Everyone from Elvis Costello to Frank Zappa and even Steve Martin have been credited with composing the line “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture” and there are times when I write this blog that I worry that I am confusing art-forms and that renders what I do pointless.
However, I assure you that, as this remains largely for my own amusement and I also serve the purpose of sending readers scurrying to their attics to rediscover those they once loved, I don’t worry too much about it.
Actually, the quotation seems to have come from satirical comedian and musician, Martin Mull, who released a fantastically titled country song “A Girl Called Johnny Cash” so I think even he had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he made his excellent utterance about music journalism.
The reason this all came to mind is that often I like to think about an artist or an album’s legacy – sometimes historically and often times personally. Some have meant so much to me at certain moments in life that revisiting them again takes on a greater importance than any CD remaster perhaps intends.
However, few artists, at least early in their careers think of their legacy. They want to be famous, be in the charts and appear on Top Of The Pops, whilst having a rip-roaringly good time. Few artists can have thought so little of their legacy at the time than The Associates.
This post-punk ensemble from Dundee largely led by the multi-octaved Billy Mackenzie and the brooding Alan Rankine (aided and abetted at various times by bassist Michael Dempsey and Martha Ladly previously of “Echo Beach” fame) made seemingly every effort to combust their talents at every opportunity.
Their third album “Sulk” had been funded by a huge advance from their new label WEA Records and the band proceeded to move into the Holiday Inn in Swiss Cottage for months – including a separate room for Billy’s pet dogs who were fed room service smoked salmon. If they read about something called a Jangle Piano, they ordered one up and brought it to the studio irrespective of costs. They swapped tom-toms for snares and recorded instruments underwater. Their belief being that the more money the company piled into the recordings, the more likely they were to back the artists. The stories of their excesses were legendary and yet, whilst profligate, in the studio they worked diligently to create something 100% different.
Everything was an act of defiance – the ironic, arty performances on Top Of The Pops; the cover of the supposedly cursed 30s song “Gloomy Sunday” (although when one considers Billy’s later sad suicide, it may not be so ‘supposed’) and of course, Mackenzie’s astonishing and unique vocal style which could leap from falsetto to baritone in a yodeling flash.
And then just as they hit the big time and were about to tour America, they split up and never reached such heights again.
So when (to some of you, surprisingly) I write of The Associates’ “Sulk”‘s legacy consider these two facts for starters…
Firstly, Peter Ashworth’s sumptuous portrait of the band on the album sleeve resides now in the National Portrait Gallery.
Secondly, the darkly soaring “Party Fears Two”, with its intro on a jangle piano no less, is just about one of the best singles of the 80s. When you first heard it, it was one of those musical epiphany moments.
It’s lyrically ambiguous, jaggedly dystopian and utterly brilliant…
Of course, this single rather over-shadowed the rest of the album but there are other redeeming points on “Sulk” even though it is still not an easy way to spend forty minutes or so.
The opening instrumental, “Arrogance Gave Him Up” was apparently designed as a show opener because Mackenzie was perennially late for the start of gigs and the band could begin while he readied himself. It’s then a further two minutes into the second track “No” before we are finally treated to the unique vocal and if you’re not prepared it is the most extraordinary and jarring experience.
“Nude Spoons” was written about a teenage acid trip and knowing that explains how difficult it can be to sit through as there are yelps and screeches throughout. I expect you had to be there. “Skipping” however was a real fan favourite and has Billy sounding remarkably like Scott Walker. It’s almost as if the album becomes progressively more listenable – no big openers but more uneven Joy Division obscurity moving track by track into glorious synth post-punk.
The closing bend of the album takes you through the pulsating “It’s Better This Way” into the two big singles – the latter of which, “Club Country” is a deliberately acerbic and withering view of the whole New Romantic movement of which The Associates were often mistakenly taken to be part. They may have considered themselves stylish but they were no show ponies.
Theirs was an eccentric sound matched with equally eccentric look and lifestyle glued together by a growing penchant for melody and riffs and Billy Mackenzie’s inimitable voice. If you get to hear their cover interpretations of Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” for instance, you can truly understand why they were such a unique blend of alternative rhythms, that only true innovators would consider attempting.
Strangely, the last song on the album “nothinginsomethingparticular” was actually an instrumental version of their next single “18 Carat Love Affair” and to this day,nobody knows why it was included. The Top Of The Pops experience for that single was no less bizarre as Alan Rankine ordered two life size chocolate guitars from Harrods and pretended to play one of them whilst giving away bits of chocolate to the audience.
And then two weeks after appearing on the cover of Smash Hits,they split up. Mackenzie had to rest his voice and Rankine had frankly had enough and the ensuing tours were cancelled and The Associates as we knew them were no more.
Mackenzie would make one or two interesting records before his sad death but the unusual vocal gymnastics would become more familiar through Morrissey (who remained a long time admirer of the band). They were subversive long before the KLF and without the long hours of study that their concept took.
However, it doesn’t all work even on “Sulk”, but you witness is a band with a unique sound and story to tell that just manage to find their beautiful voice so majestically.
Sadly, it was only for a few brief minutes – a short but exciting legacy.