Erasure had no plans to conquer America when their third full-length The Innocents hit U.S. shores on May 24, 1988, thirty years ago today. And given their previous LP, 1987's The Circus, only peaked at No. 190 on the Billboard 200, expectations for success were low.
"It was a total surprise," proclaims Vince Clarke, who left his role as a founding member of Depeche Mode to unite with Peterborough, England-born singer-songwriter Andy Bell, who answered a newspaper ad posted by the producer to land the gig. "We had played America on a couple of short tours and played these small venues when we came out with Wonderland and The Circus. And they turned out quite well, but we were talking about tiny little clubs. When 'Chains of Love' had charted, we were pretty blown away."
"We had no idea," explains Bell. "We were just grateful we had done some shows in America already. And then by the time The Innocents came out everything seemed to kind of go ballistic and we just ran with it. We were very fortunate at the time as well, because there was such a huge underground club scene in America. I remember when we were touring, I would go out and find out where the local gay club was and go there. I'd always end up in the DJ booth looking for new music and getting excited about everything, which I think inspired the love for remixes. They were so brilliant back then."
One crucial aspect of The Innocents that helped make it a crossover success in the States was the deep influence of R&B on the album, especially songs like "Chains" (No. 12 on the Hot 100), "A Little Respect" (No. 14 on Hot 100), first single "Ship of Fools" and deeper cuts like "Hallowed Ground" and "Weight of the World." Both Clarke and Bell are quick to cop to that fact.
"That was some of my favorite music growing up, those Motown records," Bell professes. "We had a collection at home when I was growing up. Phil Spector I loved. My mom was a huge Elvis fan. My dad was a Buddy Holly fan. And I sat atop all this music, but Motown was one of my absolute favorites, though Vince doesn't really like Motown too much. But we wound up sneaking it in on The Innocents without realizing it, really. I don't think Vince realizes how soulful he is, because he's kind of a contrarian. He keeps things to himself and doesn't like to admit things. I'm more gregarious (laughs). I still love Motown to this day."
"A lot of the soul influence on The Innocents came from Andy, because for one he's a real soulful singer," admits Clarke. "And also, his heroes and heroines are all blues singers and soul singers. Working on Yazoo with Alison Moyet also had a big influence on the more R&B direction of Erasure as well."
Perhaps the most direct proof of the American soul influence on The Innocents, however, is the uplifting cover of the Phil Spector-produced Ike & Tina Turner song "River Deep, Mountain High," which was added to the original CD of the album as a bonus track.
"I tried to do it with Alison in Yaz," remembers Clarke. "But it never panned out; I don't know what happened in the end. But then we had the opportunity to do some extra tracks for b-sides and stuff, and I had said to Andy why don't we try it again. So he was up to the idea, and it's a fantastic song obviously. We played it live a few times just to see how it would go down with the fans, and everybody seemed to like it so we were like, why not?"
"I really wanted us to do it," recalls Bell. "I'm not sure why. We didn't see it as being a duet or anything. But like I said before, I'm a big fan of that Phil Spector sound. And working off this amazing song he did with Ike and Tina Turner, I was really trying to capture the same kind of excitement."
Thirty years later, Erasure has become one of the most beloved survivors of synthpop's mighty second wave. And 2018 has proven to be quite a banner period on the pop calendar for the duo. Earlier this year, Clarke and Bell released World Beyond, a rework of their acclaimed 2017 LP World Be Gone for a chamber orchestra, which brings out the beauty of the songs in the way the duo's tried and true electro thump sometimes overshadows. For both men, the translation process was an eye opening experience
"The kind of work I do, I've always done, is a little bit similar, because you have to think about every single part, especially when you work on your own," Clarke explains. "I see what I do, really, as a bit like orchestral arranging. I'm not working out with block chords; I try when I can to carve or compose individual lines which give the impression of chords. And I figure that's how an orchestra operates; you don't really get a polyphonic violin thing."
"We practiced with a band of seven musicians in the Echo Collective, and I just sang in the room with all of them, which to me was the best part of the experience," adds Bell. "The place in Belgium where we recorded was like an old Decca studio, where you have this really amazing reverb room in the back with a pleated wall. We recorded in the main room, and I only found out afterwards that it was a recording space for Edith Piaf. It was no wonder I felt spirits in that place, because these studios are like churches because of all the people who have been there before you."
Having just wrapped a trio of dates in Brazil, Erasure are about to embark on the North American leg of their tour. And in June, the duo will release a live album entitled World Be Live, culled from a pair of shows this past February at the Eventim Apollo in London that closed the U.K. wing of the tour. For the band, the release of their first live LP since 2011's Tomorrow's World Tour (Live at the Roundhouse) stands as the third in the trilogy of work revolving around their latest studio opus. It's an audio program that arguably represents the finest aspects of the classic four-person Erasure lineup -- rounded out by sister vocalists Val Chalmers and Emma Whittle -- that's been the touring model for the group since the age of The Innocents.
"We have the same girls we've been working with since 1988, and all of us really know each other inside and out on that stage," Bell explains. "The women, now when they come to the stage for the encore and it's all four of us together, we feel like we're ABBA or something (laughs). We don't do any of their songs or anything like that, but because we're such a unit, we feel like we all belong to each other. It's almost like we have a psychic communication with one another on stage. Also, nothing embarrasses any one of us, you know what I mean?"
However, with the experience of having their music re-imagined for live musicians with World Beyond, would Erasure ever consider giving The Innocents the full band treatment with a horn section and a rhythm section?
"I don't know if I'd want to do that," Clarke laughs. "I love my synthesizers. However, with this experience with re-doing World Be Gone, Andy really, really enjoyed being surrounded by these musicians and then playing live. For him it was very exciting, but for me I'm the sort of person who prefers to tool about in the studio (laughs). I just mess about with my toys in here and that's where I get my kicks. We did an acoustic record a while back called Union Street, and that we toured with live musicians. It was a really crazy experience, being surrounded by sound in that way. But I wouldn't want to do it again. I'm more interested in finding new sounds and exploring music with all of this wonderful gear I have in my studio."
And speaking of Andy, to hear it from him he's just happy to be back on the road with his brother-in-arms for over 30 years now as they continue to conquer America this summer with the same fire and flair they brought to the states back in 1988.
"You don't really appreciate how deep the brotherhood between us and the love and respect we have for one another until we're on the road together," Bell cedes. "Because then you're a family, and it's like any family in such that you get tired and you might snap. But once you're back home again, I really do miss him. It's great to have his guidance there. I think he's about four or five years older than I am and obviously he's been in the music business longer than I have, so he's always given me really good advice. At the same time, he can be quite stubborn, but that's because he knows (laughs)."
For Clarke, the cognizance of knowing how much joy the music he's created with Bell as Erasure has provided to their fans during these trying and uncertain times gives him satisfaction, and he hopes to provide not just a salve of nostalgia but a sense of hope for the future as well.
"In hard times people do look to the past," Clarke reflects. "There's no doubt about that. They look back to better times. And I'd like to think the music that we did, Andy and I, and continue to do expresses the sound of optimism. We're both pretty optimistic people, even if the world is a bit nutty at the moment. And we want to give that feeling to our audiences."