A CORNER OF THE PORKY STY is home to a music collection, most of which I would describe as very good or great. Outwith these are a sizeable number of truly brilliant albums: pioneering and groundbreaking works and some that just regurgitate the past but make it sound gloriously hypnotic anyway. Among these are the House of Love’s debut, several by the Clash, The Specials, The Doors, the Super Furry Animals, Franz Ferdinand and …… et al.
But for several of these I have to be a in a certain mood, I don’t want to chill out listening to The Clash’s ’77 debut, after all. An exception is The Associates 1982 meisterwerk Sulk. One short word, but an emotional word and emotion is everywhere within. It’s a record for many moods.
Cruelly lumped in with the New Romantic scene, they, like fellow Caledonian stars Simple Minds, were anything but flimsy and garish. Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie were two housing estate lads with a Bowie fetish that resulted in a hastily-done cover of Boys Keep Swinging for their debut single. The Affectionate Punch (1980) and Fourth Drawer Down (81) moved the palate on, heaving with jaunty, electro pop songs (on the debut) and languorous, epic symphonies such as White Car In Germany on their second. If those sounded disjointed and uninhibited, Sulk was a masterful display of a band that knew where it was going and what it wanted to do. It was full of ambition and intent.
SULK, OF COURSE, CONTAINS THE Top ten British hit, Party Fears Two, and the also successful follow up Club Country, but it isn’t at all a singles album, it’s a descent into industrial mayhem, jollity, Teutonic-esque experimentation and the most insane, joyful vocals since Isaac Hayes. The first side is the moody half, beginning with the eerie instrumental Arrogance Gave Him Up. There’s a cover of Gloomy Sunday, a song as wretched as the title suggests, and Nude Spoons in which MacKenzie screaches at his best/worst to make a soup of beautiful chaos.
MacKenzie’s voice was extraordinary. It was a timbre that was utterly unique, mesmerising, and gymnastic in ability, the Dundonian being blessed with being able to go from deadpan to falsetto in the same verse. As a young teen, Billy’s father, after a night out at the pub, would bring home some of his drinking buddies, wake up his son, and get him to sing pop standards to the amazement of the drunken huddle.
This side contains Bap de la Bap and No, two of my favourite Associates songs, both as individualistic and enthralling as any of the more favoured singles. No stands out for its grim piano chords, hair-raising vocals and a bass throb hit perfectly by Michael Dempsey, the unheralded third member. The opening lines “Tear my hair out from the roots/ planted them in someone else’s garden” sets the mood.
Bap de la Bap is a monstrous effort, all haunting harmonies and pounding bass. Afterwards I’m two parts in despair, three parts feeling the sort of high only achieved through pleasures not requiring textiles. The second side begins in a similar vein, with Skipping, noted for a couplet that bemused me for years. “Ripping ropes from the Belgian wharfs/ breathless beauxillious griffin once removed seemed dwarfed.”
It’s Better This Way is something of an underrated Associates track but, again, is one of my personal favourites on an album littered with classics. And then comes Party Fears Two, still the perfect pop song, Club Country and they finish off with another instrumental (unusual given MacKenzie’s voice makes Sulk), nothinginsomethingparticular, which mutated into the single 18 Carat Love Affair.
The Americans didn’t like the track listing and shuffled it all around, with all the singles plus It’s Better This Way (which could well have been a single) and a cover of The Supremes’ Love Hangover which was the other A side to 18 Carat Love Affair. That was the end product but the tale of the recording of Sulk is a legend in itself. Having wangled a big advance from the record label, they then splashed out on hotel rooms for MacKenzie’s salmon-loving whippets, hours and hours of expensive studio time, and, somewhat unexpectedly, substances not found in high street pharmacies.
Nevertheless, there was a lot of hard, intense work going on; these weren’t slackers, these were committed and headstrong young men in the studio. The effort, the promotion and the hilarious Top of the Pops appearances in a brief but illuminating few months took their toll, and before 1982 was out the band was gone. MacKenzie continued to record under the Associates name, but other than some delights on 1984’s Perhaps, such as the swooning Waiting For The Love Boat, he never again reached the heights of the Sulk year.