It’s the first post of a new year and I had everything all worked out. A review I had been thinking of for months that kept getting bumped for this, that, and the other thing. Then I got word that the great Alan Rankine had just died and just six posts after the last obituary post [Terry Hall] we have another one. And this was a musician who occupied a pivotal role in not just my Record Cell, but also my persona. It was upon my finally hearing the music of Associates in 1990 after the release of their “Popera” compilation, that the axis of my world shifted irrevocably from grimly trudging forward through the diminishing returns of the now to looking back in rapture at the music I had missed a decade [now 40+ years] earlier.
Without a doubt, missing out on the music of Associates while it was happening was one of my largest gaffes. Suffice to say that when I popped that CD into the player at Park Avenue Discs and cued up “White Car In Germany” it was like a drowning man getting a hit of pure oxygen! That was 1990, and the song that transported me to another world was already nine years old by then. Obtaining as many records by Associates was then my focus for the rest of the 90s [and beyond].
Alan Rankine encountered Billy MacKenzie singing with another band in Dundee and thought to himself that he had to get that guy singing in his cabaret band, Caspian. Billy was ready for change and joined up and the duo set out to make their name playing covers in men’s clubs and mapping out their highly ambitious plans for taking elements from disparate non-Rock influences [John Barry, Scott Walker, Bowie at his most outré] and fusing MacKenzie’s unstoppable vocals with the seemingly limitless musical foundations that Mr Rankine brought to the partnership.
The debut single was the cheekiest move ever as the band sought to see what kind of a ruckus they could kick up by recording a cover of Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging” [in a radically jazzy arrangement] while the wax was still warm on Bowie’s 1979 single from “Lodger.” The ploy worked as Bowie’s publisher, Sparta Florida came sniffing around after hearing their original B-side to the guerilla single release. Then the duo were signed up as well, and Chris Parry signed the band to his Post-Punk Fiction label for their first album, “The Affectionate Punch.”
The album was noted by the cognoscenti while not providing a hit, but between Rankine’s vast instrumental capabilities and MacKenzie’s equally vast vocal range, it was thought that it would only be a matter of time before they struck gold. Following the one-off for Fiction, the band signed with Beggar’s Banquet for their next run of five singles that defined the fringes of the shadowy intersection between Pop and the avant garde of 1981; later collected in the compilation “Fourth Drawer Down.” But that was not all they managed to put down on wax that productive year.
Using the limits of their Beggar’s Banquet contract to pursue yet another thread as the “band” 39 Lyon Street, their cover version of “Kites” used their friend Christine Beveridge as the lead vocalist. This sidestepped the contractual clause that forbade the band to sign elsewhere with MacKenzie as vocalist. Releasing the single on RSO records while simultaneously getting signed with the big label WEA for the next, golden phase of Associates career. Which was heralded by the pre-release single for their WEA debut album that the group had written years earlier; sagely saving it for when they could do the most damage with it!
“Party Fears Two” crashed on to the music scene of 1982 in an effulgent burst of melody and semiotics as a shining example of what would be come to be called the “New Pop” where talented bands would apply all of the irony and self-awareness at their disposal towards making a metapop music that was about Pop itself as much as anything else. The band turned heads in a big way when they owned the stage of The Top Of The Pops; Britain’s venerable weekly music show. Making as big of an impact [via their talent and oddness] as their heroes Roxy Music had done a decade earlier.
The band then had a year at the top in their “imperial phase” as a series of three Top 30 singles and the hit album, “Sulk,” took residence in the UK charts. “Sulk” was crammed with inventive music that fused an at times alarming otherness and an almost manic air of desperation cheek-by-jowl with a classic, 1960’s pre-psychedelic adult take on Pop. Then the band did the least expected thing and went back and re-recorded their debut album [again] for Fiction Records with their new synths, resulting in what’s known as “The Affectionate Punch [remix].” A further two singles [“A,” “A Matter of Gender”] were also issued from that project, making for two album campaigns in the space of a year. But things were about to get even busier.
It was at that lofty peak that the band found itself courted by Howie Klein and his Sire Records label in America. Following six years of near-constant labor, their day in the sun had been seriously penciled in. Then, while being schmoozed by Klein and preparing to bring their elaborate “Sulk” songs to the stage for a triumphant [if difficult] tour, Billy MacKenzie decided that he was not going to have any of it. Leading to Rankine splitting with the mercurial MacKenzie.
Rankine kept busy by linking up with MacKenzie’s friend Paul Haig for a productive run on the latter’s “imperial phase” with the superb “The Warp Of Pure Fun” album and singles. Through Haig, he also linked up with the Benelux label Les Disques Du Crépuscule and found them to be an effective berth for his playing and production skills. Working on material with Fiction Factory on CBS, Cocteau Twins for 4AD, various Crépuscule compilations, as well as American singer Anna Domino’s debut and sophomore albums.
Rankine also got the keys to the candy store for a pair of albums which were conclusive only in showing that he needed other minds to bounce off of. While Billy would manage the not inconsiderable task of finding successful collaborators to help fulfill his vision, Rankine only discovered that he was not cut out for being the front man. As the 90s loomed, Rankine moved to academia for a teaching berth at Glasgow’s Stow College. Where he helped bands like Belle + Sebastian get a foothold to conquer the indiepop world.
By the mid-90s, the thought was that with the wounds healed, maybe he and MacKenzie could have another try at renewing the Associates’ name. The infamous Auchterhouse Demos were six songs that showed that that even a dozen years later, the band still could draw sparks with their songwriting, but when Rankine pressed MacKenzie to give his 100% to Associates, he could not sign on to Rankine’s satisfaction. Once more, Rankine and MacKenzie split, with MacKenzie dying by his own hand by 1997.
It was MacKenzie’s death that kicked off the reexamination of just what Associates had managed to achieve as a steady series of reissues on the new silver disc managed to bring all of the wondrous body of work to fresh ears in the last quarter century. First V2, then BMG carried the band’s catalog forward; culminating last year with a 40th anniversary boxed set of “Sulk” that made for a compelling reason to shell out more money than ever for an album that we’ll not hear the likes of ever again.
Let us be thankful that Rankine was able to help steward all of the reissues over the last 25 years and to see the still otherworldly “Sulk” convince new ears all over again. In the absence of MacKenzie, it was he and Michael Dempsey who represented the band. He’s been the figurehead of Associates and now he’s sadly gone at the too-young age of 64. Bust out your copies of “The Affectionate Punch,” Fourth Drawer Down” or “Sulk ” tonight and let the alien psychedelia of that music surround your mind and reassure you that not only is the world stranger than you imagine; sometimes it is stranger than you can imagine. Fortunately, Rankine and MacKenzie have done the hard work for us. All we have to do is press “play.” Condolences to all of his family and friends in what must be a difficult time.