‘It’s the songs that count’: Erasure’s Andy Bell on being out in the 80s, living with HIV and falling from fashion

Alongside Vince Clarke, the electropop pioneer has produced some brilliantly catchy and enduring songs. As the group releases a new album, the singer reflects on what happens when the hits dry up – and why he still loves performing live

In the late 80s and early 90s, when the electropop band Erasure were, says Andy Bell, “kind of the darlings for a while”, they reached what he calls “saturation TV”. Bell, Erasure’s vocalist, means they were big and mainstream enough to get on daytime television. And then, says Bell, “that all changes, the media changes, and they don’t want you any more. It makes you realise your life isn’t measured by how many people know you and stuff like that. In the end, it’s the songs that count.”

And what songs they are. Bell and Vince Clarke wrote brilliant, enduring pop songs – so catchy, I realise, that I’ve had A Little Respect going round in my head for most of my life, ever since the fateful afternoon I taped it off the Radio 1 chart show sometime in late 1988. Despite Clarke’s history as the synth-pop pioneer who had already had hits with Depeche Mode and Yazoo, at some point in the 90s, Erasure became rather uncool and never really recovered. Blame the daytime TV appearances perhaps, combined with a burgeoning laddish Britpop era that couldn’t handle Bell’s sequins and camp. But their biggest hits – among them Sometimes, Stop! and Blue Savannah – stand up.

“When I think about songs like Chorus, and Ship of Fools and Breathe, we do have standout songs,” says Bell. He seems to agree when I imply they have been dismissed as being a bit frothy and lightweight (even if their songs have tackled everything from a post-industrial Britain, to lost love affairs and homophobia), but he doesn’t seem bitter about it. “I just think, wow, that’s a hell of a lot of work we’ve done. And I think it’s great.”

The new Erasure album, Day-Glo (Based on a True Story), is not a return to those poppy hits but an experimental album, akin to 1995’s Erasure, which all but blew up their mainstream appeal. It’s a layered, and often gorgeous, selection of digital tracks, largely made up of manipulated songs from their previous album, The Neon (which gave them their first Top 10 album since the 90s), and created as a sort of companion piece. Clarke put it together at the studio at his house in Brooklyn during the lockdowns, and Bell wrote and recorded the vocals later. Clarke told him he could do anything he liked. “And I did. I only wanted to do poems, off the top of my head, and backing vocal sections,” he says. “I was like, I wonder how Enya does it.” He laughs. “A few of the songs have poems on them and I think [Clarke] thought maybe they were a bit rough, because I didn’t really know what they were about.”

Bell is at home in Miami (he splits his time between there and London, with his husband, Stephen, though they are about to move to Atlanta for a while, he says) when we speak over Zoom. He is warm and funny, wearing a vest top that shows tattoos over both arms, his face still boyish, even if the concessions to age include spectacles and some greying stubble. “I love performing live, I love my voice,” he says, of where his career is now. “I think we have been really lucky. I’m just glad that I met Vince and stayed with him.”

Erasure … Bell with Vince Clarke.
Erasure … Bell with Vince Clarke. Photograph: Graham Tucker/Redferns

Bell answered an advert in the music paper Melody Maker in 1985, and turned up to find it was an audition for Clarke. He was already a massive fan, and had thought about writing to Clarke to ask if he was looking for a new singer. When he got the job and Erasure was formed, for around the first six months, says Bell, “I was very shy within the studio. I couldn’t even speak to him. I could not believe I was there.” You can hear it on their first album, Wonderland, he says.

Clarke had already been successful; did Bell feel pressure to match that with him? “No,” he says. “I just felt like I had tremendous blind faith in myself, but I also thought, maybe I’m not good enough to fill this position. Then after a while, you just pull yourself up.” How did he get over that? “I think probably with our first co-writing.” Sometimes, which became a huge hit, was one of the first songs they wrote together “and I think just that opened the floodgates to me”. They have been an egalitarian duo ever since.

Why has their four-decade friendship endured? “Vince is a sweetheart. He makes out he’s really tough on the outside, and I know that he’s not. We just balance each other really well.” Clarke is the straight-faced foil – usually wearing a suit onstage, standing behind screens and synths – to Bell’s exuberant showman. “Even though it’s been a long time, and I’m 58 now, he’s been a great teacher. He was in the industry five years or more before I joined him, he’s taught me a lot about being sensible. As much as you can be.” I suspect Bell didn’t always listen. “No, not all the time,” he says with a laugh.

Have they ever had a bust-up? “Only one time, we were on stage. We were both really tired, it was the middle of some tour somewhere. I was really frustrated and tired, and I just said: ‘Oi!’ on the stage to him, on the mic. He didn’t say a word, and he came off, and said: ‘Don’t you ever talk to me like that again.’ Then he was fine.”

Bell had always wanted to be a singer. He was the eldest of six, with four younger sisters, then a baby brother, growing up in Peterborough where his father was a factory worker, and his mother was a cleaner at the school. She also then got a job behind the counter in a sex shop. “The only porno shop in Peterborough, which I thought was really great,” says Bell. “Though we never saw any of the accoutrements.” So his mother, particularly, was liberal and he says it didn’t bother her one bit when he came out to her in a letter when he was 17.

Erasure onstage in New York in 2014.
Erasure onstage in New York in 2014. Photograph: Noam Galai/Getty Images

He says there wasn’t “really too much bullying”, and his growing awareness of his sexuality wasn’t something he desperately tried to hide; he knocked on the door of one schoolfriend to tell him he was in love with him. There were rumours of a gay bar in a room in the back of a hotel, which he went to a couple of times, but was disappointed. “Peterborough was too small. I had to leave and the plan was always to move to London with a friend of mine called Jill, who’d had a tough time in school,” says Bell. “Her brother was gay. I’d go to her house, and she’d tell me stories about the clubs he’d been to. So we made a pact that we were going to move to London together, and that’s what we did.”

He did odd jobs, but also joined a synth-pop band, the Void. “All I wanted to do was do gigs and be on stage. I didn’t even think about whether I was just going to make money out of it.” For a while, he lived in a gay housing co-op in Holloway, north London. “Through that, I just felt like I got my gay education,” he says – personally, and politically. His housemates included activists and campaigners, such as Nick Partridge, who would become chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, and Lisa Power, who co-founded Stonewall and the Pink Paper, which Bell ended up working for, taking photographs while a friend did bar reviews. Within a year or so, he had met Clarke, “so it was very quick”.

Bell was out, “right from the very beginning. That’s one thing I feel really good about. I think it made it harder for us in lots of ways, especially getting deals in America, being on the radio there. But it felt correct.” Did anyone suggest he should hide his sexuality? Not exactly, he says, but “I don’t think people were happy. But I think at that time, because you had Bronski Beat [the singer Jimmy Somerville was out], and Tom Robinson before then, and Sylvester and Divine, I think people were starting to look at it as less risk-taking and more of backing an outsider.”

As a public figure, did it make him feel vulnerable? “It did,” he says. At the time, he would hang out at the Bell pub in King’s Cross, “which was quite a political pub. We went on loads of marches, solidarity for the Polish, coalminers, against clause 28. You just thought you’re doing something that was useful or necessary.” But it also meant gangs would wait nearby. “You would get chased home from the pub sometimes. Not that you got used to it, but you were very wary all the time.” Bell managed to ignore much of the rightwing press, which, he says, with some understatement, “didn’t necessarily seem to like [me]”, but he drew the line when they tried to out him, along with others, for having HIV (which was untrue). “You always felt like you had to just keep an eye over your shoulder.”

Erasure c1990.
Erasure c1990. Photograph: Tim Roney/Getty Images

With other pop stars at the time unwilling to come out, did it feel lonely? “It did,” he says, but of those who were out, “we had enough solidarity between us, it was enough for us. A lot was changing politically, [but] it was frustrating sometimes that there were so few. Thankfully, things change.” Bell thinks being out protected him in other ways, particularly from predatory older men in the music industry. “That’s the whole thing, it was all secret. Because I wasn’t a secret, they couldn’t come near me.”

Erasure’s first big hit was Sometimes, from their second album, The Circus, which went to No 6 in 1987. Bell remembers one of the women who worked in the accounts department telling him he had to see the cheques she had for him. “She said: ‘We’re talking telephone numbers.’” He laughs. “You feel like you’ve done the work, but it’s lovely work, so you go through a period of thinking that you don’t deserve it for a while. But then afterwards you think, well, all you can do is buy your parents a house, go on nice holidays.”

How did he cope with fame? He was shy, something he says “that stays with you your whole life. I suppose I wanted people to know who I was, so they came up to me, so you’re forced to say hello.” Did he have men coming on to him? Not as much as you would think, he says with a laugh. “I was one of those people [who] never got chatted up. I didn’t think I was good looking, and I was quite a wallflower going into bars and places like that. I think maybe people didn’t think it was me.”

At the time, he had started a relationship with Paul Hickey, the band’s manager – a close bond that would last for more than 25 years, until Hickey’s death in 2012 (something Bell describes now as “the most horrific, wild time in my life. I felt like a wounded animal. I didn’t realise how much I loved him”). In 1990, about five years into their relationship, Hickey was diagnosed with HIV, the news delivered brutally by a doctor who told him he would soon die. “He came home. He was in floods of tears, and I think maybe I was naive. I said: ‘Don’t cry, don’t worry. I will look after you.’” That’s when their relationship became platonic, he says, though they would remain close. “We were really, really fortunate because everything was on the cusp,” says Bell. “The pills had only just come in. We saw quite a lot of people in our circle die at that time. With all that going on, you became numb to it, really.”

In 1998, Bell was diagnosed with HIV, though it would be another six years before he revealed it publicly. It had been an overwhelming time – Erasure had become huge, Bell was spending a lot of money on drugs, and dealing with fame. Erasure had reached their peak, but were on the way down, which gave Bell space to focus on getting well again. “We’d kind of taken a step back, and I needed that time,” says Bell. “Even Vince was affected by it. He had friends [who had died] and we closed our ranks, I suppose.”

When he revealed his HIV status in 2004, there was still a lot of stigma. In interviews around the time, he said he had deliberately sought infection, implying that he wanted to be part of an HIV-positive community. “That’s not right,” he says now. He had said it “in anger, first for it happening to Paul. I didn’t go out on purpose to get it, not at all. I just said that, I was trying to be shocking. It was stupid.”

Andy Bell, photographed in Miami in July 2022.

He started looking after himself, underwent two hip replacements, joined Narcotics Anonymous, and got into reiki. “I’m not a saint or anything; your life doesn’t change overnight,” he says. “But I just felt so grateful to be alive still. The network is amazing, for HIV-positive people, and the stigma becomes much less. I think eventually, you forget about it, especially when it becomes undetectable.”

By the time Erasure’s intense fame had faded, Bell was almost glad of it. “I felt like the pressure was off, and also, I learned to love being anonymous again. I think that’s quite a hard lesson because once your ego’s been blown up, to come back down again is quite hard and a lot of people don’t cope with it.” He smiles. “You’re looking around like: ‘Oh, what’s happened?’ But you realise things change, things move on, and it’s not all about you all the time. Other people will have a chance. That’s very sobering.”

Bell looks happy and well he should be – married, still dancing on stage in a corset, still making music with Clarke, and caring less about critical recognition and more about enjoying himself. He has been through a lot, a trailblazer and survivor, but there are no regrets, he says. “I would do it again. I love not having a safety net, let’s put it that way.” He says Clarke likes to describe him as fearless. “It’s all bravado, though,” he says with a smile.

• Day-Glo (Based on a True Story) is out on Mute on 12 August 2022 on fluorescent green vinyl, CD and digital formats.

Contributor

Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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