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

OCD EPs : #7 : ASSOCIATES

A GUEST POSTING by MARTIN ELLIOT

I believe I rather well qualify as an obsessed collector of material by The Associates and the late Billy MacKenzie. Sid Law has earlier provided some excellent rare songs here at TVV, but you can’t have too many – can you?

This OCD EP is made up of tracks recorded using the Associates moniker, with side A having tracks where Alan was still in – at least when the tracks where originally written/recorded – while side B are demos Billy recorded later. I’m not sure any longer where I got the side A session recordings from, I have a couple of more. Could potentially be for a TV or radio show, but that’s only a guess. There is no audience on the recordings but on one track, not included here, Billy thanks for the session.

Side A.

1. Even Dogs In The Wild (studio session) – A favourite song of mine, which has surfaced in many different versions. This session recording has a jazzy feel to it. Not too far away from the Irrationale cassette version.

2. Gloomy Sunday (studio session) – Here is also a slightly jazzy feel. Haunting vocals.

3. Message Oblique Speech (studio session) – bring in the band, and go full throttle. Great version.

Side B.

1. Take Me To The Girl (demo)

2. The Glamour Chase (demo)

3. Fever (demo)

All having a slightly rougher, or at least less polished, edge than the released versions. These give a good picture of the road from demo to completed, commercial, release. Still, that voice!

A lot has been said, and can still be said, about what could have been had Billy still been among us. We will never know, I’m convinced in today’s digital world he would be able to find better platforms for his artistic outlet than traditional record companies. Useless speculations, at times I need to listen to the demo of “Outerpol” to remind me he could also occasionally do stuff I find unlistenable…

I hope he found peace wherever he is now.

MARTIN

AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #141 : ASSOCIATES

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.

SIDE A

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.

SIDE B

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.

BONUS EP

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.

Track 1 : The Affectionate Punch
Track 4 : Paper House
Track 6 : A Matter of Gender
Track 9 : Deeply Concerned

See….it was impossible to keep it to ten songs.

JC

PS : Tune in tomorrow for a companion piece from a guest contributor.

REMEMBERING BILLY MACKENZIE (Day 5 of 5)

Words and the PS are from Sid. I went for the songs.

What can anyone say about the 60th birthday of a guy who didn’t make 40? I think if Billy was still around he would still be making music. He’d love the Internet and how quickly he could produce and distribute music without the obstructive, stifling interference of Record Companies which had crushed his career and his soul so. He would do some wee cabaret slots at the Edinburgh Festival mibbe. He’d be happy with his dogs mibbe. He’d probably still be up in the Sidlaws. Maybe somewhere in an alternate universe he still is, but in this one his music stopped over twenty years ago. It is nearly thirty five years since his last hit single.

Billy and his Associates didn’t have many hit singles either – about two and a half at the last count. So Billy Mackenzie’s work isn’t about hits… it is mostly about misses. But those misses make for some spectacular listening. His list of recording associates is astonishing – he recorded with Barry Adamson, BEF, Apollo Four Forty, Yello, Skids, Shirley Bassey, Steven Emmer, Shakespeare’s Sister, Peach, Paul Haig, Alan Rankine, Michael Dempsey, Steve Aungle, Loom, Pascal Gabriel, Thomas Fehlmann, Blair Booth, Philip Erb, Moritz Von Oswald, Ralf Hertwig, Dei Zwei

Billy should be a stylish, slightly tweedy, Scottish eccentric gentleman living out his years in a cottage in the hills to the North-West of Dundee. A sight to behold as he sets a polished brogue on some rugged granite outcroppings on the short heathery flanks of Auchterhouse Hill with a loyal whippet or two at his side. Happy Birthday Billy.

Sid Law

PS. Remember when New Year Shows were like this?

 

mp3 : Associates – Boys Keep Swinging
mp3 : Associates – Tell Me Easter’s On Friday (12″ version)
mp3 : Associates – Breakfast (Peel Sessions)
mp3 : Billy MacKenzie – Pastime Paradise
mp3 : Haig/Mackenzie – Thunderstorm

JC writes…….a huge thanks again to Sid for the fantastic contributions these past few days.  And thanks to all of you have dropped in and been part of these extended birthday celebrations of a unique and sadly-missed talent.

REMEMBERING BILLY MACKENZIE (Day 4 of 5)

Some mid-period Associates and Billy MacKenzie.

Just Can’t Say Goodbye was the Associates last single released in January 1991. However the song had slid out in tiny quantities as a very different version as the B-Side to the aborted “Country Boy” single back in 1988.

“The Best Of You” was a track on the 1985 “Perhaps” album. On the released album it was Eddi Reader who sang the duet with Billy MacKenzie. Here are the two versions recorded with A Lennox and Gina X. Yes… that A Lennox. I prefer the Gina X version myself.

Gina X version
A Lennox version

Cinemas Of The World 7” – Warners were keeping Billy from releasing records between 1985 and 1989. But Billy kept recording with other “associates”. This was Uno who released an album and this track was actually a single. There is a lengthier 12” version but I think the 7” mix is better.

Sid Law

REMEMBERING BILLY MACKENZIE (Day 3 of 5)

The Radio One Sessions CDs were very limited and sell for stupid money now.

So a few Radio One Sessions!

A combination of tracks recorded for the Saturday Live session in January 1985 and a Janice Long Session in September 1985.

A Severe Bout of Career Insecurity – MacKenzie song. No full studio recording exists only this Radio One Session.

Kites – A cover of the Simon Dupree and The Big Sound song. Billy had already recorded a stonking version with Alan Rankine as 39 Lyon Street and a version on the flipside of the 12” of “Breakfast”.

The Crying Game – Dave Berry’s 1964 hit given the Associates 1984 treatment. Performed first as part of an acoustic, pared-down set at Ronnie Scott’s.

The Girl That Took Me – A slowed down version of their flop single “Take Me To The Girl”. A wonderful camp, tongue in cheek dedication to Janice Long as well.

This Flame – Another MacKenzie song with no full studio recording and only exists on this Radio One Session.

Sid Law

REMEMBERING BILLY MACKENZIE (Day 2 of 5)

A lovely picture of Billy with everyone’s favourite Muffin – Martha Ladly

Baltimore – Billy’s take on Randy Newman’s song.

Free – BEF dragged Billy back for Music of Quality and Distinction Volume Two. This was his contribution.

It’s Over – A wee orchestral arrangement of one of Billy’s contributions to Music of Quality and Distinction Volume One.

The Mountains That You Climb – Billy MacKenzie and Steve Aungle.

Anacostia Bay (at the edge of the world) – Loom featuring Billy MacKenzie. The last record Billy released in his lifetime. Full-length 12min 42sec original mix.

Eurocentric – Billy MacKenzie and Steve Aungle (unreleased demo)

Give Me Time – Electro version. Billy MacKenzie and Paul Haig (unreleased demo)

Sid Law