The Associates (1/2)

bks

Heaven loves ya

The clouds part for ya

Nothing stands in your way

When you’re a boy

I

My obsessions flower quickly out of nothing.

On Friday I didn’t know who The Associates were.  Now I have listened to all their music and read a biography of the band’s singer: Billy MacKenzie.

What are your ambitions?

Billy: I suppose I’d like to have pretty smart wrinkles when I’m 40.  To be dead suave and wrinkly.

Smash Hits, 5-18 August 1982

Here are The Associates doing a fantastic cover version of Boys Keep Swinging by Bowie.

I think these are the things people say about The Associates: they wrote some sparkling, off-kilter songs; some people think their album Sulk is a “masterpiece”; they split up too soon; the lead singer, Billy MacKenzie, had a good voice, and he killed himself when he was 39.

Was Billy gay I wonder.  Or perhaps he just didn’t quite fit.  Probably that.

II

The Associates, as Billy MacKenzie and Alan Rankine, released three albums:

  • The Affectionate Punch (1980)
  • Fourth Drawer Down (1981)
  • Sulk (1982)

When Alan left in 1982, Billy carried on with the name The Associates and released some more albums.  Of those Perfect (1985) feels like a close cousin to the first three records but a little enervated.  The cousin who looks like your favourite uncle but without his twinkling eyes and jests that set the table on a roar.

The Affectionate Punch is a terrific album.  So is Sulk, but in quite a different way.  Even Fourth Drawer Down, sort of a filler between their two “proper” albums, manages a few real standouts.  They did clever, odd, and very cool music.

III

My theory for why 1978 to 1984 produced such good pop music has to do with dissent and opportunity.  The backwash of Punk and electronics provided both.  There was a mix of aggressive difference, an anti-corporate nostril-flaring, and an omnivorous approach – for some – to sound: the new technology of the cheap synth, and/or the white privilege plunder of non-Western sounds.

The Associates fitted into the small window of time that post-Punk had.  It makes perfect sense in this open-minded space that a gifted singer with a jazz-cabaret feel and a gifted musician with a roving, twitchy ear would be successful.  They were both of the time and not quite of it.  The “not quite of it” is probably due to Billy MacKenzie.  His biographer describes that Billy-MacKenzie-style perfectly when he recounts hearing their biggest hit – Party Fears Two – “This Billy MacKenzie from Fintry was snaking up and down what sounded like previously uncharted vocal scales… he didn’t even sound like he was even listening to the music.  He might as well had his Walkman on.” [1]

IV

Billy wrote the words and the vocal melody lines.  Alan did the music.  It’s easy to focus on Billy but the music is good.  It’s Alan strumming away on the guitar in the Party Fears Two video but also, I suppose, the one who wrote that distinctive piano line.  Even though it is Michael Dempsey on bass (he was Robert Smith’s friend at school and plays bass on The Cure’s first album), it was Alan playing bass on The Affectionate Punch proving he was a terrific bass player.  But everything leads back to Billy doesn’t it?  And yet, saying that, Billy was never as good as when he was with Alan.  They clicked and made something great together.

I think some people blame Alan for the split, but Billy sounds like a right pain in the arse by 1982.  I can understand why Alan walked and why he might regret it.

V

Billy MacKenzie’s lyrics are in code so the best you can do is try and pick a “feel” for a song.  Party Fears Two has this feel:

The alcohol loves you while turning you blue.

Please don’t start saying that, or I’ll start believing you.

Don’t turn around, I won’t have to look at you.

And you say I dress too well.

My manners are failing me.  I left feeling ugly.

Have I done something wrong?

Were people so distracted by Billy’s voice that they didn’t notice how unhappy and insecure this song is?  How unhappy the singer is at the thought of a party; of thinking about going out and how it will be fun but then turn sour.  How the alcohol that released you from the tedium of life will rise back up out of the gut as bile and insecurity and regret.

On Sulk there is a song called No.  Here are the opening lines of each verse:

Tore my hair out from the roots / Bit my nails down to the quick

Tear a strip from your dress… wrap my arms in it

Shaved and cut myself again… should have let it slip down further

On The Affectionate Punch there is Would I… Bounce Back:

If I threw myself from the ninth floor / Would I levitate back to three? / Well would I? / Would I bounce back?

There’s an underpinning outsider observation to all this and sardonic doubt:

We feel for you deeply concerned
If you need us, We’ll be helpful
Hopefully.

There’s also a consistent nod to the performance of gender.

I don’t know whether
To over or under estimate you…. 
Personal taste is a matter of gender

*

Zed is the black sheep of the alphabet
Zed is the masculine letter
I’ve know Zed’s who’ve only
Taken B’s to bed

VI

Billy seemed to need and reject Dundee.  The biography paints it as a hard place.  Violent.  Narrow.  Also, though, his hometown, with his family, and the place he knew best.  The place where you could be dragged out at parties to sing Tom Jones covers and bottled for looking at someone the wrong way.

And into everyone’s lives: David Bowie.  Alternative masculinity.  Glamour.  Escape.

In Bowie’s video for Boys Keep Swinging he’s both the cool dude in the suit doing a heightened Elvis impression, and in drag three ways as the back up singers.  It’s all a laugh.  It’s all a show.  A wink, a shimmy, and a fist in the face down behind the pub at 2am.


[1] Tom Doyle, The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy MacKenzie (2011)

 

How are stars formed?

6 Haratua

Like so many things in the universe, stars begin very small — mere particles in vast clouds of dust and gas.

In a little bit of silence between chords someone called out “put your phone down”.  The adjective “fucking” was implied.  It was an older male voice.  The next chord hit and the band went on.  Marlon smiled and sang.

Jesus helps at rock concerts.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

I tried to take his advice but, Lord, it was hard.  Some people in the dense crowd that had accumulated to see Marlon seemed insistent on going to buy drinks at the bar at the back of the Hunter Lounge.  Insistent on squeezing through a maze of compacted bodies to get a beer.  And come back.  And get another round.  Some people seemed to be at the concert to drink and talk.

When Julia Deans performed it was hard to hear her over the people at the back.  The people at the back seemed to be having a great time without Julia.   It was like being in a classroom.  If the naughty kids at the back are talking without a care in the world for what is happening at the front then the teacher is likely to lose their shit.  Julia didn’t.  It would have been appropriate if she had.  There was a lot of middle class fuming going on in the middle of the Hunter Lounge and some pointed head turning to look meaningfully into the darkness at the rear.

I’ll admit that when a uni-student aged couple shoved into position in front of me I felt angry.  On the other hand, my dinner out beforehand had been mediocre and every time the anxious wait staff had asked me how the food was I had said “good”.  Complaining, I seem to be conditioned to believe, is very bad manners.  Probably my balding, bespectacled, middle-aged face was annoying for the couple who had shunted me back.  He had a very hairy neck and nice eyelashes.  She had a lot of makeup and her eyebrows were conspicuously neat.  He seemed to be looking for someone in the crowd.  She was on her phone a lot.

I disliked them and myself.  Which is my usual feeling in crowds.

So when some older fella shouted “put your phone down” and Marlon smiled it seemed like there was a vibe in the room that might get bitter.  It makes sense that Marlon attracts a wide age range and that they mightn’t get a long when forced to stand up for hours pressed against each other like commuters on a rush hour train in Tokyo.

At the end of the song Marlon said: “what’s going on over there?” and held a hand up to shade his eyes.

A women called back: “generation gap”.

Marlon, Jesus-like, smiled.  “That’s cool.  Everyone can enjoy the concert in the way that’s good for them.  It’s all good.”

It was then that I thought: “this guy is pretty fucking cool”.  The crowd settled down to do what it had come there to do but had forgotten: participate in Marlon.

The whole of the concert was good.  Let’s just say that.  But I didn’t leave afterwards thinking, “that was good”, I left thinking: “fucking hell”.

Maybe when they performed Carried Away I understood something.  Doing a Barry Gibb song performed by Olivia Newton John was a move that skipped along the line between awkward for-fuck’s-sake-sit-down-dad karaoke and fabulous.  It was fabulous partly because it was so pastiche adjacent.  The song Make Way for Love is Howard Morrison-Prince Tui Teka cabaret.   But Marlon is performing the crap out of these songs, and the band is thundering forward using all its energy to create a huge, spacious sound where the bass and toms hit hard under the ringing slide guitar notes, under the luminous voice of Marlon.

He doesn’t sing Can I Call You? he acts it.  As the show unfolds he stalks more across the front of the stage, a long, all-in-black slip of thing with a pretty, heartthrob head, until the band delivers its final encore Portrait of a Man which does that magic thing of sending shivers through me, up through my spine and into my neck, and makes me think: “this is what a star looks like when it is forming in front of your eyes.”

The band comes to a halt with Marlon perched somewhere near the edge of the stage and the crowd claps before the song jolts alive again and Marlon takes it up another notch.  You can follow the idea of the lyrics – of a man painting a portrait of a man – through all the blues-soul moves in the book, the moves that mean catharsis, and lumber up and up  on the muscular back of a blues bass line.   Marlon is taking us through a great song to a punchline where the song itself is so pulsating that you think the punchline will have to be a let down.

Well.  It isn’t.  At the end I am convinced.  I don’t want music to amuse me.  I want it to take me somewhere away from myself.  At the end of his tortured, beautiful cabaret I am a long, long way from the middle-class, middle-aged irritations that pricked me at the start.  It reminded me of something.  Another one of the ancestors.

Let me tell you about heartache and the loss of god
Wandering, wandering in hopeless night
Out here in the perimeter there are no stars

‘cept one.  Marlon.

He is the man.