Beyond the ceiling with Blancmange – the Neil Arthur interview

Commuter 23: Neil Arthur, discovering another platform with Blancmange in 2016

Commuter 23: Neil Arthur, discovering another platform with Blancmange in 2016

As those who read these pages regularly (and I thank you all most sincerely, of course) may already realise, I’m prone to flashbacks these days. I should add though that it’s not some chemically-induced reaction to past demeanours in the interests of maintaining a rock’n’roll lifestyle. Honest.

In my case, it’s normally music-related, harking back to the days when the charts were still genuinely exciting (at least they were for me) and various hits provided the soundtrack to my life. And today’s slice of nostalgia involves yet another helping from the early 1980s, this time involving Blancmange.

I recall the first time I caught this unlikely outfit – sorry, but they were – performing the colossal Living on the Ceiling on Top of the Pops in late 1982, when I’d just turned 15, those Indian textures alone making me sit up and take notice. By the time of follow-up Waves the following February – another great cut from Happy Families – I knew these were no one-hit wonders, this impressionable teen enthusing about the sheer ‘Walker Brothers do electronic disco’ might of that epic single. Then, a year later, we had the neatly-titled Mange Tout LP (geddit?), this boy feeling the need to hit the floor (long before I’d have been allowed into any nightclub) for the more progressive dance of Don’t Tell Me. This certainly wasn’t tinny synth-pop.

As it turned out, the band bowed out after three albums – including seven top 40 hits and, having had to make do with borrowing their albums from my local library on cassette before, all I had to show for it were a few singles and my vinyl copy of the later Second Helpings best of collection. I’d long since moved on by then, but they remained in the background for me, and now and again I would sing their praises.

This was after all the band that jolted me (long before witnessing Elvis Costello’s heartfelt cover of Knowing Me Knowing You at Glastonbury ’87) into re-evaluating the songwriting of Abba, finally realising that (a) those Swedes wrote perfect pop and (b) that was no bad thing. Yes, Blancmange’s 1984 version of The Day Before You Came was gloriously melancholy and slightly jarring – just like the original.

There was far more to the Blancmange story (part one) of course, this new wave, alternative dance combo having been around since 1979. But it was only later that I became aware of the full tale, by which time I was based not so far from lead singer Neil Arthur’s old patch in Lancashire. Not as if he was still around. As for his band, they wouldn’t return to the scene until 2006. But it was well worth the wait.

Neil lives in Gloucestershire these days and is the sole surviving member, his fellow-founder and comrade-in-arms Stephen Luscombe (originally the main singer, and working as a printer when the band formed) stepping aside in 2011 after the release of an assured comeback album, Blanc Burn. What’s more, the days when Neil and Stephen were being chased by teenage girls appear to have long since gone.

The voice behind all those ‘80s hits (described by Stephen as ‘Cash meets Presley in cyber-space’) left Lancashire when he was around 19, living in London for 30-plus years, moving to the Cotswolds a decade ago. So why Gloucestershire?

New Album: Blancmange's Commuter 23

New Album: Blancmange’s Commuter 23

“Well, the family were growing up and we were looking for a slightly slower pace of life but somewhere within easy reach of London, where we’ve got friends and relatives, and also where it’s easy for getting up North. This ticked a lot of boxes, and we had mates here, we liked the area and decided it was time.”

You don’t have to speak to Neil for long to realise that despite being away from his native Darwen for 40-plus years he retains a broad East Lancashire accent. You only have to hear him say ‘where’ (‘whir’ to you Southerners). There’s plenty of evidence in his recordings too, from ramshackle early track Concentration Baby right through to sublime Blanc Burn opener By the Bus Stop At Woolies.

“Oh yeah, I’m very proud of that … although my mates in Darwen would say, ‘He sounds like a cockney!’”

Do you find you go back to talking even more broad East Lancashire when you’re back among them?

“Oh, I’m sure! Without a doubt, that’s true.”

At the time we spoke, I was only around half a dozen tracks into the latest Blancmange helping, Commuter 23, speed-listening amid my Dad Taxi Services duties. It wasn’t quite so easy to get your head around at first, but I was already enjoying it. And while for me there’s not enough of Neil’s great voice on this album – which seems to straddle the line between 2015’s Nil By Mouth instrumental offering and the same year’s fantastic Semi-Detached – there’s plenty to savour. And as I put to Neil, there’s always been a humour in his work, even when the subject matter and song textures are harder.

“Even if it is dark. That’s it, and it helps you cope with certain things in life, doesn’t it.”

Even the name of your record company these days – Blanc Check Records – makes me smile. I’m guessing there aren’t so many blank cheques coming your way the way the industry’s gone in recent years.

“It certainly has changed. It’s almost gone full circle to when I started, around the time of punk, with the explosion and the splintering of everything after that, and setting up of independent labels. Now here we are again – I’ve got my own little label and we get a distribution deal, and it’s like releasing Irene and Mavis again.”

Debut EP: Blancmange's Irene & Mavis

Debut EP: Blancmange’s Irene & Mavis

For the uninitiated, Irene and Mavis was the debut EP, dating back to 1980, Neil having joined forces with Hillingdon instrumentalist Stephen and (briefly) Laurence Stevens the year before, while Neil was studying art in Harrow. They continued as a duo, their first real exposure coming via a track on the seminal Some Bizarre Album, appearing alongside the likes of Depeche Mode and Soft Cell, leading to a contract with London Records. There was more to it than that, and he’ll give his thoughts on that shortly. But I suppose – I put to Neil – those of you who came from that post-punk independent era found it easier to get your heads around this current era of crowd-funding, pledges and so on.

“Yeah … it’s just a slightly different model.”

Of all the quotes to put on the band’s latest press release, there’s one by Moby that jumps out at me, the acclaimed New York singer-songwriter, musician and DJ  saying, ‘I listen to Blancmange obsessively; probably the most underrated electronic act of all time.’ Not a bad accolade. Has Neil got to know the man himself?

“No, no.”

I reckon I can hear your influence in Moby, and maybe there’s a feeling of Moby in your recordings in places. I’m guessing you’re not one to schmooze with big names though.

“Not really. If you meet someone and you get on with them you can develop a friendship, but not just because of what they do or have done. I’ve never been interested. It’s very kind when anybody says something complimentary about your work though … something constructive. I suppose those are the quotes people will pick up on too … as opposed to something my sister might have said.”

That’s true. I don’t know your sister, but I’m guessing what she’d say might be even more profound though.

“Oh bloody hell, yeah!”

I should add that there’s a lot of laughter in this interview. Mostly deadpan. Neil comes over very well, with a really good sense of humour. Not as if this is some kind of dating agency. His other half probably wouldn’t appreciate that. But – getting back to the music – there have been further complimentary quotes from Mojo, Q and various other revered publications. Is there an element when you see those of thinking, ‘Where were you before?’

“Well, I very rarely read a review. They’re not really for me to read!”

Two Sides: 2015's Semi Detached

Two Sides: 2015’s Semi Detached

A fair point. You don’t need to have your eyes opened to your work – you already know how good it is.

“Well, I don’t know about that. We all have egos and we all need lifting sometimes. But, for example, when I finish an album I don’t sit there listening to it. I listen to other stuff.”

So what’s been on Neil Arthur’s decks of late?

“I don’t think it would be a surprise to say I’m a huge Bowie fan and there’s been a lot of David Bowie played in our house recently. We play him a lot anyway, but I’ve just opened Spotify and he comes up straight away. Not just me either – it’s the house. There’s been a lot of that going on.

“I listen to lots of different types of music. I really like LCD Soundsystem – I have a lot of time for him (James Murphy). I like Matthew Dear and I’m still a big fan of Fats Waller. There’s an interesting band called Digital Arpeggio, a beautiful piece. And someone told me about a Japanese artist, Anchorsong, which I was listening to last week.”

You mentioned LCD Soundsystem in the singular, as ‘him’, which fits in with Blancmange now, seeing as it’s really just you – in the same way Leftfield is just Neil Barnes these days. Was there ever a thought that you should go out under your own name these days?

“Erm … I don’t know really. It may happen! But when Blanc Burn was put together we were working together, then the next stage I was re-recording our first album, Happy Families, and unfortunately Stephen wasn’t able to get involved. His physical condition didn’t allow him to do that. It got to a point where his well-being and his health were far more important than him coming around the country with me, doing live gigs. We still keep in touch though and he certainly passes comment on some of the music … in his own inimitable way!”

You come across – not least hearing the way you talk about your talent – as reluctant to hog the limelight. But in your position there can be no smokescreen and no one to hide behind. Are you comfortable with that?

Ceiling Emotion: Blancmange's breakthrough single, Living on the Ceiling

Ceiling Emotion: Blancmange’s breakthrough single, Living on the Ceiling

“As comfortable as I ever was. I have a choice – I don’t have to do it. I want to do it. You’ve just got to get on with it, and I’m lucky enough to still have the opportunity to do it. But it’s a very different world to what it was in the early ‘80s. The record companies don’t exist in the same way, and the only association I have with all that is when we’re dealing with our back catalogue. I’m very happy to be in this more independent structure.”

Does that occasionally involve the 1980s Rewind circuit?

“We’ve done a couple of them and it’ quite surprising – not least for them as we actually play new songs! But when you have a new album out, why wouldn’t you? I’m still releasing new material, because I’m interested in the future, so the whole ‘legacy’ thing sits a little uncomfortably with me. Yet that’s what people want to hear as well so I’m happy to play those songs. I can step into that world, but then step into that other world, which takes me down a slightly more leftfield route into the future.”

When we come and see you on this forthcoming tour, is the set based around Commuter 23 but with tracks from right across the Blancmange back catalogue?

“Yep, there will be a few songs from Commuter 23, there might even be a song from Irene and Mavis and certainly something from the first two or three albums. There’ll be something from Semi-Detached and Blanc Burn and maybe something from Nil By Mouth. You never know!

“And it will be me and David Rhodes, who has played guitar with us for decades and has also played with Peter Gabriel and who featured on Kate Bush’s series of gigs in London last year. He’s also worked with Talk Talk and lots and lots of people.”

At that point, Neil went on to mention his friend ‘Animal’ doing the sound, but ‘out front this time rather than on stage, so he’s not taking his Eno robe’. He also mentioned ‘Goo Goo’, who would be ‘performing miracles on uncontrollable synth’. At least I think that’s what he said. I could just put it all down to those flashbacks I mentioned at the outset. Fact is that we’re in for a great night either way.

Seeing as those live dates include the Library Theatre in your old hometown, I should ask what Darwen makes of its favourite son and his band these days?

“You’ll have to wait and see! They seemed to enjoy it last time we came along. It was nerve-racking first time, but we’ve been a few times now, so I know my way in. Actually, my old school was next door. Our English teacher used to say, ‘You’ve got no excuse for not reading books, with Darwen Library three spits away!’

Is that library, like many more in Lancashire, under threat from these draconic county council cuts being proposed at present?

Debut LP: Blancmange's Happy Families

Debut LP: Blancmange’s Happy Families

“I’m not totally sure, but there are certainly problems on that front. It’s just ridiculous – it really is. Where they make cuts … my God!”

Neil’s not one to sit on the fence on such issues, and on a similar front I lead him towards another political hot potato, seeing as there’s a song on the new album called NHS which talks of a ‘system being stretched beyond breaking point’. Is that track (he asks, leadingly) in danger of being split into several parts and then sold off, like its subject matter?

“Mmmm. It needs protecting at all costs … and supporting, as do the people who work within the NHS. We all seem to know that apart from certain people in charge. I think you’ve got it quite clear there – I’m not a supporter of the Conservatives. I don’t particularly like them.”

Commuter 23 is described as ‘14 tracks of electronic minimalism, sharp lyrics and wintry romanticism’. And while the sense of freedom and experimentation of Nil By Mouth is still there – that instrumental album having a lighter, ambient feel – the textures are rougher, more aggressive, and as the press release puts it, ‘ripped out of imagery that flickers between the surreal and the mundane; a sense of humour that is so dry it’s almost bleak and then at times sounds like it’s rising into a crazy, maniacal laugh’.

We mentioned Bowie before but I’m guessing Brian Eno was an influence too. The opener, Red Shift (Blame Thrower) and a few others have brooding qualities which make sense bearing in mind Neil’s love of krautrock and electronica, whereas the more ambient moments suggest Eno, including the mostly instrumental end to the album.

“He was a massive influence. The second album I bought was Here Come the Warm Jets, with the first being Roxy Music. Eno was a huge influence … without a doubt. You mention krautrock too, and I’m a big fan of Neu and Can. I also have a lot of time for Kraftwerk. And some of the more atmospheric pieces are probably influenced by that, and my love of films and documentaries.”

There are a few of you on the fringes of music – in very different areas – influenced by those German bands. Quite a legacy.

“Absolutely. I really like Can, so much so that when I did Semi-Detached I got the lads in to help with parts on a cover of I Want More. I worked with Malcolm Ross, playing a lot of football with him too. When we met he was in Orange Juice. and I became good mates with him and David McClymont (both in Josef K) and ended up in a project in the ’80s, Saturn 5, working with (Orange Juice producer) Dennis Bovell.

“I’ve still got a recording of a cover we did of a Can song then, although it took a couple of decades to do my version and get it on an album. Yes, my influences don’t always come from the pop world.”

Last Night (I Dreamt I Had A Job) on the new album is intriguing. Was that a nod to the life you somehow avoided through all this?

Mange Tout: The second Blancmange LP

Mange Tout: The second Blancmange LP

“It’s nothing to do with that. Some of it comes from personal experience, some of it from things I hear other people talk about, and observations, about the mess the world’s in. I’m really grateful to have got the chance to do what I do, but don’t be under any illusion – doing all this is very up and down and very hard work. It’s not like it was in the ’80s. It’s a job. But I don’t like to go into too much detail about the songs. It’s more important that people make their own minds up – as you would with a play or a book.”

Fair enough, but I have to mention the song Judge Mental, with its, ‘I Googled you, then I Googled myself too’ line – another that jumped out at me.

“I just find all that very funny. How desperate are you when you end up Googling yourself? And how many people must have done that? I’m also interested in the ridiculousness of words. And we all have to stop and think about what we do sometimes.”

Looking back, while you came through with bands like The Human League, Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Yazoo and OMD, I always felt you had more in common with groups like The The and were always more Peel than Pop. I suppose that went back to your more avant-garde independent roots.

“Well, we were fortunate enough to have been championed by John Peel. And I had the pleasure of meeting him several times and do sessions for him. His passing was a very sad loss. What an amazing man. He opened so many people’s eyes to different types of music. It was fantastic, that programme of his. We would all tune it at 10 o’clock, with our tape recorders ready!”

Then one day you found yourselves on there.

“What happened was that Mark E. Smith had been at a gig down at the Nashville. I thought it was when we went to see The Human League, but it might not have been. I gave Mark a copy of Irene and Mavis and we ended up writing to each other. He sent me a great letter, very funny, very articulate, and gave us some very good advice.

“Our music wasn’t exactly up his stratum but he really encouraged us to send it off to John Peel, and we did. John then played a couple of tracks off the record, and I don’t know if that helped out the process, but when we got our deal and God’s Kitchen came out Peel played us and got us in early doors for a session.”

So you could say … ahem … your rise was down to The Fall?

Blanc Pairing: Shadowy figures Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe

Blanc Pairing: Shadowy figures Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe

Neil laughs. “I do like The Fall though. I’ve a lot of time for them. Incredible lyrics.”

That’s pretty evident already, not least from the opening, inspired song of last year’s Semi-Detached. But back to those formative days – why did Neil choose Harrow School of Art for his studies? Was that just his excuse to get closer to London?

“It was where I was offered a place. I did my A-levels in Darwen at the Tech and before that was at Moorland (High School), where we were the guinea pigs of the comprehensive system. Then I did a year at art college in a Victorian building near Avenham Park, Preston, an absolutely beautiful setting.

“Actually, I remember the head of the course took me to one side one day and said, ‘I see you’ve applied to London and wonder if you’d consider modifying your accent’. I couldn’t believe he said to me! I’m very proud I’ve still got a little bit of my Lancashire accent. So I certainly did not take his advice. I’m very proud of where I come from.

“I also had a look at somewhere in Manchester, but then went to see about this illustration course and did something about the history of art as well. I was very interested in all that. And it was just the right time – 1976-77. Music was really happening and I had a great time … being chased by Teddy boys and beaten up by skinheads … just because I had green hair … having just left Darwen, where one of my mates said, ‘He’s the only punk in town’!

“Mind you, I talked about Roxy Music and David Bowie, but don’t get me wrong, I also loved Leo Sayer’s first album, Silver Bird, which was great. I saw him play Preston actually. But the kind of thing I was getting into wasn’t what you would hear at Barbary Coast in Blackburn on the jukebox.

“I really enjoyed doing that though – there was a really good soul scene in Blackburn, and I loved soul. A lot would go and get the late bus to Wigan and dance around the handbags, with talcum powder on the floor, whereas I’d go to the Golden Palms, then the rest would go off while I bailed out. That was enough for me. I wasn’t much of a dancer, although I loved the music.

“Then I started going out with a girl who had a cousin who’d been to the Lodestar in Ribchester. We started going down there and met the infamous Margo and went along for their Bowie and Roxy nights on Saturdays. That opened up this whole new world … then of course punk started to happen and I was off to London. But we saw some great bands at the Lodestar.”

I was oblivious to all that when I spoke to Neil, but have since discovered the story of landlady Margo Grimshaw, supposedly the ‘undisputed Queen of Clubs’, who established that particular Ribble Valley nightspot, and has since had her memoirs published. Whether Neil features in that book I don’t know, but he was soon off for his own taste of fame anyway. so was it fate that brought you and this lad from Hillingdon, Stephen Luscombe, together?

Double Act: Neil and Stephen, back in the day

Double Act: Neil and Stephen, back in the day

He laughs. “I don’t know about that. No. I’m not a believer in fate.”

Either way, when it did happen it all seemed to escalate fairly quickly for the band that became Blancmange, not least after a number of support dates with Grace Jones in late 1981. The duo soon bought some suits, ditched their scruffy northern student chic and joined the synth-pop party, to be embraced by the London club scene and the Blitz crowd, not least Steve Strange and early fan Rusty Egan.

Fast forward a bit, and I’ll never tire of hearing those big hits that soon followed. But I’m guessing there were times when Neil didn’t want to play those songs.

“Well … I didn’t play them for 26 years, which was great! I was doing other stuff and just trying to make a living … like everybody else does. Not everybody’s The Beatles, Elton John, Beyonce or Coldplay. You just get on and do your work, and that was a long time ago. But now I’m very happy to be able to play those songs again and thoroughly enjoy playing them live – those songs from that era. And they’ll get a good blast on this tour too.”

There’s plenty more to the Neil Arthur story that we didn’t get on to, including those missing years between Blancmange incarnations. That included his part in an artist-exchange project in Russia between the days of Glasnost and Perestroika, in which he supposedly dodged Hell’s Angels on a secret underground highway and appeared on the panel of a Russian talent show. Then there was the TV soundtrack work, including a few award-winning scores, and two bandss – Delirious and The Bhutan Philharmonic, the latter remixing Morcheeba and Texas. There was even a solo album, Suitcase. And that’s without going into band partner Stephen’s many side-projects before the pair returned as Blancmange.

As it turns out, Neil and Stephen resisted several offers to reform, despite regular communication and tentative work on new material. But finally, in 2010, perhaps encouraged by the use of Living on the Ceiling on a TV advert, the Faithless remix of Feel Me and the regular citing of Blancmange as an influence by the new wave of electro acts – from Hot Chip to La Roux – they began working on their first album for a quarter of a century.

The result was Blanc Burn, ‘an album of creeping atmospherics, crunching electronics, chart-friendly melodies and lyrics that explored the darker recesses of the human condition’. It was certainly worth the wait, and that album began a second age of creativity. Seek it out if you haven’t already – start with the wondrous The Western – kind of Living on the Ceiling pt. 2 – and take it from there. Then progress from there to lasst year’s equally-impressive Semi-Detached. Then there’s Nil By Mouth, and now we have Commuter 23. But I have at least one more thing to ask about Living on the Ceiling, which I believe was written about Neil’s relationship at the time …

“Is that right?”

Well, I guess it was more about that whole feeling of being hemmed in – about claustrophobia. But you’ve already told me you don’t like to explain your songs, so …

“Well, you end up there when you’re writing them, but I think if they were meant to be explained, I’d probably add sleeve-notes.”

Comeback Album: 2011's Blanc Burn

Comeback Album: 2011’s Blanc Burn

Fair enough. And where are you up to now on the domestic front, all these years on?

“I’ve got a partner and two children, growing up and taller than me, aged 21 and 15.”

Have you put them off from following your career route?

“One of them’s very active, although I’ve tried to put him off. I’ve enough bloody competition as it is – I don’t need any more. It’s hard enough without him writing as well!”

No chance of him joining the band then?

“No, our lad goes under the name of Apple Bottom and seems to be doing alright on his own. I was looking at one of his pieces on YouTube the other day and it’s got 2.5 million hits. He does a lot of DJ-ing and all that.”

Well, I won’t need to give him too much of a plug here then.

“I’m very proud really, he just gets on with it. It’s the same with my daughter really, you want them to enjoy things but sometimes can put people off by encouraging them too much. You’ve got to wait until they come to it. My son also went down the art route first of all, and he still does a lot of drawing.”

Was he asked to modify his accent too?

“Oh, bloody hell! Well, he doesn’t sound like a Lancastrian. More like a Londoner, I suppose. And my daughter sang on Semi-Detached, doing backing vocals. She’s got a lovely voice. I am a bit biased though!”

When did she first become aware of your secret pop chart past?

“We tried to keep it a secret from her for a long time, but she discovered YouTube! I told you before we made some mistakes in public! But it was probably when we came back and played Koko in London in 2011, I think that was the first time.”

By which time the world was finally ready for a Blancmange return.

“Oh, I don’t know about that! But we give it a shot.”

Ringing Endorsement: Neil Arthur waiting patiently for writewyattuk's call

Ringing Endorsement: Neil Arthur waiting patiently for writewyattuk’s call

Blancmange’s eight-date tour starts next week, with support from Bernholz, starting at The Brook, Southampton on Thursday, March 17th. They then play London The Garage (Friday, March 18th), Brighton Concorde 2 (Saturday, March 19th), Milton Keynes Stables (Monday, March 21st), Glasgow Audio (Wednesday, March 23rd), Darwen Library Theatre (Thursday, March 24th), Hebden Bridge Trades Club (Friday, March 25th) and Manchester Club Academy (Saturday, March 26th).

Meanwhile, Commuter 23 is out today (Friday, March 11th) on Blanc Check Records, with further details via this link, and the band’s website  and Facebook page. 

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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One Response to Beyond the ceiling with Blancmange – the Neil Arthur interview

  1. Pingback: The writewyattuk quotes of 2016, part one – January to June | writewyattuk

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