I was a latecomer to the magic of Dundee’s Associates. A real latecomer. I would read about them in UK music mags of the time (‘81 onward) and even worse, see them referenced in the liner notes for records written by Mr. Paul Morley. That alone, in retrospect, should have sealed the deal, and yet I never actually heard this vaunted group in their heyday! The only record of theirs I ever remember even seeing was a US promo LP of their 1982 LP, “Sulk,” in the used “new wave bins” of Orlando’s Retro Records that never went anywhere. I should have bought it blind, but back when I had a $7.50/week music budget, buying records without hearing anything from them first was a little more risk than I was willing to take on.
Worse yet, I did have a familiarity with the multi-octave voice of the group’s singer, Billy MacKenzie. I first heard him when he sang two cover versions on B.E.F.’s “Music Of Quality And Distinction, Vol. 1” in 1982. MacKenzie sang with stark drama, two numbers by some favorite singers of mine. He managed to tackle one of my three or four absolute favorite David Bowie songs, “The Secret Life Of Arabia,” from his “Heroes” album. And then he ended the album with a stellar take on Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over,” which had the weird distinction of featuring John Foxx… on acoustic guitar!
On the Bowie track he wipes the Thin White Duke’s floor with his rendition, which thrills with phrasing that reaches the heights of near hysteria via what sounds like completely unfettered power capable of doing anything. The instrumental bed that B.E.F. concocted also managed to best the original. The Linn Drum machine was just out in the wild, and it makes their cover of “Arabia” sound that much more massive. I’m certain that had the technology been there five years earlier, Tony Visconti would have been all over it.
His take of the Orbison classic reveals operatic panache that steps back from the brink of madness evidenced on the earlier Bowie cut. All in all, the listener is presented with two covers of songs already sporting classic vocals that he managed to take to an even higher standard. That alone should have sold me on The Associates, but color me a bit thick.
Worse yet, by the mid eighties, MacKenzie began guesting on the records of the Swiss group, Yello, whom I had as part of my core collection. He first appeared on their “Goldrush” single in 1986 and subsequently, appeared on several more tracks/albums over the years. He had an impressive “male diva” voice, meaning he could out sing women in their traditional range – and often did!
But he was such a capable singer that I basically ignored him outside of the context of Yello. Experience has showed me that anyone who sings that well, usually doesn’t have the artistic chops to make anything I’d want to hear. I’m happier to listen to more idiosyncratic vocalists who may not win talent awards but they can easily hold my attention with their artistic choices. I was thinking that outside of the rubric of Yello records, any Associates records might well be MOR slush. So I managed to ignore The Associates for another four years.
Finally, salvation appeared in 1990 in the space of the used CD bins at Park Ave. CD. I noticed a promo copy of “Popera,” a new Associates best of on US Sire. I picked it up. Looked at the song titles. Hmmm. The final cut was called “White Car In Germany.” I popped the disc in the helpful player for those perusing used CDs, keyed in “17” and was swept away by a Teutonic goose-stepper such as to make David Bowie positively weep with envy. Baleful synthesizers howled like feral cats as the glistening martial beat proceeded to sweep across the panoramic horizon. The dramatic vocals of Billy MacKenzie eventually kicked in after 30 seconds with the following verse:
“Aberdeen’s an old place. Düsseldorf’s a cold place. Cold as spies can be.
Lisp your way through Zürich. Walk on eggs in Münich. Rub salt in its knee.
I’m not one for surgery. Premature senility. White car in Germany.”
Dear. Sweet. God.
I was hearing a song that not only lived up to the title “White Car In Germany,” it effortlessly surpassed my Olympian level of expectation without even breaking into a sweat! After a minute of this I removed the disc and clutched the jewel box in my greedy hands with all of the fervor of a child with a new (and favorite) toy. That was it. It was 1990. I had full collections by all of my old favorite artists and there were precious few new groups that I was getting thrills from. The Associates should have been among my favorite groups from 1980 onward, but my ridiculously belated discovery of their oeuvre came at the right time to offer me a way through the tiresome early 90s music scene, which would remain so for pretty much the duration of that musically barren decade.
I then sought out every Associates recording I could get my hands on. They weren’t easily forthcoming. I recall a trip to Pittsburgh in 1992 yielded a motherlode of sorts at a great store called The Collector’s Twelve Inch. Honestly, if you were me, could there be a conceivably better name for a record store? I don’t think so either. I probably picked up 6-10 releases there at once. Fish in a barrel.
1992 also supplied the first and last release that Billy MacKenzie would release as a real-time fan of his. His “Outernational” CD and concurrent CD singles were special ordered immediately on release and I was struck by how he managed to make a house-music-influenced album that didn’t bore me. By 1992 I was waaaaay past music that was influenced by inordinate MDMA intake, yet cuts like “Opal Krusch” were cinematic and otherworldly; fully the cousins to similar high-water mark work such as the emotive “Skipping” or “No” from The Associates meisterwerk “Sulk.” And yet they remained stomping house tracks. Incredible. It’s a good thing I acted immediately on that CD since by nine years later it was exchanging hands for three figures. Allegedly, his label (Circa Records) pressed up a mere 500 copies.
I had another huge score on my honeymoon in New Orleans in 1996. Underground Sounds on Magazine Street was filled to the brim with Associates records (not to mention Japanese Roxy Music 7” singles)! I bought a lot, and what I didn’t get at the time, I mail ordered after we returned home! The rest of my collection has been picked up in little bits here and there over the twenty years I’ve been a fan. Quite a bit of mail order (and patience) was necessary to get the more obscure items.
In early 1997 I got the horrible news that MacKenzie had committed suicide, so that meant that “Outernational” would be the last time I would hear a real “new album” from him. On the upside. the subsequent ten years have seen a torrent of MacKenzie re-issues of every conceivable stripe. At the time of this death there were 12 of MacKenzie’s releases (55% of these were singles) on CD. Since 1997 that number has increased to 29. Many, featuring material never released in real time, such as the shelved album “The Glamour Chase.” While its true that now some of these reissues are OOP and demanding high prices, at least they’re already in my collection and I don’t have to pay that much for them.
Of course, the ultimate goal of collecting The Associates is to produce a BSOG®. I have been diligent at buying the releases, but the fact that two CD singles are impossibly rare had stayed my hand for the last dozen years. Back in 1988, when MacKenzie was giving WEA fits by the recording and scrapping of whole albums, he was going through much effort to make an album, “The Glamour Chase.” The first single from it was his (definitive to my ears) cover of Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass.” The single went nowhere and a tentative second single was proposed. For that he pushed for his most quixotic single ever.
“Country Boy” was his cover of the German duo Die Zwei’s close harmony song that had been a single of theirs four years prior. MacKenzie enlisted the brothers of Die Zwei (Gerd and Udo Scheuerpflug) to replicate their impossibly tight harmonies and he took the lead vocal over a track that sounds a heck of a lot like the type of song Germany’s famous Comedian Harmonists would have performed 50 years earlier. The single is known to have been released in Germany on 3”CD (WEA YZ329CD) single. It featured a unique version of “Just Can’t Say Goodbye” that wouldn’t surface for another two years as an Associates single in a very different form, and the dub mix of “Heart Of Glass,” which was not included on any of the formats of that single. “Country Boy” stiffed and the “Glamour Chase” album was shelved.
The other single was even more rare. It didn’t get a commercial release at all. It was proposed as the third single from his “Outernational” album, but his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” only saw the light of day as a promo CD single. (Circa YRCDJ 102). It featured the track “Outernational II,” an instrumental mix of the title cut from Billy’s solo album. It’s taken me a very long period of time, but thanks to a blog devoted to Billy MacKenzie, I finally have the three rare cuts on these singles.
When I make a BSOG® I like to have the hottest master on hand for the best quality. While the two releases that mentally stalled this project for years have now been checked off of my list, there are a few other titles that I still need to buy in order to finish.
Associates – Singles 2xCD (WEA 5046-74010-2)
This came out a few years ago and has every A-side that The Associates and Billy MacKenzie released while he as still alive. It has the 7” mix of “Kites” and “Ice Cream Factory” which appear on CD only here.
Associates – A 12” (Fiction FICSX 13)
I’ve owned this for years, but when I was recording every Associates record earlier this simmer, I couldn’t help but notice that this otherwise clean record was badly warped, so the sound is not acceptable. A new copy is needed.
Haig/MacKenzie – Memory Palace CD (remaster) (One Little Indian TPLP 440CD)
I have the OOP version of the “Memory Palace” album that Billy made with his friend Paul (Josef K) Haig while they were unsigned, but One Little Indian re-issued the CD with extra bonus tracks which need to be in the BSOG®.
Associates – Sulk UK LP (WEA ASCL 1)
I only have the two CD versions of this release, and apparently all versions are unique and distinct. “Club Country” as it appears on this album is a unique mix.
Associates – Sulk US LP (Sire 1-23727)
Scuttlebutt has it that yet further unique variations are here, even though I’ve had what’s ostensibly the CD of this since 1991.
Associates – Promo CD5 (V2 VVR5011563P)
This four track CD was issued by V2 to promote their remaster of “Sulk” in 2000. I’ve just discovered that it contains a unique mix of “Party Fears Two” and the only appearance of the 12” version of “Love Hangover” on CD.
All of these are available easily enough. I just need to find the budget to get these over the next few months so that I can finish this project. Keeping in mind that my love for The Associates is such that I would have no problem owning one copy of everything. This is as core as my core collection gets. So I expect to wrap these up in the next few months or so. I’ll post more on this topic as I delve deeper into it. I’ve only scratched the surface at this point.