Thursday, July 3, 2008

Blancmange Rise To The Ceiling

U.K. duo Blancmange have a reputation in Australia of being ‘one hit wonders’, but in fact they had a string of hits in their homeland stretching over several years. The 1979 vintage recipe for the musical variety of Blancmange was; take one vocalist/guitarist Neil Arthur and add one keyboardist Stephen Luscombe and viola there you have it, a new wave synth-pop act. Well, actually there was a little bit more to it than that.

Originally calling themselves L360, Arthur and Luscombe (sounds a bit like a comedy duo) decided that to rise in the music biz they needed a catchier name, and so Blancmange came into being. They recorded an EP titled ‘Irene And Mavis’, but their big break came after contributing the song ‘Sad Day’ to compilation of tracks by (as then) unsigned new wave acts. The record ‘Some Bizarre Album’ was compiled by DJ Stevo and also featured contributions from future heavy hitters Soft Cell and Depeche Mode. The exposure led all three acts to be offered recording contracts, Blancmange eventually signing to London Records in early 1982.

For a brief period Blancmange expanded to a trio, including drummer Laurence Stevens, but overhead costs were high and so Stevens was let go in favour of a drum machine. Blancmange released two singles in the U.K. during the first part of 1982, both registering as minor hits on the charts; ‘God’s Kitchen’ (#65) and ‘Feel Me’ (#46). But Blancmange would find the recipe for chart success with their third single ‘Living On The Ceiling’.

Exotic drums, tablas and sitars were laid over a synth pop base, giving the song a very ‘Middle Eastern’ feel, and ‘Living On The Ceiling’ cracked the top 10 in both the U.K. (#7) and a few months later Australia (#5). The music video featured the duo in and around exotic Egyptian locales, which come to think of it was a popular motif for music videos in 1982 - two videos from that year shot in exotic locations come to mind, Duran Duran’s ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ and the classic Icehouse track ‘Street Café’. Whilst ‘Living On The Ceiling’ was their only Australian top 50 hit, it was the first of a string of major hits for Blancmange at home.

The album which yielded ‘Living On The Ceiling’ was ‘Happy Families’, which performed very well in Australia (#17) and the U.K. (#30) and was a cross between Talking Heads and O.M.D. The follow up single ‘Waves’ (#19) consolidated the duo’s position on the charts. Blancmange quickly released a new single ‘Blind Vision’ which found its way to #10 in the U.K. in mid ’83, followed soon after by ‘That’s Love, That It Is’ (#33). Both songs featured on Blancmange’s second album ’Mange Tout’, which climbed as high as U.K.#8 following its release in May 1984. Around the same time they registered their third and final top 10 hit in Britain with ‘Don’t Tell Me’ (#8). By this stage Blancmange were painting on an even broader musical canvas, incorporating string and woodwind arrangements into several tracks. The final single lifted from ‘Mange Tout’ saw Blancmange attempt a cover of the recent ABBA hit ‘The Day Before You Came’. The single version was cut down from the nearly 8 minute length of the album version, and peaked at #22 in the second half of ‘84.

For Blancmange the big flop would occur with their third album ‘Believe You Me’. It appeared nearly 18 months after ‘Mange Tout’ and was preceded by their last top 40 hit ‘What’s Your Problem?’ (UK#40). The problem was that Blancmange seemed to have evolved a bridge too far from their original formula and had outgrown their original mainstream audience. Having been recorded in seven different studios under the guidance of four different producers, maybe it was a case of too many cooks spoil the Blancmange (feel free to take a moment to cringe before reading on). The album spent just two weeks inside the British charts, peaking at #54 and realising just one more minor hit with ‘I Can See It’ (UK#71). This was a band that had grown and matured, bad sadly not in alignment with the tastes of most record buyers. Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe saw the writing on the wall and decided to call off desert, er I mean Blancmange later in 1986.

Luscombe then focused on a project that had been bubbling along in the background for some time. The West India Company was a trio featuring Bombay based singer/actor Asha Bhosle. The album ‘New Demons’ was released in 1989, featuring traditional Indian style music treated to Luscombe’s stylistic brush. Arthur meanwhile worked away on his own material which eventually led to the 1994 solo album ‘Suitcase’.

Like so many of their contemporaries have done over recent years, Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe returned to their musical roots during 2006 to reform Blancmange and record some new material, which still looks to be in the works.
A small piece of trivia - there were two versions of the single mix recorded, one featuring the original line "I'm up the bloody tree", and a radio friendly version with the revised line "I'm up the cuckoo tree" - perhaps to appease the BBC but that's just a calculated guess.

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