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Back in 1982, a band from Dundee called the Associates broke through to the mainstream. Led by Billy Mackenzie, and ably supported by Alan Rankine, they were a band who looked, quite simply, amazing.
Rankine was handsome, but Mackenzie was something else again. Bjork wrote of Venus as a Boy and Mackenzie was quite possibly the closest I have ever seen to the human embodiment of this.
Bisexual, he was adored by both genders in equal measure and he lived the high life, even when he didn't have a penny to his name. When his contract with WEA records came to an end he was stony broke. He asked the music executives at the London office if they would pay for a cab home for him, which they agreed to, assuming Mackenzie was going somewhere nearby. Mackenzie then hailed a black cab and was taken home to Dundee in style, sending the bill to WEA.
If you have never heard of the Associates, I would urge you to go to You Tube and catch one of their Top of the Pops performances from 1982 so you can see Mackenzie at his physical peak. Even today the band look stylish and cool!
His voice was also something very, very special. He was able to emote like no other singer I can think of and while he may be an acquired taste to people who prefer the Westlifes of this world, there is no denying his exceptional talent.
Born in Dundee in 1957, he never really left the place. He travelled the world but the lure of his hometown never left him and he could often be seen in the city with his whippets, which he famously kept.
"Sulk" was the band's third album and is their masterpiece. It has been hard to get hold of on CD for a while - and the version I am going to review is the CD re-issue I purchased back in 2003 which is on limited availability on CD now but is available for download on iTunes. This reissue contains 17 tracks - which is 7 more than the original 1982 issue and adds the songs from the band's double A side hit single "18 Carat Love Affair/Love Hangover".
The band spent a ridiculous amount of money recording this, their first album on WEA records, and stories abound about their excesses in the studio as they searched for just the right sound.
The album isn't always accessible in parts so far as I am concerned - some of it is very dark and experimental and much of it sounds dated now but its still worth a listen, particularly if you like bands influenced by the 80s New Wave, such as the Killers.
1 "Arrogance Gave Him Up"
This is an instrumental synth pop track which sounds a little dated now. For me it takes me back to nightclubs of the early 1980s when you could wear whatever you liked and no-one cared and most of the music you danced to was synth based.
Atmospheric cacophony starts this song and the introduction doesn't kick in until almost a minute of this, and Mackenzie's vocals don't start until 2 minutes into the song.
The lyrics are bizarre in places and Mackenzie's voice isn't always perfect but Rankine's riff keeps the song on track. The vocals are almost operatic in places, something that isn't unusual for Mackenzie it has to be said. For all the flaws, it works.
3 "Bap de la Bap"
The backing track continues with the musical cacophony from the previous track but Mackenzie's vocals are better here - soaring, clear and as bizarre as ever. Very much of the era it has to be said however.
4 "Gloomy Sunday"
A more mainstream sounding track from the band - takes me back to the Sundays of my youth when there were no shops open, typically awful Scottish weather and not very much to do. Mackenzie catches the melancholy in his voice perfectly, conveying the misery beautifully. Ironically Rankine's synthesiser plays along happily behind this lament.
5 "Nude Spoons"
When I say this track is surreal, I mean it. I can understand and enjoy surreal art, but surreal music is harder for me. Mackenzie sings about "nude spoons euphoria" in a somewhat demented manner over a very miserable synth backing track. He even manages to mention the "silvery Tay", a nod I suspect at McGonigle's appalling verse about the Tay Bridge Disaster. An acquired taste methinks.
Starts with some great vocals from Mackenzie, this is an uptempo pop track. I never cease to be amazed at what Mackenzie could do with his voice and it is overdubbed to great effect in this track. There are some great synth riffs from Rankine on this track too. Its another one evocative of the era and the lyrics are as surreal as the previous track but it doesn't matter here.
7 "It's Better This Way"
Lyrically, this is one of the more accessible tracks on the album. Mackenzie's voice is a little histrionic in places but it works - the things this man could get away with vocally never cease to amaze me. Another uptempo synth pop track, the riffs aren't as memorable here but with the incredible vocals it doesn't really matter.
8 "Party Fears Two"
A masterpiece. A couple of years ago there was an internet poll to find the best Scottish single ever and this easily won. Listening to it again, 27 years since it was released, it still sounds amazing. Mackenzie's voice is in a league of its own - he makes the song dramatic and interesting and the riff is memorable and touching.
Once again the lyrics have a touch of the surreal about them but for 27 years I have only to hear Mackenzie sing the words "I'll have a shower and then phone my brother up, within the hour I'll smash another cup" at the start of this song to be in heaven.
9 "Club Country"
The follow up to "Party Fears Two" and a song even at the time of release I considered this to be their attempt at a club track as they were known as then - this being prior to the advent of dance music after all.
You can see why this was a single release too - its got a very good riff and a strong chorus with Mackenzie's voice moving with ease from smooth verse to a more histrionic chorus. When he sings "alive and kicking" its just sublime.
Totally commercial, eminently danceable and rightly a chart hit.
This is an instrumental track which finished the original 1982 release of "Sulk". Was extended and had lyrics added to become "18 Carat Love Affair". An oddity on the album now but at the time the perfect coda to the album.
11 "Love Hangover"
After "Club Country" was a hit there were no further single releases from Sulk. However the band did release this track on a double A side single, giving them a minor hit in late 1982. A cover version of Diana Ross' 1975 hit, this works very well - and carries on in the club vein of "Club Country". Mackenzie nails the vocals well but this isn't as sensual as Ross' version - although I suspect it was never intended to be.
12 "18 Carat Love Affair"
The other song on the double A side single, this is probably the most accessible track the Associates ever recorded. It is a pure pop song and the lyrics are easily understood as Mackenzie sings about infidelity. My favourite line is where he references a famous agony aunt of the period, singing "Love affair, an 18 carat love affair, she might write to Evelyn Home, if left alone and in despair". Mackenzie's voice is brilliant on this.
And we are back in the realm of atmospheric synth pop with Mackenzie's vocals screeching away with relish. A real period piece and not particularly memorable.
14 "And Then I Read a Book"
This is great - guitar driven riffs and Mackenzie's amazing voice. His diction never ceases to amaze me as he sings about everyday things such cleaning his shoes. This is a song for angst ridden teens, Goths, new romantics and anyone who wants to think a little outside the box.
Another more commercial track, with accessible synth riffs from Rankine, and soaring, clear vocals from Mackenzie.
16 "Grecian 2000"
A great instrumental track - another one for the clubs of the early 80s - atmospheric, great beat and great riffs on the synthesizer. The Associates weren't just about Mackenzie but also the sheer musical talent of Rankine, which shines here.
17 "The Room We Sat in Before"
A guitar based demo version of "It's Better This Way" - and its fantastic to hear Mackenzie's vocals so clearly on this album. In later recordings his voice came forward in recordings like this as a matter of course but it's the only example on "Sulk" and really shows what an amazing singer he was. Rankine's guitar playing is great on this too.
Overall this is an album I would recommend you listen to at least once in your life - if you die without hearing Mackenzie's voice you have missed out on something special. It's not always an easy listen but persevere through some of the more pretentious parts to hear two exceptionally talented men produce music which to my mind anyway, defines an era.
Rankine and Mackenzie went their separate ways in late 1982 and the Associates were never the same. Mackenzie continued to record and write songs including co-writing and singing backing vocals on "The Rhythm Divine" for Shirley Bassey, and his own minor 1985 hit "Breakfast", which was outstanding.
Following the death of his mother he sank into a depression he could not get out of and he took his own life with an overdose in Dundee, in January 1997.
I am often reminded of a line in Don McLean's song "Vincent" when I think of Billy Mackenzie and to paraphrase, I wonder if the world was meant for one as beautiful as him.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Arrogance Gave Him Up
3 Bap De La Bap
4 Gloomy Sunday
5 Nude Spoons
7 It's Better This Way
8 Party Fears Two
9 Club Country
11 Love Hangover
12 18 Carat Love Affair
14 And Then I Read A Book
16 Grecian 2000
17 The Room We Sat In Before