Legend of the fall
Sex and drugs and violence. The story of The Associates was always one of excess. But nowhere more than in the music itself, Alan Rankine tells Teddy Jamieson
THE FAULT is I can find no fault in them. It is 1982. I am younger. Top of the Pops is on. A Scottish band. Cheeky, charismatic, beautiful, led by two darkhaired Adonises (Adoni?) called Alan and Billy. They are playing a song called Party Fears Two. A tune that is giddy, ringing, mad. A voice – Billy’s voice – climbs inside it, soars above it. The voice stretches beyond, way beyond, my imagination.
I am 19 and in love with pop, the shiny newness of it, at this particular moment in time. And this, this rich, strange glory of a song seems like a sublime incarnation of all it can do.
Jump cut. It is more than 30 years later and I am reminded of an old passion. BMG have remastered and rereleased the first three albums – The Affectionate Punch, Fourth Floor Down and the masterful Sulk – by The Associates (the definitive article would disappear after the first album).
The band has not always been well served by mixes but this version, overseen by former Associate Michael Dempsey, has brushed off the dust and polished these records to a gleam, burning off some of their inevitable eighties-ness and revealing their wilful ambition. A utopian idea of adventurous pop that took its influences – Bowie, obviously, Roxy, Sparks, yes, but film soundtracks and 1960s pop too – and forged them into something new.
“I was listening to a song from The Affectionate Punch the other day,” the Alan mentioned above tells me. “Transport to Central. And I thought, ‘God, this is nuts.’ The things that we were doing harmonically and melodically, lyrically all at the same time. How did two 19 and 20-year-olds do this?”
Alan Rankine has lived a life since then. He has taught music, made his own, written songs for a boyband. But he is under no illusions. Those three records he made with Billy MacKenzie at the turn of the 1980s represent the best of him. “It’s never going to be as good as the Associates,” he admits.
It is the first of May, 2016 and we are sitting in Rankine’s flat in the west end of Glasgow talking about the past. “It’s a long time ago. Bloody hell. It’s 36 years. God almighty. I haven’t thought of it being that long actually.
“I think some of it is quite hard remembering because Bill’s dead and has been for almost 20 years. Sometimes you just have to go away and have a wee lucid cry.”
Billy MacKenzie took his own life at the start of 1997. Scottish pop’s lost boy. But when Rankine talks about him it is with joy and humour. About how he came to live in a flat with Rankine and his then girlfriend in Ednburgh and how MacKenzie would score the couple’s lovemaking from the sofa bed in the other room. About the time Steve Strange invited Rankine and MacKenzie back to his flat and tried to get them both into bed. “His bed was pink satin,” Rankine recalls. “It was lurid. There were five bedrooms and he tried to say they were all taken.”
The legend of the Associates is a legend of excess. Some of it, Rankine, suggests, overplayed. “The cocaine thing. Believe me we were so small time. We were so green. Other bands were getting it by the kilo. Us doing cocaine was like playing truant from school. It was like a wee treat. I’ve seen people who say ‘I’m in a studio. I must do a line.’ We worked too hard.”
Then again, he admits, MacKenzie liked his dexedrines. “Yellows or blues. I can remember, Bill and I, we’d get some blues and we’d walk around Harrods all day. In Harrods there were people from every country in the world. They looked different. They looked exotic. We were people-watching – and speeding off our tits. It was highly enjoyable. But we only did it two or three times.”
There was no stinting on excess when it came to the studio though. There is nothing restrained about these records. They are sonically dense, with layer piled upon layer and MacKenzie’s incredible, show-offy, thrilling voice bouncing through it.
“We wanted to go ‘f**k it, pour it in.’ Look, it’s only three and a half minutes long. Why hang about? Maybe it was over-exuberance. Yes, it makes sense to build things up. But that’s what everyone does. And they still do it. Why?”
The range and hysterical reach of MacKenzie’s voice is what everyone remembers about the Associates. But Rankine’s own musical abilities deserve credit. Born in Bridge of Allan, the son of a school inspector and a secretary, he picked up a guitar when he was 11.
“It just seemed easy. Yes, it hurt your fingers, but just for a couple of weeks. And then I couldn’t stop.” He thinks he maybe took one lesson when he was 17. “The guy said to me ‘I can’t really teach you anything, Alan.’
“I had one piano lesson, again when I was 17. And the guy tried to pouf me.” Come again? “He started trying to put his hands on my legs so I had to clock him.”