Camp Christmas (Channel 4 broadcast, 24 December 1993)

Title from ‘Camp Christmas’.

Twenty years BSG – Before Snow GlobeErasure‘s Andy Bell and Vince Clarke participated in Camp Christmas, an alternative Christmas show broadcast by Channel 4 on Christmas Eve 1993. The broadcast formed part of the British broadcaster’s New York-themed suite of programmes that evening, though what Camp Christmas‘s connection to that was now seems lost forever. (I only even remember that because the ident for Channel 4’s NY Christmas programming theme was to be found at the start of my VHS recording.)

Camp Christmas was hosted by Andy Bell and Melissa Etheridge and saw the pair shacked up in a log cabin amidst a seasonally snow-filled studio set, joined on their Christmas vacation by Julian Clary’s wisecracking wall-mounted reindeer head, director Derek Jarman (who died from an AIDS-related illness early the following year) and footballer John Fashanu. Christmas video messages were included from Martina Navratilova and Ian McKellen, the New York Gay Men’s Chorus delivered a humorous song from the Wollman Rink in Central Park while Lily Savage played the role of the party’s hapless caterer.

East 17 made an unlikely appearance – unlikely because they were more or less the only participants on screen who weren’t gay – and Quentin Crisp delivered a soliloquy based on an alternative version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In a programme filled with strange moments, Simon Callow (currently performing his own one-man Dickens show at London’s Arts Theatre) delivered a bizarre hybrid of Shakespeare and panto which is probably not the highest point in his career as an esteemed thesp.

Vince worked as the ‘musical director’ for the broadcast, aided by Martyn Ware and Phil Legg – essentially the team that worked on the I Say I Say I Say album that would get released the following year. The songs for Camp Christmas were recorded in the same sessions with Ware and Legg.

Andy sang three songs with Etheridge (‘Walking In A Winter Wonderland’, ‘Sleigh Ride’ and a very special rendition of ‘My Favourite Things’ from The Sound Of Music), a lovely solo rendition of ‘Take Me To The Emerald City’ from The Wizard Of Oz and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, joined by the assembled studio cast on the final chorus. It’s fair to say that the musical moments are the points where Andy seems at his most comfortable, and Vince’s accompaniment is nothing short of lovely, blending wintery chill with analogue wackiness as only he knows how.

Still from Andy Bell singing ‘Take Me To The Emerald City’.

Music to one side, Camp Christmas manages to work its way from sublimely daft to frankly cringe-worthy. One such audacious moment comes with Pam St. Clements – Pat Butcher from EastEnders – pretending to be a fairy on a Christmas tree, delivering a song I don’t recognise about farting. It’s ludicrous, naturally, but Vince somehow managed to work his magic effortlessly, even on such a ridiculous piece of over-the-top cabaret.

Channel 4 have always had a reputation for adventurous programming, and Camp Christmas was unlike anything else that had been broadcast up to that point. Adventurous as it was for its time, and despite some dodgy moments, Camp Christmas was also pretty funny in the same way as a pantomime can have you rolling about in the aisles. And that’s in spite of some appearances that are every bit as wooden as the shack they’re supposed to be holidaying in.

vhs_campchristmas

My VHS recording of ‘Camp Christmas’, 24 December 1993, complete with neat teenage fountain pen handwriting.

Thanks to Martyn. Several YouTube rips of the broadcast can be found online, as can bootleg recordings of the Andy Bell songs.

First posted 2013; re-posted for the holidays 2018

(c) 2018 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Erasure – I Say I Say I Say (Mute Records album, 1994)

Erasure 'I Say I Say I Say' LP artwork

mute records | lp/cd/lcd/c stumm115 | 16/05/1994

Erasure‘s 1994 album found Andy Bell and Vince Clarke getting warm and tender. Compared to the previous album, Chorus, which had a grit to its analogue construction, the oddly named I Say I Say I Say – whose electronic backdrops were again created entirely using retro synths – has a serene, enveloping tone. Andy’s lyrics too veer toward the affectionate and romantic. Rightly or wrongly, I like to think of this as Erasure’s album of love songs, eschewing some of the more wordly-wise themes of the previous albums.

Curiously, this is also the Erasure album I have listened to the least. I put this down to the limited edition CD that I bought – a beautifully-designed 12″ box with a pop-up fairytale castle with the CD itself intended to look like a shimmering lake at the foot of the castle, everything swathed in shades of blue from a gibbous moon. Great idea, but it meant that this got stuck in a box with my vinyl for safekeeping, rather than being accessibly on the shelf with my other CDs. ‘Fairytale’ is not a bad description for this album, as producer Martyn Ware (ex-Human League and Heaven 17 and future project partner of Vince as The Illustrious Company) wraps a dream-like, sommnambulent atmosphere around many of the songs, particularly those featuring St. Patrick’s Cathedral choir (‘So The Story Goes’ and ‘Miracle’). I Say I Say I Say yielded three singles – the gorgeous ‘Always’, the chart success of which Erasure would not match until 2005, ‘Run To The Sun’ and ‘I Love Saturday’ – but sadly marked the start of a long period of poor singles success for the duo.

‘Take Me Back’ has a beautiful, extended introduction, which unfolds into a multitude of cascading melodies, Andy delivering a strident, impassioned vocal, wishing to return to the safety of his childhood. There is a brief section where the layers are sloughed off, leaving an intricate drum pattern built of springy, metallic synth sounds and what can only be described as a distorted attempt to replicate vinyl scratching using a synth. ‘Man In The Moon’ runs in waltz time and includes some almost classical keyboard work (albeit an elastic synth rather than piano or harpsichord) and a melody played on a flute-esque synth, while Andy delivers a cosy, romantic lyric. The track concludes with Andy singing solo over what sounds suspiciously like the tinkly opening bars of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sunday Morning’, and overall this track has a quirkily similar, enveloping sound. ‘So The Story Goes’ is another waltz, and the first to feature the choir. Andy’s vocal is full and theatrical, while Vince offers a deep bassline similar to Chorus‘ ‘Turns The Love To Anger’ and flutters of synth arpeggios. Andy delivers a solo monologue at the end of the song, while the choir achieve an atmospheric discord that is as much mysterious as it is chilling.

‘All Through The Years’ has a country twang to it, and plenty of sterling synth work from Vince. Its autumnal imagery and warm tones mark this out as one of the best songs on the album, Andy bathing the track with mystery and misery with the addition of some beautiful backing vocals. ‘Blues Away’ is also one of the outstanding tracks here, a mellow soulful tune with sparse synths and a vocal from Andy delivered in a difficult falsetto while his own backing vocals cover all the mid- and low-range harmonies – he single-handedly (single-voicedly?) covers the full range without any signs of difficulty, and rightly so Vince takes a back seat on this song, although there is another great midsection that finds shards of electronics pealing off in random directions over a detuned beat.

‘Miracle’ is simultaneously inspiring and moving, a beatifully simple electropop track blessed by a harmony-filled chorus where Andy is ably aided by the St. Patrick’s choir. ‘We’ll be going home / Where the passion finds the perfect love‘ runs the chorus, sung with a melody similar to The Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’. Closing track, ‘Because You’re So Sweet’ is a sugary sweet ballad with some very meditative synthwork from Vince and an innocence and naivety that is both brave as it is beguiling.

***

I’m reposting this review since its now twenty years since I Say I Say I Say was released. It’s nearly ten years since I wrote this review, and my opening comments about not having listened to this that much compared to other Erasure albums still holds.

The album turning twenty years old inevitably encourages comments of the ‘where does time go?’ variety; for me it signifies that it’s twenty years since I went to look around the university campus that would become my home from 1995 to 1998. My family and I drove from Southend-on-Sea, where we were staying in a guest house, to Colchester to visit the university, and I insisted on playing the cassette of this album that had come out that week.

Some years after I wrote this review I alighted upon an old VHS video cassette which included a short interview with Andy Bell and Vince Clarke on some Saturday morning kids’ TV show; Andy attempted to explain the title of the album using a joke. It fell flat on its face, wasn’t funny and didn’t help explain the daftness of this title. It’s always struck me as odd – this is a comparatively serious LP, but its title suggests a lightheartedness that just isn’t there in the music.

Track listing:

lp/cd/lcd/c:
A1. / 1. Take Me Back
A2. / 2. I Love Saturday
A3. / 3. Man In The Moon
A4. / 4. So The Story Goes
A5. / 5. Run To The Sun
B1. / 6. Always
B2. / 7. All Through The Years
B3. / 8. Blues Away
B4. / 9. Miracle
B5. / 10. Because You’re So Sweet

First published 2005; edited 2014

(c) 2014 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence