Bright Light Bright Light's Rod Thomas on Erasure: 'The Appeal Is Universal, The Music Is Undeniably Queer'
June is a time to honor the LGBTQ community’s rich history and highlight its remarkable achievements. To celebrate Pride Month, Billboard asked modern music stars to pen essays about their favorite queer icons, and how their sounds, lyrics and overall images influenced a new era of artistry.
On my birthday in 2011, I got the best present: I opened for Erasure on tour. After nearly two decades of singing their songs with friends, I got to be part of their world then, straight from stage, join the hundreds of people singing every word of every song. It was the perfect celebration of a band who have meant so much to so many.
Nineteen years earlier, in a small coal mining valley, I saw two men on TV in ABBA drag singing "Take A Chance On Me." I was 11. I didn't really know who they were, or what being gay was, but that image made a lasting impression: my real “I need to know about these people” moment.
Where I’m from, back then especially, someone gay was very much the “other." Gays didn't fit alongside “normal” people. So, when I understood that Erasure was one gay and one straight man making this amazing music with such unity and camaraderie, it blew my mind. Of course, Elton John and Bernie Taupin are another example, but you never see Bernie on stage. Here, you have a straight man just as up for the pomp, humour and the ridiculous as the gay man. That was a real game-changer for me.
Let’s be clear -- first and foremost, the music is king. Their writing is timeless, even topping Vince Clarke’s work with Depeche Mode and Yazoo. Songs like “A Little Respect,” “Stop!,” “Blue Savannah,” “Who Needs Love Like That,” “Always” and “Oh L’Amour” have given the world peerless anthems to love, laugh, cry and cast out its demons to.
While their appeal is universal, the music is also undeniably queer. Not just because of Andy Bell’s voice and sexuality, but through the bold and endlessly entertaining visuals in the videos, the drama of the live shows, and their shrewd intertextuality, where they draw upon staple LGBTQ references ABBA and “I Will Survive” (which they interpolate in the melody of “Love To Hate You”). They brought queer sensibility to the mainstream in a knowing and pointed way, with a charm and intelligence that subtly challenged prejudice.
Their largest asset to the LGBTQ community is that they read as so wonderfully human. Despite their costumes, they’re never obscured: you’re supposed to -- encouraged to -- see the person behind the performance. Andy has been publicly out as a gay man since a 1986 interview and as HIV positive since 1998, making him an incredibly important figure in the LGBTQ world. Both men are striking, but neither styled like a model. Their looks are distinctive, but they’re not ultra high-fashion or distancing -- they take elements of the everyday (the blue jeans and white shirt of “Sometimes”) and fantasy (the Japanese-inspired “Always,” flying keyboards in “Love To Hate You,” the blue paint dreaminess of “Blue Savannah”) and create a world simultaneously fantastical and familiar: magical but with an open invite. They made me feel like my emotions mattered and that my dreams were important -- and more importantly, attainable.
These days, Vince and I both live in Brooklyn -- we’re friends and work together. Both he and Andy are brilliant people who are more than happy to share their talent and stories, which for me is what Erasure did as a band since day one. For the songs, I applaud them. For the belief that gay men and straight men can co-exist in the public eye as well as private, I thank them forever. Andy and Vince deserve all the respect the world can give them.