"Phantasmagorical Entertainment," the elaborate, campy stage production the English duo Erasure brings to Los Angeles for 10 performances at the Wiltern Theatre starting tonight, has been described in reviews as "the most overtly gay show ever enjoyed by a crossover audience" and "a celebration of the gay lifestyle." Said another report, "Gayness has rarely been as loud or proud in the arena of commercial pop."
But Vince Clarke, the techno-pop pioneer who formed Erasure after terms with Depeche Mode and Yaz, doesn't seem very interested in that side of things.
"I don't know what the gay lifestyle is," he said curtly during a recent phone interview. "I'm not sure what that really means. . . . I think a lot of the campness of the show, it's more out of a vaudeville tradition really. It's not exclusive to gay men and women."
Still, the issue is inevitable, since Erasure's singer and lyricist Andy Bell is one of mainstream pop's most visible gay performers.
Like another declared gay pop star, k.d. lang, Bell commands an audience far beyond the expected gay following, drawing a loyal audience from the same intense young fans who embrace the exaggerated emotionalism of Morrissey, the synth-pop melancholy of the Pet Shop Boys, the pulsating adolescent Angst of Depeche Mode.
And where Bell has suggested in interviews that "Phantasmagorical Entertainment," with its glitz, dancers and bawdy costumes, has a serious undercurrent of affirmation of individuality, Clarke takes a lighter view of it.
"Me and Andy probably differ on this, but I think it's just funny," said Clarke, who is not gay. "Do you get the 'Carry On' movies (a series of irreverent, bawdy English comedies from the '50s, '60s and early '70s) in America? That's what I like to think we're like, 'Carry On Pop.' . . . A bit slapstick, a bit cheeky. And I think with the way Andy handles the audience, it's quite intimate."
Like the Pet Shop Boys, New Order and other English bands grounded in synthesizer music, Clarke maintains that despite the electronics, Erasure upholds traditional values of pop expression--the team's latest release is a four-song tribute to the classic, frothy pop of ABBA.
"I think it's down to writing good pop songs," said Clarke, who was inspired to become a professional musician when he heard Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" in the movie "The Graduate."
"We write good pop songs, and ABBA wrote the best pop songs probably in the world. . . . Writing decent songs is the thing that we take care the most of. The electronics side of things is the least important really. It just happens to be our tool."
Clarke left Depeche Mode after one album and formed Yaz with the soulful singer Alison Moyet. Erasure was designed to continue that writer-singer format, and Clarke hired Bell after an audition in 1985. He didn't know it for a while, but he got more than he bargained for.
"I didn't think Andy would have that personality on stage that he does," said Clarke. "Then again, when we started playing live he didn't really. He just stood glued to the microphone stand. . . . Then he started shaking a leg, tapping a toe and he went on from there. Next thing he's in a rubber bathing suit."