- by Rich Morris Release Date: Label:
I’ve always had a soft spot for that moment in the early 80s when post-punk, new wave, synth-pop and increased studio trickery blended into an unlikely psychedelic revival. Associates, The Teardrop Explodes, Psychedelic Furs, The Cult, even The Damned – they all at some point made music which was as druggy, experimental, multi-coloured and out-there as anything by early Floyd or The Beatles.
Of course, probably the greatest practitioners of this musical step sideways were Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Cure, two trailblazing bands who paved the way for goth by embracing cryptic imagery and spooky atmospherics as much as they did abrasive guitars, synths and drum-machines. Being cut from largely the same musical cloth, it can’t have been much of a surprise when Cure main-man Robert Smith took over from John McGeoch as The Banshees’ guitarist for their 1982 tour. Indeed, he’d already performed the same service briefly in 1979.
The 1982 tour, however, would see him becoming a full-time Banshee, playing on 1984’s Hyena as well as the group’s biggest hit, their excellent cover of The Beatles’ ‘Dear Prudence’. In the middle of all this (and while also increasing The Cure’s chart success in Britain and the US with a flurry of excellent singles), Smith found time to team-up with Banshees’ bassist Steve Severin and former Top of the Pops dancer Jeanette Landray to form The Glove. It’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge the fact that Smith achieved all this while ingesting heroic quantities of hallucinogenic drugs.
Smith must surely rival John Lennon in his ability to write devastatingly catchy tunes while completely out of his gourd on various substances. However, where Lennon was channelling Buddhist philosophy and Yoko Ono’s conceptualist art experiments, Smith and Severin spent their free hours during the recording of The Glove’s sole album watching endless horror films. The violent, graphic imagery of these movies was then spun free-form into material for the album.
Blue Sunshine is, in my opinion, a lost classic because I’ve never encountered another album, not even Associates’ groundbreaking Sulk or The Cure’s own The Top, which is so full of kaleidoscopic, wilful, schizophrenic strangeness while still being undoubtedly a pop record. It also hard to think of another pop record so relentlessly heaving with violence, madness, surrealism and intimations of kinky sex. It’s nothing less than a descent into glorious, Technicolour insanity, helped along by some cracking 80s pop music warped almost out of recognition.
It begins with ‘Like an Animal’, a fly-away synth-pop gem positioned somewhere between Associates’ ‘Party Fears Two’ and Dubstar’s ‘Not So Manic Now’. The music is iridescent but skittish, as if barely holding itself together, while Landray’s vocals have a dementedly giddy edge to them. Then you take in the lyrics. My God, the lyrics. “Dropping eggs from nervous, shaking hands/ and swallowing her fingers as they fall… Let the dry air cut her happy throat/ Hide her heart and lose her happy head.”
Apparently a hallucinatory murder fantasy based around a woman in a high-rise block, with perspective skidding between killer and floating observer, ‘Like an Animal’ is Blue Sunshine in a nutshell. When Landray howls the title at the end, it’s simultaneously exhilarating and blood-chilling, a splattered sound-painting of lost control and transgression.
Of course, Severin was just as active a songwriter in The Glove as Smith, and the band’s second and final single, ‘Punish Me With Kisses’ bears the distinct mark of the man who had chosen a moniker inspired by the lyrics to The Velvet Underground’s ‘Venus in Furs’. This gorgeous, stuttering ballad is the only other song on Blue Sunshine to mostly conform to a traditional pop structure, although the murky references to sadomasochistic sex-play in the lyrics rendered it somewhat un-radio-friendly.
Elsewhere, madness and experimentation reign freely. ‘Sex-Eye-Make-Up’ may be classic Cure in its menacing post-punk, but once again the lyrics are simply jaw-dropping: “Or leave me on the stairs with my feet in the air/ I think that I'm jazzy like Christ/ One more cigarette and the car burns slow/ burning like the body waiting at home… Inches of glass all shiny and new/ Screaming, laughing, fucks me to death.”
‘This Green City’ starts out as anthemic synth-pop before rapidly disappearing down a rabbit hole of insanity, the siren-like key-change of the chorus framing Landray’s cry of “I burn down!” before a deranged acid-freak guitar solo crashes in. Meanwhile, ‘Orgy’ chucks gypsy fiddle against Depeche Mode-style industrial pop and a synthesised whistling melody while Landray growls about a disease under her fingernails. By the time she declares “And we could swim, we could swim/ my little fishes and me” against a backdrop of frankly silly pings and squeaks, well, you know you’re through the fucking looking-glass here.
And yet, it all hangs together incredibly well. More than that, the electro pulse of ‘Perfect Murder’ and the concrete sampledelica of ‘Relax’ mean that Blue Sunshine still sounds incredibly fresh, unlike so many other albums of the era. There’s even a moment of beautiful, Brian Eno ambience on the instrumental ‘A Blues in Drag’. Only when Smith takes over vocal duties does the album falter, losing its unique identity.
Originally, Smith was to sing on every song, but Chris Parry, the boss of The Cure’s label Fiction, put the kibosh on that, and they eventually compromised on Smith lending his vocals to just two songs. General opinion seems to be that Blue Sunshine would have been better had Smith sung everything, but I completely disagree. Landray’s untutored vocal interpretations of Smith and Severin’s lyrics are what, ultimately, make this album a one-off.
Thematically, Blue Sunshine seems to dwell on madness and violence in domestic, often suburban settings, a common enough trope for both horror movies and early goth. But while The Cure wrote songs full of proto-emo teen-boy sulking, and Siouxsie transformed herself into the most exotic creature the commuter belt had ever seen, Landray’s vocals hint at something else.
Although she’s been accused of merely imitating Sioux, to me, Landray’s plummy, flighty yet steely voice has more in common with Ludus’ Linder Sterling or Eve Libertine of Crass. I picture her as an educated, intellectual young woman losing her shit due to societal pressures and patriarchal control. The album’s lyrical concerns seem to suggest as much, as on the creepy-crawly ‘Sex-Eye-Make-Up’: “She just woke up today to do as she's told/ Do you want to touch her?”
Sung by Smith, such an interpretation just wouldn’t have been there, and this would feel much more like a side-project than it does. In fact, the deluxe re-release of Blue Sunshine, featuring bonus versions sung by Smith, confirms as much. I’m a big fan of Robert Smith, but when he unleashes that familiar feline yowl at the start of his ‘Guide Vocal’ version of ‘Like an Animal’, something is immediately lost; the danger, the ambiguity has vanished.
It’s no secret that a professional rivalry existed between Smith and Sioux in the early to mid-80s, driving them to mirror and outdo each other in both image and music. Such competitiveness might have been creatively healthy but it made a second Glove album impossible. The Banshees wanted Severin back in his day-job and, following Hyena’s mixed results, Smith would return to his.
On the surface, Blue Sunshine sounds like what it is – Robert Smith on a musical journey between the chart-conquering pop of 1983’s Japanese Whispers and The Top’s whole-hearted embrace of gonzo psychedelia, helped along by his drug-buddy who was enjoying a creative release of his own. However, listen closely and it’s so much more than that.
Smith and Severin created something really special, thanks largely to the unique circumstances of the duo’s parent bands. Neither will ever make another album like Blue Sunshine. Neither could, since the usual pressures successful bands face swiftly took precedence: ‘creative’ differences, shifting line-ups, breaking the US, trying to stay relevant in a changing musical landscape.
Blue Sunshine stands as a glorious oddity; a little bubble of madness and creative freedom in the increasingly bland mid-80s. In many ways, it was like a final hurrah for the impulses of post-punk, one last glorious stab at wild originality before both protagonists surrendered to the treadmill of proper rock stardom. It takes the gleaming tools of 80s pop and uses them to create something thrillingly disturbing.
Blue Sunshine deserves to be rediscovered and assessed apart from the output of The Banshees or The Cure. It’s much more than just a side-project or a foot-note. It’s a valid artistic statement. It’s also utterly, gloriously fucking bonkers.
'Punish Me With Kisses':