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Music / The Associates

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Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine take a swim, as seen on the cover of Fourth Drawer Down.

The Associates were a Post-Punk band formed in Dundee, Scotland, by singer Billy Mackenzie and guitarist/arranger Alan Rankine. Their songs marked part of the shift from Post-Punk towards its "phase two", New Pop (which comprised names like ABC and Frankie Goes to Hollywood.

Their debut single was a cover of David Bowie's "Boys Keep Swinging". It attracted a good deal of attention, allegedly including Bowie himself. Two years later, and, after recording their debut album (which had backing vocals by Robert Smith of The Cure), released seven singles, in a quick succession, which was remarkable for that time.

Their entry into the top charts came, however, with the album Sulk, a luxurious album which spawned singles like "Club Country" and "Party Fears Two". Billy Mackenzie's often campy (but dignified) vocals, impressive vocal range, and Rankine's amazing production and guitar playing skills were what always set The Associates apart from the majority of the Post-Punk bands. Martha from Martha & The Muffins also contributed to the album with keyboards and backing vocals, while bass was played by Michael Dempsey of The Cure.

However, Billy's erratic behaviour (which included cruising for hours and missing his passport so he didn't have to perform at certain talk-shows, especially outside the UK), along with drug use and reluctance on his part to tour America led to Alan leaving the group.

They recorded two more albums (one was unreleased by the label, who thought it wasn't commercial enough), but, while the group still had some good songs, they didn't had the same impact and the band ended in 1990, after the release of Wild And Lonely. Two years after, Billy's debut solo album, Outernational, got released. Billy and Alan briefly got together in 1993 to make new material, but constant speculation of a reunion tour caused Billy to get reluctant again and they split for the final time. In the final years of the group, Billy also collaborated with Yello and Shirley Bassey, co-writing the latter two's "The Rhythm Divine" and singing backing vocals on several other Yello songs between 1987 and 1991.

In 1997, Billy committed suicide at the age of 39, a result of his mother's recent death and his struggle with clinical depression. Alan went onto to become a lecturer in music at Stow College in Glasgow, forming the inhouse label Electric Honey which helped launch the careers of bands such as Belle and Sebastian, Snow Patrol, and Biffy Clyro, before passing away at the age of 63 in 2023.

Studio Discography:

  • The Affectionate Punch (1980)
  • Fourth Drawer Down (a compilation of seven singles and b-sides released throughout 1981)
  • Sulk (1982)
  • Perhaps (1985)
  • The Glamour Chase (recorded in 1988, unreleased until 2003)
  • Wild And Lonely (1990)

Tropes associated with the band:

  • Animal Motifs: Billy was knowing for breeding whippets as a hobby, and as such dogs are referenced quite frequently in his lyrics.
  • Answer Song: "Stephen, You're Really Something" was Billy's response to The Smiths' "William, It Was Really Nothing", co-written by Stephen Morrissey.
  • Camp
  • Careful with That Axe: Billy, frequently.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Billy, obviously.
  • Downer Ending: Billy's suicide in 1997 at the too-young age of 39.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: Sort of. According to Alan, they used to do a thing called balloon guitar, where they'd fill a balloon with water until it was the size of a fairly small breast, and then, by holding it with a hand, it would be used on the strings in order to control the feedback coming from the amplifier. They also infamously urinated in an acoustic guitar and filled the drum kit with water and recorded the resulting sound that the instruments made.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Billy and Alan were this till Alan left the group.
  • I Am the Band: Billy after Alan's departure.
  • Lighter and Softer: Perhaps brought in a much poppier, less experimental sound than previous albums.
  • New Sound Album: Sulk.
  • One-Woman Wail: Well, not woman, but Billy was prone to doing this (and sounding like it too!) in his vocals, most notably at the end of "Party Fears Two".
  • Post-Punk: Especially in the first two albums.
  • Secret Relationship: "18 Carat Love Affair" is about a (possibly gay) love affair and the protagonist (Billy) trying to hide that from everyone else. In real life, he kept his affairs (romantic and sexual) with both men and women in private and separately (in terms of time and even in terms of geography).
  • Shout-Out: "White Car In Germany" is this to Kraftwerk and Conny Plank (especially in terms of sound).
  • Synth-Pop: Pretty much everything after their first album counts as this, although Fourth Drawer Down and Sulk are much more experimental than your average synthpop album.
  • Take That!: "Club Country" is considered to be this to the New Romantic scene at the Blitz's.
  • Word Salad Lyrics: And how. It often seems like Billy is trying to say... something but it's very hard to tell what.