I’ve long striven for an Associates ICA but it’s another one of those tasks that just seems beyond me, especially when more great previously unknown songs come my way courtesy of Sid Law via the various postings he’s offered over the years. I know that this 12-track selection (which in itself breaks my 10-song rule of thumb) has more omissions than inclusions, particularly for the diehard fans, and is sure to attract a bit of criticism. I’ve concentrated on the more commercial stuff as they, by nature, tend to be a bit more accessible than many others but there are a couple of deeper and darker tunes included as they fit in just perfectly to the running order. Oh and the justification for the 12 songs is that they include two covers.
1. White Car In Germany (single, 1981)
A moody, majestic and magical few minutes to open things up, it demonstrates just how important both Alan Rankine and Billy Mackenzie were to the sound and feel of this band. My first exposure to the band, and one that was suggested thanks to my love of Magazine, the eerie horror-movie soundtrack keyboards are akin to those of Dave Formula and the seemingly nonsensical lyrics would be the stuff Howard Devoto would have been proud of. Name-checking Aberdeen, Dusseldorf, Zurich and Munich in the opening few lines and giving us the wonderful rhyming couplet of “Anonymous as bathrooms, Androgynous as Dachshunds”. All albums, ICA or not, should open with something as memorable as this.
2. Boys Keep Swinging (single, 1979)
My admission that White Car In Germany was my first exposure to the band reveals that I missed out totally on this debut single, the cheeky and somewhat irreverent cover version of what was then a relatively then new song by David Bowie. No copyright permission was sought with the boys fully aware that the ensuing furore and legal threats would provide them with the oxygen of publicity. I probably would have hated this cover version back in 1979 but today it feels somewhat charming and almost innocent.
3. 18 Carat Love Affair (single, 1982)
Released as a stand-alone 45 on the back of the chart success of two earlier singles and the LP Sulk, this proved to be the last time Associates or indeed Billy Mackenzie troubled the higher end of the pop charts. It’s the instrumental track nothinginsomethingparticular with additional lyrics. Unashamedly 80s in sound and style, it still has the ability all these years to put a huge grin on my face as I recall the promotional efforts on Top of The Pops as Billy flirted outrageously with Martha Ladly while Alan initially played a chocolate guitar before breaking it up and handing it members of the audience to eat. Performance art at its most absurd.
4. Tell Me Easter’s On Friday (single 1981)
The band was really proficient in the early days – there were seven singles released in 1981 – all of which with the benefit of hindsight seemed to digging deep into the different genres of their musical influences without any meaningful effort to impact on the charts. Some of these early songs may appear to have been self-indulgent but it strikes me that the record label bosses wanted to have a serious rather than pop band on their books, one that would get talked about at great length within the pages of the four weekly music papers that were published in the UK at the time. The boys were being matched with producers and engineers who were keen to explore the extent to which the synthesiser could be deployed in the studio and who looked upon that amazing voice simply as another ‘instrument’ to throw into the mix. To be fair, Alan and Billy were themselves happy to go down this route in the early days, but before too long, the latter really wanted just to get on Top of the Pops and into the pages of Smash Hits.
5. Party Fears Two (single, 1982)
The 45 that delivered on Billy’s dreams and ambitions. Their best known few minutes and among their finest. Enough has been written before about, both on this blog and elsewhere. Just enjoy the full majesty of the 12” version with its fabulous drawn-out ending which leads nicely into….
6. Those First Impressions (single, 1984)
….a song with a fabulous drawn-out intro. A case can be made that The Associates weren’t ever the same after Alan left in 1982 and that what followed was really Billy’s solo output with a host of backing musicians and sundry helpers in the studio. Be that as it may, there were still as many studio albums released without Alan’s involvement as there had been at the outset (albeit they took an inordinate amount of time to record without his steady hand at the controls), and this, the first shimmering and poptastic first single post-Rankine gave us all hope that great things were still to come. It stalled at #43 , again proving that the record buying public just couldn’t be trusted.
7. Transport To Central (from The Affectionate Punch (Remix), 1982)
My plan for the b-side of this ICA was for it to follow the template on the a-side which is why I’m starting things off with another gloomy and dour masterpiece. You only need to look at events surrounding the initial release and later subsequent remix of the debut LP to see just how the band wanted to be, and were, different. It came out on Fiction Records in 1980 and was as deep, dark and dense as anything that Joy Division or their contemporaries were delivering. Indeed, JD uber-fan Paul Morley included the word ‘masterpiece’ in his review of the album. Come 1982, and with the band now on Warner Brothers and basking in the success of Sulk, the bosses ordered that the debut be dusted down and given the remix treatment, including a more contemporary sound with some of the lyrics being re-recorded. It was also given a completely different running order. The subsequent results satisfied very few but the take on Transport To Central was one that, for me, worked as it made sound more complete and less of a demo.
8. God Bless The Child (live from Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, 1984)
Some of the finest versions of Associates songs can be found on two hard-to-find CDs that brought together various BBC Radio 1 Sessions recorded between 1981 and 1985 for a multitude of shows including John Peel, Janice Long, David ‘Kid’ Jensen and Richard Skinner. Billy was also more than happy to throw in some cover versions into the sessions and one of them included a take on the Billie Holliday classic from the 1940s. But I was able to track down a reasonably decent quality of his performing the song at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London in December 1984 that was later broadcast on BBC TV’s The Old Grey Whistle Test. I’ve included it as the intro shows how gently spoken Billy was as well as the extent of his Dundonian accent; but above else, it gives an indication of how great his voice was…this is as is with just a piano for accompaniment in front of a hushed audience.
9. Skipping (from Sulk, 1982)
Sulk is rightly considered to be the band’s masterpiece and as much as I love the singles, the track that opens the second side of the vinyl is my go to track on it. Billy goes through his entire vocal range from bass/baritone (with hints of a Sean Connery impression) to near falsetto as he lets rip towards the end all over a haunting melody. This was always going to be on this ICA, it was just a question of where it fitted best and what should follow it,
10. Breakfast (single, 1985)
Perhaps, the LP released in 1985, sold poorly. It was also giving a bit of a critical bashing. It was an era when guitar-pop was a bit in the ascendency and any synth music had to have the big hooks and sing-a-long choruses to stand any chance of airplay. Billy was, to quote Elvis Costello, a man out of time. No more so than on this beautiful piece of singing and performing, with a piano part that EC’s sidekick Steve Nieve would have been proud of.
11. Club Country (single, 1982)
Once again, I’ve turned to the 12″ version. At a few seconds under seven minutes in length its way longer than the versions that appeared on Sulk (I use the plural as the version on the CD release is about a minute shorter than the original vinyl release). It’s a bit tricked up in places but for the most part it works well – and thankfully the sudden ending was kept in situ rather than a long and drawn out fade into silence.
12. A Girl Named Property (single, 1981)
This was one of the seven singles from that particular year but it came out on a different label than they were signed to. It was also one half of a double single with the other side entitled Kites by a band called 39 Lyon Street…who were in fact Associates under another name; 39 Lyon Street was the address of the flat in Dundee where they lived, and where myself and Jacques the Kipper went out of our way to visit a few months ago while in the city for a football match. Worth mentioning that A Girl Named Property was an updated and punchier version of Mona Property Girl which had been the b-side to Boys Keep Swinging, and as such the first original Associates song to see light of day.
I was trying to make this ICA as commercial sounding as possible which is why none of the tracks from the debut LP The Affectionate Punch, originally released in August 1980, have been included. It’s a fantastic record of its own accord but it’s a long way removed from the stuff that most folk associate (pun intended) with the band. They moved a long way in a short time as can be illustrated with these four songs from the debut.
See….it was impossible to keep it to ten songs.
PS : Tune in tomorrow for a companion piece from a guest contributor.