Monday, June 3, 2013

# 2 The Associates Sulk

Associates (l-r)  Billy Mackenzie, Alan Rankine
As front covers go, this is probably one of the most lush, luxuriant, glossy, decadent and self-indulgent ones you've ever seen. Yet they pull it off. Two, self-consciously good-looking, well-dressed people in repose in some verdant, sub-tropical hothouse. The admiral's cap was Mackenzie's calling card. He wore it well!  Alan Rankine appears to be wearing shoulder pads. 
I've been happy to own this album for over thirty years as it's a beautiful object in itself and always seats itself well in front of a row of albums if you have guests.. The immediate impression however is that more might have been spent on the production of this album than was strictly necessary.
The opening track seems to prove the truth of this. It's an instrumental, and not a particularly impressive one at that. It's all very 1982. With all of the excesses that implies. It seems to have those linn drums on it that bands like A Flock of Seagulls were so fond of. Track two slopes in and things pick up a bit with the sound of bare soles treading on a wet pebbled beach and synthetic,
 synthesised waves. Mackenzie arrives in hysterical, rehearsed mode. 'Tore my hair out from the root. Bit my nails down to the quick. Worrying myself sick about you.' He doesn't convince and it's the fault of the backing band. There are only three fully engaged parties here. Maceknzie, Rankine and producer Mike Hedges (known for his work with The Cure - not themselves renowned as the most committed band in rock'n'roll).
Bap De La Bap, which follows is even more disappointing. Synthesised sound and fury, signifying precious little. At least to me at this remove. At which point, as I begin to despair, out of nothing Gloomy Sunday arrives. One of the greatest renditions of one of the greatest songs ever written.Mackenzie possesses it and Rankine rises to accompany him. Such a poignant moment given what will transpire.

After this the only way is probably down. Nude Spoons Euphoria is the closing song on Side One. If you wish to have 'Nude Spoons Euphoria' shrieked at you on a loop by an operatic whippet owner from Dundee wearing an admiral's cap, now's your chance. I'll give it a miss. The Associates truly over egged the pudding on occasion. No wonder they split up!

Stll, here's Side 2. Things might pick up. They do immediately. Skipping is one of the best songs on the album. Truly, remarkable lyrics

'Skipping I left you there skipping.

Ripping ropes from Belgian wharfs

Breathless beauxillous griffin once removed seemed dwarfed

They're simple in that they happen to be there'

Mackenzie seems revitalised. The song skips. Is it just me or does he slip into a pretty good Sean Connery impression halfway through this? But just as your spirits are picking up things take a dip again on Better This Way the second track. Filler material. I'm feeling despondent to say the least. Much of this feels that you're stuck at a party with people who are much higher and drunker than you are and are entirely oblivious to the fact that you're there and you have no earthly way of getting home. Surely something must give.

 Which leads us to Party Fears Two and Sulk's and The Associates crystalline moment. The greatest Bowie song that Bowie didn't write.

 Seeing them perform this on Top of the Pops in 1982 was remakable to say the least. For six months The Associates were genuine pop stars. This was a Top 10 hit. The song seems to detail an imminent nervous breakdown. 'The alcohol loves you, while turning you blue.' It's flawless.
Country Cub came next, as a single and on here. It reached Number Thirteen. It's not as good as what preceded it but it's again remarkable. The 'club' in question apparently is a Dundee mental home for the elderly. 'Refrigeration keep you young I'm told''
I prefer the single version to this slightly remixed affair as it slips into an unfortunate bass funk incident towards the end which I didn't enjoy. There were a few of these moments in the early eighties.
The album is polished off with another instrumental, but this time a much perkier one than the first. The band worked it up later in the year into their third big hit 18 Carat Love Affair which I'd place second to Party Fears Two amongst the three. It got to Number 21. The euphoric blonde lady Billy duets with in this appearance was in Martha and the Muffins.
Pretty soon after this Mackenzie and Rankine split. Mackenzie carried on with Associates (there's an argument over whether their name requires the definite article) but for me they never touched these heights again and they certainly never achieved these chart positions.  Others would rank their pre-Sulk records really highly but I'm not an expert. Simon Reynolds writes a great chapter on this remarkable, one-off band in his book Rip it Up . Mackenzie, tragically committed suicide in the mid nineties. RIP Billy.For a brief moment fifteen years earlier he was one of the most blazing, blindlingly unique pop stars that Britain will ever produce. Remember him this way. An upstart from Dundee.
As this review suggests, I didn't enjoy listening through to all of Sulk again but I have undying respect for their sense of brave abandon and what it and they meant to a group of people like me. We'll never see their kind again.

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