sun 21/04/2024

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Associates | reviews, news & interviews

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Associates

Reissue CDs Weekly: The Associates

Essential new editions celebrate Billy MacKenzie and Alan Rankine’s unique collaboration

Billy MacKenzie, the voice of The Associates: elastic, swooping and ascendingSheila Rock

Any appreciation of Scotland’s The Associates is coloured by the knowledge that Billy MacKenzie took his own life at age 39 in January 1997. More than his band’s voice, he personified their unique approach to music. Between 1979 and 1982, with collaborator Alan Rankine, he created a string of vital records which defy genre pigeonholing and define their vehicle The Associates as one of Britain’s most wilful pop acts.

Rankine split from MacKenzie in 1982 at the point when they had broken into the charts. MacKenzie, despite continuing to record as The Associates, solo and in collaboration, never regained momentum. His death was a tragic full stop which no one could have predicted.

The original MacKenzie/Rankine Associates recorded two albums proper: The Affectionate Punch (1980) and Sulk (1982). The compilation Fourth Drawer Down (1981) was issued between the two. Each has just been reissued. With respect to their name, they are called The Associates here, but were also known as Associates.

The Associates The Affectionate PunchThis is not a catalogue which has been repeatedly strip-mined and there has only been one previous single-disc CD reissue of each of the albums which featured bonus tracks. Each new edition is a double with the original album heard in its entirety on disc one, and all the bonuses collected on a second disc so as not the compromise the integrity of what is being supplemented. Most of the bonuses are B-sides, 12-inch versions and alternate takes. Overall, there are six unreleased tracks (it’s hard to imagine anyone buying just one of these: any fan would buy all three). Frustratingly, a separate double set, The Very Best of, includes more previously unheard tracks and a 1993 reunion of MacKenzie and Rankin, despite much of the set’s content also being heard on the individual album reissues. As a way of luring buyers, these exclusives seem a rather misguided piece of marketing.

Quibble aside, these are nice packages, with brisk liner notes treading the fine line between balancing a fondness for The Associates and the journalistic need to tell the story. All the releases are approved by Rankine, and band member Michael Dempsey has had hands-on input. The new remasters are attentive to the music itself and reveal more angles than ever: first pressings of Sulk sounded mushy, perhaps a result of compression being added during mastering to emphasis a sonic gloss. The new rendering is strikingly clear and immediate, and as such does not rewrite the band’s aural history.

The Associates Fourth Drawer DownKnowing the story is unnecessary. The music itself is enough. Heard now, their chart peak “Party Fears Two” is still arresting. Vocally, MacKenzie sounds like the unfettered cousin of a-ha’s Morten Harket, with his even more elastic voice swooping and ascending across one word of a line. A voice with no comfort zone. Where “Party Fears Two” was passionate, album tracks “Nude Spoons” (Sulk) and “Paper House” (The Affectionate Punch) were claustrophbically intense. The Associates were defined by jitteriness.

MacKenzie and Rankine’s inspiration was no secret. Their first single (included on The Affectionate Punch package) was a version of David Bowie’s then-recent “Boys Keep Swinging”. In effect, the duo married Lodger-era and “Wild is the Wind” Bowie, inserted a punk-like urgency and then ran with it. By proxy, the Bowie influence brought Scott Walker on board too, as well as nods to glam-era oddballs like Jobriath and Sparks. Rankine provided settings which were often as equally in extremis: The Affectionate Punch’s “Would I…Bounce Back” is the musical equivalent of a panic attack. Pop pickers picking up Sulk after “Party Fears Two” had hit the charts must have wondered what the hell they had brought into their homes.

The Associates SulkWhile The Affectionate Punch was instrumentally sparse, Sulk was lush and drew inspiration from John Barry and Ennio Morricone. Fourth Drawer Down charts the evolution from one phase to the other. But where these reissues really demonstrate how fast The Associates were moving and that the right choices were made in this prolific period is a duo of previously unreleased tracks produced by John Leckie on the Sulk package (their usual producer was Mike Hedges). The sound here is distant with an ill-fitting rock edge akin to the Echo & the Bunnymen of “A Promise”. As they hurtled forward, The Associates needed their music to breath.

Needless to say, the reissues of The Affectionate Punch, Fourth Drawer Down and Sulk are essential and are probably the last word on these albums. If The Very Best of can be found at a decent price it is worth having, although forking out may smart a little. Vinyl pressings of the three albums are also released, but in the light of the diligent CD editions these seem more about addressing today’s commercial needs than adding to the story of The Associates. Go for the CD versions of each album.

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