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