The Associates — Billy Mackenzie (most words and all vocals, eventually everything) and Alan Rankine (most music and all instruments except drums) — once attempted brilliance, but later settled for playing at being clever. The Affectionate Punch boldly tried to stake a claim for some of the no-man’s land between Bowie’s theatrical, tuneful rock and Talking Heads’ semi-abstract, intellectual dance approach, with a slight flavoring of the pair’s native Scottish traditional music. Not fully mature, and sometimes almost burying its own best points, the band seemed a promise of riches to come.
Unfortunately, the Edinburgh-based duo veered off in a more art-conscious — at times willfully obscure — direction, with harsh musical textures often dominating the melodies. Fourth Drawer Down, a compilation of singles, gives the somewhat redeeming impression of determined experimentation that is, however, lessened by the exclusion of certain B-sides in favor of later tracks which reveal Mackenzie’s growing preference for pose over accomplishment.
By Sulk, such talent as comes through seems strained under the weight of Mackenzie’s selfconsciousness. Rankine’s emphasis on keyboards over guitar is symptomatic of the defection away from rock and towards a sort of neo-pop, but the melodies are hindered by tinny sound, arrangements that muddle rather than clarify and vocal excesses that make Bowie’s worst sound tame. The US edition subtracts three cuts, inserting instead a pair from Fourth Drawer Down and two subsequent singles. Net result: Associates (no article) are a shrill, non-synth Human League for emotional infants. The title’s all too accurate — Mackenzie comes across as a callow, shallow poseur. On the eve of its first major British tour, the band splintered.
Putting the article back in the name, Mackenzie completed an album with Martin Rushent that WEA rejected in 1983; some of it emerged two years later on Perhaps. To write it off with a snide “perhaps not” would be a cheap shot, but more than generous. Mackenzie has many associates here, including guitarist Steve Reid — who co-wrote half the songs — but whether any given track was produced by Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware, Martin Rushent or the team of Mackenzie and Dave Allen, it all sounds like Heaven 17 or the Human League — with synths, now — making undanceable dance music with a few ho-hum twists. The lyrics include strange, gratuitous, incomprehensible non sequiturs; the music is at best uninvolving, even if you listen for sheer sound and ignore the pose. At seven minutes, the one all-around good track (“Waiting for the Loveboat”) overstays its welcome by half; the cassette edition needlessly adds instrumental versions of four album cuts.
A surprisingly strong new single, “Take Me to the Girl,” emerged later in the year, and — shortly after it flopped — was re-released on a five-track 10-inch, combined with a remix of “Perhaps” and three live cuts recorded in London that find Mackenzie crooning heartfelt if histrionic versions of songs like “God Bless the Child” and (ulp) “The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot.”
Four years and another rejected LP (The Glamour Chase) later, Mackenzie re-emerged with a non-LP EP and, the following year, a garish Eurodisco album, Wild and Lonely. While the songs reprise the moods and melodies (not to mention the keyboardist) of Perhaps, producer Julian Mendelsohn straps on a similarly dated saccharine straitjacket. (Have these guys been living on Mars?) Still, Mackenzie’s voice occasionally shines through the marzipan, particularly on the atmospheric title cut.
The five-track Peel Sessions EP (from April ’81) contains rougher, rock-oriented versions of ’81-’82 material and would be highly recommended if it actually included “Me, Myself and the Tragic Story” (which is listed) instead of the far inferior “Arrogance Gave Him Up” (which isn’t).
Popera compiles nearly all of the essential material (including a track from The Glamour Chase and a song recorded with Yello) from the Associates’ seemingly deliberate anti-career, resulting in the group’s most satisfying and wildly schizoid release ever. (That nothing from Wild and Lonely appears is no loss.)
Since leaving the band in 1982, Alan Rankine has been living in Brussels, working extensively with Paul Haig and releasing solo albums. She Loves Me Not, the only one of his efforts to be issued outside of Belgium, offers clever dance-pop and impressively sung balladry, a smooth and appealing concoction akin to mid-period Thompson Twins but dolled up with a bit of continental suaveness.