Album Rescue Series: Erasure ‘Wonderland’ by Professor Lisa Gotto

It’s the mid-eighties. I am ten years old and my teenage sister plays a song over and over; a mysterious, miraculous song that catches me instantly by its sheer beauty. Since she is the mature teenager and I am the baby sister, I’m not allowed in her room of course. So I cower in front of her door, waiting for that wonderful voice to sing and talk to me in a language I don’t know but understand right away. Melancholic that voice seems to me, soft and sad. No doubt what makes the singer so miserable: Olamu. This person, this Olamu, must have caused his bitter-sweet pain, I figure. I am sorry for his desolation, still I can’t wait to hear him sing of Olamu again and again. And then, when I am absolutely sure that nobody can see me, I begin to dance: slowly and hesitantly, swaying to the rhythm, more confident with every step. The tale of Olamu, its sound and feel, has set me in motion. “Pop is physical, sensual, of the body rather than the mind, and in some ways it is anti-intellectual; let yourself go, don’t think – feel“, writes Hanif Kureshi (1995: p.19). In this enchanted moment, I purely sense the heart of the matter. I have experienced something special: my entrance into wonderland.

Wonderland, Erasure’s debut album was a miserable flop in 1986. ‘Oh l’Amour’, my magical song, turned out to be the third consecutive commercial failure for the band. Just like the two preceding single releases, ‘Who Needs Love Like That’ and ‘Heavenly Action’. These songs didn’t crack the Top 50 in the UK, nor the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, ‘Oh l’Amour’ only reached number 85 in the UK single charts (but fared better in Germany, where it was a Top 20 success). Considering the album’s disappointing chart performance, it seemed clear that this new pop duo was not supposed to have a bright future. However, Wonderland hinted at what would become central to Erasure’s appeal. As a sparkling collection of catchy and soulful pop tunes, seemingly simple at first hearing, but increasingly fascinating because of their profound craftiness, Wonderland formed the nucleus of the band’s gorgeous, glorious, and glamourous pop career.

When Vince Clarke and Andy Bell met in 1985, their musical pasts and paths could not have been more different. Clarke had been the founding member of two paramount new wave bands and was an experienced and successful electro pop song writer. Starting with Depeche Mode, Clarke was the sole writer of their first three singles, including the breakthrough Top 10 hit ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. After leaving the band in late 1981, Clarke built an equally prominent career by forming the duo Yazoo with Alison Moyet. Both albums, 1982’s Upstairs at Eric’s and 1983’s You and Me Both, are regarded as new wave essentials, and their hit ‘Don’t Go’ became an electro pop classic. A succeeding short-lived project, The Assembly, with producer Eric Radcliffe initiated a UK number four hit single, ‘Never Never’, featuring Feargal Sharkey on vocals. As an electro master-mind, Vince Clarke had created a whole range of synth pop hymns, all of them vibrant and vital even in today’s standards.

Concurrently, Andy Bell had just begun to take his first musical steps. While selling women’s shoes in Debenhams and performing in a band called The Void, Bell’s first attempt to pursue a musical career was not promising. Fameless and nameless as he was, Bell responded to an advertisement in Melody Maker looking for a vocalist to take part in a new musical project. He auditioned. Clarke was searching for the perfect pop beat and pop group, and selected Bell to be his musical other half. His choice wasn’t instantly applauded. When Wonderland was released, some critics felt that there was no artistic progression from Clarke’s past, finding fault with Bell’s too shrill vocals and rejecting him as a bad copy of Alison Moyet. Others were appalled by the songs’ lyrics, finding them flat or banal and bemoaning a missing concept. Still others would hint at Bell’s effeminate dancing style, which, in their view, lacked any sense of coolness or confidence.

In a certain sense, the critics were right. Erasure is all about imitation, surface and artifice, about exaggeration and exaltation – deliberately so. Wonderland refuses any subtleties and intricacies; its tracks are either chirpy tunes (‘March Down The Line’, ‘Say What’, ‘Heavenly Action’) or overloaded tear jerkers (‘Cry So Easy’, ‘Reunion’, ‘My Heart… So Blue’) – no deep philosophy intended. The chorus of ‘Senseless’, a wonderfully self-referential song, expresses this state of being as, “It’s alright to feel the mood/ it’s alright, so good, so far/ Babe it’s alright“. Does it make any sense? Probably not. Does it have to make any sense? Definitely not.

Seen in this way, all that Wonderland comes to stand for, its plastic pop sounds, its simplistic dance rhythms and electronic beats, its ebullient melodies, its corny cover art work, its bubble gum synth pop pleasure, are not deep flaws but a statement. Wonderland is the champ of camp. In her famous Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag (1964) defines the term as “a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” Camp, according to Sontag (1964), is characterized by audacious extravagance and ostentatious theatricality. Its quality as a form, style or expression lies in its capacity to ironically comment on any notion of normality, parodying it through an aesthetic sensibility that inverts the relation of surface to depth.

While Sontag (1964) developed her observations in the mid-sixties, Erasure’s stance to camp is inextricably linked with the pop cultural media universe of the mid-eighties. This can be seen most clearly in the band’s music videos. Not until the age of cable and satellite and, notably, the emergence of MTV, did video evolve as a significant pop cultural form. Erasure’s first music videos demonstrate a specific pleasure for this new kind of visual aesthetics, bringing together a whole range of audiovisual styles and modes of performance by drawing on drag and dance, televisual imagery and commercial superficiality. The music video for the debut single ‘Who Needs Love Like That?’ takes place in a mock western setting featuring Clarke and Bell in dual roles: both of them are dressed as cowboys but appear in woman’s drag as well. In what looks like a garish mixture of B-movie location and cartoon-like situation, everything we perceive is a masquerade that is in excess of itself. This overplay of style also informs Erasure’s second music video ‘Heavenly Action’, an outrageous science fiction parody complete with a toy-like spaceship, gaudy space flying suits, fantastic landscapes of planet cupid, and a bunch of child actors appearing as pink putti. Using the western and the science fiction genre as entry points, both videos revolve around a playful exposition of the fabrication of spectacle, which then becomes a self-conscious spectacle in its own right.

The most interesting and self-reflexive of Wonderland‘s videos is ‘Oh l’Amour’. Not as flashy and flamboyant as the former clips, this video concentrates on a studio performance of Erasure, featuring not only musicians Clarke and Bell but also what lies at the heart of their synth pop endeavor, i.e. computerized sounds and aesthetics. The lead part is played by the BBC Micro, a computer system which Clarke used to compose ‘Oh l’Amour’, featuring prominently in the video to provide the song’s text and graphics. The video begins with a computer screen displaying the UMI music sequencer, ready to play the music we are about to hear. In what follows, a pixelated font delivers not only the song’s lyrics but also command lines of the computer program itself, resulting in a kind of hybrid poetry of sound and system. Further, the digital elements that were confined to the screen in the beginning spread through the studio’s scenery as the video progresses. Bit by bit and byte by byte, the computer code seems to emancipate itself from its purely functional destination, dancing around the band or waving like a digital curtain in the background. The video lays bare the ways in which configurations of technology, music text and context take shape in specific arrangements. Programmability and pre-fabricated sounds are not presented as cold machinery lacking emotion and melody but appear in perfect harmony with Bell’s vocals and movements as well as with Erasure’s overall sensations and sentiments.

At the end of the piece, a blinking cursor erases the refrain’s line ‘Oh l’Amour’ to replace it with ‘What Now?’ articulating a moment of hesitancy, an instant of tentativeness when a formation is still groping with its own limitations. What now, in 1986? A new pop duo demonstrates a specific kind of innovative strength, enabling novel developments both within synth pop sound culture and the music video form. It wouldn’t take long until Erasure’s energy poured over the airwaves right into their fans’ hearts; including that of a ten-year old girl stepping into wonderland.

Erasure-Wonderland-Back- (1)

References

Kureishi, H. 1995. That’s how good it was. Page 19. In: Hanif Kureishi and John Savage (Eds). The Faber Book of Pop. Faber and Faber. London UK and Boston USA.

Sontag, S. 1964. Notes on Camp. http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Sontag-NotesOnCamp-1964.html (Accessed 25/08/2015).

The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. Erasure ‘Wonderland’ is written by Professor Lisa Gotto, one of ARS’s guest authors. Lisa Gotto is a film professor at  the International Film School in Cologne, Germany. (Follow Professor Lisa Gotto on Twitter @lisagottolisa)

Professor Lisa Gotto.
Professor Lisa Gotto.

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