Chances are you have never heard The Associates. Or perhaps you read the name somewhere when a sharp scribe was dropping their 1982 effort, Sulk, as a benchmark for voluptuous, early 80’s xeno-pop. But the Scottish band’s first line-up, multi-octave vocalist Billy Mackenzie and multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine, split just as they were on the big time’s threshold. The sun-dappled, psych-synth pop of Party Fears Two was riding high in the charts and they were about to embark on a tour. However, Rankine departed, unnerved by Mackenzie’s mercurial attitude towards music industry demands. Mackenzie soldiered on regardless. Fellow vocal titan, Shirley Bassey singing his co-write with Yello, The Rhythm Divine, was a personal highlight for him. But he never really recaptured the rocket-fuelled alchemy of his work with Rankine (a brief reunion with his former foil remains sadly in the vaults). Bereaved of his beloved mother, Mackenzie tragically committed suicide in 1997.
Perhaps life let down such a large character. Certainly his lyrics suggest a fabulist immensity that could not be contained by it. The Associates remain the great unsung heroes of early 80’s new pop. Their swashbuckling glamour & peripatetic melody spun post-punk into the outer limits. As Mackenzie’s vocals soar into the synthetic ether on Party Fears Two, it is hard to think of a more ineffably beautiful pop moment. Their music defied the new romantic tag. It was too singular, too maverick to be shoehorned into the Blitz scene, a mileu that their lyrics often seemed to take surreal swipes at (see Party Fears Two & Club Country).
Simon Reynolds, in Rip It Up & Start Again, did something to salvage the band from being an obscure footnote. He is particularly fond of Sulk & Fourth Drawer Down. The latter is their barmy anthology of 1981 singles, funded largely from exploiting record company largesse (those were the days). Reynolds holds aloft The Associates as the apex of their age’s spirit. Listening to the dense, aqueous soundscapes on these platters, it’s easy to see why. This is kaleidoscope pop enmeshed in dubby caverns. Contained therein lies the furtive grooves and Third Man scene-setting of trip hop like Portishead. Bjork briefly proposed to revive Mackenzie’s voice for Medulla; kindred spirits bonded by the rhythm divine and a daredevil tightrope walk across vocals chords. But as fantastic as Sulk & Fourth Drawer Down are, they have been transferred to disc shoddily. Music this tumescent with texture needs dynamic range & these remasters are violently clipped.
Either way, my money’s on their 1980 Fiction debut, The Affectionate Punch. In 1982, they re-recorded it, either due to their own dissatisfaction or at the behest of new label, Warners. They laid down some new vocals & daubed it in the modish tics that they couldn’t afford first time around. It was a case of gilding the lily and the 2005 reissue (sadly already out of print), restored their original vision. The Spartan setting allows Mackenzie’s gravity-defying vocals to soar unfettered, while Rankine, aided only by drummer Nigel Glockler, sketches the angular outlines of a band.
The Associates straddle the Bowie/Roxy axis, enriching the tensile Gang Of Four-style jags with cabaret showboating & krautrock curveballs. On the title track, the billowing romanticism of Mackenzie’s vocal & Rankine’s piano are tormented by serrated guitar chords. An electric shock torch song, Mackenzie croons and howls:a chamber of amorous horrors. The climax’s female chorus ends things in a vein strikingly similar to Bowie’s Beauty & The Beast. Another pirouette across broken glass is Paper House. Sweeping up Banshees-style scything swagger & balletic Sparks hysteria in its waltz tornado, there would be more of this to come.
Bowie’s influence is smeared all over the record, although merely as a launch-pad for the duo’s own idiosyncratic trajectories. Herculean hymnal/industrial debris Transport To Central is shot from the ‘European canon’ of Station To Station but actually sounds like the Bowie record critics describe rather than the disoriented funk listeners hear. Mackenzie fulsomely praises a man whose ‘jawline’s not perfect’ but nonetheless represents the Nietzschean supermen of Bowie songs like Big Brother or Sons Of The Silent Age. Deeply suspect political connotations for sure, but de rigeur plastic propaganda for the times.
Less indebted to the last decade’s art-rock superstars is Amused To Death which zigzags between nervy new wave contortions & the phlegmatic philly soul favoured by fellow Caledonians, Orange Juice. Again, the finale is spectacular; fretwork athletically dodging a fusillade of silvery fuzz. These weren’t preening Bowie clones but audacious pioneers. Even their debut, a cover of Boys Keep Swinging that brazenly arrived hot on the heels of the singer’s own, was a shimmering deconstruction.
So they pointed the way forward too. A Matter Of Gender is predictive of very early Smiths. Not just in its exclamatory yelps and assault on sexual conventions but in the gusts of wind that chill its bare musical bones. The Associates are an overlooked signpost for the Mancunian band (& apparently U2). Mackenzie and Morrissey even enjoyed a musical dialogue of sorts. During his short-lived reformation with Rankine, Mackenzie penned the unreleased Stephen, It Was Really Something, a response elicited by William It Was Really Nothing, rumoured to be about more than Billy Liar. A Matter Of Gender’s wiry immediacy also echoes label mates The Cure’s early sound. Robert Smith contributes backing vocals on A; a breakneck scramble through the alphabet. It sounds like Mackenzie showing Smith how to bounce for future reference.
Even Dogs In the World is more studied elegance. Mackenzie’s vocal leaps forth from the nocturnal shadows of finger clicking and whistles. He bears the luminosity of torch singers like Garland/Holliday. Operatic swoops & jazzy tangents make him an untutored diva akin to Soft Cell’s Marc Almond. He scoops up unfathomable emotional and musical depths. In an age of talent-show singers, void of risk and expression, Mackenzie’s acrobatic pipes are sorely missed.
There’s much more to recommend on The Affectionate Punch, chiefly the smouldering half light of songs like Logan Time & Deeply Concerned, but you should really find out for yourself. Inside its lithe economy, you’ll find an embarrassment of riches.