FANTASTICALLY UNLIKELY…AND IT WOULDN’T HAPPEN NOWADAYS

I think it’s fair to say that debut albums tend to be the ones that turn out the best and most memorable. This is often down to them being filled with the songs and tunes that brought the band/singer to the notice of the A&R folk in the first instance and having benefitted from being finessed in the live setting before any feet and other body parts ever entered a studio.

I think it’s equally fair to say that in the case of Associates, things are a wee bit different….but then again Alan Rankine and Billy Mackenzie refused to follow any of the norms when it came to making a career in the music industry. The duo had the audacity and genius to independently release an unauthorised cover of a current David Bowie hit single as their debut 45, knowing it would draw attention to what they were up to. The move worked and, at the start of the decade in which electronica would rule the roost for the most part, certainly here in the UK, Associates got themselves a record deal.

The early material as found on debut album The Affectionate Punch (1980) and the compilation effort Fourth Drawer Down (1981) is now considered to be ground-breaking and innovative, eschewing the poppy side of the genre for a harder-edged sound that took much of its inspiration from continental Europe. At the time, however, it was seen by many, including many critics in the weekly music papers, as a bit clunky and cumbersome – it was music to which you stroked your chin rather than shook your ass. It was a painful situation for Billy Mackenzie who had huge ambitions to be a fully-fledged pop star and really believed he could be so on his own terms.

Things changed dramatically in 1982 when two of the finest ever singles to come out of Scotland took them into the singles charts. Party Fears Two, with its ridiculously catchy tune and its impenetrable lyric, was released February 1982. It was something of a slow burner, taking six weeks to hit its peak of #9. The moment it dropped out of the charts, the band’s label, WEA, fired out the high-tempo and infectious Club Country, a song that left must have caused some panic in all the other electronica-pop bands who had absolutely no chance of sounding as brilliant as this.

A week or so later, the band’s second album Sulk was released. It comprised ten tracks, and outside of the two hits singles, it wasn’t a million miles removed from the earlier flop material, except this time around the critics lapped it up.

Sulk challenged its listeners in a way that very little else did in the early 80s. The hits were tucked away towards the end of the B-side of the record, meaning that there was a lot to get through before any familiarity kicked in. The whole of the A-side is brilliant and bonkers in equal measures. Everyone was saying it was the Mackenzie voice that made the band so unique and distinct, so it was perverse of them to open with an instrumental. The first actual song with a lyric is funeral in pace and is full of disturbing imagery about tearing out your hair, biting your nails and cutting yourself shaving while wrapping your arms in a strip torn from a dress:-

mp3 : Associates – No

And that’s not even the most bizarre moment of the A-side – that’s reserved for the closing track that Alan Rankine would later say was about an acid trip that Billy had had when he was fifteen or sixteen and during which some kitchen utensils were copulating:-

mp3 : Associates – Nude Spoons

Turning the vinyl over and putting the needle into the groove brings up what I will always consider my favourite track on the album. Skipping has Billy going through his entire vocal range from bass/baritone (with hints of a Sean Connery impression) to near falsetto as he lets tip at the end over what is a haunting melody that many have tried in vain to capture and replicate over the ensuing decades:-

mp3 : Associates – Skipping

The remainder of the B-side is the most accessible and commercial side of any record that either Alan or Billy would ever involve themselves, with the four tracks comprising a new version of the Party Fears Two b-side, the two hit singles and a closing two-minute long instrumental that would be extended, benefitting also from the addition of a lyric, and turned into a third and final hit 45:-

mp3 : Associates – nothinginsomethingparticular

Sulk is a masterpiece. It’s possible that without the two hit singles that WEA would have deemed it unworthy of release and it’s certainly the case that they didn’t want any of the gothic masterpieces that made up the album to get anywhere near daytime BBC Radio 1. The sad thing is that the LP marked the end of Alan and Billy’s partnership as the former quit the band just a few months later, frustrated by what he felt was an increasingly diva-type behaviour from the singer in the rehearsals that were due to lead to a series of cancelled live shows in the UK at major venues, not to mention an impending, and again cancelled, tour of the USA.

I’ve based my reminisces on the original vinyl release in 1982 as that was the one I wore out quickly from repeated playings. The USA version of the album, issued after Alan had departed, had a very different running order and indeed three of the tracks on the UK album, including Nude Spoons, were left off altogether and replaced by the later 18 Carat Love Affair/Love Hangover double-A single and two tracks the earlier material. This was obviously the album that WEA had really wanted as the USA version was used for the initial CD release of Sulk in 1988, with things only rectified in 2000 when it was finally reissued again on CD, in its original running order, after many years being out of print. Just a pity that it had taken the sad death of Billy Mackenzie a few years earlier to enable this state of affairs.

I’ll just about leave the last word to Paul Morley – here’s part of his review of the album in the NME:-

“Sulk deals with everything, in its hectic, drifting way … There is an uninterruptible mix-up of cheap mystery, vague menace, solemn farce, serious struggle, arrogant ingenuity, deep anxiety, brash irregularity, smooth endeavour … Sometimes Sulk is simply enormous: and then again it is fantastically unlikely.”

Fantastically unlikely is the perfect description. It certainly wouldn’t happen these days.

JC

12 thoughts on “FANTASTICALLY UNLIKELY…AND IT WOULDN’T HAPPEN NOWADAYS

  1. On first hearing Boys Keep Swinging, via a late-night DJ who had an hilarious predilection for such phrases as “I predict” and “my sources”, I was hooked.

    I adored Bowie then and by rights this cover version should have been heresy. Instead it was a refreshing slap across the face – and if the stories are to be believed – a truly punk response to marketing.

    Following the sublime debut and subsequent compilation LP I was on a high to hear Sulk. On hearing it I was a helium balloon that could not be tamed – caught as I was in it’s wake – bobbing this way and that. I don’t think Scotland has ever produced anything quite so triumphant or as bonkers as Sulk. Musically and vocally this LP resembles the bastard son of a joyous Klaus Nomi who has just witnessed Einstürzende Neubauten for the first time. It shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t. But ….. boy, does it work! This is an LP that travels with me wherever I go.

    Played to within an inch of it’s life I’m surprised this morning to notice that the cover is in remarkably good condition.

    An aside: for someone who desired the limelight Mackenzie always looked visibly uncomfortable in it. Alan Rankine hasn’t ever received the recognition he so richly deserves for his magnificent part in this life-inspiring ‘Popera’, nor has Mike Hedges.

    Thanks to JC for an uplifting start to the day.

  2. The album I’ll take me with in my grave, if I ever get a tattoo it will be “tear a strip from your dress, wrap my arms in it”.
    And the 2016 re-issues on BMG gave me my proudest moment in my (non existent) music business career – with a mention in the credits of all the 3 albums reissued then. A huge honour for a life long fan.

  3. I was ssooooo late to the Associates party! I ha dread about the band from at least 1981 onward, but never heard the first note. I tended to near new music via early MTV, which had nothing to play but UK video clips when I first got it in 1982. But there were no Associates videos on MTV, thought the “Sulk” LP got a release on Sire.

    In fact, I always saw a copy of “Sulk” in the used bins at local Retro Records. Just sitting there for $5 or so, but without hearing anything from it, I never took the bait. It remained until 1990, when seeing a brand new used CD promo copy [obviously sold off immediately by some DJ] of “Popera” in the bins at Park Avenue CDs. They had CD players and headphones to encourage sampling, so I popped it in. I studied the back cover. Hmmm. “White Car In Germany!” That title was so loaded, there was NO WAY that any song could live up to it, so I pressed play on track number 17.

    Gott Im Himmel!! Not only did what my ears heard live up to the title, it was the ultimate expression of such that one could ever hope for! The baleful, catlike synths howled on the shadows as the rubbery synth bass and goose stepping march rhythms erupted into grandiose dubspace. And that limitless voice cut through it all. Neither strictly male nor female, but encompassing the full limits of both genders with power to spare.

    In short, I was hooked. I had a new favorite band ten years too late, but better late than never. Buying any and all Associates was my focus from then on. It was in early 1992 when buying CDs from a catalog I regularly got, that I saw a CD of “Sulk.” I bought it immediately, and got the US version that Sire had released back in 1982, though I did not know this at the time. “No” and “Skipping” were my favorites, and “White Car In Germany” followed those on side two for an unbeatable trinity of music.

    In 1997, after only buying a single Billy MacKenzie album, “Outernational,” as a new release in the interim between 1990 and that year, I was devastated to hear of Billy’s suicide. I had packed my Record Cell with as many Associates records as I could find by then. But I still only had the 1988 CD of “Sulk” in the US edition. The only positive outcome of his death, was the renewed interest in his back catalog. The 2000 V2 edition of “Sulk” was a revelation. I had the Peel Sessions CD5 with “Nude Spoons” but that had nothing on the hysteria of the LP version. And I am still floored by the berserk fury of “Bap De La Bap!!” It sounded like the music had been ripped apart and stitched back together again!!! Beats JUST DID NOT sound like that in 1982!!

    A great album had become singular to me by this time. Of course, I was deep into the Associates underground, and knew by then that no CD had yet replicated the original UK LP mixes/versions. Each CD seemed to have gotten a little tweak that made it unique. Soon afterward, I finally bought a UK LP first pressing by mail order. Then, when I saw another in an Atlanta record store, I bought it again! You can;’t have too many of these cluttering up your house! I still need the 2016 re-issue, which I’m told is yet another variation; not quite the original LP.

    I guess that one day when I have the time and money, I will have to remaster my UK LP copies and finally make the original “Sulk” on one of my archival CD-R projects. Until that day, I salute the stunning achievement of “Sulk.” Even though if you put a gun to my head, “Fourth Drawer Down” was the one I’d take to that proverbial desert island.

    Damnit! Did I just post a blog here?

  4. Aww lovely post. It was indeed a magnificent album and yes, it would never be made today (thank goodness we have it) and Paul Morley was right. Now I’m going to have to go off and listen to it… ;D

  5. Great piece, JC, really enjoyed all the replies as well. I wonder, Flimflamfan, whether another one of that late night DJ’s catchphrases was “ I can exclusively reveal…?”

    It seems appropriate that in the week the Simple Minds series reaches their exquisite run of 1982 releases, that Scotland’s other big pop news that particular year with their own trio of pop hotshot singles, get honoured here.

    There were similarities between 1982 Simple Minds and Associates. Beyond being compatriots, they were seen as trailblazers for contemporary Scottish music. They also had both lost their original drummers, John Murphy leaving during the Sulk sessions and Brian McGee leaving the Minds before New Gold Dream. They both had really top notch base players that were integral to their sound and, while both had terrific guitarists, the 1982 versions of both bands had the guitars very much playing supporting roles to the base and keyboards/synths.(albeit Rankine the synth boffin was replacing Rankine the guitarist) Both band’s early recordings featured singers conveying a very convincing even oppressive sense of fear and alienation. In Kerr’s case, the sense of paranoia didn’t come from within, at home he wasn’t actually an outsider, but from the sensory overload of sometimes frightening images and experiences generated from travel, a feeling of being a fearful stranger in a strange land. Billy Mackenzie’s vocals on the other hand strained and roared to the heavens as an anguished expression of not knowing where the hell he fitted in.

    The main thing they had in common is that both bands at the time made me feel immensely proud of my homeland.

    The two bands were very different, too, though. Apart from the odd Bowie/ Rory echo in common, they didn’t sound alike. Simple Minds were built to last, to go far, fueled by a collective ambition most noticeable in Kerr and Burchill. You kind get the impression that Mackenzie’s ambitions were realised the very first time he got to dress up and perform on Top of the Pops. His failure to negotiate a promotional tour speaks volumes. They had replaced Dempsey on base for the tour and had a 9 piece line up and additional dancers to attempt to recreate what the pair and Dempsey had created with Sulk. God knows what sort of freak show the tour might have been if it had gone ahead.

    A lot has been written about Sulk over the years, so much that it’s hard to say anything original about it. If you haven’t heard it but read about it, an awful lot of what you will have read is true. Sulk is proof positive that once upon a time some deeply weird music could get in the charts and be considered mainstream and pop. It isn’t by any standards a pop record yet it was in 1982.

    I love the fact that the lyrics, sang with a frightening conviction, are bonkers. I think I can say from this distance that partyfearstwo is about a relationship with the titular “party” referring to the singer and “fears two” meaning fear of commitment, but, really, what a dislocated and cryptic way to express yourself. Sulk must be one of the “artiest” hit albums also in all aspects, the composition, playing, lyrics and artwork. Club Country I have since learned is about an actual care home or home on the outskirts of Dundee for elderly or perhaps mental health patients. All these years I thought it was about clubbing! But that’s the two hits What about No, Bapdelabap, Skipping, Nude Spoons? 4 songs that I still haven’t at this vantage point a single clue what they’re on about. But I do know, if I were to put them in again, they would thrill, confound and beguile in exactly the same way as they did when I first heard them all these years ago!

  6. My favourite lyric is from Skipping –

    Skipping I left you there skipping
    Ripping ropes from the Belgian wharfs
    Breathless Beauxillous griffin once removed seemed dwarfed
    They’re simple in that they happen to be there

    F*** knows what it means in the context of the song, but who cares. The way Bill sings it, it could mean anything and everything, all at the same time. And his voice on the whole album is sublime. But the way his voice goes high at the end of Party Fears Two and turns into a synth note is the best part of the WHOLE album.

    Everyone always talks about Billy and seem to forget Alan as the ‘guy behind the music’. Without Alan, Associates would have been just another band from Dundee. But the mind that thought that the best way to record Billy’s voice was, at one time, in a full bath and another from the top of a staircase and the microphone at the bottom MADE Associates. Only Alan could say the only way to get the right scream from Billy, in the right key, was to sellotape a cup and saucer to his head and smash it with a hammer. Guitar, bass (sometimes), keyboards, drums, the studio – he was the engine to Billys wheels.

  7. Alex – As I have read (indicating little proof of truth) Club Country was mocking the clientele at the Blitz, and No came up in Billy’s head while waiting at Alan’s home for him to finish his dinner…

  8. Lol Martin, who knows?

    The Blitz club theory is certainly possible, the “ work hard at being a something “ refrain being the most obvious clue, but then again “ refrigeration keeps you young I’m told” could explain the care home theory.

    Thing is Billy’s lyrics aren’t bad lyrics, they even have a certain literary quality to them if taken a line at a time, it’s just that they are deeply, deeply impenetrable, but all the more intriguing for that.

    “ Congealing itself with a toy from a splintered home” ( from Bapdelabap, my only guess would be that one’s about one of his whippets!) but like you said I say that with absolutely no evidence.

  9. Sulk wasn’t re-issued in its original UK vinyl form in in the V2 series in 2000. It has never been reissued with the original UK mixes from the original UK vinyl album. The wondrous Club Country was replaced by a hatchet job edit. Dempsey – what were you thinking?

  10. Thanks Sid. I should have known that. To be fair to myself, it’s the rip of the vinyl version of the album that I have on the i-pod and the one I listen to. Hope things are well with you.

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