Dominic's Staff Pick: January 12, 2023

What’s up Sorry Staters? How’s your week been? I hope all is well out there with you.

Last week the world sadly lost another name in music with the passing of Scottish musician Alan Rankine of the pop group The Associates. With that in mind, for my staff pick this week please join me and celebrate the fabulousness that was The Associates.

For anyone who was tuned into the pop world during the early 1980s in Britain as I was, there was no escaping the impact that The Associates had. During 1982 they ruled weekly TV chart show Top Of The Pops with their appearances, performing their two biggest hits, Party Fears Two and Club Country. I can recall hearing the former song for the first time and still think it’s one of the most unique pop songs of the era and remains a personal favorite. The magic came from the incredible range of singer Billy Mackenzie and the ease with which he moved through the octaves. Combined with the catchy guitar & synth-pop made by Alan Rankine it was a match made in heaven. Alan now joins Billy in the afterlife, who tragically left the world back in 1997.

Rankine and Mackenzie formed the group in the late 1970s in Dundee, Scotland. They cheekily came to attention by covering David Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging just months after the original had been released, without permission. Bowie’s publishers were impressed enough though to offer a deal, which led to the recording of their first album The Affectionate Punch, released through Fiction Records. That label was home to The Cure, with whom they toured in 1980 and The Cure’s Robert Smith provided backing vocals on a song or two. He’s heard on the song Amused As Always, which has a great squelchy bass line. The album’s a cool mix of synth-pop, post punk guitars and Bowie Low period all topped off with Billy’s vocals cruising operatically throughout proceedings. I had a copy of the record once, but let it go in one of several purges my record collection has had over the years due to moving or needing money. I’ve yet to find a replacement copy in the wild, but perhaps on a future trip to England I’ll come across one. Of note is the fact that a few years later, the album was re-recorded with new parts and vocals. The consensus is to avoid this version.

The Associates switched labels to Situation 2 after that first album and released a string of singles throughout 1981. A lot of the money for recording was taken from bigger record companies with the view to providing them demos. Situation 2 compiled those singles and other tracks onto the album Fourth Drawer Down. There’s lots to like among these tracks. I like the song Q Quarters, for instance, and my absolute favorite Associates track, the instrumental simply titled The Associate, which is a great catchy synth-based tune that’ll earworm you big time. Trust me. That song has been a go to DJ track for me over the years and always goes down well.

The early 1980s were blessed with so many great pop groups all doing their thing. If you know and like Soft Cell, Heaven 17, ABC, Spandau Ballet, and Human League to name a few, that’s the company that The Associates were keeping. The majors wanted in, and it was WEA that got them through their involvement with Beggars Banquet, which was the parent label to Situation 2, and with whom they had an international labels deal. This resulted in The Associates’ next and most successful album Sulk being released on their own Associates label via Beggars in the UK and on Sire in the US. It must be noted that the versions released in the UK and US vary considerably with different tracks and running order. The previously mentioned, Party Fears Two and Club Country are on both, but for the US version third hit 18 Carat Love Affair is added. (Personally, not one of my favorites, but still a good pop song). Things were on the up and up for the group in 1982, with a major UK tour poised to begin and US interest strong from both Sire and Island Records. Then Billy suddenly decided to pull out of the tour. Possibly a self-destructive move fueled by drug use and his desire to reinvent and not wanting to be pigeonholed into any one category, it was enough to force Alan Rankine to leave the band.

Mackenzie continued as The Associates, but with different musicians and associates for each subsequent project. Those further albums unfortunately don’t reach the high quality of the early work, although there are some definite worthy moments. Mackenzie famously ran up huge debts whilst at WEA with all sorts of shenanigans related to recording, re-recording and other artistic expenses. Eventually, they had to pull the plug. Apparently when taken to lunch at a Knightsbridge restaurant by his A&R man to be told he was dropped, Billy took the news on the chin and asked for one last expense to be picked up, his cab fare home. Naturally, it was accepted. Billy took the cab from London back to Dundee. Class.

There’s lots more to the story, including Billy working with Swiss production team Yello and recording a song with legend Shirley Bassey, something he was particularly proud of and proof to his parents that he had “made it.” In 1993, Billy and Alan had seemed to agree on a reunion, and plans were made for a tour and recordings. However, their differences remained and before much could come of it, they split for the final time. Sadly, four years later, following the death of his mother, which deepened his depression, Billy passed away due to an overdose of medications.

Alan Rankine is to be applauded and noted for his later contributions to music. He became a lecturer at Stow College in Glasgow, and as part of his musical program ther,e a young group called Belle And Sebastian were chosen to have their record Tigermilk released on the school’s Electric Honey label. The rest is, as they say, history. Kudos to him, though.

For a good few years, Associates records have been out of print, but in the early 2000s all the albums were reissued on CD remastered with bonus cuts. I do have a copy of The Affectionate Punch, at least on CD. The rejected WEA album also finally got a release. Plenty to explore for sure, but certainly do yourselves a favor and get to know those first three records and look at some of their early videos and TV appearances. Perhaps we can make Billy’s famous black beret become fashionable again.

Thanks for reading and being open to other forms of music than just punk. Y’all are cool like that and it’s appreciated.

Cheers - Dom

Rest In Power Jeff Beck. Truth.

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