Erasure’s ‘Erasure’ was accompanied by memorable photography from Herbie Knott, who began his career working as a photojournalist on Fleet Street and whose freelance work with musicians included Lou Reed, Bon Jovi, Jarvis Cocker and countless others. For ‘Erasure’, Knott joined Andy and Vince for a two-day shoot in Mallorca, at La Residencia and Andy’s house. The shoot involved specific challenges, but yielded some incredible photos, while also offering Knott a rare and intimate glimpse into life with the duo. To accompany the release of ‘Erasure’, Mat Smith spoke to Knott about his time with Erasure in the oppressive August 1995 Mallorcan heat.
“The gig started in August 1995 when I got a call from Chris Poole at Poole Edwards, who were doing Erasure’s PR. Chris had been asked to find somebody to do press shots. I got hooked into going have a chat with Danny Miller at Mute, at which point Ashley Potter’s painted artwork for the album and singles had already been done.
“Danny explained that he wanted press pictures that drew on the spirit of Ashley’s paintings which were, in turn, inspired by the work of Edward Hopper, whose paintings are from the viewpoint of an outsider looking in. In particular he wanted a fairly close approximation of Ashley’s painting for the ‘Stay With Me’ single. Danny was definitely very heavily involved in the concept, but whether it originally came from Ashley or Danny, I don’t know. ‘Nighthawks’ by Edward Hopper was a definite inspiration.
“For ‘Stay With Me’, the two parts of the single used slightly different paintings. The remixes CD was in black and white. In the background is a very old-fashioned looking television which was the dominant light source in the painting. I was scratching my head about how to replicate that because televisions aren’t a light source. They don’t produce very much light. So I pottered off down the Harrow Road wondering what to do.
“I had a problem on my hands. I had about 10 days to try and get this sorted before we all decamped to Mallorca for the shoot. The answer came from Wandsworth dump one sunny afternoon. These were the days when you could actually access a tip and rummage around. You wouldn’t be able to do that now. Eventually, I found what I was looking for, which was a beaten-up old television very similar to the one in Ashley’s painting.
“I used a screwdriver and got the back off it and chucked that. Then I went to work on the back of the tube with a lump hammer, bish bash bosh! I’d never tried eviscerating a telly and if I’d been Lord Snowdon I’d have probably had two dozen assistants doing it. Anyway, there I was in the back of a skip with the attendants looking at me as if I was a bit mad. It took a while but eventually I had what I needed, a telly with nothing but a box and a screen.
“None of my regular assistants could make the gig, so I was working with somebody who had been recommended. Borrowing a friend’s studio we spent most of a summer Sunday playing Erasure CDs whilst working out how to get the telly to produce the background light on Vince Clarke that I needed. My assistant acted as a stand-in as we experimented with different combinations of lights, diffusers and gels and once we got that right we then had to create an entirely separate lighting plot for Andy in the foreground. Ashley had done a great job with his painting, but light just doesn’t work that way, unless you’re a painter. It took several hours of messing about to come up with a nailed-on result – essentially a ‘hot light’ setup similar to one that you would use for film, with lots of gels and diffusers. We probably spent about six or seven hours working on that in the rehearsal studio.
“When you’re planning to shoot top rank musicians, that’s definitely not the point where you start playing around with lighting ideas! Talented musicians often have incredibly short attention spans for anything away from music. This shoot was never going to be easy, so testing the lighting beforehand was absolutely key to it.
“Eventually, we got to a point where it worked, so the telly was bundled up in a big box wrapped in bubble wrap. It was receiving more attention than the rest of us poor little things. We also boxed up lights of various types that were needed, and we all met up at Heathrow with this vast amount of kit to fly to Mallorca.
“Andy already had his place in Mallorca then, so that’s why we were heading there. His villa is lovely, sitting high up on the hill overlooking the bay. However we did the photos with the TV at La Residencia, which apparently was Princess Di’s favourite hotel on the island. Arriving in late evening we piled off down to a beach-bar to meet up with Andy, a great ice-breaker with a round or two of tequila slammers. Andy was very chatty, very sociable very easy to get on with and put us all at ease, myself, my assistant, our makeup girl and Janice Issitt from Mute International.
“Breakfast the next morning was a bit eclectic, interrupted by some of the biggest hornets you’ve ever seen in your life dive-bombing our plates and sending my assistant diving for cover. After that we sorted out a temporary studio space in a conference room, which was the perfect size for the purpose. We spent the next two or three hours getting lights set up and testing it all out. It was all working fine. There was only one problem and that was that it was a very, very hot August day, and of course we were using continuous lights, so the bulbs made it even hotter. Andy finally surfaced about four o’clock in the afternoon and Vince probably arrived at about seven in the evening from London.
“The heat in the room was a bit of a nightmare. The building had a pantiled roof and as the day grew longer the heat grew stronger. It was full-on, August Spanish heat. Throw in the heat from the lights and no number of fans made a jot of difference. Every time you got it set up right and I was about to shoot, we’d need to reapply Andy’s makeup. It meant that it was all incredibly slow.
“At the same time we realised that there was a problem with the camera I was using. I desperately needed advice from someone as to what was going on. So between a combination of heat and all the rest of it, I decided, after maybe about three or four rolls of film, that it might be an idea to break for supper. We could then at least let the temperature cool down, and I could get on the phone to London find out what was going on with the camera. So we wrapped for a couple of hours, by which time the room had cooled off and we’d got the camera problem sorted out.
“Finally we got the whole thing done at about two in the morning and Andy and Vince piled off to bed. But the rest of us dived joyously into the swimming pool at two o’clock in the morning, to get rid of the sweat and just chill out for about half an hour before going to sleep.
“The next morning, just as I got to the bottom of the stairs, I heard this very loud, very entitled voice booming away at the reception desk saying, “Bloody disgrace. Absolutely disgraceful. What were you thinking, letting people in the pool at 2.30 in the morning and waking my wife and I? This is supposed to be a proper hotel!” All the rest of the rest of us crept past very quietly, silent as mice, suppressing giggles until we arrived on the terrace for breakfast.
“That afternoon, we went up to Andy’s to do more pictures and that was much, much more relaxed, although it still involved lighting. He’s got a music room in his house with terracotta floor tiles, white walls and a piano, blissfully cool. Around 4pm on that second day, we were messing around with lights in that room, and Vince was sitting on the window ledge. Andy sat at the piano for a light-check and without warning began to play a few random chords. Suddenly, his body lifted and he sang the opening phrases of ‘La Gloria’ from ‘Wild!’, blasting through a joyful, extended version of that amazing song.
“It was one of the most amazing, spine-chilling live performances I have witnessed. It was absolutely astonishing. Magical. Almost untouched by anything else I have ever heard. His voice just soars through improbable octaves. Andy Bell, naked, live and unplugged. No faking. I’ve never forgotten that, and it’s 27 years ago now. I can still hear it. It’s remarkable. I knew the song beforehand, but I’ve adored that song ever since. It’s a great track. Afterwards, he slumped on the piano with one eye open. I shot that.
“We ran through a few other setups until Vince said, “Have we got enough pictures now?” Vince was actually pretty pliable. He wasn’t rude, but he clearly didn’t enjoy the whole interminable process of being photographed and getting it right. What he actually wanted to do was have something to eat and get on with playing three card brag, which we did until more or less dawn in Andy’s kitchen. In an ideal world, I’d have liked to have had a third day with them, but that wasn’t going to happen.
“Janice had taken the afternoon off to go around the town, and she spent quite a bit of money on a painting. She had it with her at Andy’s house when we were setting up. She said that it was by a really top local artist. I remember Andy looking at it and asking “Where did you get that Janice? What did you pay for it?” She said she’d paid a few hundred quid. Andy said, “Look, I’ll give you the money, and I’ll take it back, we can do much better next time” In not so many words, he was basically saying, “You’ve been ripped off.” I thought that was pretty sweet. He could quite easily have looked at it and said nothing, but he just didn’t like to. He didn’t like the idea of her being done.
“Erasure were on tour in Autumn 1995, and I was invited to an after-show party with a girlfriend. I’d printed my favourite picture for them sign it for me – the one of Andy at the piano and Vince sitting on the windowsill. Andy signed first and then Vince added his moniker. He handed the print back with a grin, saying “Slowest photographer in the world!” – a wry comment about that first evening.
“I used a black and white version of that picture of Andy at the piano on my own Christmas card a few years ago. I’ve always liked that snap. It’s one of my favourite pictures. It’s certainly one of my favourite pictures of musicians. The photos from those two days are amazing and, 27 years later, I think they still work. I have really, really fond and special memories of those shots and our slightly crazy days in Mallorca.”