The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Reviews

Blancmange
The Very Best Of John Doran , July 27th, 2012 09:44

The popular view of synth pop is that it dealt with themes that were abstract, futurist, bleak, pretentious, dystopian and, more than anything else, coldly lacking in emotion; and while there's more than a sliver of truth to this, it's by no means the whole picture. Leaving aside for a second the fact that the entire genre owes an incalculable debt to an uplifting pop song about the joys of the German motorway system that references not one but two Beach Boys tracks, synth pop was always much more down to earth, parochial, suburban, emotional and similar to the pop music that came before and after it than the pallid faces, kohl-framed blank stares and boiler suits suggested.

Synthesizer early adopters OMD were geeky romantics with hearts full to the brim posturing as futurists. Tubeway Army's number one single 'Are "Friends" Electric?' was a lovelorn teenage lament encoded by Philip K Dick and Robert Moog. Take the electronics away from Depeche Mode MK I and you're left with a preppy barber shop quartet. And while The Normal were pure JG Ballard, Silicon Teens painted a picture of Daniel Miller which wasn't so much rubber-clad cyborg masturbating next to a crashed Ford Cortina... more English small town 1950s rock fan writing songs called 'Chip n' Roll'.

As the 1980s rolled onwards, the down-to-earth Englishness of the genre became all the more apparent. Soft Cell scored massive hits with Northern Soul standards, and their original material such as 'Bedsitter' and 'Say Hello Wave Goodbye' were pure 1960s kitchen sink drama. But no synth pop act were as utterly English as Blancmange. In fact it was Daniel Miller himself who first recognized this when he proclaimed them "the maiden aunts of techno". If other groups had to gradually sneak their Englishness into play, Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe luxuriated in it from the outset. The 34 tracks on this excellent double compilation are taken from their 1982 to 1985 tenure on London Records but even before this, when they were a little known cold wave-style unit, the track 'Holiday Camp' from the Irene And Mavis EP, says it all. As does their unglamorous nomenclature, their distinctively surreal art of a post war Britain full of dairy farms, pet budgies and garden parties.

If there's one song that the casual listener will know from Blancmange's career, it's 'Living On The Ceiling' which works by pairing classic synth pop sensibilities with a Middle Eastern riff and an Indian rhythm section including long term collaborator Pandit Dinesh on tablas and Deepak Khazanchi on santoor. Luscombe, who was brought up in Southall, has a lifelong interest in Indian culture, going on to work with the likes of RD Burman after the initial demise of the group. (The song was originally rejected by Radio One for the use of the word "bloody" and only allowed on Top Of The Pops after they replaced it with the word "cuckoo". Which is about as bloody British as it gets.) It's completely inauthentic but exactly how important is this anyway? It certainly wasn't a concern to Israel's Channel One Television who used it as the theme music to their Arabic News program.

The thing this compilation re-enforces however is that the pair were a fearsome songwriting partnership. 'Don't Tell Me', another big hit, uses a similar formula to 'Living On The Ceiling' with a glitzy clash of European, Middle Eastern and Indian music and rhythms to probably even greater effect. Its effect is immediately and boisterously galvanizing like an accidental three pint lunch break. There is a marginally darker feel to other early singles with lurching, belligerent electronic funk pop evident on 'Feel Me' and 'I Can't Explain'. Blancmange may have felt that they got chewed up and spat out by the music industry machine in ultra quick time, denying them the lengthy career they no doubt deserved but towards the end of this period they still managed to produce some sterling pop in the shape of 'Blind Vision' and 'What's Your Problem' while things were collapsing around them.

The years have not been kind to all of their synth settings and patches and circa 1984 production choices but conversely some lesser known singles have aged very nicely like the Walker Brothers heartbreak and strings epic 'Waves' and the dulcimer chiming cover of ABBA's finest moment, 'The Day Before You Came'.

In the mid-80s the evening programs on Radio One were dominated by jangling English guitar groups such as The Housemartins, The Wedding Present and The Smiths. These groups often made a song and dance about reacting against the pretension, the artiness and the slick 'soullessness' of synth pop and new romanticism. Instead, they chose a path of suburbanism, classic English miserabilism and the romance of the every day. I wonder how many of them railed against Blancmange without actually realizing how aesthetically similar they were.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.