Part 1: My STUPID YEARS…
Where does the time go? It feels like he just died last month. I can remember the awful pit in my stomach when I discovered, somehow, on the internet [which in 1997, I only had at work] that he had committed committed suicide 25 years ago to this day. I had pinned a lot of hope on that guy as I had been very late to the game in appreciating his work. And when I finally heard it, it was a pivotal moment for me as I was floundering in the morass of what the 90s were becoming musically.
Given what I know now, I really should have had The Associates as one of my all time core collection artists from 1980 at least. Right up there with OMD, Ultravox, JAPAN, and Simple Minds. But back in high school, money was tight and venues to expose me to new sounds were highly limited in the Central Florida environment where I lived. It was far from a cultural center in the USA. I managed to hear of but crucially, not actually hear The Associates probably as early as 1981. I might see their name in the press but I never heard the band played on the college radio that I was listening to. Exposure to them was limited to music press that I might have seen in passing. I didn’t make a habit of buying UK music papers and magazines on a regular basis; too expensive for one with limited resources at the time. Money was better spent on actual records.
In 1982, my good friend chasinvictoria was living in Atlanta and Miami and would send me one of his legendary tape letters where he included highlights from albums he was buying at the time. Being the guy who introduced me to Heaven 17, he was all over the B.E.F. album that the band had put out in 1982. He bought the 7″ boxed set version and I got to hear the two tracks that Billy MacKenzie had recorded for the project. Covers of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” and my favorite Bowie song, “The Secret Life Of Arabia.” I was exposed to MacKenzie’s operatic vocal style matching Orbison on his classic song, and I was wildly enthusiastic about the levels of hysteria that he imbued “The Secret Life Of Arabia” with! In fact, as of 1982, the B.E.F. cover version became my go-to version of the song. I felt that it had taken Bowie’s best and kicked it up several notches. Not the least with MacKenzie’s incredible vocal.
Later that year, chasinvictoria sent another tape letter and included highlights from the compilation album called “Methods Of Dance Vol. 2.” He was smitten with various tracks and one of the peaks was Billy MacKenzie’s cover of “The Secret Life Of Arabia,” in a dub mix. Now even longer and more impressively cinematic. I’d like to say that I became an Associates fan right there on the spot, after this exposure. But no. That didn’t happen. I reasoned at the time that, sure, sure. This MacKenzie kid really had the pipes but I was sort of mistrustful of talented singers. That was not why I listened to music, and my experience had taught me that anyone who could sing that strongly, was not usually too careful about what they were actually singing. I associated accomplished vocals with a MOR perspective. Mea culpa.
I was gunning for my own copy of “Methods Of Dance Vol. 2” but it took me some years to source one. I can vividly recall the one Associates record that I ever saw in the bins was a US edition of “Sulk” that was perpetually in the used New Wave bins at Retro Records in the ’82-’83 period where I first discovered the lure of used records. But crucially, I never did more than pick it up and look at it. To be honest, if it had a Peter Saville sleeve, I probably would have gone for it. Lots of music I loved sported those and the bracing cover to “Sulk” was too idiosyncratic to play into my visual bias there. Instead the Peter Ashworth photo was vibrant yet obscure. Not giving up any easy answers, though having now heard the album, I can’t imagine a different or more appropriate cover for it!
Another factor influencing my purchasing in the late ’82 window was the emergence of MTV in my cable TV market. I was discovering a lot of music via the medium of music videos and I can vouch that I never saw The Associates on MTV. Ever. To this day, I don’t even know if the band even made them! As far as I know, they rode to success on the basis of Top Of The Pops appearances that have been described as having a David Bowie-like impact in their studied oddness. And TOTP was a non-event in America.
By 1982, there was an even worse lapse in my second chance to trim my sails towards a destination of Associates fandom. Again back to chasinvictoria, he had exposed me to the Dollar single as produced by Trevor Horn on a UK Ronco album we’ve discussed before here at PPM. Smitten, I looked for Dollar records other that on that LP, which I duly purchased, and the only other one I ever found in America was a similar UK compilation of chart songs put out on the Warwick Records imprint, also in 1982, I had never heard of the label but they were a vastly MOR label given to hundreds of albums that your British grandmother might buy at the chemist. This was a singular outlier to nowhere in their releases called “Hit List” with yet more fake computer graphics of dancers. It had artists on it that were alive and less than 55 years of age. I bought this strictly for the Dollar track “Give Me Back My Heart,” and it had the following contents:
Various: Hit List – UK – LP 
- Dollar – Give Me Back My Heart
- Shalamar – I Can Make You Feel Good
- Pluto – Your Honor
- Tygers of Pan Tang – Love Potion No. 9
- Candi Staton – Suspicious Minds
- Buzzz – Sorry My Dear
- Gary Numan – Music For Chameleons
- Rico + The Special A.K.A. – Jungle Music
- Meatloaf – Dead Ringer For Love
- The Associates – Party Fears Two
- Starsound – Stars On Stevie
- Motorhead – Iron Fist
- UB40 – I Won’t Close My Eyes
- Natasha – Iko Iko
- Girlschool – Don’t Call It Love
- Techno Twins – Can’t Help Falling In Love
- Private Lives – Because You’re Young
- ABBA® – Head Over Heels
- Chas ‘n’ Dave – Ain’t No Pleasing You
Like K-Tel or Ronco albums of the type, the tracks were edited down beyond what might have been done for the 7″ A-sides to cram the maximum of them on each side of the disc. I once played “Party Fears Two” since I’d by 1983 read interesting things about the song somewhere and I have to say that the single time I played it, no frissons of delight ensued. Maybe it was the edit, but it did nothing for me. So that’s a tragedy. Fate was conspiring to get the music of The Associates to my deaf ears. And there was one other series of incidents that I’m not proud of.
From 1981 I had been collecting the music of Yello; the eccentric Swiss technopop trio that had slimmed down to a duo by 1985’s “Stella.” Their first single from their 1987 album “One Second” was called “Goldrush” and it featured Billy MacKenzie [him again!] prominently on backing vocals that could not be relegated to anything but the spotlight. Billy’s vocals seriously escalated the drama of the cut and I had no problem with him singing with yet another band I followed, like B.E.F., but even though I was buying records by mail order catalogs at this time, and probably could have finally gotten all of the Associates records that I swear I never saw in the Orlando bins, it never occurred to me. Why, I can only surmise was down to my utterly clueless nature. The universe had been doing its best to beat me over the forehead with the notion that Billy MacKenzie might have been someone I should have been pursuing avidly, and yet I kept failing the test.
Next: …Disc Of Revelations
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I am enjoying your blogs. Just listened to “Sulk” on Spotify. I’ll definitely be looking to add this to my vinyl collection.
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Paul Taylor – Welcome to the comments! I hope you can find something worthwhile amid the typos and mangled syntax where I obviously lost the plot hammering out a post faster than I can think. Be kind. I’ll actually go back and edit these posts in my dotage!
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And in the end, your flirtation only with MacKenzie, is how his career, tragically, progressed. If only Billy had been given the room to breathe, artistically, things may have been turned out very differently.
The first time I heard The Associates was in Metro Records and it was the title track to The Affectionate Punch. I remember there was only 3 copies of the album and the guy at the desk had put it on as a request of another customer. Before the song was a minute in, I went up and asked, where is that album? I left with one of those copies. That debut album has always seemed like the “Fourth Berlin Album” for me – by way of Dundee.
I have to agree on Secret Life Of Arabia as interpreted by B.E.F. and MacKenzie is untouchable. It also shows how much influence Bowie had over the next half decade’s music. MacKenzie and Bowie will always be somehow intertwined for me.
Echorich – Wow! That was a very astute observation! You’re right! How I had trouble “gettting” Billy was perhaps part and parcel of how his career had unfolded. Any other band in 1982 from the UK signed to Sire Records would have had a video at least in graveyard shift on MTV. Had I ever seen a video, I think that would have been all I needed. But it never happened and I just bungled ahead with my life for way too many damn years before The Epiphany.
“If only Billy had been given the room to breathe, artistically”
From reading his biography, I’m afraid, that’s not how things were at all. He has been given so much room – and, crucially, money – it’s unbelievable. He was on WEA – one of the mightiest labels of the 1980s – and during that time he did pretty much anything he wanted, considering the circumstances, with full support of the label. And he squandered every single chance he was given, willingly. Of course there’s an issue of psychic illnesses (ADD etc), and his pointless perfectionism, but also he didn’t seem to be taking his career in music seriously, relishing any chance to distance himself from “the biz” and aggravate his record company. Way to go!
As for his artistic worth, he did several albums after WEA, in the 1990s, on his own terms. They’re for the most part immediately forgettable, with scattered glimpses of anything worthwhile here and there. The truth is, he was all but lost without a good creative partner (like Rankine), following the trends like the musical crowd around him. So his carrier progressed exactly as it was supposed to in light of that.
So you’re saying that in fact what MacKenzie really needed to blossom (apart from better treatments for his damaged psyche) was diverse but high-quality creative partners (like Alan) and perhaps more deadlines and discipline from the record companies?
Hmmm. Perhaps that’s true. Sadly, we’ll never know for sure.
Vlad – Those were interesting hypotheses you advance. You’re right in stating that the willingness of “the industry” to back him was in retrospect, incredible. Such was the seductive power of his vocals. Every executive who heard that voice thought it was money on tap. And their egos convinced them that they alone, could tame this wild, musical force and reap the benefit. They were all wrong.
Billy’s mental state was obviously not capable of playing the game as you state, and I think your assessment that he had the exact career he potentially could have was intriguingly spot on. Where I would differ is in your dismissal of the post-“Sulk” material.” The only album I would also dismiss as “immediately forgettable” was “Wild + Lonely,” which was the singular album project where Billy was for once not pushing back against the record company and was giving them what he felt they wanted. I think the aggravation and pushback was crucial to his art.
And I also think that his collaborators after Rankine like Boris Blank, Steve Aungle, John Vick and the members of Palais Schaumburg brought a lot to the game. After all, the songs of “Wild + Lonely” were credited to only MacKenzie. The one time he didn’t co-write material it was decidedly flat. He needed a structure to push against to scale his artistic heights. I would argue conflict and discomfort was essential to his artistic struggle. And that once again, leads me to your thought that his career was as it should have been. I’d have to agree. I can’t imagine it running any more smoothly for him and still have material that wasn’t “Wild + Lonely” caliber.
Regarding the power of his voice, while it’s a fact, it brings to mind an interview with Heaven 17 I once watched on YouTube. Martyn Ware spoke about their struggles to get radio play during second half of the 1980s and pointed out that distinctive powerful vocals went out of fashion (or, seemingly more accurately, stopped being encouraged by media). It was actually detrimental for a singer to have a unique, instantly recognizable voice, can you imagine that?! Radio strived for homogenous sound and you had to blend into the crowd, not stand out like before. That’s why most of the top singers of early 1980s were either blocked out or blanded out, losing their unique qualities. Shocking but that’s how things went, seemingly. So, sadly, it’s a moot point if his vocal prowess would’ve strengthen his chances or did otherwise.
Discussing MacKenzie we have to remember he was a charmer par excellence when it suited his needs. There are lots of evidence he could wrangle money from WEA for most extravagant things using his ways. That was a major part of him staying with the label while hitless for so long. Most of his peers would be dumped after a flop album, in his case it took years and years of astronomical costs for recording studios etc. That’s the power of a personality! :) In fact I think he needed this framework of a big record company to put his ideas into practice, but at the same time for some reason found it impossible to comply with their wishes. Some of his antics look pretty bloody-minded, actually. Perhaps he wanted to see how far he can go. If only he had a hit or two along the way…
As for his later, post-WEA albums (those were the ones I referred to), well, I gave them a listen but, sadly, found them all lacking. Maybe I should revisit, but distinctly remember asking myself “why am I wasting time on this while I could’ve been listening to some decent music?”. One thing for sure, Billy was a kind of performer who thrived on collaboration, not otherwise. I remember him stating this in some British music paper, comparing himself favourably to Midge Ure, whom he apparently saw as a control freak hell bent on doing everything himself (writing, producing, playing instruments, designing sleeve etc) :)
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Picked up a copy of “Fever” cd single from a local shop. It had “Fever In Shadows” as its extra track. Played it and the weather outside turned from grey to black to match the music. Billy’s covers were superb. I love “Wild And Lonely”. Had I not discovered “Fever” I would never have discovered the album.
Steve – “Fever In The Shadows” was an immense version! Actually, it was a completely different track altogether. Having little to do with the “Fever” track from “Wild + Lonely.” The stentorian, cinematic Trip Hop of the cut was certainly a year or two ahead of its time at the very least. It’s my absolute favorite cut from the “Wild + Lonely” period which was probably the only Billy Mackenzie album I found tepid [though I still own three different releases of it].
I bought Sulk in the early 80’s but found it hard to get past that voice. The Associates have been one of my revisited bands nowadays and I am really enjoying their work. So far, I have been listening to Sulk and Fourth Drawer Down this month and am wondering why I did not “get them” the first time around. Should I venture to The Affectionate Punch next? Any suggestions would be appreciated.
Mel Creighton – So I’m not the only one then? That makes me feel less of a pariah. If you’ve not heard “The Affectionate Punch” then know that the album was made in two different versions/mixes. Which complicates things considerably. The 1980 edition was lean and Post-Punk with a more angular attack featuring scant synths, if any. After the success of “Sulk,” the notion was made to remix/re-record “The Affectionate Punch” with their new gear. It’s more in line with the overripe feel of “Sulk.” And it has all of Rankine’s new synths all over it. Billy re-sang most of the material.
There are Associates adherents who usually come down on the side of the initial album as released and decry the ex-post-facto “tarted up” version of 1982…but I’m not necessarily one of those fans! I bought the 1982 remix LP as it was the first one I saw in 1992 and at he time I had no idea [pre-internet mind you…] that it was ever not the only version of that album. So I heard it first and didn’t hear the original 1980 version until I bought a copy online in the late 90s. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that my ultimate version of the album would cherry pick from each edition to make up its tracklist! The 1982 remix LP was issued on CD immediately following Billy’s death in 1997, later that year, but it’s now the harder version to source, since the 1980 edition has now been issued on CD in 2005 and 2016. The latter having four of the 1982 versions as bonus tracks as perhaps the best compromise. But you should by all means hear it any way you can!
I do still have that singles box set of MoQ&D, and as a lover of both Orbison and Bowie I knew this guy had “it” but was very very much his own artist with his own style. Revisiting “Arabia” on Methods of Dance really spoke to me (and I generally dislike it when people cover Bowie songs!). A clever re-interpretation I can only imagine Bowie himself thought highly of. A few years later I had the main CD releases of the Associates and generally enjoyed them.
Fast forward to 2016, where I got to hear Heaven 17 cover “Party Fears Two” as a tribute to Billy in person (squueeeee!) and I was just blown away by how tasteful, loving, and respectful Glenn Gregory’s vocal followed, but did not even attempt to ape, MacKenzie’s. The arrangement by Martyn was pretty brilliant as well, and that caused me to go back and re-listen to the Associates albums after a long hiatus, which was a very rewarding experience. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to hear Billy sing when he is really in his cups, and one can only wonder where his career would have taken him if he could have lingered on this planet for a while longer.
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chasinvictoria – Well, the ballads he was recording at the time of his death [as released on “Beyond The Sun”] probably could have pointed the way forward. He possessed a Scott Walker [and beyond] vocal range that was well suited to that approach and I daresay that many a label would have [like WEA] thrown money in his direction if he were to sit in that genre for a time and make everyone some money. But Billy was too much of a restless malcontent to do any one thing for too long. as the jarring electronica of “Sour Jewel” or “Three Gypsies In A Restaurant” decisively [and brilliantly] showed!
Speaking of Scott Walker, I would say that on “Fourth Drawer Down” he was decisively channeling the Scott of “Nite Flights” and even prefiguring the abyss-staring of “Tilt” on that album as well! Seasoned with a touch of chaos that Walker probably never allowed.
“The Secret Life Of Arabia” is one of my favorite Bowie songs too. Will hunt down Billy MacKenzie’s cover.
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