Happy Families Too…
Native Lancashire lad Neil Arthur and Hillingdon domiciled Stephen Luscombe first met at Harrow College of Art and began experimenting in various bands. Eventually forming a duo, after a close call with the name A PINT OF CURRY they opted for BLANCMANGE in 1978.
1980 saw the release of their debut EP ‘Irene & Mavis’ with the pair adopting the aliases of Mavis Secostas and Irene ‘Disco’ Sinden. They then went on to play as support for NASH THE SLASH which lead to their first composition ‘Sad Day’ being given a slot on the iconic ‘Some Bizzare Album’ which also featured the then unknown combos DEPECHE MODE and SOFT CELL.
In late 1981, a support spot for GRACE JONES attracted the attention of The Blitz crowd, thus thrusting them into a new sphere. Further support tours with DEPECHE MODE and JAPAN led to London Records offering BLANCMANGE a record deal in 1982. The singles ‘God’s Kitchen’, ‘Feel Me’ and ‘Living On The Ceiling’ followed, with the latter being their biggest hit reaching No7 in the charts while the parent album ‘Happy Families’ got to No30. After two further albums ‘Mange Tout’ and ‘Believe You Me’, BLANCMANGE split in 1987 but 2011 saw BLANCMANGE reform and back to form with a new album ‘Blanc Burn’.
BLANCMANGE commence touring again in November by revisiting their debut album ‘Happy Families’. They have also recorded a new limited edition version for the occasion entitled ‘Happy Families Too…’ which will only be available on the tour. In addition, there will be a 10” vinyl reissue of their debut EP ‘Irene & Mavis’ 33 years after its conception and at a later date, a deluxe special remixes edition complete with extra tracks including one old favourite that has never made it onto vinyl.
In the plush offices of Ditto in London, BLANCMANGE’s Neil Arthur kindly chatted to The Electricity Club about re-recordings, reissues and remixes…
I’ve been asked quite a few times to go out and play ‘Happy Families’ but I’ve always said no… in fact my words were “I won’t go out repeating myself over and over unless we can find a way to offer something new”. This is a bit like starting again in a way. I’ll probably repeat myself in this interview (*loud laugh*) but in terms of music and creativity, I’ve no interest in it; I’m really only interested in the future.
However, I’m aware that we have what some people call a Legacy, which I take as a compliment, that people do want to hear it again… but I thought, let’s move on and re-record it. I want to do an interpretation of the songs of how they were written. So I imagined that ‘Happy Families’ had never been recorded.
I’m very proud of how it was of course, but we went into the studio using the technology of 2013 thinking Stephen and I had just written the tracks. I wanted a pared down version of what we did, it’s quite raw the way I’ve gone about recording. I didn’t want any extraneous stuff in the production, 80s values were terrific but the pared down route suited me and the way I wanted to approach these songs. There are also economics to consider, technology allows you to work a certain way and I had all the synth sounds I needed and I knew David would perform brilliantly.
When we decided that we were going to record ‘Happy Families Too…’ – most of the original tracks had guitar on and my guitar playing is as good as my singing… so a bit dodgy *loud laugh*
So for the main guitar I said “let’s get David in”. We had a fantastic time, we recorded all his guitar parts in two days, he worked bloody hard and is coming on tour with us, which is fantastic as we’ll have a good laugh.
So you’ve kept in touch with him all this time?
Yes, after touring with DEPECHE MODE in 1981, Stephen and I were still working full time but we then got offered a tour with JAPAN. I think it had a lot to do with the fact we were a two piece, economical and not much gear etc. We were playing in St Austell, the Coliseum I think, a great big cavernous place, when this bloke comes up to us and says “Here… do you want some beers?”. Then he brought some beers through from JAPAN’s rider! And, I thought, I like him! David and I got on very well from that moment. After seeing him play with JAPAN, we invited him to come and play with us. He happened to live near me so we would meet up for a lot for gigs, the pub etc and I liked his own music that he was doing so asked him to come and play on the original album.
I listened to the demos and parts of the original tracks but I didn’t study the album as it was. I’ve got the memory of ‘Happy Families’. The interesting part was recreating it using Linn Drum, 808s and some VSTs on there and bizarre things happen when you start listening to parts of songs that you wrote 30 odd years ago… I looked at tempos, and Adam Fuest, who does our live sound said they were interesting. For example, ‘I’ve Seen The Word’ is 129.73/74! Normally 129 is enough for most people but I wanted it specific, it didn’t feel right any slower or faster. The arrangements are pretty true; when I was analysing a drum part, I would zoom in like an audio microscope using today’s technology. One time I ended up right in the thick of a bass drum and it triggered a memory for me. I remembered Stephen and I programming in the studio and I’d never thought of that moment before then, I suddenly realised I was listening to a memory and it was really moving.
Years ago if you had a buzzing synthesizer and someone suddenly turned a light on, you’d get a terrible noise when you were trying to record. That noise isn’t an issue anymore, there’s things you can put in the computer, programmes that isolate that frequency and take it out. David came in and starting playing and there was this “bbrrr” sound; he said don’t worry about that, just record a bit of that noise at the end of the track. Then Adam, who is mixing the album too, puts one of his VST plug-ins on it that analyses the sound, sets a threshold and it’s gone. Years ago that used to take days to sort out. Don’t turn a light switch on. Someone’s using a Hoover next door. Oh that’d be Stephen! *laughs*
In which formats will ‘Happy Families Too…’ be available?
‘Happy Families Too…’ is in two stages. There’s an exclusive very limited edition version that will only be available in CD and maybe vinyl on the tour dates. Sadly we can’t afford to give it away but we wanted to reward people for making the effort to come and see us. I could have just called the record company and said can you give us some copies of the original, but no. Ten songs have been reprogrammed like ‘Living On The Ceiling’, ‘God’s Kitchen‘, ‘Feel Me‘ and ‘I Can’t Explain‘. I have used a lot of the old stuff as well but brought it into the present day. Nobody in their right mind would record an album for a tour, it’s usually the other way round. It is exclusive and I’m bonkers for doing it *roars of laughter*
There is also going to be a booklet printed with memorabilia etc. We want people to come along to the tour… very unlikely to do it again.
It is part of the live gig experience now isn’t it? People expect to see and buy new merchandise and hopefully get albums signed and of course, one of your strengths is the ‘Meet and Greet’…
I absolutely love it. I find it quite humbling as I didn’t get the chance to do it for years. In the 80s, we were just pushed from pillar to post, “where is your next single? Is it as good as the last one?”. Now I get a real buzz from hearing all the stories. I get ideas for lyrics, it’s fantastic! I think I’m in a really lucky position.
So what is the second stage?
A deluxe version that will have extra tracks and remixes… we’re in discussions with a record company at the moment. For example, take ‘Running Thin‘, that track wasn’t on the original album, it was only ever played on a John Peel session and I wanted to document a proper version of that.
So the remix of ‘Living On The Ceiling’ that Vince Clarke is working on and tweeting about is featured on the deluxe edition? He has said it’s his “kinda song” as it only has two chords!
Yes, that’s true, ‘Living On The Ceiling’ does only have two chords, it goes up and down a few times then heads out to sea, my kinda song as well *loud laugh*
That’s fantastic; that’s so nice of him to do it and he sent me a message saying he is having a “splendid” time putting it together.
Would be “Splendid”; that was Vince and Eric Radcliffe’s studio name in the past. What other artistes have you involved, and did they choose the tracks themselves?
The choice was theirs and we have the wonderful Greg Wilson who did such brilliant things at the Hacienda, absolutely amazing… can’t believe he’s doing it, he is going to remix ‘Feel Me‘. We also have my son Joe, who is doing very well for himself under his stage name of APPLEBOTTOM. He was on Radio One recently.
Joe is on my list of questions and I checked this morning, he has nearly 10,000 followers on Facebook now!
He has had over a million plays on one of his tracks. Come on Joe, give me a plug lad… Son of BLANCMANGE! *laughs*
There is a rumour… well, actually he is, going to do a couple of slots on the tour.
He’s your support act?
Think I’ll be supporting him! He’s studying hard and doing his music, I’m really proud of my daughter too, both my kids.
Yes, quite a few songs were written for the lovely Helen, like ‘Sad Day’. I wrote it on a day we had had a bust up and I was bit mopey. I wrote the ‘Living On The Ceiling’ lyrics at college and Stephen came up with an interesting groove so he came over to a squat I was living in at the time in Wood Green.
Stephen played a keyboard and I made a mistake in the melody line, but the mistake was better than the intention. That missing half tone gave the track that Middle Eastern, Arabic flavour. So the lesson is, if you make a mistake, record it, and many mistakes were made in public after that and I will continue to that in November Deb *laughs*
It is really sad to hear that Stephen is still not well enough to go on tour, wondering if Pandit is going to be joining you again?
Not this time. There will be David Rhodes and ‘Oogoo’ who did the visuals on the last tour, he’s an electronic whizz kid playing the keyboards. So there’s three of us on stage plus Adam. He doesn’t simply mix the sound, he does a lot of treatments live. It’s exciting as I didn’t want it to be the same performance every night. It’ll be ‘squeaky bum’ time every night! *laughs*
I want it to be like that. For example, ‘I Can’t Explain’ is an ad lib each time I do it live. It’s exciting for me as I know I can take it lyrically, and delivery wise, but it can go to a different place. It’s a similar thing with ‘Feel Me’ and I love that idea. It’s great looking at the audience. They are singing the original lyrics and I’m up there giving it a ton, locked in, I go into a zone. I think if you do that, the audience will go with you and believe it; if you’re only half in there, you are duping your audience but I’m completely committed and manic at times.
I remember when you performed ‘I Can’t Explain’ live last year, thought you were going to have a heart attack on stage! Are there other tracks not included on ‘Happy Families Too…’ that will be performed on the tour?
There will be a new track, from the new album which is already started. Maybe the ABBA one, but mainly BLANCMANGE songs… not about to do BEATLES songs! Maybe a JOHNNY CASH track, I’m a big fan of JOHNNY CASH as you know! *loud laugh*
Yes, we could have had alter egos. Me and Stephen know who is who *loud laugh*
We had this idea that two old dears are in the launderette and instead of reading ‘People’s Friend’, they read ‘Practical Electronics’, and they make an electronic record. It’s coming out again. There’s a scoop! On Minimal Wave Records, there’s a limited edition 10” vinyl to coincide with the tour. I’m so excited about it, they have done a wonderful job remastering it; it’s the best I’ve heard it and it’s the first time it’s been available for 33 years. Minimal Wave are a brilliant record label and I’d advise anyone to check out their stuff.
The DAVE CLARK FIVE track ‘Concentration Baby’ was posted on Facebook today funnily enough. What memories does that conjure?
Stephen played violin and used to do a version with his previous band MIRU. I played guitar and bass, and Lawrence played drums. It was recorded on a four track, all the other tracks were just on a cassette tape.
A friend called Dave got a £200 tax rebate so he paid for 1000 copies and became Executive Producer. Porky Prime Cuts cut it, and then we sat in Stephen’s back garden and put the single in the gatefold sleeve. I designed the front, Stephen the back and then we threw Stephen’s cat in for oomph. We couldn’t afford to get it type set, so we wrote it on Stephen’s wall in his flat. *laughs*
There are so many bands from the Synth Britannia era that are still touring and, more importantly, writing new material just like BLANCMANGE…
I still have an intense desire to express myself, irrespective of my age, whether it’s as Neil Arthur or BLANCMANGE. I’m driven to perform music, whether I perform live all the time is another matter. I won’t retire, I will just decompose! *roars of laughter*
Everybody is different. I like to take elements from the past, not just stay there and repeat endlessly like ‘Groundhog Day’. But I realise we are in a world where a lot of people are afraid of the future and nostalgia plays a big role for a lot of people… but I’m really excited about the future. There are also lots of bands referencing that era and loads of new bands reinventing it, absolutely brilliant bands around at the moment.
I tend to listen to a lot of electronic music still like KRAFTWERK. I love CAN and NEU! Really brilliant! I will always come back and listen to ENO who got me through final course work at College. Especially ‘Music for Airports‘, everybody in the house puts that on, it’s stood the test of time. Then there’s MATTHEW DEAR, I love what he does; LUKE ABBOTT, DARKSTAR, LCD SOUNDSYSTEM, CASIOTONE FOR THE PAINFULLY ALONE, PANTHA DU PRINCE to name a few and NICHOLAS YAAR; his album ‘Space is Only Noise‘ is beautiful.
What about my socks Deb? Same colour as my watch (orange)…
…and your teeth Neil *loud laugh*
Would you like to come down to the studio and hear a few of the tracks from the ‘Happy Families Too…’ album?
Yes please! Be rude not to…
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to NEIL ARTHUR
Special Thanks to Mike Wilson, Founder and Creative Director of Ditto
Additional thanks to Duncan Clark at 9PR
Clitheroe The Grand (3 November), Darwen Library (4 November), Darwen Library (5 November), Manchester Soundcontrol (6 November), Glasgow Braodcast (7 November), Newcastle Think Tank (8 November), Southampton The Brook (9 November), Brighton Concorde 2 (10 November), Wolverhampton Robin (11 November), Nottingham Rescue Rooms (12 November), Liverpool Erics (13 November),Wakefield The Hop (14 November), London The Garage (15 November), Cardiff, Ifor Bach (16 November), Dublin The Button Factory (21 November)
Tickets available at www.blancmange.co.uk
The ‘Irene & Mavis’ EP is reissued as a 10 inch vinyl by Minimal Wave Records in a limited edition of 999 on 5th November 2013. Please visit www.minimalwave.com for more details
Text and Interview by Deb Danahay
5th October 2013