THIS is impossible music. It’s impossible to mimic its myriad uniqueness, impossible to place in pop time, impossible to imagine how such music could ever be made again in this supersaturated yet sterile age.
The Affectionate Punch, Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine’s debut album as the Associates, was made in 1982. Yet, in many ways, it might as well have been made in 1882 or 2082, so far is it in spirit and structure from the present day. Although there are echoes of the impassioned flamboyance of Bowie and Ferry, although the very name “The Associates” suggested one of those epic sound-tracked, post-Bond sleuth series (The Persuaders, Department S), this was more than your run-of-the-mill, New Romantic, post-modernist preening. Billy Mackenzie had style but he went way beyond posing, way beyond pretentiousness. Even a track like ‘A’, which has the synthetic swing of the early Eighties, remains undated, as alive and bewildering as it sounded back then.
The deal was a simple one. Billy Mackenzie would go into the studio and toss out preposterously cryptic lyrics in gorgeously exclamatory tones. Alan Rankine was charged with the task of providing a multi-layered, variegated slipstream of sounds for these verbal extravangances. Exactly what Mackenzie was on about is to miss the point — his lyrics were deliberate red herrings. Yet there was nothing “bogus” about The Associates. ‘A Matter Of Gender’ and ‘Would I…Bounce Back’ are authentically disquieting, haunting sirens calling from somewhere elusive deep inside Mackenzie’s head — or was it his heart?
“Now my voice, deep with age, talks in tongues of younger days,” he sings on ‘Logan Time’, coming as close as anywhere to articulating his vague, ancient and future yearnings. Rankine’s sound is similarly vast in its mental scape, with echoes and intimations of Yma Sumac, undiscovered, aquamarine worlds and 23rd-century airports.
They would continue for two more albums, creating a sound that, while recognisable as pop, was unrecognisable in its origins. To listen to the Associates is to forget where you are, escapism perhaps, but musical escapism of the most courageous kind. The Associates encapsulated all the promise of pop — otherness, grand passion, panache — but pop let them down. What came after the Associates was a bland parody of their impassioned, synthetic sound (Howard Jones, Nick Kershaw, Tears For Fears), lacking The Associates’ sixth sense or brittle subtlety.
The Associates, sadly, proved too brittle to survive, too, as a working proposition. Mackenzie’s death was as tragic and futile as any — but if it serves to remind a new generation of his past, unspoiled achievements with Rankine, and of what pop could aspire to be, it won’t have been in complete vain.
© David Stubbs, Uncut, February 1998