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March 14, 2005
Before Vince Clarke made his mark as the fundamental life force known as Erasure, he was known for his keyboard playing and song writing skills for Depeche Mode; he left the band back in 1981, which put him as the primary composer of their first album, Speak and Spell - producing several singles, including one of their most popular songs, "Just Can't Get Enough".

To say Clarke is a "distinctive figure" in the world of pop music may be a substantial understatement, considering his previous efforts in one of the earliest known successful electro-pop bands, not only as a songwriter but also as a producer for such acts as The Happy Mondays, Simple Minds, and Nitzer Ebb. It was Clarke who gave Erasure its substance, but it was the other half of the group, Andy Bell, the flamboyant and openly gay front man, who really took Erasure to the pinnacle of modern pop music. Along the way Bell would also play the role of social pioneer, helping to demolish many of the dogmatic and narrow-minded views often taken towards such a candid mouthpiece for gay rights.

Since Erasure's inception, the band has sold more than 14 million records - quite a feat for any band or musician. More importantly the pair has managed to remain relevant throughout their history of some 14 proper albums, managing to produce some of Erasure's finest material to date with their latest record, Nightbird.

Over the years Erasure's love of Abba has been twisted into a rivalry of sorts with the pioneering Swedish act, and on their new double-disc DVD, entitled The Tank, The Swan, and the Balloon Live!, Erasure wants to pay homage to their idols as well as show you just how hypnotic, and at times campy, their live performances can be.

The show starts in a very dramatic form, with a darkly ominous stage lit with blues and blacks. As the intro fades in, the audience cheers with reaction to the ballet dancers at the front of what is now a multi-colored stage. The sounds of beeps and mechanical noises rise above the crowd's incessant shouting for Bell, the star of the show, to take the stage. With the energy building, Bell enters aboard what a large swan, slowly commencing the show with the "Siren Song". As expected, Bell is very flamboyant, dressed for the occasion in a feather boa that drapes around his shoulders, nearly consuming his entire frame. Bell enraptures the crowd; there is so much going on that a seizure seems to be the likely culmination of such a frenzied introduction.

When it is time for Clarke to make his arrival - after the stage again grows dark - a large boat makes a slow approach from stage left. The outside of the ship is primitive, juxtaposed with the inside littered with drum machines, samplers and other equipment. Clarke seems to be transfixed with his toys and manipulates them as his vessel finally takes it's definitive stance. The whole ordeal is a magnificent theatrical presentation; the look of it reminds me of a Terry Gilliam movie.

As the spectacle proceeds, Erasure flaunts their pop numbers in rapid fire, never slowing the show by sitting idle. Through numbers like "Ship of Fools" and "Breath of Life," the audience raise their hands in recognition and appreciation, most likely feeling dumbfounded by the overwhelming theatre unfolding before them. When Clarke and Bell exercise their control over the production, the duo dominates; keenly aware of the position they have over the enthusiastic crowd, they go for the jugular with their biggest hit, "Chains of Love".

Riding the audience's high, Erasure launch into their Abba tribute, complete with the illuminating Abba sign that hovers above center stage, flashing like a Las Vegas casino billboard. In what ignites as a Lords of Acid-style rave romp, Clarke kicks into high gear for "Voulez Vous," feeding off of the crowd's energy in a lively and boisterous display of passionate amusement. Erasure's homage to their musical effigy continues with three more classics, "Take a Chance on Me", "SOS", and "Lay All You Love On Me". Through the entire tribute, Bell seems to be losing more of his clothes and becoming more comfortable with his course of actions.

Showmen down to the very core, there is no doubt that Clarke and Bell went through an incredible amount of preparation in not only the filming of The Tank, The Swan, and the Balloon Live!, but also the theatrics involved. The film was directed by David Mallet (who, in addition to working on David Bowie's Ashes to Ashes and adapting several Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals for the screen, has also directed films for Cirque du Soleil and the Rolling Stones) and the production - from the dancers to the costumes and the entire stage design - is a perpetual spectacle of entertainment.

The Tank, The Swan, and the Balloon Live! is an extravaganza worthy of Broadway, not only in the burlesque-style montage but also in the production's satirical nature. Erasure's satire is most evident when the set changes to a western theme, "The Good the Bad and The Ugly" serving as intermission music. With Bell and Clarke gone from the stage, dancers run around doing their best interpretation of "Oklahoma," the set transformed with a desolate mountain range, cactus and cowboy hats. When Bell reappears, his garb is louder than ever. Personally, I had to look away from his assless, sparkling blue, sequined chaps. But that is Erasure; bizarre, animated and overblown outfits, the show degenerating into a high-strung farce as Bell croons to Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man". No one does it better.

Disc two is more or less a behind-the-scenes interview with choreographer Les Child, costume designer Dean Bright, and of course, Andy Bell. It is interesting to watch the creators discussing all that went into with the making of The Tank, The Swan, and the Balloon Live!, but more than the performance or special features the artwork that accompanies the DVD set is what really steals the show. It consists of eye-catching conceptions molded from abstract layers of computer designed graphic art, complex intrinsic forms, as well as photos of the band and dancers.

The dancers, along with the changing sets and the very vibrant costumes, exaggerate elements of the show in complementary fashion, turning the whole thing into a ludicrous imitation of a Broadway performance. There are a few instances when the dramatic plots unfolding within the songs make it hard to swallow, but The Tank, The Swan, and the Balloon Live! is a lavish public performance from a band who has been around long enough - and is loud enough - to pull off such a dynamic show.

Bell and Clark are artists, and their display of homoerotic themes and overblown dramatics are part of the shtick that made them popular during the 1980s and has kept them relevant over the past two decades. The Tank, The Swan, and the Balloon Live! is a bold piece of sensual and sexual art that is highly worth the price of admittance, especially for those who value production, design and showy choreography (as well as heartfelt performances) from two of the most engaging artists in the electro-pop movement.

SEE ALSO: www.erasureinfo.com
SEE ALSO: www.mute.com

--
Mark Taylor
A senior LAS staff writer, Mark Taylor is a 29 year old father of a 5 year old son and husband to a wife of 6 years, living the simple life in a small suburb of Charlotte, NC.

See other articles by Mark Taylor.

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