Erasure – Pop! The First 20 Hits

Pop! With a simple synth chord, Who Needs Love (Like That) begins. A very minor hit in 1985, Erasure‘s career definitely launched with a slightly uneven start. This collection, released an astonishing quarter of a century ago this week, would enter the charts at number 1 just seven years after that debut single, but it did take them a bit of time to get going.

In the four years since leaving Depeche ModeVince Clarke had founded the hugely successful but turbulent Yazoo, and released two albums as part of that project before attempting a multi-vocalist collaboration called The Assembly which faltered after just one (admittedly substantial) hit. One flop collaboration with Paul Quinn left him scraping around for a new vocalist. Andy Bell replied to the advert, performed amazingly, and so Erasure began.

Debut album Wonderland was, bluntly, a bit of a mess, and the second single Heavenly Action, which flopped in late 1985, is pretty representative of that album. It’s definitely catchy, but it’s far from their best. Oh l’Amour, on the other hand, is one of the best tracks that Erasure ever recorded, and it really is a shame that it charted so low, peaking at number 85 in early 1986.

Fortunately, rather than splitting up immediately, Erasure went back to the drawing board, and reappeared in late 1986 with the astonishing Sometimes, peaking at number 2. The subsequent album The Circus yielded a further three huge hits, It Doesn’t Have to BeVictim of Love, and finally my favourite, title track The CircusErasure‘s legacy was sealed.

By the time The Innocents was released in 1988, they were really at the top of their game, and lead single Ship of Fools, while perhaps not as catchy a lead single as Sometimes, is a beautiful, melancholic, piece of synthpop music. The uptempo follow-up Chains of Love, after some initial signs of potentially being very cheesy, grows into another brilliant song. But I suspect what you remember from this album is A Little Respect, the biggest single from this album, released in September 1988.

I could probably live without the snappy Christmas hit Stop!, but it appears to have become a live favourite in recent years, so I might be alone in that regard. Then we’re on to the 1989 album Wild! (also spelt with an exclamation mark), which launched with the single Drama! (there’s another one) in September 1989.

By 1989, Erasure were pretty much guaranteed a top twenty hit – actually, they had an unbroken run between 1986 and 1997, but more impressive was their string of five consecutive number one albums, of which Wild! was the second. To say that the public loved them would be an understatement, as even their slower tracks such as You Surround Me, a beautiful piece released as their Christmas hit for 1989, still managed a very respectable number 15 at a traditionally very competitive time of year.

Now in the 1990s, the hits continue to fly, with Blue Savannah and Star, before the deeply analogue and beautiful Chorus album opens with its brilliant title track, a number 3 hit in mid-1991. Then, of course, comes Love to Hate You, with its injected crowed noises and middle section borrowed from I Will Survive. Pure pop perfection.

Seasons continue to pass, with the deliciously autumnal Am I Right?, followed by the bubbly spring hit Breath of Life, before the unexpected summer 1992 hit Take a Chance on Me, from the Abba-esque EP, which held onto the number 1 spot for five weeks. This was the most popular of the four Abba covers that made up the EP, and much as I like the others, the decision on their next singles compilation Hits! The Very Best of Erasure (2003) to include no fewer than three of the tracks was clearly misguided.

On the US edition of the album, that’s your lot, but the rest of the world fares better, with the brilliantly punchy Hamburg mix of debut hit Who Needs Love (Like That). This version finally took the song to its rightful place in the top ten, and bookends the album perfectly.

So there’s really no doubt about it – after a slightly uncertain start, Pop! The First 20 Hits builds into a fantastic collection, compiling the first seven years of Erasure‘s career. While they did have some very worthy hits over the next seven years, they slowed down and their consistency finally started to falter. But that’s another story, for another time.

The original Pop! is still widely available, but why not be brave and go with the slightly cheaper double-disc Total Pop!?. Sorry, the punctuation got a bit confusing there.

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Yazoo – Upstairs at Eric’s

After his shock departure from Depeche Mode just a matter of months earlier, the young Vince Clarke wasted no time by partnering with the incredible vocalist Alison Moyet to form Yazoo (or Yaz, if you were in the US). Their debut release Upstairs at Eric’s first appeared an incredible thirty-five years ago this week.

It opens with the glorious single Don’t Go. Could anything really be better than this? Where Depeche Mode‘s debut Speak and Spell was naïve and at times a bit silly, this has all the confidence of a group that might have been around for decades. They hadn’t – Clarke and Moyet were still barely in their twenties.

This isn’t a perfect album, by any means – Too Pieces, for example, is nice but doesn’t quite sound fully formed. But at worst, everything on here is pleasant – and a lot of the time, as with Bad Connection, it’s actually pretty good. Taking heavy influence from the soul and Motown tracks of the preceding decade or so, there’s a lot to enjoy about it.

Curiously, the longest track on here is the experimental instrumental I Before E Except After C. Understandably omitted from the early CD versions (it was replaced with a couple of non-album tracks), it’s a bit of an oddity. As a minimum, it does include the famous Alison Moyet laugh that would be sampled by the Spice Girls a decade and a half later. You can appreciate this a lot more if you try to remember just how young sampling technology was at this point.

Midnight is the first of four Moyet-penned tracks, and does show a very different songwriting style. It’s a brilliant combination, actually – maybe Clarke found it difficult initially to work his synthesiser sounds around someone else’s song, but he seems to have taken to it extremely well.

Side A closes with the brilliantly experimental In My Room, which could easily have been a catchy pop song, but is instead haunting and eerie, punctuated by Vince’s sampled vocals and essentially only one or two instrumental sounds at any given time.

Then Side B opens with the fantastic debut single Only You, a song which Clarke had famously offered to Depeche Mode as a leaving present. It goes without saying that this is a fantastic song, far and away the best thing on here, although it’s difficult to imagine what it might have sounded like on A Broken Frame.

Goodbye 70’s is a rather brilliant period piece, in which Moyet tells us she’s tired of fighting in their fashion war. Ironic, to say the least, given the many best-forgotten looks that the 1980s would give us. Great song though.

Tuesday is a fantastic template for modern pop music, but Winter Kills might actually be the best thing on here. There’s so little to it – much of it is just a rippling piano, a single soaring synth line, and a bit of low percussion, of course alongside Moyet’s evocative vocal – but somehow it’s delivered quite beautifully.

The first album closes with Bring Your Love Down (Didn’t I), which might lack the strength of its predecessor, but it’s still pretty catchy. There’s a lot to enjoy on this album, and at its worst it’s at least an interesting listen. A lot may have happened in the thirty-five years that have followed, but it’s still a great debut release.

You can find the 2008 remastered version of Upstairs at Eric’s at all major retailers.

Stowaway Heroes – Daniel Miller

Our first stowaway hero is Daniel Miller, boss of Mute Records, and one of the most influential and seemingly hands-off individuals in the world of electronic music. In his late twenties, he was working as a film editor, and scraped together enough money to buy a synthesiser. His resulting 1978 solo double a-side single T.V.O.D. / Warm Leatherette, released as The Normal, is fundamentally brilliant:

It’s not clear to me whether Miller actually intended for Mute to become a fully fledged record label or whether it was all supposed to just be a one-off, but always way ahead of the curve, he also came up with his own virtual group Silicon Teens, who released a couple of great singles including Memphis Tennessee:

But of course, Mute is most famous for the astonishing roster of artists who were signed over the decades that followed, including mainstream acts such as Depeche ModeYazooMobyNick CaveNew Order, underground and cult successes including Fad Gadget and I Start Counting, and even (briefly) Kraftwerk. And he didn’t completely keep his hands off their output either – here’s his take on Erasure‘s Supernature:

He also presented a radio show on Berlin’s Radio Eins and remains well respected throughout the music industry, despite the slightly questionable sale of Mute to EMI for £23 million in 2002 (which was fortunately rectified by a split in 2009). It’s rare for someone so influential to turn up in so many places but be so unknown. So he’s a worthy first hero for this blog – hats off to Daniel Miller.

Depeche Mode – Speak & Spell

This week we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the debut Depeche Mode album, Speak & Spell. Vastly different from anything else the group have ever released – A Broken Frame shares some sonic similarities, but that’s about the only thing you can say – it really shares as much with Vince Clarke‘s later work as it does the artist whose name on it.

So you could probably forgive Depeche Mode fans for disliking this album, but really there’s something rather charming and fascinating about it.

It opens with the hit single New Life, which had hit the chart four months earlier and provided their first major hit. By the time the album came out, all three singles had been released already, so there were never too many surprises here. What is a surprise is just how far the group have come in the subsequent three and a half decades. With Vince Clarke at the helm as the main songwriter here, the focus was very definitely on pop music at this point.

I Sometimes Wish I Was Dead, despite the alarming title, is a short and sweet pop piece which is sufficiently different from its neighbours to guide us through smoothly to the darker PuppetsBoys Say Go! follows, and for many acts might well have been a huge hit single, but for Depeche Mode it’s just an album track. There isn’t a hint of Personal Jesus here.

Nodisco is a delightfully ironic disco track, and then the ridiculously pop-sounding What’s Your Name? closes Side A. It’s quite bizarre – absolutely nothing else Depeche Mode have ever recorded sounds like this, and yet it reminds me a lot of Yazoo. Not too surprising, until you remember that there were four people in Depeche Mode at this point, and three of them weren’t Vince Clarke.

Side B opens with the brilliant Photographic, perhaps the first moment since New Life that you realise quite how brilliant Depeche Mode are going to become once they get going properly. The more raw version on the Some Bizzare Album from earlier in 1981 is definitely better, but the album take is rather exceptional too.

At the end, it quietly morphs into the first of two Martin L. Gore-penned pieces, Tora! Tora! Tora! I doubt you would have noticed at the time, and maybe I’m pinning my expectations onto it, but it definitely sounds more experimental than anything we heard on Side A. You could probably also argue that Gore wasn’t quite at his best yet in terms of songwriting, although the chorus is great. And Dave Gahan‘s pronunciation of the line “You played a skellington” still amuses me every time I hear it.

Until A Broken Frame appeared barely a year later, the remainder of Gore’s songwriting legacy was represented by the instrumental Big Muff which follows. The lovely and dreary b-side Any Second Now comes next, in a new version, before passing the baton to its a-side, the adorable Just Can’t Get Enough.

For the most part, the singles are the highlights of this release, and the latter two at least have had so much radio airplay over the years that they’re difficult to forget. Debut release Dreaming of Me is less well known, and didn’t actually make it onto the original version of the album, but it got tacked on in a few different countries, so the reissued version includes it right at the end.

In many ways, Speak & Spell is more of a precursor to Depeche Mode‘s career than a debut. Apart from the lineup changes and the evolution of their sound, the artwork is particularly fascinating – the swan wrapped in cling film was heavily obscured for the original 1985 CD release, and is considerably more provocative than anything on the album. The photographer Brian Griffin returned for the cover of their next album, and that one is often cited as one of the finest album sleeves ever. This one is less well understood.

If you can find the double disc version of Speak & Spell, that’s the one you want – if not, forego the extra tracks in favour of less tinny sound, and grab the remastered single disc.

Artist of the Week – Erasure

Here’s another old Artist of the Week feature from my old radio show. It probably wasn’t researched very well, and so may contain plagiarism, errors, and omissions. My sincere apologies if so.

The story begins way back in 1981, when Vince Clarke was briefly a member of the gods of electronica Depeche Mode. After the first album, musical differences forced him out of the band, leaving just as their popularity was growing. Following this, he and Alison Moyet formed Yazoo, who saw huge success during their brief but stormy reign over the charts between 1982 and 1983.

After their split, Vince joined with producer Eric Radcliffe to form a group called The Assembly, where the intention was that they would produce tracks with different singers. After one huge hit, Never Never, and one flop, they called it a day.

It was during the auditions for The Assembly project [I’m going to add my own “citation needed” tag here] that Vince first came across singer Andy Bell. They started working together, and had soon completed the first album Wonderland. However, for whatever reason, the debut was never a substantial hit, and only yielded one minor hit single, so it wasn’t until the second album The Circus came out that they were propelled to the top end of the charts by the universal hit Sometimes.

Further albums followed, with The Innocents bringing more success, and, at the end of the 1980s, they turned away from their traditionally analogue sounds to produce Wild!, their second number one album, which also brought them four top twenty hit singles.

For 1991’s Chorus they returned to a very analogue sound to produce what is commonly thought to be their best album to date. Again, a further four huge hits ensued, and in mid-1992, they followed this with an obscure collection of cover versions which brought them their biggest hit to date, the huge summer smash Abba-esque EP.

Their return in 1994 with I Say I Say I Say brought them further hits, but by the mid-1990s, a combination of being overwhelmed by Britpop and spending too much time experimenting meant they were starting to lose their touch. This began in earnest with 1995’s eponymous album, which turned their previous sound on its head with ten-minute instrumentals and ambient tracks.

In 1997 they tried to get a foot back in the door with Cowboy, a collection of 3-minute pop songs, which were widely ignored by the record-buying public. In 2000, they tried to tap the remnants of the indie explosion with Loveboat, a predominantly acoustic guitar-based album, which barely even managed to scrape into the charts.

It was finally last year that they managed their comeback, through the all-too-popular medium of a cover versions album. The wittily titled but frankly awful Other People’s Songs managed to grab them a little bit of the limelight they deserve, and helped their second singles compilation into the top end of the charts.

So what now? Well, they’re still very analogue, and rumour suggests that they’ve now gone all electro on us, following recent successes from the likes of Röyksopp and Mirwais. The album is released on January 24th, preceded by the single Breathe on the 3rd.