Boys Keep Swinging: The Associates’ Singles

All the 45s from the sublime Scottish duo who briefly threatened to run away with the ‘80s pop circus.

BILLY MACKENZIE was never going to fit into the round hole of ‘80s pop.

With his beret and his whippets and the dimpled smile that hid his sadness and madness, Dundee’s finest fruitcake was just too odd and too buccaneeringly brilliant to compete with New Romantic frauds like Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran.

Transported back to 1980 by the thrilling drive of ‘The Affectionate Punch’, it’s hard not to feel burning indignation at the way this talent was so pitilessly sidelined by the Smash Hits generation. Even when the kids put the delicious ‘Party Fears Two’ in the charts and on Top of the Pops they clearly didn’t see that they had a genius in their midst.

With darkly handsome multi-instro talent Alan Rankine making echoey Cocteau-esque soundscapes behind him, Billy Mac took the exultant, Eno-fied Euro-funk of Bowie’s Low/‘Heroes’ period kicking and swishing into the indie ‘80s – no wonder that the first single here is the locally-released cover of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.

Singles reflects the three distinct phases of the group’s life. First come the extraordinary early singles: futuristic, almost haughtily uncommercial, distant cousins of Scott Walker’s more outré outings. Next come the glossier and prettier hits from the scintillating Sulk. Finally we have the rather damp and mechanical stuff from Perhaps and beyond – the sad sound of compromise with WEA’s suggestion that Billy write something more, uh, ‘commercial’. You can feel the soul draining out of the poor fellow. (There’s a sort of sense in covering ‘Heart of Glass’ and ‘Love Hangover’, but both smack of defeatism to me. Fortunately most of the hackwork is on CD2, so you can ignore it.)

“Beauty drips from every pore,” Billy almost sobs on the brilliantly strange ‘Q Quarters’. Certainly it drips heartrendingly from such unclassifiable masterpieces as the desperate ‘Tell Me Easter’s On Friday’ and the almost hysterical ‘Kitchen Person’. Mackenzie’s Bowie-meets-Caruso voice may be one of swoonsome artifice, but God one misses a man prepared to take such highwire risks with his vocal cords.

Billy should never have had to take his own life. He was no Ian Curtis, after all. More than any of the New-Romo charlatans of the period he embodied sexy fun, mercurial glamour and sheer joie de vivre.

For heaven’s sake bring him back to life by investing in Singles.

© Barney HoskynsUncut, September 2004

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