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Erasure Interview: Turn On The Bright Lights



It’s nearly four decades since Erasure’s debut single Who Needs Love Like That, but Andy Bell and Vince Clarke sound as youthful as ever on their latest studio album, the Neon. In this Erasure interview from 2020, Andy and Vince give Classic Pop a masterclass on how to stay relevant – without boring your friends along the way…  By John Earls

Erasure Interview
Erasure interview: The duo in 2020.

Andy Bell is having problems with his iPad camera. He’s only two minutes late for our Erasure interview Zoom call, but is full of apologies – before the screen suddenly rotates. “You obviously didn’t buy yourself that tripod, then,” notes Vince Clarke affectionately.

Vince’s Zoom background is everything you’d hope from a synthesiser overlord who’s kept up with technology for 40 years: he’s sat at the perfect eyeline with three keyboards lined up on the wall behind him. While Andy continues to spin in and out of shot as he adjusts his iPad, Vince heckles him: “You need to do something here. You’re making this interview look like a Top Of The Pops performance.”

The wisecrack seems to do the trick. Andy is suddenly in view and static, revealing a pristine kitchen work surface, and an Erasure singer smiling in a grey T-shirt and neat thin-framed glasses.

“I’m not a technophobe,” he insists. “But these video calls do make me a bit scared as the only window to the outside world.” 

Vince is in lockdown with his wife Tracy and their 14-year-old son Oscar in New York, while Andy is alone in London. Stephen, Andy’s husband of seven years, was unable to get a flight from the couple’s other home in Miami to join the singer.

“I haven’t gone insane yet, or no more than I already was,” Andy quips, trying to put a brave face on their separation. “I can’t wait until the restrictions are dropped, obviously. We do FaceTime sometimes, but we don’t really do video calls. I’m not good with talking! I much prefer texting.”

Vince and Andy’s different technological abilities have helped keep the demarcations constant in Erasure for the 35 years since they arrived fully-formed with the galloping headrush of Who Needs Love Like That. It took the public an album to catch up – having thrived instantly in Depeche Mode and Yazoo, Vince belatedly reacquainted himself with Britain’s tiny venues to tour overlooked debut album Wonderland. 

Erasure interview: Cottage industry

Ever since Sometimes became Erasure’s first hit in 1986, the pair have been a constantly firing cottage industry, self-contained in creating dozens of bangers. Their methods are as you’d expect, Andy the empathic lyricist for Vince’s fizzing music, and they hardly ever stray into each other’s territory.

“The synth tech club isn’t for me,” smiles Andy. “The most techy thing I can do is rewire a plug! I’m quite scared of electronics, so it’s a real achievement whenever I buy a lightbulb. I know what sounds I want for a song, but couldn’t attribute them to whichever synth it is that makes them. Synth music got into my blood at the right age and I’ve always been a huge fan of it. But talking about synths? No. Being able to speak about the Moog XX, all of that is right over my head.”

Erasure Interview
Erasure Interview: Vince Clarke and Andy Bell.

Conversely, Vince steers well clear of writing lyrics. “I never say to Andy, ‘This song sounds like this, so I think it should be about that,’” he explains. “The last time I did that was on Hideaway.”

A fan favourite on second album The Circus, Hideaway was a rare excursion into social commentary for Erasure, with its tale of a young man coming to terms with his sexuality. Andy initially looks startled at Vince’s mention of the old ballad. “Hideaway?” he exclaims. “It wasn’t that long ago, was it?” “Yeah!” smiles Vince. “I said, ‘Let’s write our version of Smalltown Boy’. So we did.”

Two albums ago, Erasure co-wrote 2014’s The Violet Flame with Sugababes/Kelis producer Richard X. It’s the only time Andy and Vince sought outside songwriting help. Most bands of their vintage have at least experimented with the modern methods of working with teams of songwriters.

“Getting outsiders in just isn’t us,” shrugs Andy. “I was reticent to buy Blondie’s last album Pollinator, as I’d seen it was written with so many other people. I thought, ‘There’s no way it’s going to be them.’ I liked some of the songs, I liked that they’d experimented, but it wasn’t Blondie. And it wouldn’t be us if we tried it.”

Erasure interview: Living In America

Andy’s solo albums Electric Blue and Non-Stop were mostly co-written with producers Manhattan Clique and Pascal Gabriel, but also saw the singer dabble with songwriting teams. “I realised how much of a factory conveyor belt that way of working is,” he admits. “Loads of stars go in and out, and the writers pick the one they like. If you’re fortunate, you’re the singer who ends up with the good song that day!”

The process is anathema to Vince, who notes: “I find it odd that there’s teams of people who make a record now. If I was in one of those teams, I’d be really frustrated, because I’d be going, ‘You what? My idea is better!’ It’s the same with comedy. Now I live in America, I watch shows like Saturday Night Live which has a writing committee, not one or two genius comic writers who wrote the British sitcoms I loved. Maybe I’m wrong and it’s fun in those teams, but it’s a very alien idea.”

Despite their insistence on doing things their own way, the pair are conscious not to get stuck in a routine – which Andy confesses has nearly happened along the way. “When you’ve done as many albums as we have, it’s easy to become complacent,” he says. “That happens – it’s natural. But, on this new record, we’ve got out of any complacency. Vince and I travel on different frequencies, but we’ve hit form at the same time with this album.”

It’s the kind of comment that, as Andy himself admits, “Is the kind of thing I’d normally say anyway about a new record”, but he and Vince deserve to be enthusiastic about The Neon. As the name implies, it’s a bright and shiny record, a celebration of pop music itself and Erasure’s ability to have stayed strong while chart music changes around them.

“We’ve stopped worrying,” is Andy’s simple summary. “We’ve got to a point where we’re not chasing anything. We’ve only made this album because we really want to. Nobody was asking us to make an Erasure record like this. I wanted to recreate the same feeling I had as a teenager, discovering OMD and Japan at 16. It’s not about worrying about your age, this record.”

Enjoying this Erasure interview? Check out our feature on the making of their classic album The Circus

Read more: Top 20 Vince Clarke remixes

Erasure’s previous album World Be Gone was beautiful, but it was also unusually introspective. Vince admits The Neon began partly as a reaction to that record.

“I’m not really influenced by other people’s opinions much,” he laughs. “That said, I had a couple of tweets before we started making this record from fans saying how the last album was… not down, exactly, but it wasn’t particularly forward-looking. So they were saying, ‘How about doing a record that’s very up?’ I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ because we hadn’t really done that for a while. It’s not like we set out to make a dance record, but we did want something more…” Vince pauses, gazes towards Andy’s Zoom image and laughs wryly. “I could use all the clichéd words about this record, that it’s ‘positive’ and ‘forward-thinking’. But what this album reminds me of most is our very early records. And that was definitely in the back of my mind as something to try.”

Erasure interview: Sounding fresh

Andy sounds a note of caution about recreating early Erasure. “When I first heard Vince’s music for this record, it had so many elements reminding me of new wave and 80s music,” he explains. “But what’s so good about it is there’s also so much original nuance that makes the songs sound fresh. I think it could appeal to someone young now, rather than be nostalgic, and that’s important.”

Erasure Interview
Erasure interview: Vince and Andy in the 80s.

The Neon is much more escapist than its predecessor, which was Erasure’s most openly political album. It had been time to set out their thoughts on the world around them, but it wasn’t something they were especially comfortable in establishing.

“People give their opinions when nobody has asked them the question,” sighs Vince. “People go on Twitter to say ‘I think this!’ and the next day they have to apologise for it. I look at it and think, ‘What was going on in your head that, firstly, you thought anyone would be interested and, secondly, that your view wouldn’t cause some kind of controversy?’ I like to keep my opinions about politics and football to the pub.” 

Andy is equally cautious, having left Twitter a couple of years ago when he realised he hated its constant mood of outrage.

“I didn’t really like Twitter,” he admits. “The grief you get on social media platforms outweighs the desire to have followers. I like putting my opinion out there – but if I’m drunk and tweeting, nobody can be held responsible for my comments apart from me! The next day, you go, ‘Oh my God, is that what I said?’ It’s just easier not to be on there at all, and I feel much less weight on me now I’m not.

“Vince is good on Twitter, because he sticks to being a comedian on it. I’m too opinionated, and I don’t want to fall victim to the thought police that holds you to account for something you said 20 years ago.”

The disdain for social media helped spark the positivity in the new songs, as Andy reasons: “There are loads of modern artists I love, but there’s a certain strain of pop where it feels like the ultimate achievement is to have your music get on an advert or sell a product.

“We’re old-fashioned in the sense that it’s just me and Vince making this music, but that means it’s got the spirit of making music in your bedroom when you’re a kid. Yes, Vince has got thousands of synthesisers, but we could easily have done this record on just one. I really hate influencer culture, because it seems like a dead end, but it becomes ironic when those people want to use your songs anyway.”

Key to The Neon is Nerves Of Steel, a love song for Andy’s husband which simultaneously encapsulates Erasure’s us-against-the-world ethos.

“It celebrates my standing with Vince and my new partner,” says Andy, before quickly adding: “I say ‘new’ – we’ve been together nearly 10 years! Nerves Of Steel reminds me of Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus, though maybe that’s just because ‘steel’ brings to mind a ball bearing.

“It’s about the feeling you’re on the threshold of something in which you could easily fail, while feeling so exhilarated because you’ve got no clue what’s coming next. Musically, that’s how that song felt when I first heard it – I had no idea where the chorus was going to take me. We’d already written eight or nine strong songs by then, so we could really go to town on this one.” 

Asked how Stephen feels to be the subject of such a triumphant love song, Andy bursts out laughing. “Oh, he loves Nerves Of Steel, but his sister and her friend came to Atlanta when we were finishing the album. When that song came on, Stephen looked over and his sister was sticking her fingers down her throat at her friend, because she thought it was so sick-making having to hear that about her brother!” 

Erasure interview: Boys’ toys club

It’s that honesty from someone outside the music industry that helps inform Erasure’s attitude while making new music. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vince is happiest while in his studio at home in New York, where he’s lived for eight years.

“Creating a new song is the best thing we do,” he smiles. “I love making sounds with synthesisers, things I can show off to my friends who are in the ‘boys’ toys club’– ‘Hey, listen to what this can do!’ But getting a song out of nothing? That’s still magic. You go, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’, every time. Writing a song is the most satisfying feeling, other than sex and drugs, obviously.”

Andy laughs, before sounding a serious note: “You have to be careful with friends and your partner when you write a new song, because you can get really boring,” he says. “When you’ve got a great new song, you get really enthusiastic and go, ‘You’ve got to come over and listen to this!’ You soon realise, ‘Oh God, how many times am I going to put my poor friend through this?’ It’s not like you go round to their house in return to look at the spreadsheets they’ve done at the office.

“Musicians are quite boring, really – their friends need a lot of patience, because we do foist our work on them a lot.” Vince has been smiling broadly at Andy’s concerns, adding: “My wife is totally uninterested in anything I do, apart from cooking dinner. Quite right, too.” (On the Clarke family menu the night of our interview: rainbow trout.)

Neon cover Erasure
Erasure Interview: The cover of 2020 album The Neon.

Andy’s husband’s publishing work in Atlanta meant the singer recorded his vocals in the city, a rare move away from Vince’s home studio for recent Erasure albums.

The duo talk delightedly of their experiences there, Vince leaning in conspiratorially to camera to excitedly reveal: “There were people in this proper studio milling about making us cups of tea. I’d forgotten what that was like! Back in the day, we recorded everywhere, and it was nice to be in a new environment again. Atlanta is a foodie town, which helped.”

Andy jokes: “I felt proud to be working in the same city where Elton John lives! It’s a city in the middle of the countryside, so it felt leafy and relaxing even though we were working.”

The feeling of discovery is explicit in The Neon’s lead single, ultra-pop thriller Hey Now (Think I Got A Feeling), which describes being a stranger in town. “The album really took shape once Andy started doing proper vocals,” Vince recalls. “That’s when our songs become songs.”

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Andy adds: “For this record, we wrote the backing vocals in advance, which we don’t usually do. It means the backing vocals become a key hook in the song, rather than being tucked behind it. If you listen to Sweet Dreams or Love Is A Stranger, it’s something Eurythmics were great at. Really, Hey Now… is one big backing vocal.”

Erasure interview: Finding a new audience

Having made a record which lives up to the early Erasure albums which inspired it, the duo are hopeful it’ll find a new audience. Their love of what great pop can do remains undimmed, furthered rather than hindered by having made pop music together for so long. “I still feel like a kid when I hear a great song for the first time,” enthuses Vince. Andy nods in agreement, insisting: “You remain at the age that you first discovered pop music. It never leaves you.”

Vince continues: “Until her dying day, my mum dressed in a youthful way. She was very conscious of her weight until the end. We all carry around our notions of cool with us, no matter how old we are. All that stuff, that buggers you up in some ways, you carry it around with you. No matter what I do, it’s not cool to my 14-year-old son. But in my mind, I’m the one who’s cool. He’s the uncool one, because he doesn’t realise how cool I am!” Andy concludes: “As you get older, you adjust upwards how old you can still be cool: ‘70? That’s not so bad…’”

Alongside their youthful attitude, Andy believes that he grew up at the perfect time to be a pop star, having been born in Peterborough in 1964. “Any art movement only has a 100-year period,” he states. “Pop music has probably had 60 years now and, to me, it’s almost over. The kind of music Vince and I created, it’s the equivalent of the grand masters.

“My parents’ records from the 50s were the beginnings of pop and, in that context, 80s and 90s music was the height of how it was done. I can’t get an angle on how pop and the charts operate now. You have to know how the systems work to be in it, but all the chart talk of how many streams count as a physical copy sold is an unfathomable minefield to me.”

Would Erasure have succeeded if they were starting now?

“The odds have become larger,” Andy responds. “Anything is possible, but it feels more frustrating and that it’d be like trying to win the Lottery from one ticket.”

With their unimpeachable catalogue, surely Erasure would have hit the jackpot at some point. They might be different in how they present themselves on stage, but in their own ways Andy and Vince were both born to be pop stars. And they’re not that different, anyway.

“We seem quite different, but we’re very similar in how we view the world,” Andy points out. “What I’ve really learned from Vince is how to avoid the celebrity lifestyle. I’ve nearly lost it to all that a few times, but I’ve had Vince there to pull me back.” 

Andy Bell and Vince Clarke

As for Vince? “Andy is the diplomat who makes me temper my opinions,” he admits. “Andy is such a fair man. He sees the good in everybody and realises there’s another story going on to the one someone is shouting at you. Thanks to Andy, I can sit back and listen, even when in my head I’m thinking, ‘Well, that’s wrong.’ I don’t necessarily have to say it anymore!”

It’s a love and respect that should see Erasure carry on indefinitely, rightly adjusting their age you can still be cool as they go.

“When we’re in our eighties, we’ll still be Erasure,” smiles Andy. “By then, Vince will be able to program me.” Vince chips in: “Oh, I’ve planned that already, don’t you worry.” Andy: “I just need to get a USC slot inputted into my chest first.” Vince laughs and deadpans: “It’s USB.” Andy looks into the camera in mock despair. “See? I told you I was no good with that talk!” 

One half of an all-time great synth-pop duo is rubbish with the synth part. Long may Erasure continue being unbeatable at the pop side. 

Did you enjoy this Erasure interview? Then check out our feature on Vince Clarke’s cover art

Check out Erasure’s website here

Photos by Richard Sharp and Richard Haughton



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The Story Of ABBA: Mamma Mia!




ABBA: Mamma Mai! poster
ABBA: Mamma Mai! poster

Adored the world over, the global reach of ABBA now extends to a box office record-breaking musical and movie. Classic Pop looks at the twin phenomenon that is Mamma Mia!

On any given day, numerous different productions of ABBA: Mamma Mia! – the musical inspired by ABBA’s mammoth hits – plays somewhere round the globe. Its subsequent silver screen spin-off, Mamma Mia! The Movie, is now the most successful film musical ever. Not for nothing are songwriting partners Benny and Björn, cited as fourth best-selling artists of all time.

It was while the pair were working on the West End to Broadway musical, Chess with Tim Rice, in around 1983, that they first met theatrical producer Judy Craymer. The determined 20-something had risen through the ranks from stage manager of the original production of Cats, to Tim Rice’s production assistant and onto his executive producer of Chess.

Inspired by the drama of The Winner Takes It All – Björn’s ultimate break-up hit song – Craymer had the lightbulb idea of setting ABBA’s best-loved songs in a stage context. 

Initially, the guys were not overly keen on the concept, and it took the would-be impresario 10 years to persuade them to give her the rights to their most treasured works. However, once in agreement, they were artistically involved from the start, along with ABBA’s Anni-Frid in a financial capacity. 

ABBA: Mamma Mia! – trailer

Said to have sealed the deal was the pitching of a top-notch creative team – Andersson and Ulvaeus were already on good working terms with Craymer as proposed producer.

The script by ‘savvy writer’, Brit playwright Catherine Johnson was promptly sanctioned; while director Phyllida Lloyd impressed with her previous high-end output of Brecht and Shakespeare. Firing on all fronts, Craymer put everything on the line to make it all happen, selling her flat and giving up her day job in the process.

By 1997, the musical juggernaut was well and truly on its way. It lived up to its billing: ‘The storytelling magic of ABBA’s timeless songs with an enchanting tale of family and friendship unfolding on a Greek island paradise.’ 

It was a surprisingly modern narrative centred round the wedding of a girl who had invited her three possible biological fathers to her important event. On the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi, Sophie aches for her father to walk her down the aisle – but does not know his identity. Discovering her mother’s old diary by chance, she finds entries recording romantic dates with three men in swift succession.

Thinking one of these may well be her father, ahead of the wedding she sends an invite out to each in the guise of her unsuspecting mother, Donna. As Donna is caught up with meeting guests at her taverna including old best friends (and ex-bandmates) Tanya and Rosie, in turn Sophie secretly meets each of her mother’s ex-lovers.

Shocked to see the men after all this time, Donna exits overcome with emotion. Soon confusion reigns for both mother and daughter, with all three men wanting to escort Sophie on her big day. 

The somewhat soap-opera story breezes by ably abetted by a string of ABBA pearls including Super Trouper, Lay All Your Love On Me, Dancing Queen, Knowing Me, Knowing You, Take A Chance On Me, Thank You For The Music, Money, Money Money, The Winner Takes It All, Voulez Vous, and of course, Mamma Mia! – the title track taken from the band’s 1975 smash.

Various plot twists and turns later, it all resolves with a giant ‘sing’ in the tale via I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, and I Have A Dream, before a lively audience interacting finale and reprise of Mamma Mia and Dancing Queen. 

The non-stop ABBA jukebox musical proved to mesmerise an audience like no other production before or (so far) since. Currently entering its 18th year, the London production has now been seen by more than 10 per cent of the population.

Following its London premiere in 1999, the album ABBA Gold notably topped the UK charts again. By 2001, the musical opened on Broadway, and has now played in more than 40 countries in all six continents – to a worldwide audience of more than 60 million. 

Not surprisingly, Hollywood soon came calling. As Craymer later related, after all her hard slog: “There was no way I was going to sell the rights and have someone else do it.” True to what would become her indomitable reputation as “the greatest showbiz impresario of the 21st century”, she wisely insisted on refusing all Tinseltown offers until reaching an agreement to helm the film herself along with the original key team: Catherine Johnson as writer, and Phyllida Lloyd, directing. She fought suggestions for other experienced directors (such as Steven Spielberg) to take over. 

Equally, insistence was made that the musical’s central middle-aged, hippie mother character remained just so. Politely declined were mentions of casting younger glamour girls like Kylie Minogue, and favoured from the start, was Meryl Streep. Self declared ‘lifelong ABBA fan’ Streep stated: “I am Mamma Mia!” on being cast, and said it was one of the happiest roles of her life.

She explained she’d found watching the 2001 Broadway musical version ‘life-affirming’ in the wake of the 9/11 Twin Towers tragedy, and thus made contact via a congratulations note, with Craymer. 

Finally, actor Tom Hanks offered to make it on the Brit producer’s strict terms with his production company, and soon a useful ‘ABBA-mad’ high-up at Universal Pictures got things moving. 

Besides Streep – as spirited, single mother Donna – the stellar cast boasted Amanda Seyfried as her daughter Sophie, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski as her best friends, and as the trio of love interests, Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard, ex ‘Mr Darcy’ Colin Firth and former 007, Pierce Brosnan. 

Ironically, as well as the main film location of the gorgeous Greek island of Skiathos, Donna’s villa in the film was in reality a set shot on the 007 stage at Pinewood Studios. 

Most external shots, with the exception of the seaside hamlet of Damouchari in the Pelion region, were filmed on Kastani beach, on the small island of Skopelos. The beach bar and jetty were temporarily built for showcase song and dance numbers: who can forget the highlight of the cast strutting their collective stuff to Dancing Queen with such joy on the jetty? – all to that ABBA soundtrack.

Eagle-eyed ABBA fans may have spotted cameos by Benny Andersson as the Dancing Queen piano player, while more uncharacteristically, Björn Ulvaeus played a ‘blink and he’s gone’ Greek god! 

Cast-wise, most naturally attuned to the ABBA repertoire, and known for their singing ability, was Meryl Streep. Having taken opera singing lessons as a child, she had previously performed in films including Postcards From the Edge, Silkwood, and most recently, Florence – about opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins.

Consequently among the movie’s many awards, she was Golden Globe nominated for best actress. The fact that some of the cast had not been chosen for their vocalising led to some mixed reviews from critics. Most especially Pierce Brosnan, who may have looked the part but somehow didn’t quite sound it – and as a result, won the Golden Raspberry award for worst supporting actor.

At least he had a great time making the film – “one of the best jobs ever”, he said. “The Mamma Mia! experience that has been created and given people so much joy on the stage has bled into this film.” The cast certainly looked like they were having a ball and allegedly, were whooping it up after hours, as contrary to usual film-making stipulations, producer Judy kept the party mood going with beers all-round for cast and crew.

Coming up to a decade after the movie was made, fans still make pilgrimages to the locations, particularly the picturesque – but admittedly petite – Ioannis white chapel used in the wedding scene. Beyond the likes of Grease and Dirty Dancing, Mamma Mia! instantly became the song and dance hit of the decade.

Packing in a cracking 24 ABBA hits, as a feel-good escape, it more than hit the mark. As Meryl Streep summed up: “It’s about dreams, your hopes, your happiness.” Opening in 2008, it opened at No. 1 in 35 countries.

Craymer had staked all on its success. In the 90s money had been so tight that on the verge of bankruptcy, she had had to sell her house. In interviews in the British press, she later related: “All my friends thought I was crazy. They said ABBA was so passe and I should get over it. But I knew everyone would want to see the musical. I had to make people believe in what I was doing and it became a complete obsession.”

Read more: Making ABBA’s Waterloo

Read more: Making ABBA’s Ring Ring

Her choice to, in effect, ‘take a chance’ on ABBA paid dividends to an astounding degree: overall from her Mamma Mia! concepts, she is reported to have made a reported £90 million. 

Awarded an MBE, she went on to produce Viva Forever!, the 2012 musical based on the Spice Girls’ hits, and now spends much of her off-duty time fund-raising for Mamma Mia!-linked charities such as Breast Cancer Research.

In much the same way, Bristol writer Catherine Johnson shares a similar ‘roughing it to riches’ backstory. Her colourful life could itself create a compelling screenplay. Expelled from school at 16, married at 18, divorced at 24, she was a hard-up single mum with another child on the way when entering – and winning – a newspaper playwriting competition changed her life.

Her hard-hitting play, Rag Doll was staged by the Bristol Old Vic, and penning further plays followed – including Bay City Rollers-based Shang-A-Lang – before stints on popular UK TV series such as Casualty, Band Of Gold and Byker Grove. 

ABBA: Mamma Mia! – Here We Go Again trailer

Recommended to producer Judy Craymer by a mentor friend, she found the idea of the ABBA project entertaining but over-familiar with financial hardship, did not take its commercial chances seriously. For that matter, neither did ABBA’s Björn: “I didn’t have a clue that Mamma Mia! would be a worldwide success,” he later admitted.

For the two years it took to write the book, it was a ‘scary-ish time’ for Johnson. “I couldn’t afford for things to go wrong,” she said, looking back on the time. It’s now well-known that Johnson deliberately wrote the plot about a single mother – notably one ‘who wasn’t as the press often liked to paint, a drain on the state… a working single mother who had got her life together and the relationship she had with her daughter.’

As she told The Guardian: “I’ve had less years of being a success than I had of being a failure. For a lot of my life, I felt a complete letdown”. 

Consequently, though she has gone onto create other plays, she is happy if Mamma Mia! is fated to remain her career’s masterwork. Having initially given the musical a lifespan of three months, it’s now going strong in its second decade, having amassed over an eye-watering £2 billion worldwide. 

Bankrolling nearly $610 million on a $52 million budget, Mamma Mia! is the highest grossing musical film of all time in the UK. Such was its unprecedented success that co-chairman of Universal Studios David Linde, made a press statement that in years to come, there could be a sequel – adding he would be delighted if the creative quintet of Craymer, Johnson, Lloyd, Andersson and Ulvaeus reunited to create a follow-up based round other ABBA songs. 

The world’s premiere may have taken place elsewhere, but on 4 July 2008, all eyes were on the Swedish film screening. In attending this, all four members of ABBA were photographed together for the first time in 22 years. It was aptly held on ABBA’s home turf in Stockholm, and at the Rival theatre – part of the boutique hotel owned by Benny, where each room has a copy of ABBA Gold – the album that spawned both memorable musical to movie productions. Agnetha and Anni-Frid arrived dancing with star of the movie Meryl Streep, before joining the ABBA boys and rest of the cast, on the balcony. 

A show of solidarity between the former band members, marking the next chapter in ABBA’s enduring success: from international stage to screen, in 2021, their perfectly crafted pop legacy lives on. 

Enjoy this article on the making of ABBA: Mamma Mia! Then check out our feature on ABBA: The Movie

Check out ABBA’s official website here



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The Best Pet Shop Boys Cover Art




For this feature on the best Pet Shop Boys cover art, we’ve selected key examples of design excellence from the duo’s remarkable oeuvre… By Andrew Dineley

Pic by Cindy Palmano

With backgrounds respectively in magazine publishing and architecture, it’s no surprise that a keen eye for visual detail would permeate everything for Tennant and Lowe.

Combine this with their early association with Tom Watkins as manager, a man who himself had an impressive creative pedigree working with Terence Conran before establishing XL design studio in 1982, and we can see how things inevitably came to be…

Pet Shop Boys arrived during a period in pop that saw a massive expansion in formats. Never had so much been spread so widely. One single could be stretched out across numerous seven-inch and 12-inch discs, poster packs, limited edition boxes, cassette singles and picture discs.

It was a ripe period for creativity. A cynic may look back and speculate that it was all about rampant marketing and consumer exploitation, but music fans duly lapped it up… and nobody forced this writer into buying anything. 

In their 2006 book, an overview of Pet Shop Boys design entitled Catalogue, Neil Tennant confirmed their formative intentions. “West End Girls became a hit so slowly that there were endless formats to jig the charts,” he said. “Chris and I were influenced by Scritti Politti – the idea of looking like a brand, a perfume bottle or whatever.” 

After a couple of false starts, West End Girls became Pet Shop Boys’ breakthrough single in 1985, heralding a sustained creative collaboration with Mark Farrow. His first PSB design was a re-working of the first single sleeve, which Chris Lowe himself had originally worked on. 

Pet Shop Boys Cover Art
Pet Shop Boys Cover Art – West End Girls

In his autobiography, aptly titled Let’s Make Lots Of Money, Tom Watkins provided an interesting perspective on this radical redesign by Farrow; “He loathed and detested the sleeve for West End Girls. He hated everything: the design; the lettering; the feel. Christ, I thought, this man takes record covers very seriously.”  

Watkins, Tennant and Lowe were admirers of Ettore Sottsass’ Memphis Group in Milan, whose designs were recognisable by their bright colours and angular, pop-art-deco sensibility, and it comes as no surprise to see how Farrow had ticked the right boxes with his reductive re-interpretation for the West End Girls remix.

According to Watkins, “It was frankly a work of art. All excess imagery and uneven lettering was removed and he added bold blocks of red and blue, with a yellow circle at the centre like a record label.

Neil Tennant had apparently cried with admiration and jealousy when he saw the sleeve to New Order’s Blue Monday. He must have been a blubbering wreck when he saw his own sleeve… from that moment on, Mark Farrow was a vital part of the team.”

Within a few months, Please, Pet Shop Boys’ debut album, was released. Its simple one-word title would set a trend in 1985 for every other album they would release. The album sleeve followed a similar minimalist ideal, with Farrow further channelling the reductive graphic style he’d grown up with as a designer for Factory Records, prior to XL.

The front cover’s tiny lone photograph offset an inside sleeve featuring a grid of images, devoid of typography. In total, the image count ended up just one shot short of 100. For an exercise in restrained minimalism, that is a lot of photography, and all were largely taken by long-time collaborator Eric Watson.

Pet Shop Boys Cover Art
Pet Shop Boys Cover Art – Please

“We were creating images that were intentionally un-pop – some imagery around the first album, for instance, was quite bleak,” said Tennant. “It’s mostly black-and-white. We wanted, and still want, to look totally different to everyone else. At the very beginning, we put out this manifesto to accompany our demo tape that listed all the things we didn’t want to be.”

Mark Farrow’s main objective was to create a sleeve that didn’t look like a record cover. Please couldn’t have been more different to its hyper-saturated chart competition and stood out for being the antithesis of sleeve design during the 80s.

Tom Watkins, however, originally had far more complex ideas. “I thought my concept was a great idea: a big fold-out lattice-work cover, opening out into a crucifix that contained all the mean and moody images they had created over the last couple of years.

“I excitedly folded the cardboard out in front of them, knowing they were going to just love it. An awkward silence ensued. Neil and Chris mumbled a few words with an overwhelming air of indifference. Perturbed looks flashed across their faces. They didn’t like it. I didn’t show it but I was mortified.”

Sometimes images that will go on to define an act can come about in unexpected ways. This was the case for the single sleeve of Suburbia.

“I’d just bought this striped shirt and striped glasses and so I thought ‘Wow! This is visually stunning!’” said Lowe. “Neil just wore a plain T-shirt and plain glasses so it was obvious that it was going to work as a photo – me all stripes and him all plain.” 

Pet Shop Boys Cover Art – Suburbia

Elaborating on the use of Eric Watson’s photographs for the single sleeve in the Pet Shop Boys book Catalogue, Mark Farrow concurred. “I’ve always thought that if the photograph is strong enough to do the work on its own then I don’t really need to do anything. In my mind at that time Chris was the logo, if you like.” 

Though the front cover did bravely eschew any distracting words, typography was used on the back cover, laid out in a visual homage to movie credits, appropriate given that the single’s name was taken from a film. As simple as it may appear, this sleeve design was the first to earn Farrow a silver D&AD award. 

In contrast to the white space and minimalist cover imagery of Please, it was decided that a different treatment was required for 1987’s follow-up album, Actually. Neil Tennant came up with the idea of commissioning Alison Watt, the Glaswegian winner of the National Portrait Award, to create an oil painting of the duo for the cover.

Tennant, Lowe, Farrow and Watson headed off to Scotland to see the artist and plan how it would look, but practicalities were part of why the sleeve ended up quite different.

“Alison wanted them to sit for three weeks but their schedule made that impossible,” explained Tom Watkins. “She worked from a photo instead, but it looked quaint, stuffy and just un-pop.” 

Pet Shop Boys Cover Art – Actually

Eric Watson had supplied a series of photographs for Watt to use as reference material, which led to much to-ing and fro-ing between the painter and PSB camp, but the idea was eventually abandoned, partly because Chris Lowe was unhappy with how he looked. “My face was all wonky,” he complained in the Annually book, published in 1988. 

The final sleeve design went on to become a much-loved and parodied design classic, and remains a favourite of Neil’s.

“We liked it because it wasn’t a cop-out ‘please, please, buy me’ photo. It was sort of uncompromising and funny at the same time. It fitted all the basic tenets – it looked really strong, it was noticeable in the shops, it was funny and of course people were obviously going to say ‘Why are you yawning?’”

The sleeve of Heart, the last single to be taken from the album, is also classic Pet Shop Boys. The single had two covers, so buyers had to choose between ‘Neil’ and ‘Chris’, or simply decide to buy both – which can’t have done any harm getting the song to No. 1 in the UK.

Images from this session were also used on the cover of their 1988 book Annually, combined to visually reference the sleeve of Actually. The sleeve featured the duo in outfits worn at the UK BPI Awards.

“We do awards if they give us an award,” Neil – ever the aesthete – commented at the time. “If we don’t get an award, we don’t do it. They’re bollocks basically. My main argument against the BPI Awards is the hideousness of the logo.”

Pet Shop Boys Cover Art – Heart

The sleeve of Introspective may not be a favourite of the duo, but it stood out on record store shelves at the end of 1988 and remains timeless in its simplicity. Each format of the release used a different combination of vibrant coloured stripes.

Manager Tom Watkins reportedly joked that subliminally, people would feel compelled to buy a copy of the album every time they saw the testcard on TV. The album contained just six tracks and in 1988 became their top-selling album, so perhaps the ever-shrewd Mr Watkins was on to something.

Pet Shop Boys Cover Art – Introspective

“I quite often look through our records and think how fantastic they look,” summarised Tennant. “You want to make the record something special. It’s not just nothing, the sleeve. I personally think it’s as important as the music. You’re buying an object, so you want it to be a beautiful object.” 

Introspective’s follow-up in 1990, entitled Behaviour, saw a return to form in terms of minimal design, if not sound. White space was back, making a perfect complement to some of the album’s sombre lyrical themes.

The flowers in the cover photographs may seem to reference mortality but later sleeve booklet notes surprisingly reveal the intention was quite otherwise, according to Neil Tennant. 

“We had this idea with the roses because we’d been to Liza Minnelli’s apartment in New York,” he said. “She had this fantastic photograph, I think by Richard Avedon, of Judy Garland as a tramp holding a bunch of red roses. So we just nicked the idea.” In contrast to the album’s whiteness, hidden away inside Behaviour’s original vinyl release was a wonderfully indulgent exercise in design decadence and detail – a sleeve lined in deep rose red. 

Pet Shop Boys Cover Art
Pet Shop Boys Cover Art – Behaviour

In 1991, Was It Worth It? was released. By this point, Tennant and Lowe had grown tired of appearing on their sleeves, so this single instead featured them as dolls, handmade by a fan in Japan.

“We thought they were really fantastic and we said at the time that they’d make a great sleeve. They seemed to capture something about us. All the drawings they do of you in Japan always present you in this same strange way, with big eyes, and we’ve always liked that.”

The caricatures showed the duo with bunches of flowers, an homage to the photographs used on the sleeve of Behaviour the previous year.

For the two singles that trailed the 1993 album Very, Pet Shop Boys were transformed in a couple of other-worldly ways. For Can You Forgive Her? they wore orange suits with matching striped cone hats.

For the follow-up single, Go West, they appeared in blue and yellow uniforms with matching dome helmets. In 1993, with the pop chart saturated with Britpop mundanity, none of their looks could exactly be considered typical attire. 

For the packaging of Go West these images were reproduced in red, white and blue and presented in a brash promotional style, the kind of thing commonly associated with US presidential campaigns. It was a bold statement that was playfully extended to the promotional materials for the single, which included campaign badges and stickers. 

The album Very was an extravagant affair in every respect – the costumes, promotional videos, packaging and live presentation all pushed creative boundaries in 1993.

For the album’s sleeve design, the duo had grown tired of the standard CD format and wanted to completely rethink the packaging concept. “We thought it was pathetic that, because of CDs, record design has just become a booklet behind a piece of transparent plastic,” they commented. 

Pet Shop Boys Cover Art
Pet Shop Boys Cover Art – Very

The duo gave Daniel Weil from Pentagram the audacious task of coming up with something unique. He delivered about a dozen viable concepts, two of which were chosen – one for initial quantities of the standard CD and another for Very Relentless, the limited edition double-pack.

Mark Farrow worked with Daniel Weil’s textural packaging to devise some pop art-style graphics for the album, mainly consisting of the duo wearing their Go West costumes. These images also featured on a limited edition of 500 highly collectible Relentless DJ promo sets, pressed onto magenta, cyan and yellow vinyl with matching outer sleeves.

In 2002, Pet Shop Boys once again did something unexpected: for the first time in their career, they went to a different design company to work on the sleeve graphics for their next album, Release. Visionaire in the USA came up with a design solution that built on Tennant and Lowe’s continuing desire to explore imaginative alternatives to the normal CD package.

Read more: Making Pet Shop Boys’ Behaviour

Read more: Top 40 Pet Shop Boys singles

The case’s text was printed in white onto a solid white case, which was then enclosed within a foiled slipcase – an elegant end result that went on to be nominated for a Grammy award. In the UK, four different coloured variants were available, each featuring a different debossed image of a single flower in bloom.

The cover subject was germane to the album’s title, which was suggested by photographer and collaborator Wolfgang Tillmans. Some rejected titles for the album included Whatever, Lovely, Tragic, Transition, Touché, Position and Home.

In 2003, Pet Shop Boys released Miracles, a single that trailed the release of their PopArt greatest hits collection. The album cover’s bold typographic design referenced a couple of iconic moments in Pet Shop Boys design history – Chris Lowe’s Issey Miyake sunglasses from Suburbia, and orange stripes lifted from the pointy hats of Can You Forgive Her? 

Pet Shop Boys Cover Art – PopArt

Despite reaching the Top 10 in the UK singles chart, Miracles is an often-overlooked track that’s rarely played live. It’s a shame, as the song and its sleeve design are both high points for the duo.

Essentially a love song, Miracles’ lyrics refer to the wonders of nature, and this is what inspired Farrow’s idea to elegantly combine silhouettes of Tennant and Lowe with images of cherry blossom.

“We really wanted the sleeve to be perfumed, as the promo versions had been, but by the time we had printed blossom onto every single surface inside and out, die-cut silhouettes of Neil and Chris into the cover and pressed the record on white vinyl, EMI finally applied the brakes,” Mark Farrow reported philosophically. “Well, if you don’t ask, you don’t get…” 

In 2009, Pet Shop Boys released one of their most ‘poppy’ albums to date, entitled Yes. In some ways, this album’s sleeve may appear to reference that of their debut album, Please. Both rely heavily on squares, but on this occasion, inspired by Gerhard Richter’s 4900 art exhibition, colour was introduced and the concept was turned on its side.

“Although the Richter paintings look stunning on a gallery wall, as an idea for a CD cover it felt a little tired and we felt we had ‘been there’,” said Farrow.

Pet Shop Boys Cover Art
Pet Shop Boys Cover Art – Yes

The ‘square’ theme was also extended and adapted for use on the album’s singles, and was imaginatively brought to life by acclaimed creative director and set designer Es Devlin for the supporting Pandemonium live tour.

During these performances, everyone on stage at various points wore coloured cubes as headgear or had them incorporated into the various costumes. On top of that, Chris Lowe’s keyboard set-up strongly resembled a luminescent version of a Richter artwork.

For Pet Shop Boys’ 13th album, Super, released in 2016, the coloured squares of Yes were upstaged by circles, and the minimalism advanced further with the exclusion of even a band name on the packaging. A wider palette of vibrant colours was implemented across the various formats for CD, vinyl and streaming services. 

Pet Shop Boys Cover Art –
Pet Shop Boys Cover Art – Super

“In our initial conversations with Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe they described the album as being brash, pop and perhaps a little ‘unhinged’,” Farrow Design’s Gary Stilwell explained in an interview with Creative Review magazine. “They also suggested a few titles, and we all agreed that Super was the strongest. 

“The simple brief was to encapsulate all these reference points in a single image. We quickly decided the cover should not be photographic and began to investigate bold graphic patterns and typography. Gradually, we reduced and refined these until we were left with a single fluorescent circle that, to us, conveyed the idea of Super.”

Nearly four decades into their career Pet Shop Boys continue to surprise and delight a global fan base, and even if their next step is unknown, it’s highly likely that we’ll never have reason to accuse them of ever being boring. 

Read more: Pet Shop Boys: Actually

Go to Pet Shop Boys’ official website

Read our article on the cover art of Depeche Mode



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Remembering ABBA: The Movie – Classic Pop Magazine




Shot across six weeks in 1977 on their seminal Australian 10-day tour, ABBA: The Movie remains the band’s definitive in-concert document…

ABBA: The Movie
ABBA: The Movie poster

According to one review critic: “[ABBA: The Movie] was really the first widescreen pop music showcase… It remains a very rare portrait of a 70s pop band at the height of its popularity.” 

Digitally remastered and re-released in 2008, ABBA: The Movie was first conceived as a home movie, a TV Special, then a documentary, before this ‘rockumentary concert’ movie. 

As writer/director Lasse Hallström’s first film in English, he later found fame with movie hits including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Chocolat, and The Cider House Rules. He also directed the majority of ABBA’s 38 promotional videos, from 1974 debut Waterloo to their farewell Head Over Heels, in 1982.

Chiming with the release of ABBA: The Album, ABBA: The Movie spans songs from the LP plus earlier hits, and such otherwise unavailable gems as Get On The Carousel. 

By the time of ABBA’s arrival in Australia on 27 February 1977, the group’s record sales had eclipsed that of The Beatles. We meet the Swedish ‘Fab Four’ at a ‘welcome’ press conference. When asked: “Is every performance ‘traumatic’?”, Benny answers, “Every show you’re nervous,” and, “I’d hate the sound of 30,000 fans booing!” As for Agnetha: “I find the travelling very hard. I start to think, ‘Where am I? Which city?’” Björn says: “It’s an unsocial life, it kills creativity in a way I don’t like.” Livewire Frida adds: “It’s boring to travel, fantastic to be onstage!” Did they make loads of money? “A lot of money coming in, a lot of tax to pay. Money isn’t that important, it’s liking the work that is,” says Benny. And to Agnetha, how did it feel having the sexiest bottom in pop? “How can I answer that? I don’t know, I haven’t seen it!” (It still caused some off-tone-titled gig reviews such as ‘Agnetha’s Bottom Tops Show!’). ‘ABBA Risk Their Lives’ ran a more serious headline, when rain-swept arena stages threatened danger (a distinct hazard for then-pregnant Agnetha, necessitating many of her scenes shot in close-up).

The quartet, clearly in their heyday, are dynamic onstage. For optimum acoustic recording, the film sticks mainly with one indoor gig at Perth Entertainment Centre. Latest album tracks are showcased: He Is Your Brother; Eagle; the startling Agnetha and Anni-Frid duet to I’m A Marionette.

Classic hits, of course, rock the crowd: SOS, Money, Money, Money, So Long, Rock Me, to Fernando; the girls’ favourite, Dancing Queen, and their lesser-known slower duets, I’ve Been Waiting For You to Why Did It Have To Be Me?.

ABBA: The Movie

More material not instantly recognisable includes Benny playing his prog-rock pop Intermezzo No. 1; the instrumental Stoned and Swedish traditional songs Johan Snippen and Polka Goes, performed by Benny on accordion.

Even the film’s country-and-western track intro is an early 70s Björn and Benny composition: Please Change Your Mind, performed by Swedish country band Nashville Train – who were made up of several musicians from ABBA’s studio band.

Dizzyingly edited from Hallström’s 50 hours of footage, unusually, no out-takes or DVD extras would ever surface. Concert coverage is spliced throughout with the (deliberately) thin fiction of hapless DJ Ashley Wallace, assigned to interview the band and despite frequent near misses, unable – until the last minute – to do so (a plot device apparently kept from the group to add authenticity).

After a surreal dream sequence in which the girls sing The Name Of The Game, he finally gets to meet and talk with them all in an elevator. Traversing Sydney, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne, Ashley interviews members of the public on the appeal of ABBA. A surprising number of under-12s are fans of their music and perhaps sum it up best as “Special” and “Happy”. 

Huge crowds had come to watch the band perform, while cheering fans lined their entire 19km airport route to Melbourne. ABBA-mania in full swing.

Björn Ulvaeus later admitted to some misgivings about ABBA: The Movie. “…Quite honestly, I don’t think that films with pop stars work very well. Of course, The Beatles are an exception and Tommy was a big hit – but there have been lots of other pop films that have sunk without trace… Seeing the film came as a bit of a shock. It’s hard to recognise yourself up there on a giant screen in Panavision. But then we’ve had many moments when it has been hard to accept the things that have been happening to us.” 

Nevertheless, on departing Down Under, the message was positive: “We had such a good time,” the foursome agree. As DJ Ashley broadcasts his hard-won interview, in the background plays ABBA’s timeless concert closer, Thank You For The Music. More than 40 years on, the sentiment is still shared by the band’s global fanbase. 

Read more: Making ABBA’s Waterloo

Read more: Making ABBA’s Ring Ring

Check out ABBA’s official website here



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