21 November 2009

Andy Bell

Andy Bell: Singer And Performer, born April 25th, 1964
Primarily known as the singing half of Erasure and separate to the Andy Bell from Ride, in any interview with Andy it quickly becomes clear that this man was destined (either that, or just very determined) to be in the public eye. Flamboyant and openly gay from the start of his career, Andy appeared in the midst of a flurry of 80s synth-pop duos, a clear contemporary of Marc Almond and Jimmy Somerville, and quietly helped Vince Clarke make his follow-up to Yazoo a household name. Twenty-years later Vince and Andy are still churning out tunes as Erasure, even if they may trouble the top slots in the charts slightly less now, and Andy's has made tentative moves towards a number of solo side-projects. Andy is HIV positive and lives with his partner, Paul.

Early Life And Education
Andy Bell was born on April the 25th, 1964 in Peterborough, England. Their small house, The Gables, was eventually to house four siblings - three more girls and a baby brother, and Andy enjoyed a pretty normal working-class childhood by all accounts. Dogsthorpe Infants was followed by Junior School, at which Andy joined the choir. Anecdotes about Andy's earlier leanings towards music are prominent in any interview, and quotes like "I did impersonations of Donny Osmond to keep my neighbours happy..." and "at that early age I thought that my voice was better than Aled Jones" abound. It quickly becomes obvious Andy's completely serious about this; he was one of those children who puts on variety shows for everyone, the sort of child who's dragged out at social gatherings to perform The Snowman.
Andy moved on to Grammar School, apparently because he "liked the uniform" and despite coming last in a regional choir competition with a 'slow version' of Little Donkey and some recollections of bullying, Andy attained 5 O-levels. Staying on to study for A-levels resulted in boredom for Andy, and he also recalls that he fell behind with his work. Inevitably, Andy left school, full of the usual dreams and aspirations and with a desperate desire to make his way to London.

London: Moving In and Coming Out
The impetus behind this desire to live in London is attributed to Andy's friend Jill, whom he describes as "a punk with a gay older brother". Andy, either oblivious at this stage to his sexuality or perhaps unwilling to follow that route, began to see a girl called Marion. Consequently, when Marion landed herself a social services position in Alperton, London, the four of them took the opportunity to make the move. Andy recalls living with a guy and a girl from Liverpool, and is particularly complimentary about their patience as they waited for the dole money to come through.
This was followed by a move to West Ealing, and it was at this point Andy felt he could no longer deny his homosexuality. Marion, if Andy's memories are accurate, was an incredible support to him, and apparently introduced him to The Embassy Club: Andy's first gay club. The candy store moment of realisation ("I couldn't believe the men were so good looking!") was accompanied by a heady mixture of punk, pop and New-Romanticism with a healthy splash of Donna Summer's I Feel Love for good measure.
Ealing Gay Group and Andy's first gay sexual encounter was quickly followed by Andy's first band, formed after Jill spotted an advertisement in a music shop window.

Getting Started: Dinger, Danny and Debenhams
The Void, as they were known, did no gigs and very quickly split. Bass player Pierre Cope and Andy were left, forming a short-lived duo known initially as Brume and then Dinger, the name being changed to take advantage of Mr Bell's surname. While Andy's later pairing with Vince Clarke may seem strange, this initial pairing was just as peculiar, if not more so. Pierre came from what Andy describes as "a rough sailor's home in Dover" and had some difficulty overcoming feelings of homophobia. Andy, meanwhile, moved into a bed-sit with his first proper boyfriend, a Greek chap called Danny. And while all this was going on Dinger made several demo tapes and eventually cut their first single, a minimalist synth-pop 7" called Air Of Mystery, coupled with Donna Summer-inspired b-side I Love To Love You. Despite pressing a thousand singles after Pierre met producer Pete Gage on a train and persuaded him to donate a little after-hours studio time, Dinger never managed a record deal.
Danny and Andy split up in due course, which was followed by a brief period of homelessness for Andy. After meeting Jonathan, to whom Andy attributes his true gay education, Andy took on bar work and a part-time job at Debenhams while Dinger continued to make music. It's during this period that Andy recalls following Vince's career. Avidly, he recalls, and usually follows this in interviews by mentioning the time he spotted Vince playing Space Invaders in a studio. Another favoured anecdote is the day his flat-mate Andy offered encouragement whilst they listened to Alison Moyet's first album, Alf: Next year, this is going to be you. "He was always a bit psychic," recalls Andy.

Erasure: A Compressed Chronology
By now, Andy was 21. Vince had already formed Depeche Mode with David Gahan, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher, and after the first album left the band in Gore's capable hands. Yazoo quickly followed, hastily renamed Yaz for the American market, after Vince advertised for a 'rootsy blues singer', a request designed to complement his entirely synthesized backing tracks. Alison Moyet turned up, and an amazingly successful collaboration followed. And, since it worked once, when Yazoo split Vince once again advertised for an appropriate singer.
Andy was the 41st candidate Vince had auditioned, and while there's clearly some sort of rosy tint at work here, both Andy and Vince recall that they clicked almost instantly. Creative juices flowed, and Erasure crackled out a sparky set of tracks on their first album, Wonderland. Success was slow to follow, but a tough regime of touring and promotion followed, and Erasure hit the big time with their track Sometimes, taken from their second album, The Circus.
Whatever you might think of Erasure's music, it was a dream career move for Andy, a collaboration that has so far produced more than twenty million sales, twenty-five singles in the Top 20 and five number one albums. Erasure's career is chock-full of glitter, scattered about with entirely gay abandon: Abba tributes, disco classics, unnecessary costume changes and sex with a capital X. Songbird was released in 2005, following an album of cover versions including Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill, and neither Andy nor Vince are short of ideas for the future. And with success, of course, comes financial security, leaving Andy settled down with a partner and, apparently, happy and content.

Solo Career
Vince, of course, has a long history of side-projects, and fans of Erasure know that Andy's made many a comment in interviews about a solo album. Details have always been vague: will it be an album of Country and Western tracks, or a set of Andy's favourite sixties tunes? Disco cover versions or original acoustic songs? To be honest, every time Andy mentioned it there was something different about it, until one reached the conclusion it was all pie in the sky.
And then, in 2005, Electric Blue appeared, with a suitably shiny Andy Bell on the cover and an accompanying single, Crazy. The album is the result of work with DJs from Manhattan Clique and features collaborations with Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters and Claudia Brücken from Propaganda and Act. Sound-wise, it's standard electronic pop, not too dissimilar to Erasure, but clearly lacking the Vince Clarke twiddly bits.

Of course, it would be foolish to confine Andy's achievements to his music career. Erasure right from their first album (featuring the song Pistol: "we've got boys down at the station") were out and out gay, despite the numerical evidence. Not convinced? Then try Hideaway from the second album: "One day the boy decided, to let them know the way he felt inside." - Andy Bell was out and proud, and the clearly straight Vince was just as proud to be a part of it, for which he deserves a sincere and heartfelt thanks. Erasure, as so many other bands did, made waves when it came to sexuality, and it was necessary and laudable. Margaret Thatcher's administration in the UK was, for whatever reason, an intensely homophobic time. The government were keen on their own version of 'family values', which didn't include having anything other than happy, heterosexual offspring with an intolerant pair of oppositely-gendered parents, and Section 28 produced hate campaigns and misinformation on an immense scale. AIDS was a source of much confusion and fear for the average person in the UK, and the tabloids and, indeed, many members of the general public took every opportunity to vilify and discredit homosexuals. (Even now, for example, the urban myth about semen and stomach pumps is attached to Andy's name, an honour he shares with Marc Almond.)

Andy Bell, as part of Erasure, was only one of a significant number of openly gay pop front-men at this time. Andy, Jimmy Somerville, Boy George and their like were revered and reviled at the same time, and it's more than one confused teenager who took comfort from seeing that the world didn't have to be that way. The impact of popular music on politics is small but significant, and well understood by politicians (take the Rock The Vote campaign, for example), so it's pleasing to see music provide a means for social change as well as listening pleasure.

"I can't take credit for all of that because it doesn't mean what it did anymore. It mattered to me then, and you think it's going to matter for life. But then things start happening, the age of consent comes down, gay people getting married, all that stuff that you fought for. In general, we're in a much better place."
Andy's contributions in this field continue, however. In December of 2004 Andy revealed himself to be HIV-positive. First diagnosed in 1988 following a bout of pneumonia, Andy is undergoing combination therapy and is keen for the world to know. It's an educational thing, he says, and his decision to be honest is one designed to promote honesty and increase awareness. The press release was close enough to the release of Nightbird for many to be cynical, and in interviews Andy isn't always as sincere or sensible as it may seem: "Who knows where we got it? The number of blow jobs I've given in club toilets!" Nevertheless, there has to be some benefit to being open and honest about it all.

"Being HIV-positive does not mean that you have AIDS. My life expectancy should be the same as anyone else's, so there is no need to panic. There is still so much hysteria and ignorance surrounding HIV and AIDS. Let's just get on with life."
A Brief Discography

1985 Air Of Mystery / I Love To Love You (7" Single)
1986 Wonderland
1987 The Circus
1987 The Two Ring Circus
1988 The Innocents
1989 Wild!
1991 Chorus
1992 Pop!
1994 I Say I Say I Say
1995 Erasure
1997 Cowboy
2000 Loveboat
2003 Other People's Songs
2003 Hits!
2005 Nightbird
2007 Light At The End Of The World
Andy Bell
2005 Electric Blue

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