Part 2: The EPIPHANY…
As we was in said last post, I had many opportunities to be exposed to both Billy MacKenzie and The Associates and I was curiously deaf to the evidence. Nothing clicked for me. Until that fateful day that I was browsing the bins at Park Ave. CDs. It was 1990. I was in the middle of falling out of love with British pop music and maybe wasn’t even aware of it. The proliferation of House Music in many various forms in the UK charts led to every single by groups I liked having a “House Remix” trumpeted on its cover. No matter how unlikely or ill-conceived the pairing might be.
The Post-Punk music I liked had certainly crested by 1983 and was in fatal ebb by 1988. Digital synthesizers and the domination of the charts by PWL were hacking away at any enjoyment I was getting from British bands. Outside of the “Blonde Movement” [Voice of the Beehive, The Darling Buds, The Primitives, Transvision Vamp] I was not really enjoying much outside of the persistent threads of British Synth Pop still hanging on like Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, and Erasure. And their time in the sun was not long as they would end up having their upcoming singles [that I collected at the time] mixed into overly repetitive, and often downright unmusical “dance” mixes that had almost no connection to the album tracks it was ostensibly derived from, which just annoyed me. In America, which was never my focus as a music fan, little did I know that Grunge was poised to explode in 1991 with what sounded like the direst expressions of hamfisted Hard Rock brought around again twenty years later to vex me all over again. I hated that vibe the first time around!
So I was inspecting the “New Arrival” bins at Park Ave. CDs and saw a [brand new] used promo CD by Associates. Entitled, “Popera: The Singles Collection.” Interesting. I remember reading a lot about the band but I never managed to really hear them. I’d been buying CDs for five years by 1990 and could never recall seeing the band on the silver disc. This would be an ideal starting point. I examined the contents on the back insert. Hmmmm… track 17…”White Car In Germany.” That sounded promising. The good thing about Park Ave. CDs was that they had CD players and phones where buyers could listen to used titles before buying. So I popped the disc in and went straight to the final track to hear “White Car In Germany.”
Leiber Gott Im Himmel!
The curdled, yet cinematic synths of the track howled like feral alley cats over a martial beat that was daringly slow and methodical. The vibe seemed to be like something that could have been from an imagined Bowie album to follow “Low” and “Heroes,” had the Thin White One not gone off on a radical tangent on “Lodger” instead. Then the tense atmosphere was broken by the assured crooning of Billy MacKenzie. Taking the stage set by the music and amplifying it a hundredfold with his lyrics and performance.
“Walk on eggs in Munich…!”
I was spellbound! I snapped up that CD and immediately had a new toy! The sequencing of the disc began with the commercial breakthrough of the 1982 “Sulk” era, and went forward through to 1990’s “Waiting For The Love Boat [Slight Return]” from the “Poperetta EP” it took me ages to track down a copy of. And then the CD version had seven bonus tracks. Adding the version of Yello’s “The Rhythm Divine” where Billy managed to outsing Dame Shirley Bassey, who was vocalist on the hit single version from “One Second.”
Intriguingly, all five singles from “Fourth Drawer Down” closed out the disc at tracks 13-17. So the rawest and most radical material came last. I remain awestruck by the unfettered chaos of
“Kitchen Person,” which is to this day, my favorite Associates track. The music bed dominated with the berserk rhythms courtesy of drum machine loop and an electric typewriter with its “return” key secured down to provide a barrage of relentless mechanical rhythm at a frantic pace! Then the roaring devastation of Alan Rankine’s jet engine guitars seared the very air with their intensity. Between these ends of the music spectrum, the one other melodic feature than jumped out of the mix was the…marimba being played throughout the song! And then MacKenzie capped it all off with an unrestrained vocal at the edge of hysteria until the shock ending of the sustained organ block chord which persisted for a few seconds after the rest of the music bed dropped out.
The other material ran the gamut of smooth, Walker/Bowie pop with those amazing vocals by MacKenzie hitting any targets he was aiming for. His range encompassed what I could only call a male diva range. He could give his vocal any potential gender shadings he wanted to. I was hearing femme Jazz vocal phrasing influence in the mix. There was a lot of Nina Simone in some of his vocals.
The elegant piano ballad “Breakfast” in fact could have been a Nina Simone cut! With its elegant string and piano orchestration it followed a timeless blueprint that allowed Mr. MacKenzie’s vocal assume center stage and really tug at the heartstrings, even with its cryptic and unsettling lyrics that defied easy interpretation.
How many men would dare to tackle a song like Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover,” much less redefine it as Billy did with dazzling aplomb? His vocal glided from stentorian baritone to high falsetto with all points in between. The hit single “Club Country” seemed a backhanded swipe at the New Romantics framed in a tense setting of near-hysteria that thrilled like few singers could.
The lush and cinematic Synthpop version of “Heart Of Glass” was here to jog my already dim memory of having actually encountered the song once in a club a few years earlier. So that’s who it had been! One of the songs here was a cove of Die Zwei’s “Country Boy” with Die Zwei producing and providing their distinctive close harmony vocals ala the famous Comedian Harmonists. The liner notes revealed that is was an unreleased single from the unreleased album “The Glamour Chase.” Right from the start I was being given an idea of the intrigue that would dog MacKenzie through his tumultuous career as there was little of it that was straightforward.
While the bulk of the album ran the gamut of slickly produced Art Pop and dance tracks, those final five songs of dark, foreboding, and even nerve shredding Art Rock really gave me an idea of the stylistic breadth that Associates were capable of covering. This seemed to be a band that delivered anything that I might care deeply to hear!
The fall out of this 1990 revelation was the inescapable conclusion that I had really missed out on an incredible band that should have been one of my core collection groups for a full decade. Looking around in 1990, I was hardly seeing the heights of music that the Post-Punk era had copiously provided! Truthfully, that ship had sailed by1985 and these were musically lean, hard times. This delivered to me the stunning revelation that if I had managed to utterly miss the glory and grandeur of Associates, maybe there were other bands that I had also managed to miss from back in the day that would deliver far more thrills than the contemporary music that was not sating my tastes?
Following my acquisition of the aptly named “Popera,” I began to focus on my musical rear-view mirror going “forward.” I became more interested in unheard older music than in contemporary efforts. I’d spent twenty years devouring the latest Pop music from childhood to the age of 27, but I would be getting off of the Pop merry-go-round to do some deep diving into the many bands whose names I might recognize from other references, but with little else that I could claim knowledge of. And I had the truly stunning epiphany of [finally] hearing Associates to thank for this change of focus. But the first thing I needed to do was to get more Associates music into my Record Cell…and quickly!
Next: …Obsession Magnificent
Popera is a stunning collection of songs which shows the huge diversity to be found in their work.
Like yourself,my first time hearing White Car in Germany was a transcendental experience. To this day I cannot make out most the lyrics of Kitchen Person on the original-which does not spoil the enjoyment one bit-but my good friends Noi Kabat very kindly did a cover version some years ago and cleared up a few mysteries.
One of my biggest regrets in life is standing next to Billy at a small gig in a pub in Kings Cross,London in the mid 90s and not speaking to him through uncharacteristic shyness.
Gavin – Yes, the compiling of “Popera” was an admittedly fantastic calling card for Associates. Actually, I never even tried to parse “Kitchen Peeson’s” lyrics! It never occurred to me; so powerful was its gestalt. So you were in the presence of the man and thought the better of it? I can’t say I would not have done the same, though I never find myself in the presence of musicians very often. Once we reverse photobombed T-Bone Burnett in a tapas restaurant! He was recording in town and had just been onstage with Elvis Costello in a [fantastic] concert the night before. That’s about as far as I can go in that direction.
You put into words my exact feelings about the “new developments” in music during late 1980s – early 1990s. Put me off 90% of the “modern music” for life, I guess. Not least because so much has been done during the 1970s and 1980s that it’s hard to listen to all of it, there’s (annoyingly at times) always more! But of course the new sounds and rhythms were so unappealing it is still hard to believe people voluntarily listened to and spent their money on it all! And yet so many of my friends have fond memories of it it’s dumbfounding…
“Popera” was my first full taste of the Associates, too. Aside from some hits (and of course the mesmerizing “Breakfast”!) it was a miss for me – but again, like with you, “White car in Germany” kept me hooked. Possibly only because of that song I kept persisting with the band. It really is exceptional, even in the context of its time.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Vlad – Here’s a formula [and its corollary] I’ll propose that might explain your conundrum:
[New sounds and rhythms of the 90] + [Ecstasy] = Fond memories of the 90s.
Conversely, [Ecstasy] – [New sounds + rhythms of the 90s] = Fond Memories.