While PAUL HAIG has a cult following within the post-punk cognoscenti, he has often been overlooked in wider music circles.
But between 1982 to 1985, he produced some of the best electronic pop singles of the period. Haig had been the lead singer of JOSEF K, a guitar band with a frenetic pace who were to influence acts such as THE WEDDING PRESENT and FRANZ FERDINAND. PROPAGANDA covered JOSEF K’s best known song ‘Sorry For Laughing’ for their acclaimed album ‘A Secret Wish’.
Inspired by acts such as NEW ORDER and HEAVEN 17, he headed towards a danceable electronic template and worked with a variety of key figures such as Bernard Sumner, Alan Rankine, Billy MacKenzie, Alex Sadkin and Bernie Worrell.
But in the interim period, free from the shackles of a conventional band format, Haig produced material that ranged from jazz to indie pop to experimental electronica. These early tracks have been gathered on ‘Metamorphosis’, an archive 2CD collection released by Les Disques du Crépuscule.
‘Metamorphosis’ bridges the gap from when Haig left JOSEF K to signing to Island Records as a solo artist and releasing his debut album ‘Rhythm Of Life’. PAUL HAIG chatted about his varied career.
‘Metamorphosis’ documents an interesting period in your early solo career covering a range of styles, how do you look back on it?
It’s a very long time ago! I’ve always had eclectic tastes in music so I think it was a time when I could experiment freely without the constraints of being in a band for the first time. It was exciting to try out new ideas.
How were the tracks selected for this release, or was it quite obvious which ones were going to be included?
It was James Nice at Crepuscule who selected most of the tracks, then sent me a list. We more or less agreed on most of the tracks he chose.
You made a statement of intent after JOSEF K by using a drum machine on your first solo recordings ’Chance’, ‘Running Away’ and ‘Time’?
I had been interested in beats and drum machines for a while and even used to record simple rhythms of the keyboards in the music shop where I worked for a year. I’d take the cassette tape home and play stuff along with the rhythms onto another cassette recorder. I progressed onto a DR Rhythm type box after that but when the Roland TR-808 machine came out, I had to get one. It was perfect for the way I was working at the time and enabled me for the first time to program more or less exactly the beats I needed.
What had motivated you to take on a more electronic template? Were there any particular bands that influenced you?
For some reason I was attracted to electronic sound and noise. Possibly seeing KRAFTWERK at a very early and impressionable age on the ‘Tomorrow’s World’ TV show influenced me somewhat. I liked ‘Warm Leatherette’ by THE NORMAL and listened to THROBBING GRISTLE ‘20 Jazz funk Greats’.
The ‘Swing In 82’ material doesn’t seem so unusual now when you consider that your romantic post-punk peers like Martin Fry, Billy MacKenzie, Glenn Gregory and even Ian Curtis all had an interest in the stylings of Sinatra?
I guess not. For me it was an easy choice at the time as I had listened to Sinatra when I was growing up. What influenced me just as much however, was a double album called ‘Starring Fred Astaire’ which had some great songs on it, he was a good singer as well as an excellent dancer.
‘Metamorphosis’ also features your first forays into instrumental experiments and soundtracks, something that you’ve continued in your ‘Cinematique’ series of recordings. What do you get out of this type material that you can’t get with writing pop songs?
I don’t have to sing! Also, I like the freedom of creating instrumentals and not having to adhere to the same old structures of a normal song etc.
I get a lot out of using sounds and textures that create atmospheres that can end up going to different places as you work on them.
Which are your favourites tracks on ‘Metamorphosis’ and are there any particular reasons?
I don’t listen to it much, maybe ‘Time’ as it seemed like a new departure for me and I had a new synthesizer on the go. It was a bit like indie synth ABBA.
Some of this material was lost when you signed the licensing agreement with Island Records in 1982. In hindsight, did you anticipate how much control they were likely to impose?
Probably not, but I was prepared to play the game a bit at the time, that is until I didn’t. Mostly it was OK apart from the odd children’s TV show.
You were criticised for having Alex Sadkin to produce your first solo album ‘Rhythm Of Life’, but he was actually considered to be a credible producer at the time you worked with him…
I chose him because I really liked his mix of ‘Pull Up To The Bumper’ by GRACE JONES. When we were recording in New York, I quickly realised it might have been better to go down an indie type road and work more with Anton Fier from THE FELLIES and people like that. We also met Arthur Baker and could have worked with him, but it just wasn’t doable.
It was my own fault really as I wanted to go for the pop thing when I signed the deal. I think Alex was a bit preoccupied anyway, with producing DURAN DURAN and THOMPSON TWINS and I understood that.
Having the late Bernie Worrell play on your album was quite cool?
That was cool! He used to come into the studio with a small bottle of Jack Daniels in a brown paper bag. It seems mad now, but I used to sit with him in the recording room and he’d say “is this how you want it?” and I’d say “great, can you add this note…”
How do you feel about the ‘Rhythm Of Life’ today?
It’s a thing. It will always be a thing.
Bernard Sumner was involved in the production of ‘The Only Truth’, a track which many consider to be your best single, especially in its full length 12 inch mix? How did that track develop in the studio?
I had everything arranged before going in. I remember being left alone with the engineer to record the whole thing basically; the drum programming, the keyboards and guitars. It was after that, that Bernard and Donald Johnson started adding more to it like extra guitar, bass and percussion. We spent a long time on the sound of the percussion which I still notice if I hear it today.
During your career, you’ve worked with both Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie of ASSOCIATES separately. What were each of them like to collaborate with?
Billy was always very inspiring to work with, we used to risk our sanity in the process but it was always exciting. As he didn’t really play an instrument, his ideas would usually be sung at you.
Once we were in a studio that didn’t have any drum machine, so we burst a water filled balloon while sampling it and then made it into a bass drum.
When I worked with Alan, it was just as mad but we managed to get the job done somehow. I once sketched him cooking bacon in a London studio and in the sketch the bacon was saying, “please don’t hurt us Alan, please”.
‘Something Good’ was a minor German hit in 1989, what was it like to have some kind of commercial recognition after years of trying?
Don’t know actually as I’ve only heard rumours about that happening in France. I remember going to Germany briefly in 1985 to promote ‘Heaven Help You Now’.
You went on to work with Lil’ Louis and Kurtis Mantronik, what appealed to you about the club oriented music of that period?
I’d been aware of Mantronik/Mantronix for a while and really liked the production and beats. I don’t remember how Lil’ Louis came about really. I do recall they were in kind of competition with each other, always asking how I’d got on with the other one.
You’ve been quite bold in the choices of songs that you’ve covered like JOY DIVISION’s ‘Atmosphere’ and THE WALKER BROTHERS’ ‘The Electrician’?
Yes, it’s a bit cheeky really considering their voices. Don’t know what I was thinking 😉
Has the shake-up in the music industry over the last ten years worked in your favour?
I like the way you can put something out when you want to. If you don’t have a label, you can do it far more easily now. I also love the music making technology for production. With regard to the music industry, I feel removed from it. “Music” and “Industry”… there’s two words that don’t sound good together.
What’s next for you as far as musical projects are concerned? Are you working on a follow-up to ‘Kube’ yet?
I have been working on a new album for some time now. There are so many choices and amazing ways you can produce music now that sometimes it makes the whole process slower. I seem to have a different way of working now which is more time consuming, but well worth it in terms of sounds and production quality. So, the new album is a further attempt at finding the right balance between the synthetic / electronic and the organic / natural.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to PAUL HAIG
Special thanks to James Nice at Les Disques du Crépuscule
James Nice is a music publisher and writer whose acclaimed 2010 book ‘Shadowplayers: The Rise and Fall of Factory Records’ provided a detailed and objective account of the legendary label. He also worked for the prestigious Belgian label Les Disques du Crépuscule in Brussels between 1987-91.
More recently, James has resurrected Les Disques du Crépuscule along with its sister Factory Benelux offshoot as platforms to reissue a vast catalogue of experimental and artistically driven music, in addition to releasing newer material from acts such as MARSHEAUX, MARNIE and DEUX FILLES. Back in the day, Les Disques du Crépuscule and Factory Benelux operated as separate entities, although the two labels shared the same premises and staff.
Among Crépuscule’s roster were Blaine L Reininger and Winston Tong from TUXEDOMOON, ASSOCIATES instrumentalist Alan Rankine and former JOSEF K leader Paul Haig. The first music release on Crépuscule came in 1980; ‘From Brussels With Love’ was a carefully curated cassette compilation which included music from John Foxx, Bill Nelson, Harold Budd and Thomas Dolby as well as spoken recordings by Brian Eno and Richard Jobson.
Meanwhile Factory Benelux notably released the 12 inch extended remix of NEW ORDER’s ‘Everything’s Gone Green’ in 1981 and spare recordings from Factory affiliated artists such as A CERTAIN RATIO, SECTION 25, THE WAKE and THE DURUTTI COLUMN.
The latter’s beautiful instrumental ‘For Belgian Friends’ was written in honour of the two labels’ founders Michel Duval and the late Annik Honoré. James Nice kindly chatted to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about his various endeavours, past and present.
You wrote the book ‘Shadowplayers’ on the history of Factory Records. There have been several books about the label, what do you think your account gave that hadn’t been provided before?
Well, reliable facts properly researched! I did ‘Shadowplayers’ as a DVD first, in 2006, but I didn’t do the book until after Tony Wilson passed away the following year.
One of the books which influenced the approach I took was an excellent Creation Records history by Dave Cavanagh, which Alan McGee slated as the accountant’s version of Creation when it first appeared (though he changed his mind later).
I feared Tony might say the same thing about a Factory history written by me. He was more into myths and legends than truth.
I also wanted to include all the bands and artists, not just JOY DIVISION, NEW ORDER, HAPPY MONDAYS and The Hacienda; THE STOCKHOM MONSTERS have a tale to tell too. The French edition won a prize, actually. They sent me a leather jacket – which was a bit too small.
How do you see the public’s continued fascination with Factory Records?
I just glance at it in passing these days, because ‘Shadowplayers’ came out in 2010 and I’ve long since moved on. The entire story of Factory was hugely dramatic, genuine tragic in places, and populated by larger than life characters. You can’t really say the same of, for example, 4AD or Domino. I’m not sure you’ll see it repeated either, because music no longer produces the kind of revenue stream that would allow radical mavericks like Tony Wilson and Rob Gretton to build another Hacienda, and Peter Saville is a complete one-off.
Factory was a classic example of do the right thing, and the money will follow. Unfortunately, they then blew all the money on big recording projects and ill-judged property investments. Let’s leave it at that.
Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule have common roots, but were quite different entities in their original ethos?
Both labels started in 1980. Factory Benelux was intended as an outlet for spare Factory recordings, hence a lot of the early releases like ‘Shack Up’ by ACR, ‘The Plateau Phase’ by CRISPY AMBULANCE and ‘Key of Dreams’ by SECTION 25 were exclusive to FBN. As time went on it became more like a normal licensee.
Crépuscule was something else entirely – a cosmopolitan boutique label, with an international roster and aspirations to kick start some kind of art movement in Brussels. In truth Factory were a little suspicious of Crepuscule early on, although later some Crépuscule albums appeared on Factory in the UK eg Anna Domino and Wim Mertens.
You worked for Les Disques du Crépuscule back in the day and lived in Brussels for five years. What are your particular memories of that time?
Way too many to mention. A couple of days after I quit Crépuscule (an argument about a 23 SKIDOO contract, not that anyone will be interested), I took a train to Amsterdam to meet William S. Burroughs.
He was holding court in a hotel with his manager, James Grauerholz. I took along some books to sign, as well as the Burroughs album I’d released on LTM, ‘The Doctor Is On the Market’. I don’t think WSB had even seen a copy before, but he scribbled “Good Work” on it. There was another guy there who was a Lufthansa pilot by day and wrote experimental cut-up novels in his spare time. I remember thinking at the time, I’d like to be that guy.
What are the aims of Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule under your direction now?
Heritage curation, and new recordings where appropriate. Michel Duval is quite interested again, and we collaborated on the ‘Ni D’Eve, Ni D’Adam’ compilation at the end of 2015.
I really enjoyed that process, as a matter of fact. The new tracks and artists he brought to the project really added to it, and the artwork by Clou was great too.
I do a lot of boring back office stuff as well as making records, chiefly rights administration. You have to have all your ducks in a row when, for instance, Kanye West decides to sample a SECTION 25 track from 1981.
As well as reissues, Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule have released new albums by SECTION 25, MARNIE, DEUX FILLES and others. What attracted you to back these recordings?
In the case of new albums by heritage groups like SECTION 25, THE NAMES and CRISPY AMBULANCE, as long as fresh studio projects are financially viable, and the music is good, then of course we want to be involved. Any label can simply recycle back catalogue, but I like to think we’re a little more committed.
The MARNIE album came to Crépuscule because I’m a LADYTRON fan and it was a perfect fit for the label. It worked for her too as she’d successfully funded ‘Crystal World’ via Pledge Music, but was less sure about how to actually deliver the CD version.
It’s important to back new music, and I’m delighted to be releasing ‘Cold Science’ by LES PANTIES later in 2016. They’re a young band from Brussels – terrible name, but great music!
Les Disques du Crépuscule also released ‘Odyssey’ in 2014, a career spanning compilation of MARSHEAUX. What do you find appealing about their music and which are your favourite songs?
I liked MARSHEAUX anyway, even before we began Crépuscule again back in 2013. Like MARNIE, they seemed like a good fit with the label’s heritage, much of which was modern electronic pop music. The focus was on original songs though rather than covers.
The title is a riff on Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, and the idea of a chronological story, and of course the old ARP Odyssey analogue synth. I’m quite good at coming up with album titles, if I say so myself. ‘Retrofit’ by SECTION 25 is probably the best – it popped into my head while I was watching a documentary about the making of ‘Blade Runner’. Perfect for a remix / reboot album.
Yes, very clever of you. But what’s your favourite MARSHEAUX song?
Well, the ‘Ghost/Hammer’ mash-up is the one we keep putting on LDDC compilations.
You maintain a close relationship with Paul Haig. Is he one of the unsung heroes of post-punk in your opinion?
I wouldn’t say unsung because Paul’s always attracted a lot of press and remains well liked by music writers, but I suppose he’s ‘unsung’ in the sense that he never had a proper chart hit. Ironically, his most popular album – on reissue anyway – is ‘Rhythm of Life’, which was considered far too mainstream at the time.
Paul just did things his way and wasn’t prepared to jump through all the hoops required of a mainstream pop star. For a start he was – and remains – far too shy.
Since you mention post-punk in the question, I’ll take this opportunity to plug a forthcoming Paul project for later in 2016, which is a 1982-based double archive CD including his early pop material (‘Justice’, ‘Running Away’), the Sinatra-styled ‘Swing In 82’ EP, the experimental electronica cassette ‘Drama’, and loads of odd singles and sessions.
He’d just left JOSEF K but had not yet signed to Island, and I’m not sure anyone else was quite that diverse and experimental at the time. It’ll be called ‘Metamorphosis’ – another Kafka reference. Told you I was clever with titles. Paul’s quite nervous about it, I have to say!
You’ve also worked closely with Alan Rankine in his post-ASSOCIATES career?
Well, not so much me personally. Back in the 1980s, Alan was married to Belinda Pearse, who was a Crépuscule director at the time, and so for a while he pretty much became the in-house producer at the label, working with Paul Haig, Anna Domino, Winston Tong, Ludus and his own solo material.
My time at LDDC in Brussels did overlap with his, but I didn’t work on any of those projects. He did three solo albums under the auspices of Crépuscule, and some of the music is the equal of anything he did with Billy Mackenzie. Unfortunately Alan isn’t quite as good a singer, though he is a brilliant writer, arranger, producer, guitarist and keys player. The instrumentals he did for Crépuscule work best, I think. We’ve spoken a couple of times this year. Once was to return some master tapes to him, and I also suggested him as a producer / collaborator for MARNIE.
Another unsung hero of the era is Mark Reeder and the release of his remix collection ‘Collaborator’ on Factory Benelux was a fitting acknowledgement of that. What was the process like to select the tracklisting?
Hmm. We tried to avoid replicating too many tracks that were on the earlier ‘Five Point One’ collection, and having Bernard Sumner singing on quite a few of the tracks should have made it seem more like an artist album than just a compilation.
Not sure the concept really gelled though. Mark isn’t easy to label – a lot of people think he’s a DJ, which is the one thing he isn’t (but probably should be). ‘Collaborator’ is a great album and should have sold a lot more than it did. In fact Mark regularly reminds me of that!
As a label manager, how do you decide on the formats that releases will be issued in? When do you know one format will be more viable than another, eg some are CD only, others are vinyl only?
Vinyl tends to be reserved for prestige items, and / or where you can fashion an art object from it, like THE DURUTTI COLUMN album with the die-cut glasspaper sleeve, which I’ll talk about later.
The recent JOSEF K singles collection ‘It’s Kinda Funny’ was vinyl only because there have been several JOSEF K CD compilations already, and because a 12” matt board sleeve was a great way of exhibiting the original artwork by Jean-François Octave.
I still prefer CDs because the sound is better, you can fit more material on them, plus they are easier to keep in print over a long period of time. In an era of declining physical sales, the increasing fragmentation of formats isn’t too helpful, at least as far as labels are concerned.
Vinyl retains cultural clout though. Releasing albums used to be like publishing books, whereas once the market became saturated with releases, it’s kind of become degraded and often feels as if you’re just publishing magazine articles. But a vinyl album still has the heft of a book.
Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule were both known for tasteful artwork and you have maintained this aesthetic. The vinyl reissue of ‘The Return Of The Durutti Column’ had an interesting genesis?
With the Benelux reissue in 2013, the original intention was to replicate Fact 14 from 1980, with coarse sandpaper front and back and a flexi-disc.
Back then Tony Wilson was able to source 12-inch square sheets from a local company called Naylors Abrasives in Bredbury, near Stockport. They still exist, but they don’t manufacture sandpaper any more, and when I got in touch in 2012 to explain the project, they clearly thought I was a lunatic.
I’m not sure that glasspaper is even manufactured anywhere in Western Europe now. In the end we had to go to a company in China, whose minimum order was 10,000 sheets. What was a cheap and (relatively) easy package for Factory in 1980 turned out to be pretty much impossible to copy three decades later. It’s probably easier to source glasspaper in lurid colours rather than plain old beige, and the biggest rolls were only 11 inches wide. You can still source flexi-discs from one plant in the States, but they end up costing more per unit than a 12-inch vinyl album. Fortunately, however, not being able to do a straight copy served to liberate the project somewhat, so that we began to think in terms of a new edition which referenced the original, but offered something different.
The flexi became a hard vinyl 7”, which sounds far better, and we were now able to add an inner sleeve with period images and explanatory text. The 11-inch glasspaper squares took about eight months to arrive from China, and while we were twiddling our thumbs the designer, Carl Glover, came up with the idea of seating the glasspaper sheet on the front in a recessed deboss. A bit like a frame, thereby underlining the ‘art’ credentials.
Somewhat to my surprise the pressing plant in Germany agreed to assemble the finished package from start to finish, which was fortunate since I couldn’t imagine NEW ORDER agreeing to help out. I didn’t much fancy the idea of doing it myself. Like the building trade people we had to go through en route to China, the pressing plant just couldn’t understand why we’d want to release a record in a glasspaper sleeve. Someone suggested a photo of some sandpaper might be better…
Then, when the sheets finally arrived, some of the cutting was pretty rough, and the pressing plant insisted on a 3mm tolerance between each side of the sheet and the deboss. That would just look as though we’d fluffed the measurements, besides which even with a deboss, the glasspaper sheets simply stuck on the cover just didn’t have that ‘wow’ factor.
I spent a few days arguing with the plant about tolerances, and agonising generally, then decided that a die-cut would be just as impressive, with the glasspaper underneath, as if you were seeking it through a window. This scheme also overcame the issues about imperfect size and cutting of the glasspaper.
The only obvious, practical shape for the die-cut was Peter Saville’s original ‘bar chart’ logo, which appeared on the labels of most Factory releases between 1979 and 1980, Fact 14 included. It just looks right, and is also suggestive of a graphic equalizer, which I suppose is a bit Hannett. The pressing plant had already printed 2000 copies of the original inner bag though, so we had to throw those away. All the problems and changes also mean that the release date was late. Very Factory, I suppose.
The finished package looked even better than anyone dared to imagine, and housed in the polythene bag it has a fantastic 3D quality, plus the glasspaper catches the light beautifully. I was particularly delighted that Vini Reilly liked it. All the various headaches and reverses improved the design no end, and the addition of the die-cut means that you now have this unique Reid/Saville hybrid. Truly a happy accident.
Your CD reissues on Factory Benelux and Les Disques du Crépuscule are known for their comprehensive sleeve notes which are written by you. What is your philosophy and style regarding this?
I tend to focus on facts, and direct quotation from the people involved.
Creative writing I leave to experts like Paul Morley, Simon Reynolds and Kevin Pierce. My notes tend to be honest rather than gushing or pseudo-academic, and that’s probably why I rarely get commissioned to write liner notes for other releases! I think the last time was an ELECTRONIC retrospective. Johnny Marr just wanted a hagiography in which everything and everyone was, like, amazing and brilliant, all the time. Buyers aren’t stupid and don’t really want that. Then again, I probably have been a bit too glass half empty at times.
What are your thoughts on modern music, particularly the synthpop and electronic variety, having worked with a number of the original pioneers?
I really like EDM, it’s probably my favourite genre for blasting out loud in the car, annoying my daughter etc; RIHANNA, MISS KITTIN, TODD TERJE, electroclash, Xenomania productions.
A lot of what Crépuscule released during the golden years – the 80s, basically – was either very poppy (Paul Haig, Anna Domino, Isabelle Antena, Kid Montana), or pretty abstract (Wim Mertens, Glenn Branca, Gavin Bryars). That’s probably why my taste in music remains similarly schizophrenic.
If you’re asking who my current / recent favourites are then its TEGAN & SARA, ROBYN, M83, some NINE INCH NAILS, and the last NEW ORDER album. That was a spectacular return to form. Hats off to them, and to Mute.
Which have been your favourite reissues or products on Les Disques du Crépuscule and Factory Benelux over the years?
I can answer that in a heartbeat. My all-time favourite LDDC album is ‘Night Air’ by Blaine L Reininger, which came out in 1984 and was his first proper solo album during the time he was absent from TUXEDOMOON.
It’s a magical album about exile in Brussels and was a key influence on my relocating to the city a couple of years later. Expertly recorded and engineered by Gareth Jones, I might add. I’d love him to tour the whole album – maybe there will be an opportunity after TUXEDOMOON are done touring ‘Half Mute’ during 2016.
My favourite FBN reissues would be the glasspaper Durutti, or the pochette 2xCD edition of ‘Always Now’ by SECTION 25. Both presented considerable challenges, and both came off.
Are there any upcoming releases on Factory Benelux or Les Disques du Crépuscule you can tell us about?
I’ve been talking to a group from Brussels called LES PANTIES for a couple of years. I love their music – poised, sophisticated cold wave, with a hint of shoegaze – they have a great aesthetic sense, and Sophie Frison is an excellent singer. We just couldn’t agree about the name though. It might work in a French speaking country, but elsewhere it sounds like a novelty band. Eventually I just gave in and collected all their singles on an album, ‘Cold Science’, which is coming out on Crépuscule in September. It’s a bit of a passion project for me, I suppose. But it’s also one in the eye for people who carp we do nothing but reissues.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its grateful thanks to James Nice
A former member of THE CURE, bassist Michael Dempsey first became aware of ASSOCIATES when the two bands were label mates at Chris Parry’s Fiction label.
Comprising of the kaleidoscopic vocal presence of Billy MacKenzie and the driven musicality of Alan Rankine, Dempsey soon joined ASSOCIATES as a silent partner and along with drummer John Murphy.
Both played on the three albums which defined their reputation; ‘The Affectionate Punch’, ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ and ‘Sulk’. Now reissued as 2CD deluxe editions via BMG alongside ‘The Very Best of ASSOCIATES’ compendium for the more cautious listener, these collections have been supervised and produced by Dempsey. Each package includes previously unreleased tracks and 28 page booklets featuring unseen photos, rare memorabilia and extensive sleeve notes to do justice to the ASSOCIATES legacy.
Michael Dempsey kindly chatted about this new ASSOCIATES reissue campaign and the challenges of the remastering / repackaging process in the 21st century.
What did you think bonded you with Billy and Alan musically?
I often wonder that too because they came from a very different part of the country. People describe your music as belonging to the time when it came out ie the 80s in the case of ASSOCIATES. But I think their music was very much 60s and 70s, much more so than a lot of people who were out there.
I think that’s where my impressions came from. You piece it together over time and when I listen back to a lot of ASSOCIATES stuff, it’s that really exciting 60s music that seeped into their subconscious, in the same way it did for me.
When I first met them, I was amazed. I’d never come across anyone that put together music in the way that they did. It wasn’t wildly experimental or anything like that, but it was packed with these reference points that I could relate to.
It was obviously enough to make you jump ship from THE CURE. What was your creative dynamic with them like, compared with Robert Smith and Lol Tolhurst?
Billy and Alan were so different and Billy’s personality was so beguiling, the music just drew you in. With THE CURE, we were touring intensely, there wasn’t that same sort of activity going on in ASSOCIATES.
THE CURE got their debut album out before ASSOCIATES, so we were slightly rivals on the label I guess and they were constantly vying for attention from Fiction. THE CURE were a lot easier to get going, we had a band and could tour while Alan and Bill were a duo who didn’t have a band.
It would have been easier 10 or 20 years later to understand how to put an act like that out. But at the time, it wasn’t very clear how Fiction would deal with these guys. So ASSOCIATES were always kept hanging on and they were always hanging around the studio. They were really good company so it wasn’t difficult for me.
You are quoted as saying the recording of ‘Sulk’ had the band inventing ways of recording with click tracks and overdubs to make the sound as lush as possible. What were the most unusual things you witnessed or were asked to do?
The notion of us being wildly experimental came from them changing their sound quite often. When they were a duo, they wanted to be a band.
When they were a band, they wanted to be electronic. And then came ‘Sulk’, which is hard to categorise. They didn’t do it in the same way as everybody else.
I found on reflection that they were using a lot of old school recording techniques. Half speed was a typical ASSOCIATES thing. To get it tight like a machine, you recorded at half speed, played it back at normal speed and it would sound a bit weird. That was something the kind of engineers and producers we worked with would have been well used to, because it was a typical 70s recording technique.
The experimenting started with their songwriting, the way they put things together was quite traditional in that it was voice and guitar. Also, they weren’t modish, they didn’t want to sound whatever it was in at that moment, they almost perversely wanted to sound unlike that.
Bill would often describe the sound he wanted in oblique ways like “make the bassline green”… you’d play it and he’d go “NO! That’s blue! You’ve got to play it more green!” *laughs*
Some of it was just for fun, why not? Let’s just do it wrong! It was a perverse streak, a bit like what we had in THE CURE too. There’s somebody telling you how to do something… when you’re 19-20 years old, you try and do it in exactly the opposite way!
Once they got hold of the controls, they would try and subvert the sound to make their music unusual. It often worked, sometimes it didn’t but more often, it worked.
We didn’t just keep it bass / drums / guitar, we would bring in any instruments that were knocking around. So if you could lay your hands on RICK WAKEMAN’s vibraphone before it was picked up, you would!
How did producer Mike Hedges help in the creative process?
Mike’s biggest contribution was indulgence. So he was happy to try anything. Lots of producers will say “C’mon guys, this is really a waste of time!” whereas Mike was quite prepared to try stuff. When you have that sort of attitude and you don’t have anyone saying “No, look at the time, we really must crack on”, it’s great. He was experimenting as much as we were. So he wasn’t a defacto producer who was calling the shots or overriding flights of fancy, he was open to ideas. THE CURE found him sympathetic too.
What was your approach with regards these reissues, compared with the V2 series in 2000?
I wanted it to be out there and we had various suitors. ASSOCIATES were very clever… unlike everybody else at the time, they actually licenced their material. So that gave us the opportunity every 5-10 years to re-licence it. You normally signed a contract into perpetuity. They were shrewd, but perhaps more by accident than design. With BMG, my expectations weren’t all that high, not because I had my pre-conceptions about them, but just because in the past, people would make a cursory attempt to put it out, but they didn’t try really hard.
But BMG were completely different from day one. They became almost more obsessive than I did. We had in Ian Gilchrist, a very good label manager, he wanted to go that extra mile, every mile. That meant we dug very deep. It was them that suggested putting ‘Sulk’ out on vinyl, I wasn’t expecting that. Then he suggested making everything a double and getting some really good pictures. That’s the one thing about ASSOCIATES, they were pretty chaotic in their existence. The idea that any of us would carry a camera would be unthinkable so pictures are very hard to come by, as are any moving images.
BMG were thorough and it’s taken about a year to bring them out. People generally bark loudly about their product but I’m happy to bark loudly, with an element of surprise, because I didn’t think it would come out as well as it has.
What can you do now that you couldn’t do then?
First of all, you can sample at 92 KHz 48bit, that’s a very respectable sound. Even to my older ears, it makes a difference. It’s like wearing a particularly fine pair of glasses, you can hear more detail at the higher sample rate.
The idea of vinyl, ASSOCIATES’ previous attempts were always disastrous because we were experimental. Things wouldn’t be simple and often dense, so it would be hard to cut, moving forwards and backwards to the master for weeks and weeks.
There would be after thoughts of speeding things up or slowing them down as we did the cut. It was very hard at the time to get us sounding good, but we were never pleased how it sounded. It was cut quietly to err on the side of caution.
When the digital age came along, it was much more of a flexible process. Back then, you had two controls, which were treble and bass! That wasn’t going to be sufficient for ASSOCIATES! *laughs*
We used to watch all these people fiddle around, but now we’re more informed. What’s great for us is that you can make things sound appropriate to whatever medium somebody wants to listen to the music in. So it’s great having everything.
I don’t know many people who actually listen to vinyl, I’ve listened to it and thought “this is interesting”. But I also quite like listening to something that hasn’t got any surface noise on it too.
Taking all that into account, why does ‘18 Carat Love Affair’ appear to be a different mix to the original 1982 vinyl single version?
It’s interesting; what you have to understand is ASSOCIATES never made a fetish of looking after their master tapes. So when you finished recording something, that was it. You didn’t need the tape, so it stayed in the studio it was recorded in.
Maybe they got moved years later and put in a cellar which got damp when it rained! So for example, there isn’t any pure tape that says “Definitive ‘Sulk’ Master”.
Also, typically, we’d go into the mastering room and someone would say “It’s a little bit like it’s dragging, shall we speed it up a bit?” – so you’re speeding up the master tape to make your vinyl… but who’s making a note of what percentage it was sped up at? It’s really hard, but we don’t have the definitive production masters of each record, so you have to piece it together.
Your record player may be running a bit slow or fast. By ’18 Carat Love Affair’, I think we’d moved over to another producer Mark Arthurworrey to finish things off, because Mike Hedges was working with SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES. Listening back, he didn’t actually remix, he more EQ-ed so that might be why you hear more or less of something. Again, that may have been tweaked in the final process to cut the vinyl.
All I can offer is my best approximation and I’ve decided I quite like it like that. As an exercise, it still keeps it alive.
Did you have to make any concessions to suit the download / streaming format that some favour today?
Not really, you make available your best possible master and then you hand it over to whoever. I was learning that Apple are quite fussy and use various studios to get their finished product, whereas Amazon are less fussy. Where do you stop? If I was supremely conscientious and fully employed in this, I could take it all the way but there’s a point you have to hand it over, so I surrender at a certain point.
How do you look back on the band imploding in the wake of the success of ‘Sulk’? Was there anything in hindsight that could have been done to keep Billy and Alan working together?
We would have had to have waited until we were 52, had wisdom and more understanding. It was stupid, the 80s were excessive and the focus was on style rather than content, ASSOCIATES kind of had both.
It was considered that ‘Sulk’ was a big sounding record and needed lots of people to recreate it live… it’s quite easy to see now that it was the completely wrong thing to do. Because Billy was an instinctive guy, he knew when something was wrong and would often judge people just from their clothes… that can be frustrating, because some people don’t dress particularly well. BUT, he kind of had a point as well, because you are the pair of shoes you wear very often. So he would size people up amazingly accurately. *laughs*
As the thing ballooned, he felt he was losing control of the situation and the only thing he could do was to say “No, I don’t want to do this!” – he’s the one person that you can’t do without, along with Alan as well.
What should we have done? I say they should have gone out as a duo with a drum machine; Billy would have loved that because he loved SUICIDE.
The name ASSOCIATES, he was always keen to tell me time and time again, was that he liked to be associated with people, he didn’t want to carry a John, Paul, George and Ringo around with him.
It would have been much better if he and Alan had simply stripped it right back… the idea of stripping things down didn’t come to be mainstream until very much later.
I think Alan on guitar, with a vibraphone player and Billy singing would have been a nice sound. These songs are really good, they don’t depend entirely on production technique which a lot of stuff did at that time. When I first heard their entire repertoire of about 50 songs, they sat down in their bedroom and played the lot, and it was just voice and guitar. So that could have translated very simply to live and I think that would have saved them.
But back then, people didn’t have that sort of grasp or flexibility, it was a lot harder to do things. Things are a lot simpler now. Music is a bit more respectable and there are better people working in it too. If we were in that situation today, I’d know exactly what to do and there would be the possibility of everyone responding to that.
What are your personal favourites from these releases?
I’ve always loved ‘Skipping’ because I helped write it, but it also captures that exuberance and I know Billy liked that a lot as well, he felt that was a really strong track on ‘Sulk’. I also think ‘No’ is a very powerful, dark song which always works for me too.
People will no doubt criticise the extras as being just that and perhaps being a little superfluous, but they illustrate how you get to the hits. They’re stepping stones along the way; they’re not perfect but I find them very intriguing.
Perhaps one of my favourites is the track that I close ‘Sulk’ CD2 with, which is ‘Grecian 2000’. That was the last piece of music that we recorded before the ill-fated tour started up… that was the way it was going. When you listen to that, it’s really tantalising. Billy did start on a vocal, I remember him singing it but it wasn’t recorded. They were moving onto the next phase, yet this great steamroller got in the way… they should have gone back to the studio and just wrote another 10 of these and had another album.
Is there much left in the ASSOCIATES vaults that aren’t on these reissues?
Back in 2000 when I last did it, I thought “that’s it, nothing else is going to come up”… but because the ASSOCIATES vault never seems definitive, this time, much more stuff did surface. The longest, most intense period is trying to trawl through who might possibly have something.
The multi-tracks of ‘Club Country’ and ‘Party Fears Two’ were lost a long time ago and miraculously, I don’t know where it came from, we finally found ‘Club Country’.
We still don’t have ‘Party Fears Two’, so somebody has got that somewhere or it’s at the bottom of the River Tay. So next time somebody asks me to do this, who knows?
I knew they existed but we only just got the masters for the John Leckie produced tracks; one is ‘Australia’ and the other is an early version of ‘Arrogance Gave Him Up’ called ‘Me, Myself & The Tragic Story’. ‘Australia’ is interesting because it’s a completely different production so had we gone down the John Leckie road, ‘Sulk’ would have sounded very different.
What’s your take on the continual interest in ASSOCIATES?
It doesn’t surprise me. I find it hard, then and now, to describe what they sound like. They were outsiders, and that’s sort of where I came from with THE CURE, we were on the edges of lots of things, but never sounded like anybody.
While other bands managed to get a contemporary sound and prosper, I don’t think ASSOCIATES ever got a contemporary sound, and so didn’t prosper! But long term, that makes it more fascinating for a lot of people. It’s that ultraplicity of references that you hear in the music which draws disparate people in, but it’s not a particular sound. That’s why I think people still find them very intriguing.
You’ve got a great singer, me and Alan were talking about this today and about who around at the time would really have stood up against Billy… some kept it simple and pulled it off, but Billy didn’t keep it simple. He often tried too hard, but he worked it beyond the call of duty sometimes, particularly live.
He could do things no-one else could do with his voice; everybody recognised that at the time and people still recognise that now.
It was the combination of him and Alan; as Billy was a brilliant singer, Alan was a brilliant musician who could play anything, and did play anything. Between the two of them, they were great songwriters too, they really loved music.
When you’ve got that collision of positives, then you’re going to come up with something different and outstanding.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Michael Dempsey
Additional thanks to Stuart Kirkham at Hall Or Nothing Independent Publicity
Like their contemporaries JAPAN, Scotland’s ASSOCIATES are a band that burned briefly but brightly.
Fronted by the mercurial Billy MacKenzie and driven musically by multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine, the group’s entire back catalogue has been remastered, accompanied by a new compilation. The MacKenzie / Rankine era albums ’The Affectionate Punch’, ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ and ‘Sulk’ have been supervised by silent partner and bassist Michael Dempsey.
These 2CD deluxe editions include previously unreleased tracks and 28 page booklets featuring unseen photos, rare memorabilia and extensive sleeve notes to do justice to the ASSOCIATES legacy.
The young Alan Rankine grew up in Linlithgow, a town that was stuck between Glasgow and Edinburgh in more than just the geographical sense.
The way he and MacKenzie came together seemed almost predestined, with the pair forming a live covers band to keep themselves afloat as a sustainable entity, while demoing their own material. Courted by a number of labels, they decided to take control of the situation and independently released a cover of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ only weeks after the Bowie original came out.
As if by magic, Fiction Records offered a deal and their first album ‘The Affectionate Punch’ came out in 1980. However, they were unhappy with their time on a conventional label and opted thereafter to licence their material, first with Situation 2 for their second album ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ and WEA for their commercial breakthrough ‘Sulk’.
During their run of three chart hits in 1982, it would be fair to say ASSOCIATES gave SIMPLE MINDS a run for their money in the art rock stakes. But stardom was not really something that suited ASSOCIATES, particularly MacKenzie. Sadly after the cancellation of a world tour, the pair parted ways, leaving SIMPLE MINDS to head for the stadiums while A-HA took up the mantle left vacant for melancholic cinematic multi-octave synthpop.
With the upcoming reissues soon to be released, Alan Rankine kindly spoke about his time with ASSOCIATES and the legend of Billy MacKenzie.
You and Billy played in a covers band which seems miles away from the usual route to the way bands at the time. Is the cover ‘Eloise’ on the ‘Very Best of ASSOCIATES’ indicative of the material were you playing?
Bill and I had a real affection for these kinda big sounding singles from the ‘67-‘68, we’re talking about things like ‘Rainbow Valley’ by LOVE AFFAIR, horns and strings and stuff. So we ended up doing a punk version of ‘Eloise’ by BARRY & PAUL RYAN, it was at breakneck speed!
As his catalogue has shown, Billy was very comfortable with doing covers?
We were both very keen on doing the occasional cover version. When we were in the studio or even at soundchecks, we would start playing ‘Brown Sugar’ or ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ by THE ROLLING STONES, or a Bowie or Roxy song. And then we would go onto ‘The Look Of Love’ by DUSTY SPRINGFIELD.
You and Billy bonded over a shared love of ROXY MUSIC, DAVID BOWIE and SPARKS. Was it a gradual process coming up with that Venn diagram which became your sound?
I know exactly what you mean… it’s a Venn diagram with a few circles crossing over, but central to a lot of it was Bowie, a bit of Roxy, a bit art of art rock a la THE TUBES maybe and a bit of zaniness like THE REZILLOS. There was always an element of cheekiness in there. Anyone that was into music at that time just could not help be influenced by Bowie, but I think we had a more cinematic approach.
We loved our film themes, how they could hug your emotions and pull you this way and that way, just with a change of a chord here and the introduction of a different instrument there.
The cover of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ forced Fiction’s hand and led to the recording of ’The Affectionate Punch’. You seemed to almost immediately find your own sound.
We did the recording of ’The Affectionate Punch’ very quickly in about three and a half weeks including mixing and mastering. Then we went into rehearsals and only played three songs from the ten track album which didn’t please the record company very much. But we just said “F*** YOU”, we just played what we felt was good. ’The Affectionate Punch’ has a lot of keyboards on it and we wanted to go out as just guitar / bass / drums / vocals. We played ‘Gloomy Sunday’ as well, which didn’t surface on record until 1982, so it was a bit of a mish-mash.
How did you get back into using synths again?
When you’re out there playing live to 600-700 people, it’s really fun to have a post-punk aesthetic but when you start recording again, it’s a luxury and you’ve got to have this sound. So we had five keyboards all lined-up ready to go, five different guitars and five different amps. We would work at breakneck speed, not because there was a time pressure, but because we had so many ideas coming into our heads at the same time. We wanted sumptuousness and for it to be dripping with silk and satin, we didn’t want cotton! *laughs*
Which keyboards where you using?
Digital-wise, we used the Synclavier. These geeky guys used deliver this thing which we hired by the day and it had floppy discs. It was fairly primitive, but it worked. Apart from that, we used Oberheims, Solinas, Yamaha CS80s, that sort of thing… there was another one starting with a ‘P’ but I can’t remember what it was! *laughs*
We liked to try and do different things; very seldom did we just use a preset sound and not put an effect on it in some way. Sometimes, we would just play a sound and hold down the notes of a chord and changed positions as the chord progression changed, and the sound would open up as the snare drum would hit. So it was like a Wah-Wah effect which was in time with the snare. The snare drum triggered off the sound, so it would open up and immediately shut.
‘White Car In Germany’ was an obvious nod to KRAFTWERK and LA DÜSSELDORF, but I seem to remember Billy saying he was really into THE HUMAN LEAGUE?
Yes, I can remember when we were in Ashley Newton of RSO Records’ BMW and he was playing THE HUMAN LEAGUE when he drove us to the studio. We thought it was great; I wouldn’t call Phil Oakey a vocalist, I would call him a vocaliser and there was brilliant songwriting from Jo Callis who was in THE REZILLOS. He wrote ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ so yeah, it was just the sheer pop of it. To us, it was really no difference between that and ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA, that’s bloody genius!
You and Billy popped down to The Blitz Club occasionally and you documented your experiences on ‘Club Country’…
We were definitely there fairly early on when it was in Great Queen Street. Yes, it was a bit exotic and yes, it was a bit pretentious but it was a young animal finding its feet; sometimes it did feel a little bit elitist and I think that was the nature of the beast, it was what it was.
I don’t think we really fitted in; I think SPANDAU BALLET fitted in there but I think we fell between two points. We were not New Romantics, we were not post-punk… were we new wave? I don’t know! The closest I can think of, if there was a category called Barking Mad, that’s where we would lie! *laughs*
What was the approach to recording Billy? Do you remember any particular quirks you can remember?
Recording Bill was such a luxury. After I went on to produce other people, I thought everyone was like that, I thought they all got it in one or two takes!
God, how wrong I was! I found myself thinking “this is sh*t” and they’re on like their 40th take in the studio and it’s still not right!
So you’re having to make up composites of five different takes!
On ‘White Car In Germany’ and ‘Kitchen Person’, Bill did sing through greaseproof paper and a comb. And into the bargain, on ‘Kitchen Person’ he was singing down the hose of a vacuum cleaner before it got to the mic.
‘Party Fears Two’ hit the top 10 in early 1982. The instrumental version included on CD2 of ‘Sulk’ brought a tear to my eye for a number of reasons. It revealed a lot of layers and each instrument has its own voice, but ultimately, Billy is missing…
You’re exactly right there; it’s like a great big hole. Yes, the instrumental sounds good and you can hear things more clearly in a more defined way. But yes, the lyrics, the vocal expression and the colour of the human voice, Bill had it all.
Looking back, you weren’t ones for following the usual script. With the subsequent success of ‘Sulk’, it set you on the path that led to implosion of the band.
We recorded ‘The Affectionate Punch’ in the Spring of 1980 but promptly ditched most of the album and did new songs, some of which would appear on later albums and played in Scotland. I’ve looked up our gigography and we were up there for about two and a half months, playing maybe thirteen or fourteen gigs. So there was no tour laid out in front of us, it was more “oh, have we got a gig this week?”
Then we moved down to London and it was slightly more structured there. We’d play a month of Sundays at The Marquee etc but still, not like a world tour. But having your life mapped out for the next fifteen months, where you’re going to be, who’s going to meet you, how many radio stations you’re doing, how many press interviews you’re doing, that to Bill was just an anathema… that would freak anyone out, but it freaked Bill out because he was being boxed in. All we really wanted to do was be creative. Or if he was going to do a concert or two or three, that would be enough… ten days into the future was enough for Bill to take.
’18 Carat Love Affair’ is often considered the anomaly in the ASSOCIATES’ cannon and has been described as “quasi Neil Sedaka”… how do you look back on it? In retrospect, it was quite subversive to have a perfect pop song about a secret gay relationship in the charts in 1982.
Yeah, that’s another one. With ‘Party Fears Two’, the piano motif was written by us in 1977… we stared at each other hungover one Sunday morning and said “this is good but we can’t use this right now”. And indeed, we didn’t until five years later, the market just wasn’t there for it.
Similarly with ’18 Carat Love Affair’, to me it’s like 60s pop song, the melody, the feel of it. I like the fact it’s got an agony aunt in the lyrics, Evelyn Home who was in ‘Woman’ magazine and it was about a secret gay affair.
Is there anything you could have done differently in retrospect to keep the partnership together with Billy?
I really don’t think so, because Bill needed to stretch his legs creatively and work with other people… I get that now.
At the time, yes I was mad as hell and all the rest of it, but that’s what he needed to do.
He needed to work with YELLO and write the lyrics and melody to ‘The Rhythm Divine’; he needed to not be with me. I don’t think there was anything we could have done about that.
You continued to record with other artists like PAUL HAIG and WINSTON TONG. Would the recordings you did with them be an indicator of how ASSOCIATES might have sounded if you’d continued to work with Billy?
They’re different in that Paul’s a great vocalist, but he’s not Billy; he’s not got a four octave range and Paul really can’t sing unless it’s through microphones, he needs his voice to be electrified for him to feel comfortable.
Winston? Not the greatest singer! You had a forty-five minute window to try and get a performance out of him before he fell over, he was taking a little too much heroin although I’m glad to say he’s clean now. But he was having a real bad time when he was recording the ‘Theoretically Chinese’ album with me.
Again, with Paul and Winston and with whoever else, everything was done very quickly and it was always a great laugh and good fun.
After several solo records on Les Disques du Crépuscule and Virgin, you got back together with Billy in 1993 but he didn’t follow it through with the pressure for live shows. Was there no-one willing to take ASSOCIATES on as a studio-only band?
No, all the record companies were interested, but they were saying “PROVE IT!”… that was like a red rag to a bull for Bill, he just said “I’m not f***ing proving myself to anyone! Get real!”
Would the environment of today with self-releasing been better for him?
It probably would have suited Bill right down to the ground.
Are you surprised by people’s continual fascination with the band?
I think there’s a great deal of good will with regards the memory of ASSOCIATES and the memory of Bill, plus a certain amount of frustration because a lot of people that heard us in ‘81 and ‘82 hadn’t seen us play live in 1980-81, so you never know… *laughs*
What are your personal favourites from these releases?
On ‘The Very Best Of ASSOCIATES’, it’s got to be ‘International Loner’ and ‘Edge Of The World’. These were both done in the 1993 sessions; I see and hear them as a much more mature sound. I suppose ‘Skipping’ is probably my all-time favourite, although really, it’s ‘Party Fears Two’ because it gets played a lot.
But also, if you go back to the cover versions, ‘Long Hangover’ because I can remember being in Moulin Rouge Studios and Bill did that in two takes. There’s something about doing a cover version because you’re not in any way insular or self-conscious. Just watching and listening to Bill in full flight without a care in the world, there’s something very special about that.
What does the future hold for yourself?
I’ve done everything from perfume adverts to wet your panties teen pop. I just write and write whatever comes into my mind.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Alan Rankine
Additional thanks to Stuart Kirkham at Hall Or Nothing Independent Publicity
The timely release of ‘The Very Best of ASSOCIATES’ featuring their hits ‘Party Fears Two’, ‘Club Country’ and ’18 Carat Love Affair’ creates an opportunity for the work of Billy MacKenzie and Alan Rankine to be re-evaluated and re-discovered.
With a partnership covering a period of just three albums, this anthology is only a part of the story.
Thus, the new 2CD slipcased deluxe editions of the MacKenzie / Rankine era ASSOCIATES albums ‘The Affectionate Punch’, ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ and ‘Sulk’, supervised by bassist and silent partner Michael Dempsey, delve even further with a treasure trove of previously unreleased tracks, accompanied by 28 page booklets featuring extensive sleeve notes, unseen photos and rare memorabilia.
With Billy MacKenzie’s otherworldly four-and-a-half octave range on top of Alan Rankine’s intricate instrumentation, ASSOCIATES were a majestic and outlandish new pop take on Weimar cabaret in a newly emerging electronic world. But MacKenzie’s eccentricity could make him difficult to work with and led to the pair eventually parting ways in late 1982. MacKenzie continued sporadically with the ASSOCIATES name and as a solo artist, but always a troubled soul, he sadly took his own life in 1997 a year after the death of his mother.
Very much Bowie fans, ASSOCIATES opened their account with a not particularly good cover of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ in 1979, released not long after the original.
MacKenzie was very much into reinterpretation and despite this lacklustre debut, history has shown he could be highly adept at it.
On the second CD of extras, an unreleased take on Barry Ryan’s ‘Eloise’ explores heavier rock templates and points as to where ASSOCIATES could have headed instead of the kaleidoscopic sound they became known for.
Poignantly, ‘The Very Best of ASSOCIATES’ includes a live cover of ‘Gloomy Sunday’, a suicide song composed by Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress in 1933 and said to have cursed every artist who has ever performed it.
ASSOCIATES’ first long player was the guitar dominated ‘The Affectionate Punch’ with its great ‘Low’ pitched title song opener on Fiction Records. But the duo were quickly dissatisfied with it, so they requested to end their deal and reworked a number of tracks for its subsequent 1982 re-release; this reissue campaign reinstates the original 1980 album.
Aspiring to expand their sound with a wider palette, the first musical signs of a fascination with European electronic music came with the funereal pulse of ‘White Car In Germany’.
The swirling electronics were intended to sound as un-American as possible and accurately captured post-war tensions under the spectre of the atomic bomb.
It was part of a singles deal with the Beggars Banquet subsidiary Situation2 which eventually formed ASSOCIATES’ second album ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ in 1981.
Also featuring the almost out-of-tune ‘The Associate’, the quirky instrumental showcased their sense of fun with MacKenzie’s distorted screaming making its presence felt. Meanwhile ‘Q Quarters’ and ‘Tell Me Easter’s On Friday’ were produced by a young Flood, later to work with DEPECHE MODE on ‘Violator’ and ‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’. The resultant press exposure led to a deal with Beggars Banquet’s distributor WEA.
Throughout this period, Rankine and MacKenzine were almost holding themselves back, fighting against the poppier instincts that had come from their love of early ROXY MUSIC, SPARKS and Philadelphia soul. In the interim, they produced yet another cover ‘Kites’ for RSO Records, under the pseudonym of 39 LYON STREET with Christine Beverage on lead vocals. Originally recorded by SIMON DUPREE & THE BIG SOUND, it featured a more post-punk disco template and prepared for ASSOCIATES’ brief entry into the big league alongside fellow Scots SIMPLE MINDS in Spring 1982.
With its iconic jangle piano line, ‘Party Fears Two’ was the first time that many had heard the neo-operatics of Billy MacKenzie. Dealing with the perils of schizophrenia, it also kick started the brief imperial phase when ASSOCIATES subverted the UK charts with an outlandish approach that fitted in with the concurrent New Romantic movement. They felt a slight affinity with The Blitz Club crowd, but noting the scene’s vacuous nature, MacKenzie and Rankine opted to attack it in the magnificent ‘Club Country’.
Produced by Mike Hedges, the parent ‘Sulk’ album, featuring different versions of ‘Party Fears Two’ and ‘Club Country’, was a triumph.
From the frantic instrumental ‘Arrogance Gave Him Up’ to the chromatic overtures of ‘Skipping’ to the evocative drama of ‘No’, the music had the basis for being more accessible, but was still challenging and inventive.
Although MacKenzie’s more bonkers instincts couldn’t be masked on tracks like ‘Nude Spoons’ and ‘Bap De La Bap’, the brilliant ‘It’s Better This Way’ was art and pop in perfect unison.
ASSOCIATES’ imperial phase closed in the summer of 1982 with ’18 Carat Love Affair’; it was their most commercial offering and described by MacKenzie as their “quasi-Neil Sedaka” song. While the narrative was subversive in the extreme, being about a gay affair that MacKenzie was trying to hide, Rankine was uncomfortable with its overt poppiness. So unhappy was Rankine, that the song was instrumentalised to become the ‘Sulk’ album closer ‘nothinginsomethingparticular’.
Whatever, ’18 Carat Love Affair’ possessed one of the greatest synthesizer riffs ever. Released as single, after it charted, it was eventually flipped for the B-side, a joyous art funk cover of disco-era Motown standard ‘Love Hangover’ which Rankine was more satisfied with.
Sales of ‘Sulk’ meant a demand for touring and a nine-piece live band featuring notable musicians such as Martha Ladly and Stephen Emmer was assembled by Rankine for a world tour. But in the cocaine frenzy that was now seriously affecting the partnership, MacKenzie pulled out of the tour, disillusioned by the expectations of success.
The duo reconvened in 1993, demoing six songs including ‘Stephen, You’re Really Something’, MacKenzie’s response to THE SMITHS ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’. But any label interest came with the pre-requisite of live shows; for MacKenzie, that was unacceptable and sadly that was that.
ASSOCIATES’ strength and weakness was their refusal to play the record industry game, but it led to both triumph and tragedy. In that respect, the most tearful moment in this series of deluxe reissues is the previously unissued instrumental of ‘Party Fears Two’ found on CD2 of ‘Sulk’… while the marvellous subtle layers of Rankine’s arrangement are now more revealed, what ultimately is missing is the voice of Billy MacKenzie 🙁
Dedicated to the memory of Billy MacKenzie 1957-1997
With thanks to Stuart Kirkham at Hall Or Nothing Independent Publicity