Last week, the 40th Anniversary boxed set for Associates sumptuously heady “Sulk” arrived in my mail box and I’ve not yet been able to get past disc one, but we aim to dive deep into this classic right now, in something approaching real-time, with regard to it and the three discs of supplemental materials. For an album predicated on the suspicion that neither madness nor luxury must be moderated, “Sulk” effectively managed both traits with vibrant aplomb. Creating their one moment of luxuriant insanity that was briefly in synch with the burgeoning New Pop movement in the British charts. To the tune of three British hit singles that lodged themselves in the top 10, 20, and 30 that year.
Associates: Sulk [2022 remaster] – UK – 3x CD 
- Arrogance Gave Him Up
- Bap De La Bap
- Gloomy Sunday
- Nude Spoons
- It’s Better This Way
- Party Fears Two
- Club Country
The crisp, punchy drumming of John Dempsey, replete with showy fills that seemed to travel both forward and backward within the song were its driving emphasis to thunder onward at every opportunity nonetheless. The washes of synth below the drama giving the song melodic lift but they left sufficient space for the slashes of synth strings that score the surface of the music like a rapier carving an “A” in the air instead of Zorro’s “Z.”
Dempsey’s surgical interjections of hi-hat adding fillips of tension to be countered with the release that his fills provided. It sounded like a breathless, headlong rush into the unknown, which was an appropriate way to begin this album of bold experimentation colliding headlong with effervescent Pop. With the showbiz side of the equation winning out in this first round, though the unexpected cold ending where first the synths and then the drums simply stopped telegraphed the sense that anything could happen here
Roaring jets of phased sound echoed down impossibly long, cinematic corridors as metallic bands of steel rattled and clattered in the sweeping whorls of sound. The interlude continued for 43 seconds. Affording the listener a chance to bask in its otherworldly glow for much longer than expected. It seemed in essence the musical equivalent of the famous first sentence of Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.”
A postmodern novel that was impenetrable to my 23 year old self but it was perfectly attuned to a Post-Punk band making postmodern music that laughed at quaint notions of linearity as it aimed to congeal its aims towards a synesthetic gestalt that took energy and vibe from Rock but equally, if not moreso, from less commercial or even less contemporary forms of music.
Then from the trailing edge of this otherworldly sound came the hissing of a hi-hat and a steady drumbeat as “No” finally began to spin its claustrophobic web of sound and mood. Anxious string synths vied with a fussy but decadent piano; pregnant with all of the melodrama of Old Europe. Foghorn synth bass played the dread card heavily with a descending two note hook that barbed its way into our flesh.
Meanwhile, the masterful voice of Billy MacKenzie was enveloped in a cocoon of echo and time dilation that presaged the melodrama being crafted with an unsettling end. The segue into the middle eight where MacKenzie repeated the title, “no, no, no, nooooooooooooooooo…” and eventually proffered a magisterial expression vocal, repeated for every bar, was spine tingling. The vibe was clearly coming from the same Teutonic corner as the equally cold majesty of “White Car In Germany.” And the breakdown cold ending was an echo of the one on the preceding “Arrogance Gave Him Up.”
Next, the listener was dropped into an elevator rocketing into space, meanwhile during recording, the band had replaced the toms in Murphy’s kit with more snares since according to the liner notes, “we thought toms sounded muddy… they didn’t sound like you were getting hit by a javelin in the solar plexus!” They also thought far outside the box and applied gear like a vocoder to drums! The resulting frankenbeats sounded to this ear as if the song’s drum track had been torn apart and crudely stitched back together with catgut. Resulting in beats that simply didn’t exist like that in 1982. It sounded like what might be possible only on computers maybe a dozen years later. It actually reminds me of the backward drum track to Siouxsie + The Banshee’s “Peek-A-Boo.” Itself an equally chimercial outlier to nowhere from six years later.
Billy entered the song with heraldic expression vocals that contrasted wildly with the curdled synths and the rolling beats. And once he began singing the disturbingly dark lyrics, the palpable sense of unease suggested chaos and peril simultaneously breathing down one’s neck. With great pain, if not death itself, imminent.
The troubling chorus only served to further stoke the sense of danger. The overdriven reverb on Billy’s vocal was almost supernatural as he vaulted from stentorian power to levels of hysteria. As in all of my favorite Associates songs. Dempsey’s bass held steady among the rhythmic chaos, but remarkably, Rankine’s guitar managed to further the serrated sense of threat that the song vibrated with. The sound simply sounded unhinged. By the time the song spiraled inhumanly outward and gradually peeled away, leaving only a fading, benedictive choral patch as the song’s legacy, I am always emotionally drained.
Next: …Euphoric Acid