JUST LIKE the naked truth of the new Associates single sleeve, Billy McKenzie feels that he’s currently over exposed. Although it was obviously quite an achievement to have pinned him down, Billy admitted he’d rather leave the gift of the gab to his fellow Associates on this occasion. “It’s not fair that the others don’t get the chance to talk as much as I do,” he whispered later in my shell-like, “just ‘cos I’m the singer, I get the limelight.” As if it were that simple… Not that a mere Noise-style grilling would chip away at the man’s enigma, but Mr McK contented himself with a friendly greeting and a pixie-like grin before resuming his studio work and opening another mound of fan mail.
The Flexible Interview Roster was thus taken up mainly by newest and prettiest Associate Martha Ladly (ex of The Muffins) and strong, dark and hitherto silent type Alan Rankine. Quite a refreshing angle, as it transpired, as Ms Ladly isn’t afraid to speak her mind. The opportunity arose, therefore, to discover exactly how Martha was transported into the rank(ines) of such a ‘zany’ (her word) Scots bunch…
How did it all happen?
“I did a solo single, ‘Finlandia’, last year, then recorded another single which ended up not coming out because Dindisc were on the rails. Then at the beginning of September, Billy called me and it was just hi, my name’s Billy McKenzie and would you like to come and sing on our next single! I’d never actually met Bill or Alan, but I’d been a fan from when The Affectionate Punch came out, and I’d asked Alan to play guitar on my single. He was too busy, so I went along to the studio one day, met them and went in immediately and started singing backing vocals! I think they’d seen me with The Muffins when we supported Roxy, quite liked my voice, thought I looked quite good and might be a fun sort of person, and we got along really well straight away. So I’ve been working with them ever since. I always thought they were great and I was quite sure they’d be some sort of success whatever they did, but actually finding out ‘Party Fears Two’ was going Top 10 did really surprise me, it seemed quite an unlikely sort of single, it was so different from anything else in the charts at the time. But then all their stuff is. I’m really happy we’re doing so well now.”
Have you actually been writing songs with them?
“I’ve been writing things on my own mostly, plus arrangements and some keyboard stuff, and writing some music of my own with them in mind for Bill to write some lyrics to. But we haven’t actually got together yet because Bill and Alan have got so many songs on bits of tape, stuff going back ages. ’18 Carat Love Affair’ is six years old! They’ve got so much stuff that until they’ve gone through some of that they don’t even need anybody to help them write, although they’re really interested in what I’m going to do with them. I think Billy will end up writing the words. I like writing words, but the kind I write are very different from what Billy writes. It could be quite interesting!”
I suppose the way Billy writes words is very much an integral part of The Associates’ appeal…?
“It’s his whole ‘free association’ way of thinking. The stuff I write is always a bit more specific.”
At this point, swarthy Alan Rankine enters, inquiring as to what Martha had been saying about him. With more than a hint of motherly instinct, she said: “It’s the first time I’ve seen him with a shave in about two months!” Alan had just got himself “a wee facial!”
Martha: “Well you’re looking fine, sweetheart! It’s the boys that can go and have the facials, the manicures and pedicures! I hope we’re still going to have this massage artist on tour.”
Alan: “Yeah, he’s getting paid about twice as much as anybody else. He’s a big bodyguard — 6 feet 4, black, very strong, can break your back, and he’s also a masseur. You’re not getting him though, you’re not allowed any thrills!”
Martha: “I’ve never had a massage in my life! I’ve always thought if I go having massages all the time the way The Associates do, then I’d need them all the time.”
Has this been a time-honoured Associates tradition?
Martha: “They just have to take extra-special good care of themselves ‘cos they abuse themselves totally.”
Alan: “We get debauched, then we pamper ourselves.”
Martha: “It’s kinda like exercising so that you can eat more!”
Rather like the Ancient Romans who stuffed themselves stupid then made themselves vomit!
Alan: “Bill spews at will anyway.”
Martha: “Does he? I wish I knew how to do that, it must be quite a gift!”
Alan: “Tis when you’re supporting the Banshees and there’s a few hundred skinheads gobbing on you. You just puke on them when you’ve been drinking Pernod and blackcurrant. Soon gets them out of the way.”
Back to the nitty gritty — what do you think about the prospect of Martha writing songs with you?
Alan: “We’ve already dabbled a bit and I’m sure we’ll dabble a bit more. I’m not sure when you’ll hear the results, cos we’ve got the next album already written. We’ll have a pool of songs — about 20 more — so I s’pose we’ve got the next two albums written.”
Martha: “It’s a bit difficult to compete!”
Alan: “Bill and I like bouncing off people…”
It must be quite unusual to have so many songwriting talents in one band?
Martha: “It’s good because if you’re doing different things, you’re always excited when you come back together, there’s no hanging around, getting bored or working in the same format.”
Alan: “It can get a bit Roxyish…”
Talking of Roxy, I spotted Martha on TOTP— the mask didn’t fool me!
Martha: “That was Bryan’s idea — you’ve got to wear a mask, dear, we don’t want everybody thinking you were the girl that was in The Associates! It was fun — but quite different from working with these guys…”
When The Associates appear on TOTP it’s always worth watching — It’s fun.
Martha: “Whenever we’re on TOTP I must say it’s like a breath of fresh air — that sounds like a real pat on our backs, but…”
Alan: “Wait till you see the next one!”
Martha: “People always do the same thing, and there’s so much music now that’s the same that whenever we’re on it’s like something completely out of the blue.”
Alan: “The next one’s going to be really good!”
Martha: “They haven’t told me what I have to do yet… I think there’s some sort of plan, but we’re not telling. I’m not sure I want to know!”
What sort of framework is the live show taking — anything dramatic?
Alan: “Well, I think we intend to have…”
Martha: “Lots of girls!”
Alan: “No, we’re having one more girl, and two more boys, you’ll be glad to hear.”
Martha: “No, I like girls, I think it’s important to have girls onstage.”
Alan: “You can’t say things like that!”
Martha: “I don’t like being the only girl in a band at all.”
Alan: “Well, there’s going to be one more — Angela Jaeger from New York — she sang on the ‘Drowning Craze’ single. And two more boy backup singers who’ll also be able to dance a little as well, so instead of having pretty girls dancing we’ll have pretty boys dancing!”
Martha:”Oooh, wonderful. Something for me to watch.”
Alan: “And I’m getting a Jet Pak. When I do a guitar solo I’m just Jet Pakking right over the audience.”
Martha: “Can I have a trapeze, please?”
Alan: “Only if you can hang on by your teeth.“
You’re playing relatively unusual venues…?
Alan: “We didn’t want to go straight to Apollos, not that we couldn’t fill them, but because we haven’t played for so long. Confident we might be, but there’s no way I’ll go over the top and play to three or 4,000 people. But we’re going on a spending spree next week! We’re going to buy keyboards and basses and clothes, and we’ll fly to Milan to get suits…”
Tell us about the new single.
Martha: “It was the first thing I did with them.”
Alan: “That was going to be a 39 Lyon St one at first, with Martha doing lead. As it happened it was better when Martha did backings and harmonized the chorus up a bit. It’s so, so poppy. I think some people are going to really hate us for it.”
Martha: “It’s very different from everything else.”
Alan: “It’s sort of Motowny, poppy, and it’s actually got a storyline in the lyric. It’s really concise and to the point. It has got a few double meanings, though.”
Martha: “It’s not going to be one of those Associates angst song.”
Alan: “Just a wee love song.”
It sounds like you’re doing things the wrong way round — the most accessible songs last. At least it means you don’t have to compromise.
Martha: “I don’t think there’s a question of that, is there Alan?”
Alan: “Compromise? We like pretending to compromise but I don’t think we ever do.”
Martha: “You don’t know the meaning of the word, speaking from a slightly outsider’s point of view. I don’t think either of you would know how… I could teach you!”
Alan: “We’re not bolshy. We’re just leading the record company a merry dance. ‘Cos it keeps them on their toes, otherwise they get lazy and complacent and you can be damn sure if you got lazy they’d be on at you saying Where’s the next hit single, so you just do exactly the same back to them.”
Martha: “That’s quite an education for me. Being in The Associates, it’s like we’re writing the rules, it’s great.”
I think if you look back over the year, The Associates will be seen as maybe the most surprising thing that’s happened in the charts
Martha: “You get the general impression that most of these bands that are around now will do anything to achieve success, do anything they’re told to do. Although being seen around can be an amusing sideline, when it becomes a modus operandi, I can’t see the point.”
Alan: “Without doing the guy down, I remember meeting Martin Fry in a hotel and the first thing he said to me was Do you think there’s anything wrong with me wearing the same gold lame suit on two TOTPs running, cos the record company says I shouldn’t but I think I should. But a lot of bands seem to do what they’re told.”
Martha: “Or else always seem to be trying to please some particular idea of what their segment of the audience is, or what the record company thinks is going to sell most records.”
Alan: “On ’18 Carat Love Affair’, the B-Side is ‘Love Hangover’, the Diana Ross song. The record company thought it was so good that they said why don’t you save it for the next A-Side? We said look, we can do another one that’s just as good, why short-change people.”
What is it you’re doing now— recording for the next album?
Alan: “No, we’re doing lots of remixes on The Affectionate Punch to make it sound better. Not actually to change the character of the album, but to make it sound better so that Polydor can remarket it and get their pound of flesh, I suppose. We were pleased to do it, it’s good to make it better. As a rule I don’t like going back and remixing, if you made a mistake, that’s it, OK, you’ve learned, but it’s good doing it ‘cos it’s not taking long. It’s not to achieve perfection, or even because of embarrassment, it’s just to hear it better, brighter and more danceable. We’re doing a new cover for it as well. Probably have a picture of me and Bill smashing that stupid screen up … I’m damned if I’m sitting on a running track in the rain again … I had no bollocks left after that. Me and Bill were hugging each other in the shower.”
Now that would’ve made a good cover!
Alan: “What about that fan letter — the perfect men one!”
Martha: “There’s so much fan mail, I’m amazed. I think it’s ‘cos you guys said you never got any. Some of them are so amusing. It is amazing when you realise that people idolize them. They do — people think they’re perfect men!! I think kids these days desperately need somebody to look up to, but I’m just saying, for the record, don’t look up to these two, OK? Your life will go wrong!”
Alan: “What are you laughing at? We’re not quite the kind of guys…”
Martha: “Yeah, but I’d rather people looked up to you guys than Martin Fry! At least you’re doing what you think is best, as well as you can, it’s not some big pose.”
Alan: “I wouldn’t like it to get to the Human League stage where every newsagent you go in has got Phil Oakey on every cover. I wouldn’t like to overkill that much, even if you don’t sell so many records. There must be a fine balance somewhere between not being a cult and being a bit gross. But then again, it paid off. Two million albums can’t be scoffed at.”
Martha: “You have to be that bit enigmatic so that people are never really sure what you’re going to do next. We never are really anyway.”
And you don’t rely on a producer for your sound either.
Alan: “No, that’s true. We kind of teach the producers! I don’t mean that in a big-headed way, but we seem to teach them how to go over the top on a few things.”
No-one could say what your next single’s going to sound like… unlike ABC.
Alan: “Yeah, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people definitely hated this one.”
Martha: “I don’t mean to harp on about ABC, but I think they must be quite serious about what they do.”
Alan: “You get career girls — they’re career boys.”
Martha: “I’m never going to be that serious.”
Alan: “The cool calculated stuff doesn’t always work… Altered Images!“
Martha: “Oh God, we can bitch can’t we!”
Alan: “It’s not bitching, it’s talking about people…”
After having admitted, for some reason, that he and Billy cried three times when The Sound Of Music was on telly, Alan had to depart from the mixing desk. This left Martha a free hand to reveal more about the true selves of the dynamic duo. For example, the truth about That Scar on Billy’s face — it was courtesy of a very clever BBC make-up girl, so don’t fret, girls. But where did he get the idea?
Martha: “He wandered in that morning, I don’t know where he’d been the night before, but he’d dragged himself somewhere, arrived about three hours late. He’d been up all night so he figured he looked so terrible he’d have to do something to make him look even worse. He wanted me to have ’em too but I said no… I consented to wear my bathing suit at the last moment, but covered in scars — no!”
He always looks like he’s really cultivated the image, but in truth he’s just turned up like that?
Martha: “He doesn’t really need to spend hours on it, he’s already doing it. He had the shop in Dundee, he’s always been very conscious in a casual way about how he looks, cos he always looks great. He looks different from one day to the next. He can look incredibly different. His hair’s grown a lot now and I think he’s been living a healthier existence for a while, he looks robust and healthy at the moment. But he can go from looking like the career boy to Humphrey Bogart to Marlon Brando to the crazy kid from Dundee! It’s quite amusing watching his transformations.”
He’d probably make a good actor?
“I think he would. ‘Cos he’s never really putting himself across to you, whatever he is, it’s so difficult to put your finger on, he’s so changeable. I know he’s doing lots of different things at the moment, he’s got a club opening up in Dundee and so on. He’ll never be a music business casualty. He’s like a chameleon, but not an undesirable one. He’s just… like the wind!”
He’s the one you wouldn’t take home to Mum?
“Definitely! But he can be the clean cut boy. Old ladies love him, they think he’s wonderful ‘cos he’s the type that would help girls carry their shopping. Kids love him too, they think he’s wonderful. Whereas Alan always scares people, but he’s not really like that either. Alan’s got this completely demonic persona he likes to put across, but he’s not the sort of darker half. In fact he’s a bit of a softy, a bit of a pushover!”
Would you agree that one word most used to describe The Associates is ‘unpredictable’?
“Yeah… people always say to me how can you get along with these guys?’ But I don’t find it difficult at all. You just don’t muscle in with any expectations or expect them to drop what they’re doing and give you their full attention, ‘cos they’re always so busy. If you’d asked them a lot of serious questions, they’d have just taken you in and out of the houses and left you there!”
With this advice, I stayed cool and joined Billy and Alan in the control room. Billy was consulting a Dictionary of Dreams to see what a flying bowler hat meant. The answer is unprintable. He proudly showed me the single sleeve, a fetching photo of Billy stretched out, naked and face down on a marble floor, with lady friend Fiona coolly showering him with jewels. I remarked that his pose seemed rather crucifix-like, he worried about what Dennis Wheatleyesque depths will be read into it all. “I was only trying to show off my broad shoulders,” he claimed, wriggling in his inimitable fashion to the hot remixed sounds and occasionally emitting brief signs of that voice. He complained about the wrinkles on his photos, and said of Martha: “She’s so damned Doris Day!” The over exposed-one wriggled a little more, then went on to change his clothes for no particular reason. He returned in polo-neck and checked trews, looking like Davy Jones and musing about what fun it is being A Pop Star. But we all know he’s just an 18 carat softy…
© Betty Page, Noise!, 5 August 1982