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The Associates

+ {Billy Mackenzie}

For the early half of the 80s, The ASSOCIATES core duo – melodramatic crooner Billy Mackenzie and multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine – could do no wrong in the eyes and ears of their post-new wave, new romantic devotees. Three greatly-received sets and a series of indie-type singles had catapulted them from also-rans to synth-pop superstars, but there was a conflict of interest within the ranks. With the alternative dance scene always fascinating falsetto focal point Mackenzie, and Rankine bailing out to leave him “wild and lonely”, the mid-80s – and beyond – proved testing times for the “associate”. Bankrupt, depressed and unwilling to see through what might have indeed been better times ahead, Mackenzie took his own life in January 1997, a few months short of his 40th birthday.
Friends from their days in Dundee as the Ascorbic Ones (c. 1976) and Mental Torture, The ASSOCIATES came about in 1979, buoyed by the sound of listening to BOWIE’s `Boys Keep Swinging’; the fact that Mackenzie and Rankine decided on re-treading the song as their first single, only a matter of weeks after BOWIE cracked the Top 10, was ill-conceived and a tad conceited. Switching from Double-Hip Records to Chris Parry’s Fiction (a subsidiary of Polydor and home to The CURE), their glorious debut set THE AFFECTIONATE PUNCH (1980) {*8} was released without much initial fuss, but with the aid of session drummer Nigel Glocker and a certain Robert Smith on backing vox. On closer inspection, recalling the angular rhythms of MAGAZINE and lyrical/vocal surrealism of SCOTT WALKER, the claustrophobic paranoia clicked into gear best on `Paper House’, `Would I… Bounce Back’, `A Matter Of Gender’, `Even Dogs In The Wild’, `Amused As Always’, the title track and the slow-burning, post-Berlin-esque `Transport To Central’; the latter containing the lines “his jawline’s not perfect but that can be altered”.
Australian drummer John Murphy and The CURE’s bassist Michael Dempsey were on the board by their late 1980 tour, while sessions – with or without them – hastened a series of quick-fire 45s for the Beggars Banquet indie-orientated splinter, Situation 2. Mike Hedges and Flood now sharing production duties, they kicked off with the detached and spooky `Tell Me Easter’s On Friday’. A diversion of sorts, and subsequently released as a one-off for R.S.O. Records, The ASSOCIATES’ `A Girl Named Property’ mysteriously found its way on to Mackenzie’s pseudonymously-delivered “39 Lyon Street” re-vamp of SIMON DUPREE & THE BIG SOUND’s `Kites’; the whispery lead vox was down to Christine Beveridge – where is she now?
The brittle `Q Quarters’, the demented `Kitchen Person’, the provocative `Message Oblique Speech’ and the ENO-BOWIE-esque `White Car In Germany’ (and their “associated” flipsides), were all contained within the grooves of the compilation-like round-up set, FOURTH DRAWER DOWN (1981) {*8}.
Having laid down a cover of ROY ORBISON’s `It’s Over’ for HEAVEN 17’s B.E.F. side-line set, “Music Of Quality & Distinction Volume 1”, Mackenzie (and Rankine) struck a deal with the aforementioned Beggars Banquet, who, in turn, were able to compromise on further recordings. From the get-go, ASSOCIATES – as they had dropped the definitive article – smashed into the Top 10 with the stylish, alt-pop-orientated `Party Fears Two’; incidentally, Martha Ladly (of MARTHA & THE MUFFINS) provided backing vocals and keyboards.
`Club Country’ very nearly emulated the feat; Billy’s energetic, passionate and almost operatic-like larynx, gave the ASSOCIATES an inimitable, unclassifiable sound, much talked about on parent Top 10 set, SULK (1982) {*8}. Its lavish arrangements, white funk and stirring vocal histrionics going down well amid the craze for all things “new romantic” (subsequent US copies for Warner Brothers had an alternative track listing/order). The double-A single, `18 Carat Love Affair’ (flipped with DIANA ROSS’s `Love Hangover’), stalled just outside the Top 20.
The album itself included one cover: the Lewis/Seress-authored `Gloomy Sunday’, but it was the aforementioned A-sides that created the stir, alongside the sensual `No’ and the Dempsey-addled `Skipping’.
Rumours surrounding Billy’s imminent solo aspirations (spurred-on by the MacKenzie Sings Orbidoig single, `Ice Cream Factory’), led to rifts within the band, and despite their belated recognition the pair subsequently went their separate ways, the ASSOCIATES losing their commercial momentum in the process.
When Mackenzie assumed the group mantle in ’84 (RANKINE had looked to a solo career), the initial line-up for “comeback” Top 50 single, `Those First Impressions’, embraced newcomers Stephen Reid (guitar) and L. Howard Hughes (keyboards); the addition of Steve Goulding (drums), Ian McIntosh (rhythm guitar) and Roberto Soave (bass), were aboard further minor hits, `Waiting For The Love Boat’ and `Breakfast’, spawned from the pop-infused PERHAPS (1985) {*5} set, a relative low-point which saw a downturn in sales. Ditto subsequent flop single, `Take Me To The Girl’. Swiss duo YELLO had always been fans of the singer, and the pairing collaborated on a hit version of `The Rhythm Divine’, in 1987.
THE GLAMOUR CHASE (1988) {*4} was duly shelved on the group’s return, although many of the tracks – and indeed the full album itself (although posthumously) – surfaced later on 1990’s Circa label-financed WILD AND LONELY {*3} – but to little reaction. Essentially a solo album in all but name, Mackenzie’s BOWIE-to-WALKER-esque stylings and the minor hit re-take of BLONDIE’s `Heart Of Glass’ were posted missing. `Fire And Ice’, `Fever’ and `Where There’s Love’, were the best of a bad bunch, glossed-up and unlike anything from the salad days of The ASSOCIATES some ten years past.
The Associates name laid to rest, a couple of years on saw BILLY MACKENZIE release a solo set, OUTERNATIONAL (1992) {*5}. Trying in vain to create something groovalicious and akin to the rave/dance times fused with crooner/GEORGE MICHAEL-esque nostalgia, saviours were few and far between (STEVIE WONDER’s `Pastime Paradise’ should be avoided), but there were some shining lights in `Baby’ and `Colours Will Come’.
The subsequent five years were quiet as MACKENZIE attended to his beloved greyhounds in his native Dundee. The music world was shocked, when, on the 22nd January 1997, it was announced that Billy had taken his own life in his father’s shed (through an overdose of prescription drugs), reportedly depressed after the death of his mother a little earlier.
Ironically, MACKENZIE had signed to the hip Nude label (home to SUEDE), and had been working on new material at the time of his death. This material was posthumously released as BEYOND THE SUN (1997) {*7}; pundits and public alike mourning the passing of one of music’s uncelebrated geniuses. The album itself was co-penned with Steve Aungle, while one song (`Give Me Time’) was augmented by PAUL HAIG (late of JOSEF K). Both parties would credit their respective names to MACKENZIE’s further posthumous exploits, EUROCENTRIC (2001) {*6} – featuring a version of BOWIE’s `Wild Is The Wind’ – and MEMORY PALACE (1999) {*5}. One can also rake for covers of Mr. Bloe’s `Groovin’ With Mr. Bloe’, The Lemon Pipers’ `Green Tambourine’, Tammi Lynn’s `Gonna Run Away From You’, and a few others.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Jun2013

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