THE ‘MAIDEN AUNTS’ OF ELECTRONIC MUSIC
By Paul Lester
The last time Blancmange did a major interview, it was 1986 and they had just been chased down a motorway by a group of girls. This was not an uncommon experience for Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe, the two members of the duo who, along with Human League, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Yazoo and OMD, made edgy but accessible synthpop with croony vocals the de rigueur sound of the early-to-mid-80s. Why were the pair being chased by said gaggle of excitable young women? Because at the time – i.e. between 1982 and 1985 – Blancmange had seven top 40 hits and two top 40 albums and they were bona fide, if unlikely, pop stars.
Unlikely? They were if you consider that they met eight years earlier when Neil (from Darwen in Lancashire) was studying at the Harrow School of Art and he and Stephen (a local boy from Hillingdon in Middlesex then working as a printer) were in a variety of alternative rock bands, with names like The Viewfinders and Miru, that ranged from the experimental to the plain mental – Stephen’s group, for example, would regularly turn up at gigs with “instruments” including washing machines and Hoovers. When they decided to join forces circa 1978, with Neil on lugubrious vocals and guitar and Stephen (actually the original vocalist) on keyboards, their motto was “anything goes” and it showed, what with their use of Tupperware and tin foil for percussion, tape loops and borrowed synth equipment. Following a mad moment during which they toyed with the idea of calling themselves A Pint Of Curry, Blancmange were born.
They became “official” in 1980 with the release of their debut EP, Irene and Mavis, a 1000-copy affair issued on seven-inch on the Blaah Records imprint (complete with the image of the nattering old dears on the cover that led Daniel Miller of Mute Records to christen Blancmange the “maiden aunts of techno”).
Further exposure came over the next 12 months when they toured as support to eccentric performance artist and multi-instrumentalist Nash the Slash and appeared alongside Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and The The on the celebrated Some Bizzare compilation album of new electronic pop acts with their track Sad Day. This would attract the attention of London Records and, in 1982, secure the pair a major label deal.
At this point, Blancmange were still very much a leftfield outfit immersed in the avant-garde independent (not indie) music of the day, fans of everything from Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle to Pere Ubu and Red Crayola.
“We listened to everything that John Peel used to play,” recalls Stephen. “And then,” adds Neil, “he played us…”
It was on the late DJ’s legendary night-time Radio 1 show that Blancmange’s electro-fied version of the ancient ‘Tottenham Sound/Merseybeat’ song Concentration Baby (by The Dave Clark Five) got its first “spin”. Peel responded in typically blasé style, remembers Stephen. “He said it was ‘interesting…’”
It was a classic synthpop move – as with Human League’s version of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ and Soft Cell’s rendition of Tainted Love, Blancmange were highlighting the distance pop had travelled since the 60s by giving it the sci-fi futurist treatment. Blancmange were as modern as they came – a “small, mobile, intelligent unit”, as Robert Fripp would have it, and a duo like OMD, Yazoo and Soft Cell, they were opposites who somehow worked together. “We were like chalk and cheese,” says Neil, “but we were kindred spirits. We often battled out our ideas, but I like that.” “It gets the juices going,” adds Stephen.
The first hint that Blancmange’s combination of Neil’s post-Bowie croon – or, as Stephen puts it, “Cash meets Presley in cyber-space” – and Stephen’s inventive, playful electronics would connect with the British public came following their fateful support dates with avant-funk diva Grace Jones in late 1981. “That,” decides Stephen, “was a sudden leap in our career.” Suddenly, Blancmange upped the ante, smartened themselves up, bought some suits, ditched the scruffy northern student chic and joined the synthpop party. “Everyone was in that audience,” he recalls, “the whole London nightclub scene, the Blitz crowd. Steve Strange et al … Rusty Egan became a big fan!”
By the following April, they were heading for the charts: the Talking Heads-influenced God’s Kitchen b/w I’ve Seen The Word peaked at number 65 in the charts, and in July ’82 they just missed the top 40 with follow-up single Feel Me. That October, they did it: the supremely infectious Living On The Ceiling reached number 7 and remained on the charts for 14 weeks. With its blend of Indian textures and World Music flavours with primitive but powerful electronics and a melodic hook that refused to budge, Living On The Ceiling – actually a song about Neil’s relationship with his wife – became a synthesizer staple to rank alongside the best of the League, the Mode and the Cell.
There followed tours with Depeche Mode and Japan and further hits – Waves (number 19 in February 1983), Blind Vision (number 10 in May ’83), That’s Love, That Is (number 33, November ’83), Don’t Tell Me (number 8, April ’84) – that made Blancmange ubiquitous during the synthpop/new romantic era, even though they remained outsiders throughout. As Stephen puts it, “We never had a plan, we just evolved. We made it up as we went along. We never had an agenda.”
In July ’84, Blancmange made the last of their many appearances on Top Of The Pops when they charted at number 22 with an unexpected cover of Abba’s The Day Before You Came. In September ’85 they had their last top 40 entry with What’s Your Problem? and in May ’86 they grazed the top 75 for the final time with I Can See It. They had released three albums of dark, compulsive electronic pop – 1982’s Happy Families, 1984’s Mange Tout and 1985’s Believe You Me – and they realised they had probably taken things as far as they could. They had achieved everything they set out to do – including doing the foxtrot with Elton John and having Leigh Bowery design the costumes for their 1984 tour – and they were finding the pressures and demands of pop a pain. “We had started losing momentum, fashion- and music-wise,” admits Stephen. He and Neil could see change a-coming in the form of acid house and the new rock of the Pixies and Sonic Youth, and besides, they knew that Blancmange had to end, for the sake of their friendship.
They didn’t exactly retire from the music industry. Neil worked on a project called Saturn 5 with Malcolm Ross and David McClymont of Josef K and Orange Juice and reggae producer Dennis Bovell. There was an artists exchange programme with Russia during Glasnost and Perestroika during which Neil dodged Russian Hells Angels on a secret underground highway and appeared on the panel of a Russian talent show. He began composing music for TV back in the UK – his first commission was for a documentary about the Czech secret police – and since then he hasn’t stopped, with award-winning scores for everything from The Slumdog Children of Mumbai and Indira Gandhi: The Death of Mother India to Secret Lives: Errol Flynn and the ITV World Cup. There were further pop forays: a band called Delirious which led to a deal with Chrysalis and a Radio 1 Record of the Week and another outfit called The Bhutan Philharmonic who did remixes for Morcheeba and Texas, as well as a solo album entitled Suitcase.
Meanwhile, Stephen collaborated with longtime Blancmange associate Pandit Dinesh as West India Company. He worked with Kate Garner and Princess Julia in a group called Deep Space impressively dismissed by London Records as “too camp”, provided the music for La La La Human Steps’ New Demons world tour and recorded an album for EG Records. Like Neil, he did soundtrack work for film and TV – for example, Masala starring Saeed Jaffrey. He spent six months recording in Bombay with Asha Bhosle, RD Burman, Hope Augustus, Boy George and MC Kinky. There was a major advertising campaign for Tilda Rice, music for the Royal National Theatre touring production Wicked Yaar, music for the Channel 4 series Lonely Planet, a score for BBC film The Legend of Leigh Bowery, and remixes for Apache Indian. Despite his numerous achievements, however, Stephen insists the “highlight of my life” was being recognised by Peter Cook at a party, at which the legendary comedian apparently turned to him and declared, in his best Derek & Clive voice: “You’re in that group, int ya? Custard, innit…?”
Throughout it all, Neil and Stephen resisted offers to reform, although they did communicate regularly and even tentatively worked on new material. Finally, in 2010, perhaps encouraged by the use of Living On The Ceiling on the Berocca TV advert, the Faithless remix of Feel Me or the regular citing of Blancmange as an influence by the new wave of electro acts, from Hot Chip to La Roux, they began working on their first album for a quarter century.
The result is Blanc Burn, an album of creeping atmospherics, crunching electronics, chart-friendly melodies and lyrics that explore the darker recesses of the human condition. There may have been a 25-year gap between it and the third, but Blancmange’s fourth album is worth the wait in gold.
“We made this new album on our terms,” asserts Stephen. From the titles – Ultraviolent, Starfucker – there is a sense of no-compromise about Blanc Burn. There is a certain quality to the language, a deliberately bathetic use of banal imagery on By The Bus Stop @ Woolies and I’m Having A Coffee, that, combined with the insidious melodies, has the power to unsettle, even disturb. “I wouldn’t have used the word ‘creepy’ to describe it,” says Neil, who writes the lyrics. “I would!” exclaims Stephen, who as ever works on the music with Neil. “The whole album has a darkness about it. It’s like the culmination of all our experiences since we were born.”
Even given the critique of the national obsession with celebrity that is Starfucker, the breakdown in society evinced in Ultraviolent or the preoccupation with sex during I’m Having A Coffee, Blanc Burn is a typically accessible Blancmange melange of exotic spices and piquant electronics, with a bit of sci-fi bossa nova on Don’t Forget Your Teeth thrown in for good measure.
It’s good to have them back.
“It’s probably a better time for us to ‘return’ than 10 years ago,” considers Stephen.
“Well, we’re not leaving it for another bloody 10,” jokes Neil.
Are they the Gilbert & George of electro-pop?
“There is a serious side to us,” offers Neil, “but there is also, in the back of our minds, the need to have a laugh. We’re absurdists. Even in our darkest moments…”