Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment ahead of World AIDS Day — which takes place annually on Dec. 1, and serves to unite people in the fight against HIV — Erasure frontman Andy Bell, who was diagnosed HIV positive in 1998, reflects on the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. The 56-year-old LGTBQ+ icon becomes visibly emotional as he speaks about one of his synthpop duo’s early U.S. tours during that fraught era.
“I remember that maybe one of our first visits, San Francisco, going to Haight and Ashbury and thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s like a ghost town around here,’ you know? Going to the gay capital of the world and then feeling ghosts, and feeling was the death of the clone and it was kind of like starting from scratch,” Bell says somberly. “And they’ve never, ever found a cure. There’s not a vaccine. We keep talking about COVID, but AIDS is another thing altogether, because it’s sexually transmitted, so [authorities] are not going to go near there — especially the things that we face now, with supposedly religious leaders that supposedly should embrace everybody, which they don’t do, which I find a very sad state of affairs. So, it was a lot to contend with.”
While HIV was becoming a global health emergency — compounding the stigma already attached to homosexuality, and thus driving thousands of gay people back into the closet — Bell does note that the “gay wave” of openly queer pop artists that were concurrently rising in the mid-‘80s (like Bronski Beat, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Boy George, and of course Erasure themselves) were “very important,” as they helped “dissipate this AIDS hate that came afterwards.”
Bell was one of the first out gay artists in mainstream pop music (Erasure have sold 25 million records worldwide), and he says that living his truth, even amid the AIDS backlash, was an easy decision for him. “I wouldn’t say it was scary. I would just say for me it was the necessary thing to do. I felt like it was the right time,” he explains, stressing: “I have to put my hand up and say, if Jimmy wasn’t there — [Bronski Beat’s] Jimmy Somerville — and maybe [“Glad to be Gay” singer] Tom Robinson, I don’t know if I wouldn’t have the guts to do it. But I was a foot soldier to their backup.
“There was a gay wave in music, and also, I don’t like lying. I hate lying, you know? So I just thought, right, when anybody asks me a question — ‘Who’s your girlfriend, what type of girls do you like?’ — I’ll say, ‘Well, actually, I like boys! No disrespect to the ladies, but that’s just it,’” Bell continues with a chuckle. “And that’s how it was. I was so amazed that we had teenage magazines in the U.K., like Smash Hits and stuff, who did features with me dressed up in a leotard with ruby slippers, lying on top of the piano in my living room. I thought that was amazing, to show teenagers, ‘Here’s this person.’”
Bell admits that he was having too much fun in the ‘80s and ‘90s, touring the world with Erasure bandmate Vince Clarke, to even pay much attention to any homophobia at the time. Amusingly, he remained oblivious even when one of his famous gender-bending costumes elicited angry jeers during an Italian television performance. “I was wearing a basque [corset], because I thought it was like Madonna in ‘Open Your Heart,’ and they’re all whistling — and I didn’t realize that was their form of booing! I thought it was cheering!” he laughs. “I think always there was homophobia, but it sort of went above my head, because I was having such a good time. You were sort of blunted to the whole thing — you couldn’t internalize it, or everything would be just too much.”
By the time Bell came out regarding his HIV positive status, in December 2004, the general public had become more empathetic, and he recalls getting a great deal of support and cheers from his fans. “I was really amazed of what it was like,” he says with a smile. “I remember the time Erasure, we played at the Hammersmith Odeon in London, and the whole audience just stood up and gave a standing innovation [as we were] coming onstage. … To me, that’s like winning an Oscar or something; I imagine that’s what the feeling is like.”
Now, as Erasure release their 18th studio album, The Neon, 35 years into their career, they’re still receiving critically acclaim and are heralded as electronic music pioneers, but Bell doesn’t always receive the full credit he deserves as a queer pioneer who helped pave the way for AIDS and HIV awareness. “To be honest, it used to bother me, but I think that that’s part of my lesson — is for it not to bother me,” he says affably. “I think, I’m a granddad, I’m like a silver daddy. I don’t expect young gay people to know who I am. It’s like, why should they know? … But I mean, it’s lovely when people do recognize you. I’m really flattered.”
Watch Erasure’s extended Yahoo Entertainment interview below, in which Vince Clarke and Andy Bell discuss inspirations for The Neon, how they first met, their close friendship, and much more.
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Produced by Jon San, edited by Jimmie Rhee.