Tuesday 19 January 2021

ERASURE: Pop! The First 20 Hits


(#467: 28 November 1992, 2 weeks)


Track listing: Who Needs Love Like That/Heavenly Action/Oh L’Amour/Sometimes/It Doesn’t Have To Be/Victim Of Love/The Circus/Ship Of Fools/Chains Of Love/A Little Respect/Stop!/Drama!/You Surround Me/Blue Savannah/Star/Chorus/Love To Hate You/Am I Right?/Breath Of Life/Take A Chance On Me/Who Needs Love Like That (Hamburg Mix)


In one of my previous day jobs, my manager kept a small pile of CDs for use at parties and work discos in his office (somehow it ended up in my office, but that was the way work went at the time). At the top of that pile was Pop! The First 20 Hits, an album which can provoke a warm smile of satisfaction simply by looking at it, including Vince Clarke’s charming list of instruments that he has used over the years (“This is a general list of synthesisers you may or may not be interested in. It is not a product endorsement” – the list is not credited to anyone in particular, but is clearly Clarke’s work).


How much more perfect a title could you find to give a pop record than Pop!? Not only Pop!, but also The First 20 Hits, with its optimism about there ensuing another twenty (indeed there did, and an update, Total Pop! The First 40 Hits, appeared in 2009). And by heavens does one need that exclamation mark! This is pop made with intelligence and without apology, pop which sparkles like a can of Blackcurrant Tango newly liberated from the newsagent’s refrigerator.


There is nothing wrong with this record. Erasure have not always made great albums, as such, but their procession of singles is, in British pop of the period, arguably matched only by those of the Pet Shop Boys and New Order, and when run together, as they are on Pop!, one can only but squeal with delight.


Admittedly their very early work wasn’t quite pop enough to scale our charts meaningfully. The first three songs come from their debut album, 1986’s Wonderland, and are very fine in themselves – particularly the underexposed “Heavenly Action,” which plays like a de-pomped Eurythmics – but their production is a little too reticent (almost too indie, ironically) and singer/lyricist Andy Bell is audibly still struggling to escape the shadow of Alison Moyet.


All the more delightful, then, when “Sometimes” gave the duo their big breakthrough hit, and listening to it in this context, one senses the butterfly escaping the chrysalis and blossoming into true life; it sounds far more sophisticated and confident (it may be that Daniel Miller at Mute Records afforded them a bigger budget for their second album) and firmly at home in the pop charts though still quietly subversive of them.


From there the duo concentrated on consolidating their art, and their second album, The Circus, saw them extending out in many directions with no small air of political expression (particularly in 1987, that most homophobic of British years); the title song, which could be interpreted as an electropop variation of brass bands or Irish jigs, is a contemporary folk lament for wasted industry and workers, while “Victim Of Love” restores the fizzy effervescence of early Depeche Mode, complete with its endearing lyrical archaisms (“Step right back!/Put on your coat and your hat!”) but also with an underlying and completely justifiable fury – Bell emerges pretty dramatically from the spectre of his predecessor; he clearly has his own stories to tell.


From 1988, Erasure hit their stride and entered their imperial phase. “Ship Of Fools” is a hilariously ominous Depeche Mode send-up, whereas “A Little Respect” was a pop song great enough to stand up to subsequent interpretations by Björn Again, Wheatus, Jody Watley, Anna Meredith and others.


There was now no stopping the pair. “Stop!,” the fittingly-titled lead song on their Crackers International E.P., was most unlucky not to be 1988’s Christmas number one and its “Then He Kissed Me” quotes serve as tributes to both the Wall of Sound and Joy Division, as though gleefully snatching life, and pop, away from doomy jaws. “Drama!” contains great theatrical roars of “GUILTY!” from an uncredited Jesus and Mary Chain. “Blue Savannah” is a wonderful, if somewhat foreboding, song; Clarke’s melodic and harmonic gifts were now, or at least should have been, spoken of in the same breath as the Bee Gees, or indeed ABBA. “Star” is as in love with its yee-hawing notion of apocalypse (“The city looks pretty in pink/Armageddon is here!”) as Slim Pickens’ pilot riding the bomb at the climax of Dr Strangelove. As for the four selections from 1991’s Chorus; well, I have already written about what is probably still their finest album and these songs, in this context, remain unimpeachable.


The confluence with ABBA was always going to be met, and with their “Take A Chance On Me,” Clarke and Bell succeed simply but splendidly in turning it into an Erasure song, complete with guest toasting by MC Kinky (whom you may recall from E-Zee Posse’s 1990 hit “Everything Starts With An E”) – and this was where the critical “rehabilitation” of the Swedish group began in earnest. There is nothing left for Pop! to do after that but to come full circle; as though turning their singles into an extended song cycle, the album ends as it begins, though in an entirely different place from where it began – the Hamburg Mix of “Who Needs Love Like That” bounds along with accumulated confidence and forthrightness, as if to say; well, look how far we have come, and hasn’t it been a lovely journey? Entirely worthy of being filed alongside Substance and Discography, Pop! provides an ideal conclusion to 1992 Then Play Long. That New Pop thing? Do not be fooled – there’s mighty life in it yet!


Oh, and it's a GREAT party album...