Tuesday, January 3, 2023

The Associates (RIP Alan Rankine)

The Associates


Melody Maker, January 12, 1991

Once upon a time (the early '80s), there was something called "new pop". For about a year Morley's pipedream of a chartbusting music that combined pop's flash and dazzle with post-punk's perplexity and unease, come true. Glamour; danceability, luxury, the lore of romance, were reveled in and unraveled, simultaneously, thanks to a creed of "passionate irony".

In retrospect, not a lot of the music of that dizzy era got beyond being meta-pop, ie: rock criticism in pop flesh. The Associates did. Billy Mackenzie had the bodymoves, the shimmying, supernatural panache, above all The Voice, whereas Martin Fry was always a dead-below-the-waist dork in a low-rent lame suit. Perhaps the crucial factor was that Mackenzie had never been into rock'n'roll. His love for Diana Ross, disco, Sparks, wasn't gestural, a reaction against punk, but seethed in his blood. And in Alan Rankine, he had his own Eno to peculiarise the Associates' resurrection of Roxy/Bowie glam-odromatics.

The Associates stint as a pop phenomenon was tragically brief. Their only Top 10 Hit, 'Party Fears Two', was a fractured vignette of the agonised tentativeness of EITHER a  faltering courtship OR a slow break-up (I've never been able to work it out). With its oblique lyrics ("Even a slight remark makes no sense and turns to shark") and highly strung falsetto harmonies, 'Party Fears' fused the grandeur of cabaret with the schizoid delirium of psychedelia. 'Club Country' was nerve-edged aristo-funk, whose lyrics saw right through to the emptiness at the heart of the New Romantic/cocktail culture of the time. "The fault is/ I can find no fault in you/ If we stick around/ We're sure to be looked down upon." Like the rest of the Sulk album, 'Club Country' is at once torrid and glacial, fusing European hauteur with American disco feverishness.

'18 Carat Love Affair', the last Associates hit, was a vehicle for some of Mackenzie's swooniest singing: falsetto to get drunk on, sorrow to drown in. Its flipside was a hyperventilated version of Diana Ross' 'Love Hangover', whose title neatly pinpointed the Associates' aesthetic: love as inTOXICant, malady, madness... pop as hysteria.

After this delirious zenith, and the departure of Alan Rankine, the Associates returned with the relative composure and controlled classicism of '84's, Perhaps LP. 'Those First Impressions' had beautiful bass palpitations, a fine vocal performance, but something was missing. The twee scenario of 'Waiting For The Loveboat' and the gloopily lugubrious 'Breakfast' were small-scale, merely tasteful.

Then there was a long silence until '88's 'Heart Of Glass'. But even at the nadir of his career, Mackenzie was too smouldering a singer for Blondie's glassy-eyed disco music anthem. Read Lester Bangs on Blondie as ultimate blank generation meets Pop Art void-oids, and you'll realise that, even on autopilot, Mackenzie injects too much lip-quavering "emotional truth" into Harry's ciphered lyrics.

Since then Billy recovered his dignity, if not his madness, with last year's Wild And Lonely. But to be honest his latest material sounds chastened and cowed compared to the extra tracks on this CD: on Yello's 'The Rhythm Divine', Mackenzie finds, in Boris Blank a new Alan Rankine, and in Dieter Meir a kindred spirit in nostalgia for a bygone, pre-war European "ancient regime". And the five tracks from Fourth Drawer Down (pre-chart top Associates) still sound like nothing on Earth. With 'Q-Quarters', 'Kitchen Person', 'Message Oblique Speech', 'White Car In Germany', it's like Scott Walker had never retired, but got turned onto Can, Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire, and returned with an even an even more baroque, festering, visionary paranoia than before.

We cry wolf too often with the old mystic effusions, but you simply have to hear this stuff, it'll make your insides spin.


Fourth Drawer Down


Double Hipness

Uncut, August 2000

by Simon Reynolds

The first time I heard Associates was the first time I saw Associates was one of the four or five true pop epiphanies of my life: Top of the Pops, February 1982, "Party Fears Two". That blithe bittersweet piano refrain, the cold smolder of Billy MacKenzie's voice, the still-never-totally-fathomed-to-this-day song-scenario (oblique snapshots of a breakup in progress?).... But what really brought me to the brink of a swoon was the way MacKenzie moved (at one point, he sashayed backwards), the impossible panache of the man. Even if he'd never emitted breath into a microphone and engraved it in wax, if you just saw him strolling down the street on the way back from Sainsburys, you'd still have recognised a star from the supernatural glow.

That TOTP appearance pierced and transfixed lots of other people: "Party Fears" shot straight to Number 9 the following week, launching Associates's brief (just eight months!) reign as a pop sensation. The career/careen of Billy MacKenzie invites all kinds of questions about why born stars can't maintain, the reason they mutilate their own genius and fail their own gift. I won't get into the biographical speculations about MacKenzie's apparent self-destructive streak, but there's another related mystery worth addressing: how does "chemistry" happen in pop music, why is it so hard to sustain or recreate? The fact is that without his other half, Alan Rankine, MacKenzie produced fine but ultimately modest and minor work that we (meaning critics) bigged up extravagantly only 'cos we loved the guy so much...  Even when they briefly reunited in 1993, the duo couldn't re-ignite the spark--judging by the scrappy, incandescence-free Autchterhouse Sessions, now available on Double Hipness, a double CD of demos, out-takes, alternate versions, and other undercooked material that mostly serves to tarnish the myth.

To the ears and eyes of the fan, it's the precedent-free singularity of the love object, its un-likeness to anything past or present, that is dazzling in its obviousness. The task of the critic, though, is (supposedly) to bypass the present-tense, ahistorical FAB WOW! and get into analysis--breaking something down into its constituents, showing where it came from. At the time it never even remotely occurred to me, but now (cursed with knowledge) I can hear the substantial debt to Bowie in MacKenzie's voice and in elements of the Associates sound. Billy might actually be the sole example of a positive Bowie influence in the annals of UK pop. Indeed, the first Associates single was a cover of "Boys Keep Swinging" (included on Double Hipness, it's oddly restrained, un-camp, almost U2-like in its earnestness), and Billy later sang a highly-strung version of "Secret Life of Arabia" (from Heroes) for BEF's Songs of Quality and Distinction.

The spate of astonishing EPs subsequently compiled as Fourth Drawer Down (now reissued with several extra tracks) are steeped in the un-American Europe Endless-ness of Bowie's Berlin trilogy Low/Heroes/Lodger --especially "White Car In Germany", with its metronomic march rhythm and "Dusseldorf's a cold place/Walk on eggs in Munich" lyric. With its furtive rhythm, broken balalaika riff, echoing footsteps, and clammy electronics, "Q Quarters" is Hapsburg dub, Cabaret Voltaire remaking The Third Man soundtrack. Lyric shards about "concrete civilians" and the black-humorous punch line "'washing down bodies/seems to me a dead end job" conjure a Cold War ambience-- partitioned cities, deportations, informers, double agents. Think The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the Ipcress File (Rankine and MacKenzie had bonded through their love of soundtracks, plus Kraftwerk and disco). Other Fourth Drawer gems include "A Girl Named Property" (Scott Walker, from the title downwards), the torrid xylophone-scampering romp of "Kitchen Person", the sculpted histrionics of "Tell Me Easter's On Friday," and the "I Am The Walrus"-like Dada-dementia of "Message Oblique Speech" ("he drinks double hernias/spits out wooden spoons').

The non-American aspect was crucial: the Associates aesthetic revolved around Anglo art-rock's artifice/androgyny/aristocracy (apologies for alliteration overload), around disco diva operatics and fabulousity, i.e. things considered treasonably unmanly and effete by American heartland rock'n'rollers. Many of their favorite bands also passed through the glam/disco interzone: Sparks shifted from guitar swashbuckling hysteria into Moroderized electro-throb, Roxy streamlined their angular art-rock into sleek jet-set disco. And there was that man Bowie again--the plastic funk of "Golden Years," the Neu Romanticism of "Ashes To Ashes". "Funk art, let's dance" anti-rockism was par for the course, of course, for UK bands poised on the cusp between post-punk and New Pop, angst and irony. But unlike most of the music of that 1980-82 era, which now sounds dated, flimsy, and "funky" only in the most notional sense (e.g. Lexicon of Love --then hailed as possibly the best pop album of all time, but unlikely to make any mag's Top 200 today), Associates records still tantalise like an unrequited future: the direction pop should have gone.

Sulk is so lovely it's harrowing. Overdubbed to the hilt, obsessively mixed, addled with bizarre found-sounds, it's bruised, over-ripe, fruity as fuck--headspinning and delirious, all the sugar fermented to alcohol. Like the Banshees (whom Billy admired) and later Prince, Associates crammed all the derangement and texture-saturated voluptuousness of psychedelia into pop, nearly bursting it at its seams. (MacKenzie actually described the Sulk sound as "Abba on acid", Rankine called it "thick... dripping"). After the perverse opener of instrumental "Arrogance Gave Him Up," Sulk really starts with the impossibly towering grandeur of "No"--a tormented ballad with helium-high backing vocals that ooze around the song's crenellations like ghostly mist. "Bap De La Bap" is overwrought in both the emotional and baroque metalwork senses, flailed along by the snap crackle pop of John Murphy's fireworks drums and Rankine's iceburn spires of glassy guitar. One of the forgotten things about Associates music, given New Pop's anti-rockist tenor, is how fabulously inventive it was as electric guitar music. Working from the post-blues, un-American sounds of Neu!'s Michael Rother and the blazing celestial pageantry of Fripp on "Heroes," Rankine was part of a postpunk moment in which guitarists (Wire, Johns McKay/McGeoch of the Banshees, Joy Div, the Edge) operated with absolute confidence that the instrument could probe new horizons. Nobody would have dreamed of stooping to a refried Stones lick.

Sulk has too much preciousness to inventory; the frisk and stealth and anxious exhilaration of "Skipping," the fraught bombast of "It's Better This Way, " the sunshafts-peeking-through-clouds intro of "Party Fears Two" and its celestial cloisters of double-tracked MacKenzie harmonies; the Nordic Chic of "Club Country," all zinging rhythm guitar and beetling slap-bass; Billy's words throughout, absurd and portentous yet utterly right, from "tear a strip from your dress/wrap my arms in it" ("No") to "it lies there canistered for future reference" ("Nude Spoons") and "even a slight remark makes no sense and turns to shark" ("Party Fears Two"). It's staggering to think that this record--the best of its era--sold a quarter million copies. The re-ish adds fine B-sides of the time like "Ulcragceptimol" and the gloriously over-the-top cover of Diana Ross's "Love Hangover", double-A side of their last proper hit "18 Carat Love Affair."

You've heard the best, what about the rest? The first CD of Double Hipness pulls together demos from MacKenzie/Rankine's early phase as punk-cabaret troupe Mental Torture and sundry Associates out-takes. The early stuff, done with a pick-up band, is motley at best, ranging from the one-line gag of "The Shadow of My Lung" (a Lurkers-meets-Bacharach spoof-cover of "Shadow of Your Smile"), through the almost Rocky Horror Show -like "Not Tonight Josephine," to a smarmy-vocaled and saxophone-wheezed prototype for "18 Carat Love Affair" that's horrifically redolent of Darts (the intended reference was probably the rockabilly version of "John, I'm Only Dancing"). The early Associates demos are better: "Janice (AKA Deeply Concerned)" is a beautiful sketch of a song, "Saline Drips" shows Rankine emerging as an interesting guitarist, "Galaxy of Memories" has the spindly spidery quality of Young Marble Giants, "Mortice Lock" hints at flushed fevers to come, and the silverpoint stitchwork on "Big Waltz (AKA Paper House)" has a crisp Celtic frost that is pure Edge. Disc Two is much more ropey, with cute, utterly unnecessary early versions of Sulk and Perhaps tunes, and the lacklustre secretions of the aforementioned Rankine/MacKenzie reunion tryst of '93. Most of this stuff sounds like deathbed Roxy or Eighties/Nineties solo Ferry, with Rankine impersonating an expensive session guitarist and MacKenzie succumbing to cliche-encrusted melodrama. Still the mysterious "Edge of the World" is a sketch for a twilight-gem a la "Slave To Love". And the muddy glam rock pummel of "Stephen, You're Really Something"--Billy's belated riposte to Morrissey's kiss-off "William, It Was Really Nothing"--at least inspires an alternative-history fantasy: the parallel universe where the twosome stayed "close" long enough to record a duet single. The fey flamboyance of the resulting Top of the Pops appearance would probably have put me in a coma.

But being (still) a star-struck fan in relation to all things Associates, I don't really want to hear the stumbling baby-steps towards the Divine Pinnacles ("of historical interest" is by definition anti-pop), let alone the dwindling diminuendos of a tragically spent force. Having never bought a bootleg in my life, I can't understand the mindset of those who savor such droppings. Fourth Drawer Down and Sulk are all you need. 

The Associates

Wild and Lonely

Melody Maker, March 24 1990

by Simon Reynolds

The first time I heard the Associates was when I saw 'Party Fears Two' on Top Of The Pops. It was one of those moments - the first snarl of 'Anarchy in the UK', the first spin and reel of 'This Charming Man', the first giddy sip of Prince – when the mind gapes, you exhale sheer awe. Billy Mackenzie oozed such illegal self-assurance, lethal panache, supernatural elegance. It was a revelation, a ravishing.

Since then, the Associates have lingered, reproachfully in the back of the mind as one of the great "should-have-beens" of pop. By rights, Mackenzie and Rankine should have dominated the decade like Prince. Fourth Drawer Down and Sulk continue to shame this day and age with their febrile exploration of the outer limits of the pop form. Like Siouxsie at her pinnacle, the Associates injected all the derangement of psychedelic angst into pop, almost bursting it at the seams.

Wild And Lonely is no Sulk, but it is a splendid reprise of the torrid, wind-swept, never-never pop that the Associates made their own. The reference points are all mid-to-late seventies: Donna Summer's Once Upon A Time, Bowie's plastic soul, Sparks, Diana Ross' 'Love Hangover', an entire long-lost wonderland of orchestral disco. The arrangements alone – a swirl of strings, percussion and rather to many grand piano flourishes – are marvelous: sculpture in four dimensions. On 'Fire To Ice' (three words that just about encapsulate the Associates' aesthetic) and 'Fever', Mackenzie is in top vocal form: more composed than the devotee might wish, but still capable of some electrifying shudders and tics, spasms and swoons. As for the rest of side one, the relentlessly uptempo pace irks somewhat, after a while: the Moroder throb of 'People We Meet' never really ignites, 'Just Can't Say Goodbye' is a little bit Tina Charles, and 'Calling All Around The World' is marred by a jocose horn section.

Mercifully, side two is altogether more blue. 'Something's Got to Give' is lugubrious Eurodisco, somewhere between Cabaret Voltaire and Scott Walker, with wraith-like keyboards hinting at insanity seething between the immaculate surface. 'Strasbourg Square' is a doomy ballad, fidgeting with needling, nervous detail. 'Ever Since The Day' is like a cross between Mantronix and Bassey's 'Goldfinger', while 'Wild And Lonely' is a majestic, highly strung finale, a hooded Mackenzie glowering into the void from the vantage point of some desolate, mind's eye heath or cliff, (Heathcliffe!).

Like Yello, the Associates' sound harks back to some indeterminate bygone era when the malady and madness of love was properly expressed in epic proportions, when pop music luxuriated in grief. It's no coincidence that Mackenzie was involved in Yello's finest moments ('The Rhythm Divine' and 'Moon On Ice'). Unlike Yello, with The Associates there's something consumptive beneath the surface camp, a fire that burns like ice. Wild And Lonely is no Sulk: the volcano of Mackenzie's purple hysteria remains dormant. But this album is a thoroughly aristocratic return for one of our last pop heroes.

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