Saturday, 22 January 2011
43 Mange Tout - Blancmange
Purchased : July 1985
Tracks : Don't Tell Me / Game Above My Head / Blind Vision / Time Became The Tide / That's Love That It Is / Murder / See The Train / All Things Are Nice / My Baby / The Day Before You Came
Good old W H Smiths had another cassette sale in the summer of 1985 which enabled me to catch up on some of the albums I'd missed the year before.
This was Blancmange's second and most successful LP released in June 1984. They were another odd couple synth act, gregarious Northern giant Neil Arthur ( the only pop star to hail from my wife's birthplace ) and scrawny synthster Steve Luscombe a Londoner four years Arthur's senior. They were around at the dawn of synthpop but took a while to get into commercial focus; after releasing an EP of avant-garde electronica called "Irene And Mavis" in 1980, they didn't put out a proper single until the excellent "God's Kitchen / I've Seen The Word" , a minor hit in April 1982, making their commercial breakthrough with the single "Living In The Ceiling" six months later.
Discounting a school punk band in 1980 they were the first band I ever went to see in May 1984.
This was released on the back of another Top 10 single "Don't Tell Me" which opens the LP. It was never one of my favourite songs ; it seemed to repeat the "Ceiling" formula - dance beat, Indian flavourings, troubled lyric - without that song's air of menace. It is an effective pop song with Pandit Dinesh's chattering tabla adding percussive colour and Neil Arthur, always an under-rated vocalist, adopting a softer tone on the verses then reverting to his customary baritone somewhere between Curtis and McCulloch on the chorus.
"Game Above My Head" is next. A less vocal version had already appeared on the 12 inch of their fourth single "Waves" and indeed the amount of previously-released material on the LP was disappointing. That said it's a great song, almost a synthpop Green Manalishi with Arthur suffering disturbed sleep and visions - "don't tell me I'm looking well" . Bobby Collins's spartan bass recalls Derek Forbes on Simple Minds's Seeing Out The Angel . There's a brief moment when the music approaches a resolution then the previous verses are repeated to deny this.
The oxymoronic "Blind Vision" follows , another top 10 single released a full year earlier. This hints even more strongly at mental illness with a side-helping of sexual innuendo -"it's getting harder ooh it's getting hard" while a full compliment of guests including Peter Gabriel cohort David Rhodes on guitar and the ubiquitous Jocelyn Brown brew up a storm of white funk. It owes a great deal to Talking Heads particularly Arthur's exclamatory vocal.
"Time Became The Tide" is the equivalent to "Waves" on the first LP , a big ballad furnished with strings, bells and grand piano like an early 70s Colin Blunstone track or Clifford T Ward. I'm not sure the song, chockfull of nautical metaphors, is strong enough to support the lush arrangement despite Arthur's careful vocal. It feels more like a demonstration of musical prowess than real inspiration.
The side concludes with "That's Love That It Is" a less successful single from November 1983 that was in and out of the charts so fast I'd only heard it a handful of times. The reason was probably the similarity to "Blind Vision" although it's more of a song. Unusually for them it's also very wordy with no real chorus which becomes a bit exhausting by the end of the track.
Side Two is thinner fare starting with "Murder" a non-song with aspirations to be Yello or Cabaret Voltaire. They could do this sort of hard electro-funk competently enough but they were much better as a pop band and this is a long five minutes of clattering percussion, guitar squall and tuneless chanting.
"See The Train" is a mild diversion, an a capella track with a multi-tracked Arthur doing a barber shop quartet routine apparently about a man preparing to throw himself under a train. Again, the song just isn't strong enough to achieve the desired effect.
The sample-heavy "All Things Are Nice" is interesting for its similarities to Paul Hardcastle's 19 which was released the following year. particularly a sample about First World War casualties. In turn it owes a lot to Byrne and Eno's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts project with David Rhodes again on hand to add the requisite choppy guitar. It's B-side material really.
"My Baby" at least returns us to the world of the pop song a tongue-in-cheek tale of domestic strife which Arthur sings in the angst-ridden style of OMD's Andy McCluskey. The line "My baby's got a face like a long wet Sunday" shows that Arthur hasn't forgotten his Lancastrian roots but otherwise the song's rather unremarkable and could pass for The Thompson Twins.
The album closes with an extended version of "The Day Before You Came" the last single release from the LP in August 1984. The song was the last ever recorded by Abba and charted modestly less than two years earlier. Blancmange's version was only the second Abba cover to chart (following Sweet Dreams's Honey Honey in 1974 ) and beat the original by 10 places when it peaked at 22. The band's motivation for recording it seems to have been to raise its profile after such a poor chart showing and indeed its critical stock has risen over the years. It describes a mundane way of life that is about to be turned upside down by a fateful encounter but whether that's a good or bad thing is left open and the melancholy melody suggests that all may not be well. It could even be interpreted as a suicide song. The boys don't really explore that angle; although it's played fairly straight they substitute Barbara Cartland for the more cerebral Marilyn French as the author being read in bed and Arthur splutters the name out to underline the preposterous notion. The original's sparse arrangement is fleshed out by Dinesh's tablas and Valerie Ponomoren's trumpet. It has its merits but I think the original wins out.
Overall it is a rather disappointing LP and, despite having the biggest quota of hits, the weakest of the three they recorded in their original lifetime. At the time of writing they've just reunited so we will see if the new LP can better it too,