Colin Vearncombe: 1962-2016

Colin Vearncombe onstage © 2015 Jim Higham

Colin Vearncombe onstage © 2015 Jim Higham

Following two weeks after a devastating auto accident that saw him unresponsive and in an induced coma, Colin Vearncombe died yesterday. Anyone who was looking out after him, probably saw it coming. That doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. I first heard of Black, his artistic alter ego, 32 years ago.

inthecity - mackenzie

that fateful issue

It was a positive review of the early WEA Black single “More Than The Sun” in the pages of In The City fanzine that first caught my eye, but the records were not forthcoming. It was not until three years later, when his fortunes saw him signed to A+M Records, following an unsuccessful [but very impressive, artistically] run of singles on WEA UK. I saw the video for “Wonderful Life” on 120 Minutes and made a bee-line for Murmur Records to buy the album from whence it came. It was my favorite album of 1987 and it’s not hyperbole to state that Colin was a beacon of quality for me in the largely dismal later years of the 1980s. When everything in the UK was PWL fodder, or house music, I much preferred the resonant, adult pop that Colin proffered. In many ways, his work filled a Scott Walker niche I almost didn’t know about at the time. I immediately set about collecting everything from Black that I could get my hands on.

black GER LPAI collected all of the singles, which were mostly on CD, thankfully. I found out about and mail ordered the UK version of the “Wonderful Life” CD which had five B-sides added to the running time. With “Wonderful Life” and “Sweetest Smile”  hitting the UK charts, WEA Germany rushed out a Black compilation EP/LP of most of the sides he recorded several years earlier. For over 20 years, this was the last new LP I had bought on vinyl, as strangely there was no CD of it, just a cassette. The next year bought the “Comedy” album which I made sure to buy on German import; bypassing the butchery that US A+M performed on it. The last three songs were lopped off and re-recordings from “Wonderful Life” and a B-side were added, depriving that album of its emotional arc and climax.

black - arewehavingfunyetUKCDAThe third album was good, but didn’t evidence the progression that the second had made from the first. The inability to cull more hits following “Wonderful Life” making a splash across Europe caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth at A+M. When the eponymous third “Black” album failed to get commercial traction, Colin found himself cut free from A+M… thank goodness! Because then he linked up with Mike Hedges and produced his masterpiece, “Are We Having Fun Yet,” and had the cheek to release it himself. I was so moved by the audacity of this album, that I wrote the artist a raving fan letter. Work of that caliber where the artist had to make it all happen demanded encouragement. To my surprise, I found myself on the receiving end of a reply from Mr. Vearncombe a short while later. He graciously responded to my queries, and sent along a very posh Tomato-designed discography pamphlet, printed on synthetic vellum to address my pre-internet discographical queries.

Soon afterward, I met my wife and she took a shining to his music, so we more or less kept up with his career, as it involved many limited releases, purchased directly from the artist. I have probably bought more albums directly from this man than with any other artist in my Record Cell. That’s not to say that I managed to get all of the many live “Blacklegs” he released over the years. I will now have to get them as DLs at his Bandcamp store as the physical releases are long gone.

The music could be intimate and acoustic all the way to richly baroque and fully operatic. In 2002 he released a double CD of 30 songs recorded over a three month period. It was his “Sandinista!” with an acoustic guitar and harmonica rack; a way of fully documenting a creative period. He found a comfort with almost any style of performing as long as it served the integrity of his song. His dignified vocals as well as his self-deprecating wit will be sorely missed.  He is survived by his wife, Camilla and three sons. If you’ve not had the pleasure…

– 30 –

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15 Responses to Colin Vearncombe: 1962-2016

  1. Pingback: READ THIS IF, LIKE ME, YOU KNEW ONLY ONE SONG | the (new) vinyl villain

  2. Tim says:

    I found the first album in the B misc bin and bought it largely on intuition and a liking of the pairing of “Black” and “Comedy….”
    ….and promptly was disappointed with the album. I was just too young for it.
    I did stick with him and heard about “Are We Having Fun Yet?” and bought it via AB-CD years ago before buying online made this all so much easier. Now that one sold me on Black.
    I never really followed him closely online but listened to his albums a lot. Like a lot of 80’s acts that I really appreciated in the mid 90’s I listen to his music more now than most of the acts that were core back in the 1980’s.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – The John Warwicker design of the first two A+M albums didn’t hurt either. Karl Hyde had mentioned his friend Colin’s situation on his blog, so I guess that he might have been pretty close to the Tomato collective. “Comedy” was a great album for a [thinks] 26 year old. By the time Black surfaced, I was ready for that sort of mature pop.

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      • Tim says:

        My intro was “Comedy” and I really liked the sleeve design, the selling point for me on the design was the juxtaposition of the warm autumnal colors against all the black, I figured this guy had a sense of humor. Quite honestly I am an intuitionist at buying new & unheard music. I’m often not disappointed on my calls although in some cases (such as early Black) I needed to learn more about music and/or grow up a bit first to really appreciate it.

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Tim – From what it seems, Colin did indeed have a sense of humor, though the songs didn’t really reveal that until some years later. “Famous” from 2000’s “Water On Snow” was a pretty sardonic little number for him.

          There really is something to buying an album whose cover design calls out to you like that, isn’t there? I should to more of that, but the money potentially wasted usually holds me back. But when I do indulge, sometimes I’m richly rewarded.

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  3. Echorich says:

    Colin Vearncombe was a real alternative to what was becoming a dismal music scene in the mid to late 80’s. Call it Sophisti-Pop, or Lush-Pop, Vearncombe in his Black alter-ego could master songs with a Rock vibe, Jazz vibe or Pure Pop vibe. He didn’t fill his early singles with throwaways.
    B-Sides like You Are The One, Daggers Reel, Sixteens and Life Calls are among my favorites.
    He was blessed with the wonderful guidance in the studio of Dave Dix and Robin Millar and I have to believe he soaked up everything on offer, keeping in him good stead throughout his career.
    When he retreated from the world of “major” labels, he seemed to only be reinvigorated to make a success of his music. That success wouldn’t be about sales and charts. You could tell his focus was on producing a music that was built up inside him. Are We Having Fun Yet? is the result. It’s an album that eschews much of the “heavy” production (ok, 80’s production) of his A+M albums for a new clean, crisp sound and something of a throwback wall of sound. It’s on this album that I began to really hear those echoes of Scott Walker and Vearncombe’s maturing baritone became a very special instrument in itself. The songs on the album I can never get enough of are Swingtime, Wishing You Were Here (with it’s lovely flamenco rhythms) and Ave Lolita – the latter being one of the great contributions of his career to the pop music lexicon.
    I have remained and will remain a great fan an exponent of the work of Colin Vearncombe. His music touched me and he became one of those artists I felt it was my job to expose anyone who would give me the chance.
    His 2014/15 Pledge Music campaign showed just how he was regarded completing at 250% of it’s goal. And what fans were to receive, in the form of Blind Faith, was a masterwork of mature pop dealing with subjects of age, love and understanding – all in gorgeous 3+ minutes or less packages. Musically it flirts with singer/songwriter classicism, wry cabaret pop, Sixties Pop, some Jimmy Webb influence and complex, almost chamber pop. The album’s opener is a song, that for me, rivals Wonderful Life for immensity. The Love Show is a love poem set to an incredible piece of music. In fact Vearncombe devotes the last 2/5 of the song to an emotionally charged instrumental coda. Before the tragic events that have led us here, Blind Faith’s closing number, Parade, was haunting, personal sounding song that made me hit repeat over and over when I first heard it. It has taken on a whole new sense of sadness and meaning to me know. Walk on Colin, walk on.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Yes, I was just playing “Are We Having Fun Yet” driving to work today and was blown away all over again. The album drifts effortlessly from strength to strength in an almost uncanny way. Was anyone else hitting such heights in 1993? I doubt it.

      As for “Blind Faith,” okay, OKAY!! I get it! Jimmy Webb, chamber pop…I need to get “Blind Faith” tout suite! Also his EP series of downloads prior to that.

      I should also mention “Black Box Recordings,” a BSOG that I mastered in 2002. I should give it a remastering and add much stray material to it.

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      • Echorich says:

        Yes, Yes, Yes to the BSOG update!!

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      • Tim says:

        Regarding the 1993 comment, it was quite the wasteland however the Pet Shop Boys released “Very” that year and it lands in the same league of quality that we’re talking about here. 1993 was a barren year indeed, also notable for what was essentially the demise of New Order releasing an EP gratuitously padded out to album length (Republic).

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Tim – “Very/Relentless” was the last PSB album I bought for what ended up being an over twenty year period! In 2013 I began selling off all of my PSB singles and got the B-side collection “Alternative” to get me the mandatory B-sides. I also bought a copy of “Fundamental” in 2014 and really liked it, so now I’m up for at least the albums that came after “Very.” I enjoyed their “Electric” tour show that I saw at Moogfest 2014. It was the first time I had seen them since their debut US tour. I wanted to buy “Electric” but locals stores failed to stock it.

          New Order died for me when “Republic” got released. I only bought the single of “Regret” and never went any further again. Lots of folks have been going off on how great “Complete” was and were wondering where I stand. New Order don’t exist for me and have not in nearly a quarter of a century. Time has devalued my New Order collection in much the same way that it did with Depeche Mode and other, second-rate [to me] bands who lost a lot of sheen in my rear view mirror.

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          • Echorich says:

            So on point Tim when it comes to New Order. Republic baffles me and the next releases were just dismal. Hook’s exit was the final nail in the coffin I thought and when Music Complete came out I again found myself listening to two singles and b-side filled out to album length. Plastic from their latest album does rank well for me though, but this is because it’s DNA has Low-Life wrapped around it.

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            • postpunkmonk says:

              Echorich – I’m glad I was not the only one who was baffled by “Republic.” Even the design stunk on that one. I guess “World In A Day” should have been taken as the signifier of the apocalypse that it obviously was instead of an aberration to bounce back from.

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              • SimonH says:

                Decided not to bother with Music Complete but weakened after my brother recommended it…and I saw it for the ridiculously cheap price of £5. All I would say is don’t write it off. It’s definitely the best thing they’ve done since the last time they did anything really good…which is a long time. A different universe from the tedium of Sirens Call.

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  4. I’ve always been mystified by the presence of a fair few … well, what most people would call “soft rock” acts in my stable of familiars. China Crisis is the most notable example, but there are several others, and “Black” falls into that category I suppose. I have tried many times to explain that there is a line of musical and lyrical intelligence and sophistication that separates your Carmels from your Kenny Gs (please forgive me sullying this page with the mention of this abomination), but of course they don’t see it. Soothing sax or soothing flugelhorn, what’s the diff?

    The “diff” is everything. From “I Just Grew Tired” (probably the first Black song I remember hearing) to his much later work, I don’t have a lot of Black/Colin but what I do have I treasure.

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    • Echorich says:

      So true Chas. The American audience can lump Sade, Kenny—, Lionel Richie and Everything But The Girl in the same category with little to no distinction. Soft Rock, Smooth Jazz, categories that come from the middle and choose not to reach out to the edges.

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