Legacy acts serve multiple functions at festivals. They round out the programming by offering alternatives to circuit staples and flavor-of-the-month acts, the short set times often mean an uninterrupted parade of classic songs — and besides, someone had to go up against Kendrick Lamar at Coachella in 2017. (It was New Order, and if you were there to see them play, you witnessed something truly special in Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”) While everyone who witnessed The Who’s listless performance at Outside Lands last year probably regretted not seeing Solange on the Sutro Stage instead, seeing a legacy act often has an irrepressible, when-am-I-ever-going-to-get-this-chance-again? satisfaction.
Sometimes, though, that legacy act remains as lively as ever. That’s the case with Erasure, the quintessential 1980s synthpop duo comprised of Andy Bell and Vince Clarke. They’ve put out some 17 original albums over 33 years, and they’re playing three nights at the Masonic next week as part of the World Be Gone tour (although only Friday, Aug. 17 has yet to sell out). It’s almost too large a body of work.
“I get a bit confused as to when they came out and stuff like that, but I pretty much know what’s on which one,” Bell tells SF Weekly. “You do forget songs. You forget lyrics. Even on stage now, the lyrics to some of the new songs — when you’re on stage, you start daydreaming, which is very easy to do because you kind of drift off while you’re singing.
“If you drift off too far, some of the lyrics escape you,” he adds. “So what I find is, I come up with some other rhyming words instead. You get different versions.”
He admits that extemporizing the words to his own songs often works seamlessly — something he usually confesses to the audience. And as with most acts of Erasure’s stature, a lot of the shows turn into audience sing-alongs, anyway. Curiously, though, one-half of the band behind hits like “Chains of Love,” “Oh L’Amour,” and “A Little Respect” claims not to know whence these newer fans are coming.
“I don’t know where they heard of us from,” he says. “YouTube? Honestly, it’s not like we’re on the radio all the time. I suppose it’s friends with friends. We’ve been going on so long.”
Whether Bell is sincere in his unsureness about Erasure’s place in the pop pantheon, it’s undeniable that the band has worked with enough huge names to give people who’ve never heard of them multiple entry points into their oeuvre. Erasure once toured South America with No Doubt in support of David Bowie, and they’ve worked with people as varied as Diamanda Galas and Sparks — to say nothing of 1992’s Abba-Esque, an EP consisting of four covers of the biggest pop act in history.
It’s not bad for a group that famously began in a most inorganic way: with an audition. Bell had long idolized bandmate Vince Clarke, who’d been a founding member of Depeche Mode and, with Alison Moyet, of Yaz as well. He and 40 other people tried out for a spot and only found out who it was for after the first round.
“They called me back and said, ‘Do you know who Vince Clarke is?’ and I was like, ‘Of course!’ ” Bell recalls. “I was so excited that afterwards, when I put the phone down, I was screaming all up and down the house, saying, ‘You’ll never guess what’s happened!’ ”
Synthpop, of course, had its original heyday in the early-mid ’80s before falling out of style, but nearly every indie-rock micro-genre of the 21st century has synths at its core. One reason why may have to do with an inherent danceability.
“All the stuff you heard in the underground clubs, the remixes were mostly electronic,” Bell says. “That people are using synthesizers to create music with — I think that’s what’s kept it alive. But also, it was the last period of homemade music, and people making their own outfits. A bit like Lady Gaga, but way back.”
Additionally, in contrast to lush orchestrations that might require years of study to learn how to compose and arrange, synths are simple — and their more haunting sonic qualities elevate songs above the level of a commercial jingle while retaining an intrinsic catchiness.
“I think they are sort of ethereal, really,” Bell says. “Even some of the slower ones. It’s interesting: When we play live, Vince programs everything from the beginning so it’s like having fresh versions of the same songs, and I’ll always get surprises in my headphones. I’ll hear these little chimes or trills that he puts in there, that you didn’t know whether they were in the original or not. They’re like cookies, or Easter eggs.”
As with Duran Duran, whose 2015 song “Paper Gods” is a seven-minute bonanza that hears the band in top form — and, to a lesser extent, Blondie’s 2017 “Long Time” — Erasure is much more than its back catalog. “Just a Little Love” from 2017’s World Be Gone is a peppy number with verse-chorus-and-bridge hooks and sufficient atmospherics to stand firmly on its own two feet. And the band is still getting accolades, including the city of Miami Beach proclaiming July 6, 2018, to be Erasure Day. (They’d already gotten the keys to the city years before, Bell says. It was a very quick ceremony, too.)
Having recorded five more albums than the Beatles, Erasure never went away. But Bell’s Swedish idols haven’t put out an original song since 1983. With a Mamma Mia! sequel out and a general reunion/reboot fever sweeping all genres of the pop landscape, does he think a new album is in the works?
“To be honest, I feel like the songs have been rammed down the throat, you know? It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it or love listening to them,” he says, “I’m waiting for some fresh material. But I don’t think I’ll be rushing to see the 3D virtual experience — although I would quite like to see Cher.”
But as a Brit, he has some insight that Americans may not have. Specifically, there’s talk that all four members of ABBA will play the next Royal Variety Performance, an annual televised benefit which the queen attends. If so, it’ll be the first time (apart from one private party) that they’ve done so in more than 35 years.
“It’s gone on for years and years and it’s for charity, so the rumor is that if they get to perform on that show they’ll do that show and the single will come out the next day,” Bell says. “It’s a no-brainer, really. They’re not going to say no to ABBA, are they?”
Erasure, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Aug. 17-19, 8 p.m. at The Masonic, 1111 California St. $44 and up; livenation.com