Christmas was unlike anything else that had been broadcast up to that point. Adventurous as it was for its time, and despite some dodgy moments, Camp Christmas was also pretty funny in the same way as a pantomime can have you rolling about in the aisles. And that’s in spite of some appearances that are every bit as wooden as the shack they’re supposed to be holidaying in.

vhs_campchristmas

My VHS recording of ‘Camp Christmas’, 24 December 1993, complete with neat teenage fountain pen handwriting.

Thanks to Martyn. Several YouTube rips of the broadcast can be found online, as can bootleg recordings of the Andy Bell songs.

First posted 2013; re-posted for the holidays 2018

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence