Difficult Listening: Associates

For the past eleven years, Seattle’s EMP Museum has hosted the Pop Conference: an annual meeting of music industry professionals, scholars, and fans like you and me. Musicians give keynote speeches, academics and critics discuss everything from hip-hop to K-pop, and best of all, registration is free. Perhaps that’s why this year’s conference, held in NYU in March and co-sponsored by the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, attracted swarms of college students.

For me, no experience is more enjoyable than talking about music with people who value it as much as I do. We compared notes on bands we both loved and recommended new artists to each other. That, my friends, is how Associates first entered my life.

Associates was recommended to me by a producer who shared my love of the Kendal, U.K. band Wild Beasts. In hindsight, the comparison makes a lot of sense: the Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe sings in an operatic falsetto, much like Associates’ Billy Mackenzie, and both bands have a flair for lyrical wordplay. Yet while Wild Beasts songs like “Lion’s Share” and “Plaything” exude an almost predatory sexuality, Mackenzie–who, ironically, was known to sashay around during performances–composed melodies that emulated Kraftwerk’s austerity.

Disco and glam rock were also major influences for Associates; their first single, released in 1979, was a cover of David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging.” Of course, Bowie’s version had been released just a few months earlier, so it’s unclear whether Mackenzie and multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine intended to pay tribute to their hero or knock him off the chart. In any case, the single’s success earned the Scottish duo a deal with Fiction Records, best known for its involvement with The Cure. Their debut LP, The Affectionate Punch, was commercially unsuccessful and contains some forgettable tracks (it ends with a song about the alphabet, I kid you not), but tracks like “Amused as Always” point toward the future, a future filled with grief and dread–a bright future, if you’re Mackenzie or Rankine.

“1981 is going to be the year of singles,” Mackenzie told Melody Maker, and what a year it was for Associates. The duo embarked on a ten-week, speed-fueled, mostly-nocturnal recording spree that resulted in some of their most experimental work to date. “We did things like ‘balloon guitar’ where you fill a balloon with water…and then get feedback out of your amp and modulate it by wiggling the balloon directly on the strings,” Rankine has said. “Q Quarters,” which, I imagine, is full of cobwebs and probably a ghost or two, features a balalaika and a coughing fit. On “White Car in Germany,” Mackenzie sings his parts through “greaseproof paper and a comb”; “Kitchen Person,” the most dissonant, disorienting track to emerge from the sessions, features vocals sung through a vacuum cleaner tube, nearly getting lost among the guitar feedback and xylophone-plunking.

The Year of Singles may have been Associates’ creative peak, but commercial success wouldn’t come until the following year, when they released their second full-length album, Sulk (or their third, if you consider the 1981 singles and b-sides compilation Fourth Drawer Down an album). Of course, that’s not to say they didn’t have ambitious ideas for the album. “Make it sound expensive,” Mackenzie reportedly told producer Mike Hedges. “Make it sound like it’s inside a sarcophagus.” “Make it sound like grass.” Ultimately, Sulk sounds like a pop album, albeit an eccentric one: the success of “Party Fears Two” and “Club Country” brought the group to Top of the Pops, while album cuts like “No” and “Skipping” brought them into darker realms. “Tore my hair out by the roots / Planted them in someone’s garden,” the nightmarish “No” begins. “Shaved and cut myself again / Should have let it slip down further.” It’s an alienating song, a risky choice for the second slot on a track list, and it takes on an even graver significance in light of Mackenzie’s suicide 15 years later.

The band’s demise came much sooner than its singer’s. Though Mackenzie recorded under the Associates name until 1990, he and Rankine split in ’82, when Mackenzie backed out of a major U.K. tour. According to post-punk expert Simon Reynolds, the singer’s reasons for bailing included “stage fright and the terror of being sucked into the rockbiz machine.” Perhaps there’s one lyric from the satirical “Club Country” that Mackenzie meant sincerely: “If we stick around, we’re sure to be looked down upon.”

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All quotes taken from Rip It Up and Start Again by Simon Reynolds (Penguin, 2005, pp. 289-94 and 333-4).

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