Associates broke through in the early 80’s, when some of the chart regulars, such as Japan, Human League, and Duran Duran, had a sense of adventure. This style had become successful on the heels of influential 70’s outsider heroes, David Bowie, and Roxy Music. Associates shared similar influences, but they took everything to an extreme, and hence they stood alone in a mixed pop landscape. Billy Mackenzie’s mix of operatic and histrionic vocals made them a divisive proposition in the same way that Sparks were in the early 70’s.
In 1976, Mackenzie teamed up with fellow Scottish musician, Alan Rankine. Rankine understood Mackenzie’s lofty ambitions and helped create a group that was truly individual whilst stretching the definition of pop songs. These deluxe editions cover the Mackenzie and Rankine years of Associates from 1976 to 1982. They are welcome reissues that come in nicely packaged cases, with detailed sleeve-notes and a generous amount of bonus material. They tell a story of one of the most inspired musical partnerships of their time.
The Affectionate Punch (1980)
Their debut album, The Affectionate Punch is musically more stripped back than their later material. It was released on Fiction in 1980. The album begins with razor-sharp guitars and a tight rhythm on the brilliant title track. The jagged guitars compliment Mackenzie’s deep vocals, which lift skywards in the chorus. ‘Amused as Always’ keeps the energy going with Michael Dempsey’s hypnotic bassline and a piercing guitar solo from Rankine.
The swoonsome, ‘Logan Time’ has Mackenzie tenderly channeling his love of 60’s crooners as he sings, “I know your heartbeat inside out.” It demonstrates how he could artfully switch up the tone of his voice. In this song, he is backed by Rankine’s subtle and beautiful guitar playing. The album highlight, ‘Paper House’ builds to an emotional climax through a blend of Mackenzie’s melodramatic vocal and Rankine’s chiming guitar.
‘Transport To Central’ features some of Mackenzie’s most oblique lyrics, “His jawline’s not perfect/But that can be altered.” Rankine’s spiky guitar playing gives it an unnerving feel. ‘A’ works as a vibrant closer proving Mackenzie can make listing the alphabet sound exciting. It also features some of Mackenzie’s most surreal lyrics, “Zed is the black sheep of the alphabet/Zed is the masculine letter/I’ve known Zed’s who’ve only taken B’s to bed.”
The Affectionate Punch was recorded quickly and the material has a feeling of raw urgency. Their best work was still to come, but this is a flawless debut album full of decadent songwriting and fully-formed ideas. Associates made the best post-punk debut in a year when there was stiff competition from U2, Echo & The Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes.
Bonus material for The Affectionate Punch includes the second batch of demos Rankine and Mackenzie made together. ‘Double Hipness’ and ‘Geese’ show their love of mixing the theatrical with catchy post-punk melodies. ‘Mortice Lock’ contains the charming lyrics, “He’s in love with Billy’s cheekbones/Billy’s cheekbones are so cool.” The early B-side, ‘You Were Young’ is as good as anything on The Affectionate Punch. Also included is their minimal cover of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’. The song was recorded without permission weeks after Bowie’s original to get attention from his label and it worked.
Fourth Drawer Down (1981)
A year later, Associates moved on from their stark debut and headed in an increasingly electronic direction. They signed to Situation 2 where they released one-off singles. Drugs featured heavily and influenced all-night recording sessions. Fourth Drawer Down covers these singles, all the B-sides, and a few extras.
Thirty-five years on and these leftfield singles sound like nothing that came before and nothing since. ‘Kitchen Person’ is an intense five minutes of chaos with skyscraping guitars, xylophones that sound like they’re being attacked, and Mackenzie manically rambling as he sings down a vacuum cleaner. It’s sonically harsh but it’s extremely catchy and utterly thrilling. There was a punk spirit to these recordings that is best caught here.
Associates were always able to combine their pop sensibilities with the avant-garde. ‘Tell Me Easter’s On Friday’ contrasts a catchy keyboard riff with droning guitars. It features another set of eccentric lyrics, “Tell me Easter’s on Friday and I’ll shake my hips.” – Rankine admitted he didn’t always understand Mackenzie’s unconventional themes. The creepy despair of ‘Q Quarters’ features Mackenzie singing, “Washing down bodies seems to me a dead end chore.” They started to use unusual recording techniques, which explains the presence of coughing as part of the rhythm.
Best of all is the industrial, ‘White Car In Germany’, with its sinister Eno-like deep synth bass and a metallic sheen that is reminiscent of Kraftwerk. Mackenzie’s otherworldly voice soars as he sings the title. The lyrics show Mackenzie’s mischievous and ambiguous nature as he sings, “Walk on eggs in Munich/Lisp your way through Zurich.” The cover picture for this dark collection of songs is one where Mackenzie and Rankine jumped into a pool at night and almost drowned. It’s a fitting image for an unsettling and paranoid set of songs.
The B-sides from this era are spread on both discs. ‘The Associate’ is the funkiest song Associates made – it has a colourful synth-line and 70’s funk-inspired bass. It’s instrumental apart from screams from the band that were achieved by smashing cups that were gaffer-taped to their heads. It sums up the band’s atypical approach that their catchiest song at this point didn’t have a normal song structure. ‘Blue Soap’ is perhaps the strangest recording: it has Mackenzie running a bath whilst singing an improvised song, as ‘Kitchen Person’ plays in the background. There is an off-the-cuff quality to these songs that fits with Mackenzie’s reputation as an anti-muso.
Fourth Drawer Down may be a compilation but it flows as a cohesive album. There’s so much to discover in these unique songs.
The last year Mackenzie and Rankine worked together was 1982 (although they had a brief reunion in 1993, four years before Mackenzie’s tragic death). It was their biggest year as they finally had hit singles, a critically-acclaimed top 10 album, and they appeared on Top Of The Pops with some legendary performances. The Sulk era was fuelled by just as much creativity as anything they’d done previously and it was one of the most vital albums of the decade.
Sulk is bookended with light instrumental songs. ‘Arrogance Gave Him Up’ opens Sulk in a similar fashion to ‘Speed Of Life’ on Bowie’s Low. It has a skittery drum beat courtesy of John Murphy and bright synths shooting off in every direction. The final song, ‘Nothinginsomethingparticular’ has a playful melody that was later turned into the bubblegum pop romanticism of, ‘18 Carat Love Affair’ (their final hit single).
‘No’ starts with the sound of a thunder that was made by rattling metal sheets before turning into a gothic ballad. Mackenzie gives an epic vocal that’s reminiscent of Nite Flights by The Walker Brothers as he sings of his fears, “I tore my hair out from the roots/Planted them in someone’s garden.”
The gorgeous, ‘Skipping’ was Mackenzie’s favourite Associates recording and it summed up everything he wanted the band to achieve. It’s one of their most fully-realised recordings; it’s full of rich textures and a sweeping chorus that mixes an effortless swing of funk with synth-pop. The frantic ‘Nude Spoons’ represents the most bizarre moment on Sulk. The hysterical way Mackenzie shouts “nude spoons euphoria” over a demented bassline will always be one of the most ridiculously amazing moments in pop. Mackenzie’s vocals may always take centre stage but he had a team of musicians who were able to thrive on the challenges he set out for them.
The climax of Sulk comes with two of their hit singles. ‘Party Fears Two’ is still the most exhilarating single I know. I wrote about here last year. http://www.godisinthetvzine.co.uk/2015/10/30/inarguable-pop-classics-12-associates-party-fears-two/ ‘Club Country’ is equally perfect and even more danceable with its disco bassline, flamenco guitar, and a hyperactive beat. It’s a detailed song full of masterful hooks and an adrenaline filled chorus where Mackenzie sings, “refrigeration keeps you young I’m told.” These catchy singles are complex pop songs that are untouchable in originality and have an endless charm.
There are many stories about how expensive Sulk was to record and about all the studio experiments that created these sounds. None of that was wasted because this record is as sonically adventurous and rewarding as the technicoloured artwork suggests. Sulk is expansive and cinematic in its scope and contains songs that are covered in layers of mystery. It shares some of the DNA that made The Lexicon Of Love by ABC a masterpiece. Whilst ABC had an underlying sense of darkness to their songs, Associates dark side is completely exposed.
Bonus material highlights include their cover of Diana Ross’ ‘Love Hangover’ where Mackenzie gets to live out his disco fantasies. The dense, ‘And Then I Read A Book’ contains more classic Mackenzie lyrics, “And then I clean my shoes/I’ve got so many shoes.” There’s also the definitive 12” version of ‘Club Country’ that has until now never been released on CD.
Rankine was a standout from an era full of inspired musicians and Mackenzie was an incredibly charismatic and gifted singer. The combination of their unique talents produced some truly stunning and timeless music. Rankine has said he felt his musical relationship with Mackenzie had run its course by the end of the Sulk campaign. It’s hard to accept as it would have been interesting to see what else they could have done. Fortunately, these three perfect albums beautifully encapsulate their legacy.