Part 3: Obsession MAGNIFICENT…
With my perceptions permanently altered by my encounter with Associates, I really started purchasing vinyl records once again after pretty much a five year layoff. By the early 90s, it was apparent that whole swaths of material was going to not make the “leap to digital,” and would get swept under the carpet of culture otherwise if I didn’t look out for them. Simultaneously, I was also aware that the ability to record a CD was coming soon. And I was planning on not missing that boat.
So with my gaze fixed in the rear-view mirror, I was now looking for new musical kicks that were 8-10 years old. I began buying 12″ singles I had missed earlier for making my long-planned BSOGs [Boxed Sets Of God] with all manner of a band’s rarities collected and compiled by my own hand if the industry was not doing it otherwise. This was the mindset I was operating under after buying “Popera.” and number one on my collecting list was the entire decade of Associates records I’d missed.
Actually, I’d also bought the brand new Associates CD, “Wild + Lonely,” which was also in the used bins as a promo at Park Ave. CD at the same time as “Popera,” but the tepid disc was like an impossibly bland Pet Shop Boys album [albeit with better singing]. It was not compelling to me but “Popera” was so deep into my pleasure zone that I simple ignored the contrary evidence on “Wild + Lonely.”
The next CD I got was from the Sound City 2000 catalogs I ordered a lot of my late 80s/early 90s CDs from. I was thrilled to see that a CD of the highly regarded “Sulk” was in print at the time. It was the severely altered US/GER edition with remixes and song substitutions galore…but it was better than nothing! It represented six songs that were not on “Popera,” and in different mixes [there would be a lot of this tomfoolery] as well. The deathless grandeur and high drama of “No” was the clear stunner here, as was the John Barry frolic that was “Skipping.” But hard core fans can see that the two best songs on the album [“Bap De La Bap” and “Nude Spoons”] had been excised undoubtedly due to their uncompromising strangeness.
The only other Associates CD in print at that time was the Peel Sessions EP, so I ordered one of these from the catalogs too. Hearing songs I already had hipped me to the fact that Billy MacKenzie was not interested in singing a song the same way twice. “It’s Better This Way” was performed very different from the recording on my CD of “Sulk.” With those CDs now in the Record Cell, I think I had every Associates CD available at the time. The growth area was going to be most definitely in vinyl for me. But as usual, the Orlando record bins were starved for Associates records. I would have to travel further afield.
In 1992 I did just that. At the time I was trading videos with a friend in Pittsburgh and we conspired to take a trip through Eastern Canada that summer. I flew into Montreal and she met me there as we drove through Ottawa and to Toronto. It was my first time in Canada and was that ever a fun trip! Alas, I was only buying CDs in Canada at the time. My heart sinks in retrospect at what delights that Sam The Record Man on Yonge Street might have had on record only in their full pomp! The Canada trip was amazing. I realized that I really loved that city and even got to meet a Jane Siberry collector friend who I’d swapped with through Goldmine ads. The back end was spending some time in Pittsburgh with my friend and in that city I was definitely buying more than CDs. Traveling with a fellow record store junkie was a very easy thing to do and she took me to several great stores in Pittsburgh, but none were more amazing that one called “The Collector’s 12 Inch.” Here’s what I got in one place.
It makes me swoon just recalling it and that was 30 years ago. But that was by far from the only Billy MacKenzie excitement that year! Shortly after my summer vacation I got a new CD catalog and the first Billy MacKenzie solo album, “Outernational,” was coming and I pre-ordered a copy of it along with the CD single for “Colours Will Come.”
The “Outernational” album was head and shoulders more exciting than “Wild + Lonely” had been. The music was far more inspirational as it has been made with musical contributions from the likes of Boris Blank and three members of Palais Schaumburg: Thomas Fehlmann, Ralf Hertwig, and Moritz Von Oswald. With Fehlmann also being part of Ambient House monsters The Orb.
This album shocked me in 1992 because it was largely a Deep Eurohouse album that was actually incredible sounding. The downtempo title track was cinematic with a full storyline conveyed by the sound design and ambient sound of a city at night sounding more like a film than a song. The deep groove of “Feels Like The Richtergroove” lived up to its name as the pulsating machine rhythms were utterly relentless.
But the apex of the album was its third track. “Opal Krusch” was an immense, widescreen soundscape, with swelling synths trilling like birdsong over the stomping beats. Mr. MacKenzie’s vocal entry to the song was a call and response of a tentative, feminine “Hello?” answered with a decisive, and masculine “Hello!” It’s always a spine tingling moment to hear that song take off into the stratosphere and thirty years of listening haven’t dimmed its allure one iota.
After a Eurohouse front end, the back end of the album was a series of four tracks in a row as produced [and with the song “Baby,” also co-written] by Boris Blank of Yello. I’d imagine that “Baby” might have been earmarked as the title track to the Yello album but instead it found its way here. These songs were all sumptuous, widescreen ballads of the highest caliber, but the climactic “In Windows All” pulled out all of the stops courtesy of MacKenzie’s heart wrenching vocal performance.
With songs like that, Billy proved he didn’t need partners to co-write with to achieve greatness. Shortly afterward, in the early days of the internet I came upon a cut price wholesaler who solf half price Cds and when I rattled through their stock I founf gold. A 1995 Associates CD of “Radio 1 Sessions” with far more than the five Peel Sessions I previously had on CD. This disc was packed with 16 tracks and made a big impact at the time. It was only the third Associates full length CD available.
It sported some radically different takes of familiar songs. “Love Hangover” was in a completely different intro arrangement with backing vocalist Martha Ladly trading off vocals with Billy as the song meandered its way to what eventually became the song we all know. “Waiting For The Love Boat” was in a recording with Alan Rankine before the schism and it sported a completely different music bed to what we eventually heard on “Perhaps,” logically. best of all were the songs that were never recorded in any other capacity except radio sessions like “give,” or “Obsession Magnificent” and the electric “A Severe Bout Of Career Insecurity” that came from the “Sulk” era and wore that eccentricity proudly on its sleeves.
I kept my search up but the next big influx happened during our honeymoon four years later, when spending it in New Orleans. We happened upon a store called Underground Sounds on Magazine Street, and it was packed with vinyl goodness. Another significant cache of Associates records awaited me there and also more foreign Roxy Music 7″ singles than I have ever seen anywhere! I bought a lot and mail ordered more items upon returning home that I had second thoughts about.
In 1996 I was not yet buying records online as the mechanism were not quite there yet. This might have been pre-ebay, even. But in 1996, it was now four years on from the last MacKenzie album, “Outernational.” That was a long silence since it had only been two years between “Wild + Lonely” and that one. I didn’t know it at the time but I did the right thing by immediately ordering the “Outernational” CD as Billy’s label Circa had only pressed up 500 at a time when that was probably as small a run of CDs as was possible.
My collecting has come along but info was still difficult to come by in the early days of the web. I’m wondering if I was a member of The Affectionate Bunch, the online Associates mailing list yet. It may have been the case, since I can’t think of anywhere else where I might have gotten the terrible news that January day in 1997.
Next: …Aprés Billy