The Associates

TrackAlbum / Single
Club CountryAssociates ASC 2
NoSulk
Logan TimeThe Affectionate Punch
Transport To CentralThe Affectionate Punch
Kitchen PersonFourth Drawer Down
Tell Me Easter's On FridayFourth Drawer Down
BreakfastPerhaps
Helicopter HelicopterPerhaps
Strasbourg SquareWild And Lonely
Just Can't Say GoodbyeWild And Lonely

The Associates photo 3

Billy Mackenzie & Alan Rankine
(photo: Harry Papadopoulos)

 

 

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Associates playlist

 

Contributor: Dave Ross

Before choosing my 10 Toppermost tracks by the Associates I think it’s important to put a little bit of context, some background, as to why they are one of the most important bands of my life and why Billy Mackenzie in particular has made such an impact on me personally.

I wasn’t a cool kid at school and nothing changed in my first year at college in 1981. Things were made worse by snapping my ankle in April 1982 and clumping around college in my plaster cast and crutches. I’d been a fan of the Jam, thanks to my brother, and my musical highlight was Going Underground going to No.1 but basically I was a Radio 1, top 40, Top Of The Pops kid. 1982 was a great year; ABC, Haircut 100 and Simple Minds gave me something, and then – I was aware of Party Fears Two but I confess it didn’t really register at the time – suddenly one Thursday evening watching Top Of The Pops it happened. A band and a song appeared that completely met my brief. Billy mucking about with Martha, Alan looking dark and moody, that bass, those strings, that voice, that song.

Club Country changed everything for me. I bought all their singles from a cool college kid who couldn’t cope with them becoming mainstream. I could immerse myself in the Associates and suddenly I was part of the cool gang. I brought Sulk on the day of release and here I am, 39 years later, still as excited by the greatest single from the greatest year of the single as I was in 1982.

Slightly obsessed by Billy and social media, meaning Alan is a ‘friend’ of sorts, I’m a middle-aged man now but when I hear Club Country I’m immediately a giddy 16-year-old who’s world makes sense again. As my first step into the wonderful world of the Associates, it absolutely deserves its place in this list.

 

So what is it about Billy? On 22nd January 1997, he took his own life in his dad’s shed. It was the end to a sometime glorious, often difficult, sometimes beautiful but ultimately unfulfilled life. For some reason I don’t quite understand, Billy affects me more than any other pop star. Something about his ridiculous talent and apparent self confidence, hiding his suffocating vulnerability and self doubt, constantly draws me back. Like most of us he only came to my notice through those appearances on Top Of The Pops in the summer of 1982 with the Associates. He laughed and pissed around while performing the still ahead of its time Party Fears Two and the impossibly catchy Club Country.

With the brooding and insanely talented Alan Rankine pulling the musical strings, Billy looked every inch the pop star with the world at his feet. He had the looks, the swagger and that voice from some otherworldly place like nothing heard before or since. He’d crept into my soul and remained there ever since. I went and bought Sulk expecting 10 more foot-tapping pop songs and was left scratching my head at the likes of Bap De La Bap and Nude Spoons. It still confuses and delights in equal measure. It’s a special album and brings me to my second selection and particularly this performance which is possibly my favourite and may well have been where Billy belonged. I’ll admit it still makes me cry. With hindsight, it’s a glimpse into Billy’s soul and his future. It’s him and pianist Howard Hughes at Ronnie Scott’s performing the stunning No.

Tore my hair out from the roots
Planted them in someone’s garden
Then I waited for the shoots
Then I waited for the shoots
Bit my nails down to the quick
Worrying myself sick about you

My first two choices are very personal ones and not chronological but incredibly important to me. Sulk is the most common album of reference when the Associates are mentioned but for the remainder of this piece I’m going to concentrate on the other Associates’ albums. The two pre-Sulk which have Alan Rankine’s stamp of genius all over them and the post Sulk/Rankine years which were essentially Billy Mackenzie albums under the Associates name.

Let’s go back to the beginning. As two boys from Dundee it was hard to get noticed. They gained notoriety by covering and releasing Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging without permission just six weeks after Bowie’s release in 1979. This daring approach served them well as their first album, The Affectionate Punch, came just a year later. While being very much a post-punk electronic mix it remains unique and 100% Associates. I’ve chosen two songs, both examples of Rankine’s ability to bring the best out of that voice. I’m a sucker for a soaring Mackenzie vocal and Logan Time fills that brief. It’s a masterpiece.

The second track I’ve chosen from The Affectionate Punch is Transport To Central, Billy’s lyrics in this like something from a futuristic dystopian sci-fi movie full of tension and suspense. Rankine’s musicality again cannot be underestimated. Just stunning.

Transport to central
We need more like him
Do all in your power
To keep him alive
His jawline’s not perfect
But that can be altered
We’ve waited so long
For this one, to arrive

Fourth Drawer Down was released just a year later, a compilation of those singles I’d bought from the cool kid at college. Dark, industrial and experimental. I could choose any as an example of just what creative juices were flowing from the Associates in their pre-Sulk pomp. I’ve gone for Kitchen Person as it contains everything anyone needs as an introduction and an insight to this era. It’s just remarkable in its intensity and drama. Also, Tell Me Easter’s On Friday like a theme tune to the darkest film noir. Glorious.

Now with a burgeoning reputation and backing from WEA they set out on their masterwork Sulk. Chart success, fame and fortune beckoned but Billy got bored, cancelled a US tour and split with Alan. The Associates as a band were finished. I love the album and this cover just sums it up. Sumptuous extravagance.

Three albums from another planet; music made by aliens in three hedonistic, creative, powerful years and it was over. What came next was just different. The public had taken the strangeness to their hearts and maybe the Top Of The Pops years meant they were seen as a novelty act to a mainstream audience. It may have turned their hardcore fans against them. Whatever that shift was, numerous producers couldn’t match that certain magic that Rankine brought to the party.

Perhaps took as long to record as the three preceding albums put together. Insane record company spending and Billy wasting time and money on his whims and fancies, only a couple more minor hits followed. Billy’s self destruct button and self doubt began to devour him. He was sure Waiting For The Loveboat from Perhaps was about to shoot him to number one but it bombed. The unremarkable cover of Blondie’s Heart Of Glass showed that no one, apart from the now departed Alan Rankine, and including Billy, quite knew what to do with that voice. For any producer it must have been like being given “War and Peace” and asked to make it suitable for Jackanory. Billy was desperate to be a pop star but the voice was a curse as much as it was a phenomenon. Perhaps was a frantic, quirky, yet endlessly interesting mid 80s album which has aged remarkably well. It did somehow manage occasionally to all come together. As with my next choice, Breakfast, one of the great lost songs of the period. Emotive, luxurious and hypnotic.

Perhaps also included Helicopter Helicopter a song in which the Associates invented techno. It’s maniacally brilliant.

To represent the final years, in which one album The Glamour Chase was made but not released by a dubious record company, and the commercial bomb that was Wild And Lonely, I’ve chosen two tracks, both from Wild And Lonely. Strasbourg Square is another stunning heartbreaker, especially with hindsight.

And now you’re near, my nights are warm
With music sweet to calm the storm
You turn around and call my name
I lose myself you feel the same
You feel the same

Finally, going out on a high with a straight-up pop love song, Just Can’t Say Goodbye, that if produced by Stock Aitken Waterman would have been number one for weeks, and with an appropriate title to finish my selection.

I’ve ran out of all excuses
I’ve ran out of cigarettes
It hurts me to show these bruises
But please don’t be upset

I’ve focused on the Associates but it’s worth mentioning Billy’s solo career which, for me, contains some of his creative, if not commercial, highlights.

It would appear that, as fame faded, his self doubt and hair loss which prompted some hat wearing and eyebrow-raising wigs became crippling. He moved further away from fame and more to his beloved whippets in Dundee and, ultimately, following the death of his mum which he just couldn’t get over, to his dad’s shed. A dreadful loss. I wholeheartedly recommend “The Glamour Chase” by Tom Doyle which is a fascinating and detailed insight into his life and times. Even if, as for many, the Associates were not quite your cup of tea it’s still a great read. Alan went on to have some success as a producer and is a fascinating and engaging follow on social media.

I feel like the Associates are on the brink of being rediscovered and properly appreciated. Hope you find something in my selections that will make you want to explore further. Whether from the experimental art pop early years or the later pure pop period, I think there’s something for everyone.

 

 

The Associates photo 4

Martha Ladly & Billy Mackenzie

 

 

 

Billy Mackenzie photo 1

Billy Mackenzie (1957-1997)

 

Billy Mackenzie Tribute Site

The Associates (Wikipedia)

Billy Mackenzie (solo)

Alan Rankine (solo)

The Glamour Chase (full TV documentary)

The Associates biography (AllMusic)

Dave Ross lives near Windsor and hides under his online pseudonym Dave Amitri to talk mainly about cricket and music. He has written a drama, “Jimmy Blue”, featuring the music of Del Amitri and is currently writing a series of posts on listening to David Bowie albums for the first time. For updates you can follow him on twitter @DaveAmitri. This is his first post for Toppermost.

TopperPost #942

12 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Mar 15, 2021

    Thanks for this great piece Dave. The Associates have always struck me as a perfect musical marriage – between Alan’s brilliance as a musician and Billy’s supreme skill as a singer. I might have to have ‘White Car in Germany’ and ‘Gloomy Sunday’ in my Top 10 though. The stripped back versions of some of The Associates songs on Double Hipness are also well worth checking out.

    • David Ross
      Mar 15, 2021

      Hi Andrew, thanks for your thoughts. It was impossible to choose ten and leave so many out. I tried to give as broad a view as possible. Dave

  2. Andrew Shields
    Mar 15, 2021

    Think you did a fantastic job Dave in choosing ten out of so many great tracks. Billy had such a remarkable and soulful voice – those acrobatics which nobody else could do. And this was an era when Scotland was producing so many fine singers – Paul Quinn and Paul Buchanan other notable examples. But Billy was in a league of his own.

  3. Alex Bunch
    Mar 17, 2021

    Wonderfully put. People that love Billy are drawn to him wholly more than any other singer or celebrity I can think of, it’s very unusual.
    And thankyou for including my site, Billy Mackenzie Tribute Site in your links.

    • David Ross
      Mar 23, 2021

      Thank you Alex. Glad you enjoyed it

  4. Colin Machin
    Mar 22, 2021

    A wonderful and thoughtful piece on one of my favourite groups, whose music I do not play as often as I should.

    • David Ross
      Mar 23, 2021

      That’s a lovely thing to say Colin, thank you. There’s plenty there to enjoy…

  5. Colin Duncan
    May 7, 2021

    Really enjoyed the article and the selection of songs, which I don’t know. I’m a huge music fan and one of my collecting themes is Dundee music. Just before lockdown, I was listening to a group of fifty year old dads discussing their passion for The Associates and I was recently reading the excellent ‘Take It To The Bridge’ by Lorraine Wilson, where there are good anecdotes about the young Billy Mackenzie, one relating to him being a prodigious talent. Dundee has always been great for music. He’s quite a bit after my golden era, but The Associates are going into my Dundee collection, so I’m buying a couple of Associates albums at the weekend. Your great article and selection of songs convinced me, David.
    PS. I enjoyed Billy being interviewed in the Dry Dock in Dundee as I worked there for a year, I remember the freezing cold. Great article. Thanks, David.

  6. David Ross
    May 7, 2021

    Hi Colin, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I recommend The Affectionate Bunch Facebook page. There are many contributors there from Dundee who knew Billy as well as family members and Alan Rankine. Lots of lovely insights, memories and stories. Enjoy the music, Sulk is remarkable. Dave

  7. Colin Duncan
    May 18, 2021

    Thanks David. What album would you buy in addition to ‘Sulk’?
    P.S. I’m back in the world of the sixties just now and read and enjoyed your review of ‘Pin Ups’. When working on this review, did you come across what happened to Jimmy Duncan? Thanks again David.

    • David Ross
      May 19, 2021

      Hi Colin, it depends what you’re looking for. “The Affectionate Punch” is great but quite raw and experimental. After “Sulk” with “Perhaps” and “Wild and Lonely” when Billy really went solo under The Associates name it became poppier and more accessible. Personally I’d go for “The Affectionate Punch ”
      Regards Pin Ups my knowledge ends at listening to the album and writing my thoughts down. Some of the guys at the Afterword are far more knowledgeable than me on the background stuff. The replies there go into some depth.
      Dave

  8. Colin Duncan
    May 19, 2021

    Thanks, David. Not my normal era, but I’m enjoying ‘Sulk’. Thanks again for article.

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