“Blancmange has been part of the soundtrack to my life ever since Happy Families was released. Cannot wait to exact revenge on my neighbours by cranking ‘Game Above My Head’ to 13 on the hi-fi between 3-4am. They just make me happy. Take THAT, Christopher Guest!” JOHN GRANT
‘Listening to Blancmange obsessively. Probably the most under-rated electronic act of all time.’ MOBY
From the start you can hear how Blancmange crackle with inventiveness and intelligence – lyrics that fork out the surreal from the mundane and music brimming with pop suss and a whirling, experimental sense of adventure. Happy Families, released in 1982, feels like a fully-formed electronic pop classic. Highlights include ‘Living On The Ceiling’ (a striking Number 7 hit in ’82 thanks to its mix of electronics with tabla and sitar), the melancholia of ‘Waves’, ‘Feel Me’s call-and-response electro-funk, the intense ‘I Can’t Explain’ and ‘God’s Kitchen’ which is an early example of Neil Arthur’s gift with images and wordplay (surely he’s one of the pop music’s best lyric writers). However the depth and skill of the songwriting almost disguises the band’s primitive roots as DIY sound experimentalists. Arthur and Stephen Luscombe first got together in 1979, creating weird and slightly ‘battered’ home-made, ‘cassette tape’ music with vacuum cleaners and kitchen utensils. Their debut EP release Irene And Mavis in April 1980 is a wonderfully original oddity – homespun, claustrophobic, even beautiful in places. A year later the gorgeously fragile ‘Sad Day’ appeared on Stevo’s 1981 Some Bizzarre compilation album (documenting underground electronic bands of the era including The The and Soft Cell) and this proved to be their first significant breakthrough, alerting London Records who signed them to a record deal a few months later.
You can hear some early demos on CD2 of the new Happy Families re-issue, hinting at a strange, otherworldly ‘shadow’ Blancmange, not a million miles away from Joy Division, Devo and Cabaret Voltaire. It’s a fascinating set, a whole spidergram of possible futures, some of which were later developed and explored by Arthur with Blancmange albums Nil By Mouth (2015) and Commuter 23 (2016).
Happy Families also features long-term guitarist David Rhodes (famous for his work with Peter Gabriel, Scott Walker and Kate Bush). Rhodes provides a vital link from the 1982 debut to the forthcoming Blancmange album, Unfurnished Rooms (due out in autumn 2017). ‘David Rhodes who we’d first met while supporting the band Japan on tour in 1981 joined us, to add better guitar than I could imagine or play,’ says Neil Arthur. ‘He nicked Japan’s beers and gave them to us and became a friend for life.’
Blancmange’s second album, Mange Tout reached Number 8 in the UK charts in 1984 and spawned more hits – notably ‘Blind Vision’ (no 10), ‘Don’t Tell Me’ (No 8) and their fantastic cover of ABBA’s ‘The Day Before You Came’ (much loved by ABBA who let them use footage from their original video for the Blancmange promo). It signals another change for the band’s music, now increasingly built around deep, propulsive dance grooves – no wonder John Grant likes to turn ‘Game Above My Head’ to 13 on his hi-fi. The band produced this track with John Owen Williams and it indicates exactly where they were heading musically, culturally and geographically – in fact to New York and Sigma Sound with disco producer John Luongo (credits included mixes for The Jacksons, Patti LaBelle and Sly Stone). ‘Once we’d shaved our heads and hired yellow bikes to get around Manhattan, we felt perfectly at home,’ recalls Arthur. ‘I slept out a couple of times in Central Park for inspiration. None came along. One day at the studio I was recording noises and clips from the TV when I noticed the lift indicator showing the said lift was on its way to our floor from street level. Out jumped this small woman with what looked like a pizza delivery bag over her shoulder asking for Jellybean (DJ/Producer). I pointed at a door to one of the other studios and off she went saying thank you. That was the only time I’ve met Madonna – and I thought she was delivering a pizza!’