Legendary Scottish duo — featuring late, great Billy MacKenzie — issue best work and pre-fame material
THE FIRST time I heard Associates was the first time I saw Associates was one of the four or five true pop epiphanies of my life: Top Of The Pops, February 1982, ‘Party Fears Two’. That blithe, bittersweet piano refrain, the cold smoulder of Billy MacKenzie’s voice, the still-never-totally-fathomed-to-this-day song-scenario (oblique snapshots of a break-up in progress?)…But what really brought me to the brink of a swoon was the way MacKenzie moved (at one point, he sashayed backwards), the impossible panache of the man. Even if he’d never emitted breath into a microphone and engraved it in wax, if you just saw him strolling down the street on the way back from Sainsbury’s, you’d still have recognised a star from the supernatural glow.
That TOTP appearance pierced and transfixed lots of other people: ‘Party Fears’ shot straight to Number Nine the following week, launching Associates’ brief (just eight months!) reign as a pop sensation. The career/careen of Billy MacKenzie invites all kinds of questions about why born stars can’t maintain, the reason they mutilate their own genius and fail their own gift. I won’t get into the biographical speculations about MacKenzie’s apparent self-destructive streak, but there’s another related mystery worth addressing: how does “chemistry” happen in pop music, why is it so hard to sustain or recreate? The fact is that without his other half, Alan Rankine, MacKenzie produced fine but ultimately modest and minor work that we (meaning critics) bigged up extravagantly only cos we loved the guy so much; harsher still is the truth that Rankine has done nothing of consequence sans Billy. Even when they briefly reunited in 1993, the duo couldn’t re-ignite the spark-judging by the scrappy, incandescence-free Autchterhouse Sessions, now available on Double Hipness, a double-CD of demos, out-takes, alternate versions, and other undercooked material that mostly serves to tarnish the myth.
To the ears and eyes of the fan, it’s the precedent-free singularity of the love object, its un-likeness to anything past or present, that is dazzling in its obviousness, The task of the critic, though, is (supposedly) to bypass the present-tense, ahistorical FAB WOW! and get into analysis — breaking something down into its constituents, showing where it came from. At the time it never even remotely occurred to me, but now (cursed with knowledge) I can hear the substantial debt to Bowie in MacKenzie’s voice and in elements of the Associates sound. Billy might actually be the sole example of a positive Bowie influence in the annals of UK pop. Indeed, the first Associates single was a cover of ‘Boys Keep Swinging” (included on Double Hipness, it’s oddly restrained, un-camp, almost U2-like in its earnestness), and Billy later sang a highly-strung version of ‘Secret Life of Arabia’ (from Heroes) for BEF’s Songs Of Quality And Distinction.
The spate of astonishing EPs subsequently compiled as Fourth Drawer Down (now reissued with several extra tracks) are steeped in the un-American Europe Endless-ness of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy Low/Heroes/Lodger — especially ‘White Car In Germany’, with its metronomic march rhythm and “Dusseldorf’s a cold place/Walk on eggs in Munich” lyric. With its furtive rhythm, broken balalaika riff, echoing footsteps, and clammy electronics, ‘Q Quarters’ is Hapsburg dub, Cabaret Voltaire remaking The Third Man soundtrack. Lyric shards about “concrete civilians”, “cowering in foliage”, and the black-humorous punch line, ‘”Washing down bodies/Seems to me a dead end job,” conjure a Cold War ambience — partitioned cities, deportations, informers, double agents, Think The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Ipcress File (Rankine and MacKenzie had bonded throughtheir love of soundtracks, plus Kraftwerk and disco). Other Fourth Drawer gems include ‘A Girl Named Property’ (Scott Walker, from the title downwards), the torrid xylophone-scampering romp of ‘Kitchen Person’, the sculpted histrionics of ‘Tell Me Easter’s On Friday’, and the ‘I Am The Walrus’-like Dada-dementia of ‘Message Oblique Speech’ (“He drinks double hernias/spits out wooden spoons”).
© Simon Reynolds, Uncut, August 2000