Blancmange seemed cut out to be the perfect '80s synthpop duo. So why didn't it quite turn out that way? This set of deluxe reissues helps explain.
As far as 1980s synthpop bands go, Blancmange seemed to have all the ingredients for a relatively long career. They were British. They were a duo. They had the artsy French name (after a dessert pudding). They were Erasure before Erasure existed: They had a hit with an ABBA cover; they even looked like Erasure. Yet they came and went over the course of only four years and three albums -- although they did return briefly in 2011 with a fourth album, Blanc Burn. What happened?
This set of deluxe, three-disc reissues makes the story pretty clear. Ultimately, Blancmange tried to parlay success in the UK for mainstream acceptance in the United States and failed. Still, Blancmange is worthy just for the fact they never did anything truly bad, something that could not be said for many of their contemporaries. They were nothing if not stylish. And, as these reissues show, some of what they did was really quite good.
The 1982 debut Happy Families remains the high point. It is an impressively confident start, even if it is not an original one. The influences are almost entertainingly easy to pick out: OMD on the plaintive, moody balladry of “Wasted” and “Sad Day”; ABC on the grandiose, orchestrated pop of “Waves”, and Talking Heads on everything else, with Arthur’s bemused yet agreeable croon playing no small part. The nervous “I Can’t Explain”, with its soulful backing vocals and doomy, minor-key bass line, and twisted electro-funk love song “Feel Me” still sound taut and sharp, and Arthur and Luscombe never bettered them. The percussive, Eastern-tinged “Living on the Ceiling” got some club play in the states and is the Blancmange song most likely to show up on a ‘80s compilation, but it is ultimately unremarkable. Producer Mike Howlett (OMD, A Flock of Seagulls), keeps things from getting cluttered. Alas, not even he can prevent the overabundance of synthesized handclaps that date-stamp every song.
Mange Tout (1984) adds a more pure, upbeat type of synthpop to the band’s repertoire. “Don’t Tell Me” to accomplish this and seamlessly mix in the band’s Eastern fascination. It is so winning and shamelessly good-natured, it is amazing Erasure’s Vince Clarke wasn’t involved in writing it. Not surprisingly, it rewarded Arthur and Luscombe with their biggest UK chart hit, followed closely by the duo’s faithful take on ABBA’s “The Day Before You Came”. The Heads-style dance-pop is still there in the form of “Game Above My Head” and the superior, ominous “Blind Vision”. Elsewhere, the album sounds willfully eclectic, as if Arthur and Luscombe are trying to make up for their pop turn with the formless dissonance of “Murder” and the bizarro-disco of “All Things Are Nice”. The strategy only works on the lovely acapella gospel of “See the Train”.
Here is where the Blancmange trajectory becomes clear, at least in hindsight. Mange Tout was a considerable UK success, generating hits and going gold in the process. With major-label distribution behind them and a US deal with new wave standard-bearer Sire, hitting the big time in America was the logical next step. Helmed by radio-friendly American producer Stewart Levine, Believe You Me was the result.
Like contemporaries OMD, Blancmange sacrificed their UK indie credibility for a go at mass-acceptance in North America. Where OMD largely succeeded, though, Blancmange did not. Believe You Me drastically tones down the band’s quirky edge, smoothing their compositions into agreeably unthreatening pop which happens to go heavy on synths. The album is far from a disaster, though, and in a way, it is their most consistent. Opening track and single “Lose Your Love” is an adequate representation of the whole thing. The arrangement and synth work are quite pretty, but the crunchy bits of guitar leave no question as to the intended market. You why it was not a huge hit until you remind yourself the chorus is built on repeating the word “no” six times. Every other listen, it’s either great or grating. The rest of Believe You Me just-misses-the-mark in a similar fashion, with tracks like the moody, vaguely reggae “Paradise Is” coming across like nothing so much as latter-day Police. Arthur himself sounds bored, the charming chamber pop of “Lorraine’s My Nurse” notwithstanding.
These reissues will be heaven for hardcore fans, jam-packed as they are with extended mixes, b-sides, demos, radio sessions, and live tracks. Listening to the various outtakes presents a curious and somewhat frustrating proposition. Though most are instrumental, they provide evidence of a different band altogether, one that sounds moodier and truly experimental, not unlike Joy Division at times. It makes you wonder if Arthur and Luscombe were bowing to label pressure, or their own desire for mass acceptance, all along.
In any case, Blancmange left behind enough of a legacy to maintain a cult following, which allowed them to reunite in 2011 (Luscombe has since retired due to illness). These reissues cement the fact they were not without their own influence, either. It’s easy to hear why Moby was a fan of their eclecticism, use of technology, and emotive tone, while arty synthpop bands like Cymbals and Dale Earnhardt Junior Junior surely took note, too. If Blancmange is not essential, they are far from a waste of time.