The Associates (1/2)

bks

Heaven loves ya

The clouds part for ya

Nothing stands in your way

When you’re a boy

I

My obsessions flower quickly out of nothing.

On Friday I didn’t know who The Associates were.  Now I have listened to all their music and read a biography of the band’s singer: Billy MacKenzie.

What are your ambitions?

Billy: I suppose I’d like to have pretty smart wrinkles when I’m 40.  To be dead suave and wrinkly.

Smash Hits, 5-18 August 1982

Here are The Associates doing a fantastic cover version of Boys Keep Swinging by Bowie.

I think these are the things people say about The Associates: they wrote some sparkling, off-kilter songs; some people think their album Sulk is a “masterpiece”; they split up too soon; the lead singer, Billy MacKenzie, had a good voice, and he killed himself when he was 39.

Was Billy gay I wonder.  Or perhaps he just didn’t quite fit.  Probably that.

II

The Associates, as Billy MacKenzie and Alan Rankine, released three albums:

  • The Affectionate Punch (1980)
  • Fourth Drawer Down (1981)
  • Sulk (1982)

When Alan left in 1982, Billy carried on with the name The Associates and released some more albums.  Of those Perfect (1985) feels like a close cousin to the first three records but a little enervated.  The cousin who looks like your favourite uncle but without his twinkling eyes and jests that set the table on a roar.

The Affectionate Punch is a terrific album.  So is Sulk, but in quite a different way.  Even Fourth Drawer Down, sort of a filler between their two “proper” albums, manages a few real standouts.  They did clever, odd, and very cool music.

III

My theory for why 1978 to 1984 produced such good pop music has to do with dissent and opportunity.  The backwash of Punk and electronics provided both.  There was a mix of aggressive difference, an anti-corporate nostril-flaring, and an omnivorous approach – for some – to sound: the new technology of the cheap synth, and/or the white privilege plunder of non-Western sounds.

The Associates fitted into the small window of time that post-Punk had.  It makes perfect sense in this open-minded space that a gifted singer with a jazz-cabaret feel and a gifted musician with a roving, twitchy ear would be successful.  They were both of the time and not quite of it.  The “not quite of it” is probably due to Billy MacKenzie.  His biographer describes that Billy-MacKenzie-style perfectly when he recounts hearing their biggest hit – Party Fears Two – “This Billy MacKenzie from Fintry was snaking up and down what sounded like previously uncharted vocal scales… he didn’t even sound like he was even listening to the music.  He might as well had his Walkman on.” [1]

IV

Billy wrote the words and the vocal melody lines.  Alan did the music.  It’s easy to focus on Billy but the music is good.  It’s Alan strumming away on the guitar in the Party Fears Two video but also, I suppose, the one who wrote that distinctive piano line.  Even though it is Michael Dempsey on bass (he was Robert Smith’s friend at school and plays bass on The Cure’s first album), it was Alan playing bass on The Affectionate Punch proving he was a terrific bass player.  But everything leads back to Billy doesn’t it?  And yet, saying that, Billy was never as good as when he was with Alan.  They clicked and made something great together.

I think some people blame Alan for the split, but Billy sounds like a right pain in the arse by 1982.  I can understand why Alan walked and why he might regret it.

V

Billy MacKenzie’s lyrics are in code so the best you can do is try and pick a “feel” for a song.  Party Fears Two has this feel:

The alcohol loves you while turning you blue.

Please don’t start saying that, or I’ll start believing you.

Don’t turn around, I won’t have to look at you.

And you say I dress too well.

My manners are failing me.  I left feeling ugly.

Have I done something wrong?

Were people so distracted by Billy’s voice that they didn’t notice how unhappy and insecure this song is?  How unhappy the singer is at the thought of a party; of thinking about going out and how it will be fun but then turn sour.  How the alcohol that released you from the tedium of life will rise back up out of the gut as bile and insecurity and regret.

On Sulk there is a song called No.  Here are the opening lines of each verse:

Tore my hair out from the roots / Bit my nails down to the quick

Tear a strip from your dress… wrap my arms in it

Shaved and cut myself again… should have let it slip down further

On The Affectionate Punch there is Would I… Bounce Back:

If I threw myself from the ninth floor / Would I levitate back to three? / Well would I? / Would I bounce back?

There’s an underpinning outsider observation to all this and sardonic doubt:

We feel for you deeply concerned
If you need us, We’ll be helpful
Hopefully.

There’s also a consistent nod to the performance of gender.

I don’t know whether
To over or under estimate you…. 
Personal taste is a matter of gender

*

Zed is the black sheep of the alphabet
Zed is the masculine letter
I’ve know Zed’s who’ve only
Taken B’s to bed

VI

Billy seemed to need and reject Dundee.  The biography paints it as a hard place.  Violent.  Narrow.  Also, though, his hometown, with his family, and the place he knew best.  The place where you could be dragged out at parties to sing Tom Jones covers and bottled for looking at someone the wrong way.

And into everyone’s lives: David Bowie.  Alternative masculinity.  Glamour.  Escape.

In Bowie’s video for Boys Keep Swinging he’s both the cool dude in the suit doing a heightened Elvis impression, and in drag three ways as the back up singers.  It’s all a laugh.  It’s all a show.  A wink, a shimmy, and a fist in the face down behind the pub at 2am.


[1] Tom Doyle, The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy MacKenzie (2011)

 

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