The tour itinerary could belong to any struggling bar band. Nine dates, banged out on a typewriter, covering the entire month of April--a small club gig in Tulsa, a county fair in San Bernardino, a college gig in Douglas, Arizona. The trip culminates, promisingly enough, with a one-night stand-in beautiful Palm Springs--entertaining hot-to-trot prom couples in a high school auditorium.
It's precisely the sort of low-rent rendezvous most starry-eyed local outfits get sent on when they first hook up with that high-powered, fast-talking agent promising a big-time U.S. tour. But this, surprisingly enough, is the schedule issued by Arista Records for the hot hit-making girl group Expose. Yes, Expose, the Miami-based trio with eight consecutive Top 10 singles, a double-platinum debut album and a chart-scaling follow-up, What You Don't Know, already under their tight-fitting belts. Somehow, the pitchers-and-beer-nuts circuit just doesn't quite jibe with the group's champagne-and-caviar sales figures. Shouldn't all that platinum guarantee the gals a little more prestige on the road? Shouldn't eight trips to the toppermost of the poppermost at least place the group on a few more stages where they don't have to look up at basketball hoops?
"Shouldn't we be playing, like, arenas or large theatres?" Expose's Ann Curless joins in via phone from a less-than-five-star hotel in Kansas City. "Yeah, I agree. I totally agree."
The All-American blonde and the other singers in this ethnically-diverse trio--petite, short-haired Gioia (pronounced Joy-ah) Bruno is Italian born; wavy-maned Jeanette Jurado is Hispanic--often read about their group's phenomenal chart success in the trades. "And then we'll walk into a club in some small town," Curless sighs, "and we'll be thinking, `Why are we doing this?'"
Not all the stops on Expose's tour, of course, are the kinds of places where the group has to worry about competing with clacking pool cues. "It's kind of scattered," says Curless. "We'll do some nice theatres [she counts Saturday's Phoenix appearance at the Celebrity among the "nice" stops], and then we'll do a club that we'd rather not be in. And the high school auditorium," she adds with a tinge of outrage, "We haven't come to it yet, but I'm gonna yell and scream about that one. I don't know what that's about!"
WHEN EXPOSE WAS CREATED in 1985, it's a safe bet that a yelling, screaming blonde stirring up discontent on the road was nowhere in the blueprints. What Miami-based songwriter-producer Lewis Martinee had in mind was for the group to serve as an eye-catching vehicle for his ear-pleasing dance music. From the beginning, Expose was perceived--at least by critics--as the pre-fab studio creation of a Svengali-like disco don. Indeed, none of the three women who sang on the project's first dance hit, "Point of No Return," appeared on Expose's debut album, Exposure. The group was seen as merely an attractive line-up of mindless Stepford singers who simply sang, danced and dressed as they were told and never uttered a peep about asserting their own identities or assuming creative control over their careers.
In some ways, Curless admits, that's fairly close to how the Expose hit factory has operated to date. "I can't deny that there are sometimes disappointments," she says. "Like when Lewis brings in a song that one of us might really want to sing and another person ends up singing it because Lewis or Arista feels she has a more commercial sound on it."
The three have already been assigned specialties. Jurado, who sang lead on Expose's first No. 1 hit, "Seasons Change," now gets all the lush ballads. Bruno, who fronted rock bands before joining Expose, belts out the harder-edged stuff. And Curless, who studied voice in college, handles the more structured pop melodies.
Management isn't much more willing to field the singers' songwriting suggestions, Curless says. As for the opportunity for the women to write any of their own songs or at least offer some lyrical ideas, "I'd like to say Lewis has welcomed our input in that area, but no, he hasn't. Really, he's not as open-minded about writing as I think all three of us hoped he would be."
Martinee, who says he rejected the six or seven songs the singers submitted for the last album, responds: "If they write good material, definitely we're gonna use it. If they don't, then we won't. I mean, we're not gonna do it just to make them feel good. Obviously, they've gotta grow. They just started writing. I've been writing for fifteen, sixteen years."
Not that Curless can argue with the creative dictatorship's effect on the trio's chart success. "We can't really say it's a shame he hasn't let us do our own songs, because obviously the first two albums have done really well for us."
Still, the formula that's turned up a lengthy string of Top 10 hits has also left the group without the kind of personality that helps sell out arena-size venues.
"There's no question that we have had an identity crisis," Curless says. "It was hard for us coming in after three different girls had already made a record as Expose before us. People figured there were gonna be different singers on each record; they'd go, `Oh, this is just a female Menudo.'
"So when we were doing the second album, we were thinking, `Well, we're gonna come out like gangbusters this time, and everybody's gonna know us by name!' But, in fact, what happened is that during the interim between the first and second album, there was a whole slew of other female groups that came out and started cluttering the market. So when we came back, it was like, `Oh, who are you guys? Expose? Do you do that song, "(It Takes) Two to Make It Right" [a recent hit by the similar-sounding trio Seduction]?' It got confusing, and I think we got a little bit lost in the crowd."
Now, figuring out ways to stand out amidst a host of hit-making harems is Expose's job one. "We really were never promoted as a group as strongly as we should have been," Curless says. "So now, working on the image of the group is something we are constantly submerged in. We're always trying to figure out the right angle: Is it clothes? Is it attitude? Is it interviews?"
Curless laughs, aware that no one has ever accused Expose of being an analytical think tank. "Trust me," she insists. "We do think about this stuff."
CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF, the group's visual image isn't the only thing Expose's singers think about. Despite Lewis Martinee's control over the group's recorded sound, he doesn't insist on chaperoning them everywhere, Curless says. This gives Expose an opportunity to expand their artistic horizons in a variety of ways.
"Lewis' most active part in the group is in the studio, because he obviously writes and produces most of the material himself," Curless says. "But after all the studio work, after the album is completed, the three of us really assume complete control. When it comes to touring, we hire our own personnel, we put our stage set together. We have a lot to do with the videos, developing concepts with the directors. So there's a lot that goes on after the album is released that's all us."
Curiously, Martinee's hands-off attitude toward the group's live act may have something to do with the different world Expose occupies on the concert circuit. Showing their stuff live may matter more to the singers themselves than to Arista or Martinee, who could doubtlessly move as much product whether the trio were live human beings or Saturday morning cartoon characters.
Expose did perform to prerecorded backing tracks on their first tour of the states, but now the group travels with a live five-piece band. Curless, Jurado, and Bruno are hoping the skeptics who come to see three female Monkees fall on their faces in person will be converted by the show.
"That's one of the things we're trying to promote," says Curless. "That we are live singers, not just voices on tape. . . . And the fact is, there are a lot of groups making records now that are just studio groups. They're unable to perform live, or else they go out on tour and lip-synch to tracks.
"I think it's time for our own artist development to come through and for people to understand that we're more than puppets in someone's studio project." But proving their artistic ability to audiences isn't the only thing Expose's been trying to accomplish on this tour. On their bus and in their hotel rooms, the three have even been--Curless almost whispers it--"writing material that we're gonna submit for the third album. And hopefully, Lewis or [Arista president] Clive Davis will like at least one of our songs and we'll have something from one of us on the next album."
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Curless, alas, has her doubts about cracking into Arista's songwriting pool just yet. "The thing is, Clive Davis has a whole host of writers that he's submitting material from on the next album, including Dianne Warren and Burt Bacharach," she sighs. "So with that kind of competition, we may just have to say, `Yeah, we'll let our writing careers slide for another album.'"
Expose will perform at Celebrity Theatre on Saturday, April 21. Show time is 8 p.m.
"Three different girls had already made a record as Expose before us. People figured, `Oh, this is just a female Menudo.'"
"I think it's time for people to understand that we're more than puppets in someone's studio project.