When I heard that Andy Bell from Erasure was in a musical playing a character called Torsten the bareback saint, I had to know more. He sits in a theatre under the railway arches in Vauxhall wearing a T-shirt from a big cats sanctuary in Bangladesh.
He is singing a song about a gay fetish club, reading the words off an iPad, while the 11.41 to Clapham Junction thunders overhead. The Torsten saga (the latest play is called Queereteria TV) was written for him by the poet Barney Ashton-Bullock. Barney and Bell, both married now and in their fifties, are older, “more respectable” versions of themselves looking back on a scene that formed them. They’re not nostalgic.
Tired innuendos sadly slurred between Punchdrunk smackheads who don’t care with what or whom they’ve been
It’s all about the psyche, Bell explains in the bar, arm over the back of the seat, leaning in. It’s about what they went through; and watching the younger generation who are so free; and remembering what it took, to jump in to it all.
“Being on the gay scene when you’re very young, you get so shy,” he recalls. “You’d go out and literally be a fly on the wall for a year. Like I was, going to Heaven in Charing Cross, repeating the same night over and over on a Wednesday, watching from the edge. Like being a monkey, trying to be accepted into the group.”
Bell grew up on a council estate in Dogsthorpe, Peterborough. He had four younger sisters, and his father worked nights for Hotpoint. He’d stop up late with his mum and watch French films, and talk about sex. He recalls the strips of privet hedge the local kids would twist off and tear the leaves from, and use to whip the legs of children who were different, down on the recreation ground.
He always knew he’d go to grammar school and he favoured the King’s School, for its uniforms and links to Peterborough Cathedral. The 11-plus separated him from his family – he got a posh accent – but he didn’t finish his A-levels. Peterborough has always done well for itself, he reflects: the sugar beet industry, and Emap publishing, which boomed with Smash Hits in the 1980s, when he was a star. But the city was boring. There was nowhere gay.
He decided to join the navy and did a two-week course in Rosyth, learning to shoot a gun – but was put off when one night, two older cadets came into his quarters and attacked some other men, scratching their chests like this (he runs his fingers down my sternum).
Around this time Bell was listening to Depeche Mode and Yazoo, and he sensed he was meant to be a new project for their songwriter, Vince Clarke, just as he’d sensed he was going to grammar school. He was an openly gay pop star “bubbling up from Boy George and Jimmy Somerville” in an era when pop stars weren’t openly gay.
“When I came out in 1983, HIV had reared its head,” he says, “and the clones, and the clone look, started dying out. It was the end of high energy music – that first Erasure album – and the end of the clones. We had Leigh Bowery. We took our inspiration from drag queens. We were the next generation.”
He’d see Somerville in the politicised crowd at the Bell in King’s Cross, in the midst of the miners’ strike. It was a slice of time. Things move fast, and generation gaps were felt then too: Bell’s late partner and Erasure’s manager Paul Hickey – 14 years older – had urged him not to come out: it would be the end of his career.
Bell was diagnosed with HIV in 1998. He looks at the young dancers who’ve come out from the theatre to get a cup of tea.
“That generation, they’re totally different. They don’t give a fuck! Well, they DO, if you get what I mean,” he innuendos. “To them, it doesn’t matter what people think. It makes me feel quite old-fashioned. I wonder sometimes, did we have to go through what we did? Maybe we did? You don’t know what would have happened otherwise. But I truly believe that mother nature, she’s the one changing things. We are just the little flowers that come along.”
“Queereteria TV” is at Above the Stag Theatre, London SE1, from 10 April
This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure