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:-
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.