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Blancmange

+ {Neil Arthur}

Whether or not BLANCMANGE is the most gorgeous dessert ever bestowed on mankind is a matter of dispute, but there is no doubt that frontman Neil Arthur, keyboardist Stephen Luscombe and a drum machine served a tasty blend of new wave electro/synth-pop apropos to their namesake dish. While many musos and pundits saw them as a cross between TALKING HEADS and DEPECHE MODE, the English duo added a sprinkling of icing to the charts by way of consecutive mouth-wateringly fresh hits, including Top 10ers `Living On The Ceiling’, `Blind Vision’ and `Don’t Tell Me’.
Formed in 1979 as a trio in Harrow, Middlesex, Arthur and Luscombe dropped off Laurence Stevens before entering the studio that autumn. Released in spring 1980 on their own Blaah imprint and limited to just 500 numbered copies, the 6-track `Irene & Mavis’ EP went virtually unnoticed as a second tier of new wave acts littered the burgeoning UK independent market. Similar in some respects to The HUMAN LEAGUE’s `Being Boiled’ or ABC’s Vice Versa outings of the same period, the experimental, non-confectionary aspect of the duo shone through on the simplistic and fun, `Concentration Baby’, `Overspreading Art Genius’, `Holiday Camp’ and ghost of Spector dirge, `Just Another Spectre’; available once again in 2013 and worth Spotify-ing.
Not a feature from the much famed Various Artists “Some Bizzare Album”, the quirky `Sad Day’ (which almost stole the show from contemporaries DEPECHE MODE, SOFT CELL, THE THE et al) was re-recorded for their forthcoming debut set. London Records had come calling in the meantime, and, with that, a string of chart activity throughout 1982, kicking off with the double-A sided minor hit `God’s Kitchen’ & `I’ve Seen The Word’; `Feel Me’ duly touched the Top 50. Also featuring the bouncy `Living On The Ceiling’, parent album HAPPY FAMILIES (1982) {*8}, gate-crashed the Top 30, staying in the charts for over nine months. At first blush one might’ve pigeonholed this debut effort – containing also `Wasted’ and classic fourth hit `Waves’ – as strictly an exercise in electronic pop; not so, as further listening revealed a penchant for intelligent lyricism and intriguing Middle Eastern undertones, accompanied by a warm female backing chorus.
The duo’s success carried on with what seemed an exclusive single release, `Blind Vision’, but with further hits in tow (`That’s Love, That It Is’ and `Don’t Tell Me’), the 45 was aboard MANGE TOUT (1984) {*7}, which stormed the Top 10; sadly, signed stateside to Seymour Stein’s Sire Records (plucked from Island), American audiences were less than impressed. A blaze, self-indulgent Top 30 rendition of ABBA’s `The Day Before You Came’ probably led to a downsize in fanbase, and apart from the glossy sheen of its coat, it was a case of being rather over-baked.
While BLANCMANGE is a proverbial dish best served cold, Neil and Stephen probably didn’t foresee the chilled and icy response that was to meet third set, BELIEVE YOU ME (1985) {*5}. Stalling outside the Top 50, with lead single `What’s Your Problem’ not much further up the pecking field (at No.40), the ingredients of the cool BLANCMANGE were decidedly sticky and stale. One could argue they were seeking balance with songs such as final flop `I Can See It’, but audiences on both sides of the pond simply didn’t have the patience while the duo went on an indefinite hiatus.
While both parties worked with the West India Company (with Asha Bhosle and Pandit Dinesh on 1989 set, `Music From New Demons’), NEIL ARTHUR was back in action for 1994’s SUITCASE {*5}. Featuring only one lonesome Top 50 entry, `I Love I Hate’, the set headed for the bargain bins as Neil subsequently chose to contribute several pieces for a Channel 4 documentary. Fast forward a decade or so, Neil was part of The Bhutan Philharmonic, alongside C.J. O’Reilly.
Surprisingly, or maybe not so much in this day and age, BLANCMANGE reunited toward the end of the 00s. BLANC BURN (2011) {*5} – showcasing the bubbly `Drive Me’ to the fruity `Starfucker’ – followed a spate of dates throughout the UK. Quietly released at first until Cherry Red Records took up the mantle, HAPPY FAMILIES TOO… (2014) {*6} was a dry run until fresh material was sought. Now down to just Neil Arthur when Luscombe fell ill, SEMI DETACHED (2015) {*6} was basically a solo set by the singer with added guitar from David Rhodes. As far removed from anything they’d did in the distant 80s, opener `The Fall’ (does he mean the group?) was 8 minutes that plodded on until screamo crescendos finally peaked. Lead single `Paddington’ followed a tight revamp of CAN’s `I Want More’, and every other track such as `It Didn’t Take Long’ and `Acid’ just bounce along without much fuss.
One’s very own Great British Bake Off, Neil Arthur’s one-time pop project BLANCMANGE packaged up yet another austere slice of ambience through 2015’s wholly instrumental set, NIL BY MOUTH {*6}. A lineage to film soundtracks rather than any “Blind Vision” of sorts, many would say this was a vanity project in the style of minimalists ENO, APHEX TWIN or JOHN FOXX and, by this comparison, the self-financed record sparkled intermittently with cakewalks `R And P’, `Cistern’ and `Crystals Of Zircon’.
Arthur’s vox restored for at least half the noodlings on quick-fire follow-up, COMMUTER 23 (2016) {*7}, the angle here was CABARET VOLTAIRE and/or THROBBING GRISTLE; prime examples arriving on the departure “lounge” of `Red Shift (Blame Thrower)’, `Last Night (I Dreamt I Had A Job)’ and `Flight 2157’. Neither living on a ceiling nor bouncing off its walls, the NYMAN-esque `N.H.S’ cut corners from the Heaven’s-waiting-room Bupa-boppers `Judge Mental’, `Jack Knife’ and `Waiting All The Time’.
© MC Strong 1994-95/GRD // rev-up CG/MCS Mar2015-Mar2016

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