❉ The wonderful disconnect of The Associates.
“You don’t know, don’t know them at all”
Virginia Plain, Starman, Death Disco. Once every wild while, the largely-beige palimpsest of TOTP would be privy to a lightning colour-flash and change some lives. Each age and tribe will have their own favoured breakthrough, but I propose to the court that any such list has to include the Associates doing Party Fears Two; for this blatherer, and a good number of friends and acquaintances down the years, a significant fork in the road of sentimental education.
A haunting, rolling earworm with a vocal shivering just shy of panic, it resists adequate description even now (Jacques Brel giving it a falsetto extempore Young Hearts Run Free is the best I can muster, and I’ve been cogitating on this for over half my life). But watch them there, behaving like kids baiting teacher on prize-giving day. The wonderful disconnect between the intensity of the music and the flippancy of its delivery is absolutely the signature of the Associates in their 1980 to 1982 imperial phase, ne plus ultra at the time and ageless still. At play, certainly, but with a distinct undercurrent.
Giddy contrarians from the off, their distrust of powers that be and consequent laissez-faire attitude towards best practice resulted in their work languishing largely in limbo in the years interim, but recently, long-dormant rights reverted to source, and this summer, carefully curated and near-as-dammit definitive reissues of their statue statements were released back into the world, and deserve your attention.
Between 1976 and 1982, the Associates were predicated upon the core binary of Billy Mackenzie (primal force, tough scamp, someone whom singer does not adequately describe) and Alan Rankine (multi-instrumentalist, potential muso, but impish and ambitious enough to prefer the untrodden path). Their influences aren’t obscure – like many of their peers, Bowie and Roxy are integral galvanisation – but the Associates soon twirled themselves into something more personal and quizzical, like John Barry versus Sparks with a seasoning of sixties Dusty or Scott; something not easily appropriated or contained, cheeky but determined – driven, flush.
Wasn’t all that teenage lightning a door, opening? Well then, what happens if you stick your foot in the door…? How far could you go with your tongue out and a cheeky wave?
The debut album, 1980’s ‘The Affectionate Punch’, is their most conventional gambit, albeit soda-streamed and only teeteringly balanced. Rankine played everything except drums, over-daubing himself assiduously and focally, while Mackenzie provided the lather with a fulsome, almost ludicrous text. The result; doppio-espresso cabaret post-punk, astonishingly confident for a first shot. From sexually-coded nursery rhyme (A) to askance balladry (Logan Time, Deeply Concerned) to absurdist sci-fi (the Manilow-meets-Eno of Transport To Central), there’s far more going on here than meets the immediate eye and ear. The 2016 remaster is the sparkiest issue yet, the songs properly biting, needling and insisting.
Album done, they formed an actual, proper band of real muscle with the addition of Michael Dempsey (recently ex-Cure, bass, collaborator, convincing negotiator with the suits) and John Murphy (skittish, octopoid drums, part of the Birthday Party diaspora).
They played the game, toured the album, did the supports… and got very bored, very quickly. With a war chest of Mackenzie-Rankine material dating back several years, they counted pennies, breathed deeply and plunged into a smash and grab guerrilla campaign to get it all out there before the grind could swallow their energy, attempting a bombardment upon only their own terms.
Cheekily, the putative glittering prize was proper, real life chart success, like wot your parents would understand, like wot your idols had managed, like wot seemed unimaginable if you came from bloody Auchternaewhere. Thrillingly, it actually worked. Briefly, aye, but still thrillingly. Icarus from the sticks. The adventure is detailed in Tom Doyle and Martin Aston’s excellent sleevenotes to these reissues (and for the full mad carnival, Doyle’s biography of Mackenzie, ‘The Glamour Chase’, is highly recommended), and it’s this hysterical body of work which remains their motherlode, nine singles and one album summoned up in approximately 14 months from early 1981, a cresta run of giggling abandon.
Equally capable of squall (Kitchen Person, The Associate) or stateliness (Q Quarters, Tell Me Easter’s On Friday), their impetuous, even cybernetic game theory and absurd action-painting during the next few months is compiled on Fourth Drawer Down. Their natural effervescence somewhat dada’d and iced over, nevertheless the music on here remains a placebook all of its own; private indulgences shared, queer and singular. If you’ve never heard them, start here, and etonnez-vous.
But if the 1981 singles were the vertical take-off and escape velocity, the subsequent 1982 album ‘Sulk’ is the curious, dark orbit and flaming, glorious re-entry, mundane derangement finally achieving sublime mania, and its actual Top 40 hit singles Party Fears Two and Club Country remaining like satellites still out there – beacons, in fact.
Initially continuing the underlying anxiety of the 45s, with the alien blues-wail of No or Bap De La Bap pushing the envelope, the album plants an astonishing flag with its Janus-faced embrace-cum-defacement of Gloomy Sunday, an act like pissing on a Ouija board. Thereafter, ‘Sulk’ luxuriates in a desperate freedom; there are few experiences in music like it. Hilarious, ominous, vertiginous.
They offended the gods, of course, and as 1982 ended, it was almost as if they had never happened. ‘Sulk’ was second-guessingly record-companied and neutered for the US market, the original configuration deleted. Rankine laboured on an ultimately fatuous remix of the debut album which served only to demonstrate what instinctual dexterity had been lost in the furore. A world tour and big bastard record deal were nixed by Mackenzie at the eleventh hour, with time for one final, winking hot-club firework.
They imploded acrimoniously, the core duo incommunicado for nearly fifteen years. Mackenzie continued with the Associates banner, and there are many beauties in amongst the diminishing returns, but the end was tragic and too soon and it was never really the same. From arc to abeyance, with a devotional few keeping the flame.
But sod the epilogue. These 2016 reissues are vivid and thorough memorial reclamations by Rankine and Dempsey of their effect and legacy, and at their heights still sound like the frontier. Thoughtless retrospect shrugs and assumes that such febrile activity had to end in tears, but that’s to let the baddies win and belittle what this music contains: defiance, fun, refusal, laughter; new towns and chance meetings – questions of self, love of argument. (Not for nothing was that last phrase the intended title of ‘Sulk’). Thoughtful appreciation, however, can only applaud such enthusiasm and unguarded expression, and celebrate both its cult legendaire and its eternal vivacity.
“Doors lead to other doors, roads lead to other roads.”
❉ The remastered and expanded reissues of ‘The Affectionate Punch’, ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ and ‘Sulk’, along with a singles compilation ‘The Very Best Of Associates’, are available via BMG. Forthcoming, Rankine and Dempsey are close to completion on a collection of live material from 1980-1981. Furthermore, and pertinent to the full-on, aerial, open channel which was Billy Mackenzie, The Samaritans do good work, and will always take donations and/or confession.