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Fearful Parties: The Associates' Sulk 30 Years On
Joseph Burnett , September 18th, 2012 05:14

Joseph Burnett is a synth pop late adopter and in Sulk he found the epiphany he'd been waiting for

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For this lover of all things gnarled, rock, metal and punk, synth-pop presented a series of challenges and, once these had been hurdled, an even greater number of epiphanies. None of them were as colossal or significant than the moment I fell into the mad world of Sulk and found my appreciation of pop music in its entirety turned upside down. But that’s the effect Sulk will have on sensitive souls.

I actually owe Mojo Magazine a debt of gratitude for introducing me to synth-based music (beyond Kraftwerk, Bowie, Eno and prog) via a special edition on the genre released a few years back, although the love affair had started tentatively before then, via the enigmatic and archly beautiful sounds on Japan’s Tin Drum, a masterpiece of unusual time signatures, oblique lyrics and elegant polyrhythms that, combined with the band’s strong debt to Chinese music and culture, proved that synth-pop could be about more than bouffant quiffs and pop hits (that Tin Drum and single 'Ghosts' breached the UK top ten charts is as much a mystery as the album itself). Bolstered by this serendipitous find I slowly allowed myself to put aside my reservations about the occasional “tweeness” of many synth-pop bands, and delve into the strange universe of this oft-maligned sub-genre. Soft Cell, The Human League, Ultravox! (John Foxx era, natch), OMD, Depeche Mode, Visage, Yazoo: pretty soon all of these and more were lighting up my iPod and causing my synth-loathing then-partner to go spare as I danced around the living room, mouthing the words to 'Fade To Grey' or 'Joan of Arc'.

But much as I loved Dare, Travelogue, Violator, Architecture And Morality and Ha! Ha! Ha!, none of the albums I discovered hit me with quite the same potency as the moment I first played Sulk, by Scottish duo Associates. Totally unaware of what lurked underneath its garish cover depicting Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie reclining on chaise longues under a lurid tropical canopy lifted straight out of Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company, I was unprepared for the explosion of ultra-bright synths that burst out of the speakers over high-speed drum patterns and throbbing bass. This was 'Arrogance Gave Him Up' and it would actually prove to be the most “ordinary” of the ten tracks on display, mainly because it’s an instrumental, and therefore bereft of The Associates’ greatest tool: Billy MacKenzie’s unbelievable voice. Like Soft Cell’s Marc Almond or Boy George, MacKenzie was an androgynous, sexually ambiguous character, but more than that, he was blessed with an astonishing set of pipes, being able to stretch from a low moan to screeching falsetto in a matter of seconds. As much as the arrangements are wildly brilliant and the tunes fantastic, it is Billy MacKenzie’s singing that makes Sulk.

'No' serves as the true gateway into Sulk’s strange netherworld after the gloss of 'Arrogance Gave Him Up', and it’s a thorny, frightening nightmare set to grim piano chords and a bass throb that sounds like a faltering heartbeat. “Tore my hair out from the roots/ planted it in someone’s garden/ Then I waited for the shoots” wails MacKenzie, evoking sheer insanity in just three lines before weaving a deranged narrative around the theme of self-harming. “No, no no! [...] Tear a strip from your dress/ Wrap my arms in it!” he begs, the kind of lyrical and vocal soul-bearing guaranteed to raise hairs on the back on your neck (and am I the only one to hear a vague reference to Yoko Ono in there?) Even MacKenzie’s “other half” in Associates, multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine, has admitted to being baffled by some of his pal’s lyrics but, no matter how oblique MacKenzie gets, his words always succeed in painting evocative, and often unsettling, tableaux. Indeed, the first half of Sulk is one of the most shadowy and deliberately dark in modern pop history, even as it pretends to be a full-on pop extravaganza, traversed as it is by gloomy synth melodies, bleak lyrics and edgy, jittery rhythm patterns.

From 'Bap De La Bap'’s bonkers industrial pop clatter and overdriven synths, to the sheer, unbridled hysteria that courses through the fast-paced 'Nude Spoons', via a slinky, deceptively upbeat take on 'Gloomy Sunday', side A of Sulk represents a suite of songs as brilliantly cohesive as any in rock or pop history. 'Nude Spoons' stands out in particular, with MacKenzie hitting unbelievable high notes and delivering a set of lyrics so cryptic it’s hard to know whether to laugh or recoil: “I wrote a note and dug it underground [...] It lies there canistered with nude spoons euphoria.” You don’t really have time to ponder the meaning of it all, because Rankine’s blitzkrieg beats and hyper-charged synth riffs, allied to the funky bass lines of ex-Cure sideman Michael Dempsey, swallow you whole, leaving you swirling in a weird technicolour vortex accompanied only by MacKenzie’s untethered ululations. As for 'Gloomy Sunday', few singers since Billie Holiday have captured the song’s pathos in as confident a manner as MacKenzie.

Side B is, in the circumstances, a pleasingly becalmed and upbeat affair, although it still canters along at a similarly giddy pace. It also seems to reflect more clearly the legendarily hyperactive conditions surrounding Sulk’s creation. Unlike most bands’ much-repeated legends, the stories of excess and lunacy that quickly attached themselves to The Associates are - if one is to believe Rankine and Dempsey - completely true: they did indeed blow half of Sulk’s advance on luxury hotel suites (including one for MacKenzie’s whippets), top-of-the-range smoked salmon (again, for the dogs) and enough cocaine to give Iggy Pop and David Bowie a run for their money, before throwing the rest into making Sulk as opulent and extravagant as possible. Lead single 'Party Fears Two' certainly fits that bill, an oddball elegy to excess, albeit one tinged by a sense that all this coke and booze is so much hot air and empty pleasure. Behind MacKenzie’s cheerful, Ferry-esque croon, Rankine’s orchestrations are positively lush, a smorgasbord of glittering synths, treated horns and slinky guitar lines. 'Club Country', meanwhile, is straight-ahead synth-pop bliss, a track fittingly tailored for the dancefloor even as it skewers middle class inertia: “Refrigeration keeps you young I’m told." Again, Billy MacKenzie reaches impossible heights with his delirious voice, whilst the infectious beats and glossy keyboards would make even the most reticent club-goer get up and shake his or her arse. 'Club Country' is easily equal to 'Fade To Grey', 'Poison Arrow' and 'Antmusic' as a slice of pure, catchy synth-pop, and deserved bigger success than it got. Equally, The Associates surely tapped into the genre’s promise of futurism better than most of their peers, with MacKenzie’s lyrics equal parts behoven to Ballard, Orwell and Gibson, all wrapped up in his own glitter-bomb aesthetic.

In 1982, and on the back of Sulk, The Associates looked poised to throw off their “also-ran” status and hit the big time, with Seymour Stein ready to make them huge stars in the US. Instead, all the aforementioned excess - which had probably obscured their image a bit at home - took its toll and Rankine split before a massive tour. MacKenzie soldiered on manfully for a few years, but the memory of Sulk -and the band’s now-mythical appearances on Top of the Pops that accompanied the album - quickly faded into insignificance, reduced to being relics of a “silly” era remorselessly buried by the eighties’ increasingly corporate, slick approach to pop creation. In a world dominated by Madonna and Duran Duran, there was little room for someone as esoteric as Billy MacKenzie, or for The Associates, and he and the band’s legacy would drift into relative obscurity until his suicide in 1997. It’s only now in the current culture of voracious nostalgia, that Associates are finding a new audience, and even getting name-checked by the likes of Bjork.

But such talk is so much hot air. You can wax lyrical about the whippets, the chocolate guitar, the cocaine and the tragedy all you want, the fact is that these are nothing more than snippets of what Associates’ story is all about. The truth, as obscure and outlandish as it is, rests in the psycho-pop grooves of Sulk, so much so that, as oddly “eighties” as it undoubtedly is, it also stands as one of the greatest albums of that or any decade. Bliss torn from madness indeed.

Jayne C
Sep 18, 2012 10:24am

Sulk is not "synth-pop".

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Sep 18, 2012 11:33am

Such an incredible *sound* on that record, there's nothing else quite like it.

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Blank_Frank
Sep 18, 2012 11:35am

That's Michael Dempsey. Getting your Cure bassists a bit mixed up there...

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danmac
Sep 18, 2012 12:30pm

As Simon Reynolds Rip It Up book so rightly claims, the early 80's was a time of pop experimentation and excitement and this album for me, and for many in Scotland, was all the more startling as it came from fellow countrymen. There's been nothing like it before or since i think though Walker's later albums capture elements of the (controlled) madness. And those TOTP appearances were the icing on the cake - witty, parodic, celebratory, sexy, whimsical - hard to recapture the impact that they had but I'd put them up there with Starman and Virginia Plain as the great infiltrators into suburbia of camp, pop-art and dangerous sexuality.

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Sep 18, 2012 1:26pm

The precursor to Sulk 'The Affectionate Punch' and the extraordinary set of singles on the situation 2 label brought together on 'Fourth Drawer Down' are essential listening for the uninitiated and illistrate the evolution in the Mackenzie/Rankine partnership which led to their magnum opus

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cityhobgoblin
Sep 18, 2012 6:00pm

Sulk is amazing, but some of their earlier singles are arguably even better.

White Car in Germany is one of my favourite songs of all time:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OjxMIEsr8-U

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Simon G
Sep 18, 2012 7:06pm

An excellent article that perfectly encapsulates this exciting LP. I too got my full Synth-pop conversion via the MOJO special (It was very Depeche Mode-centric, I believe?) and the Associates always felt more post-punk than synth-pop, more like Siouxsie and the Banshees or Wire.

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Johnny Nothing
Sep 19, 2012 12:51am

McKenzie's pretty (didn't Morrissey go there?) but bloody crikey how nice is that keyboard player on the Party Fears Two clip? I always lamented the production on Sulk but great singles nontheless.

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was mark
Sep 19, 2012 5:57am

Amazing record, but those are not chaise longues: they are benches.

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Jeff
Sep 19, 2012 6:02am

Sulk is among my very favorite albums - glad more people are discovering it. Oh, and that's Michael Dempsey, not Simon. And the split was a little more complicated: Rankine left out of frustration when MacKenzie decided at the last minute to abandon what would have been their first US tour. The Situation 2 singles (compiled on Fourth Drawer Down) probably represent the band's creative peak, as well as some of the most stunningly bizarre work they had done together. Affectionate Punch, their debut, is also highly recommendable.

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Jeff
Sep 19, 2012 6:06am

In reply to Simon G:

I agree - Associates were more post-punk than synth-pop, but at times they veered close to the latter given their use of synths, particularly with songs like "White Car In Germany." Synths were more a part of their music than the Banshees, but then Depeche Mode or the Human League Associates certainly were not.

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John Doran
Sep 19, 2012 7:13am

In reply to was mark:

Ha ha ha!

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John Doran
Sep 19, 2012 7:13am

In reply to was mark:

Ha ha ha!

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Rooksby
Sep 19, 2012 10:27am

In reply to Johnny Nothing:

Martha Ladley.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyIi8-BJAQo&feature=related

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howard booth
Sep 19, 2012 10:53am

Agree Sulk is not anything to do with 'Synth-Pop' the reviwer is comparing this music to completely he wrong artists and genre, comparing 'party fears two' to 'antmusic' .....Bizarre

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Johnny Lawless
Sep 19, 2012 4:57pm

A fantastic album – the highpoint of the near faultless MacKenzie/ Rankine discography. My only (minor) issue with the above is the lack of mention of Skipping; a pivotal moment and essential Associates song.
The MacKenzie/ Rankine split is not, as I understand, quite as above. One popular theory is that Billy never felt comfortable with fame and sought to usurp it. However, Billy’s brilliant latter-day collaborator Steve Aungle has very different and illuminating views in his excellent blog. See Chapter 25. http://steveaungle.wordpress.com/archive/

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Johnny Nothing
Sep 19, 2012 10:21pm

In reply to Rooksby:

Thank you, sir.

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Blank_Frank
Sep 19, 2012 11:05pm

In reply to Rooksby:

From Martha and the Muffins...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Ladly

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ross
Sep 20, 2012 9:02am

I know this post makes me a geek, but Antmusic is NOT synth pop. Marco is quite the genius.

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Post-Punk Monk
Sep 20, 2012 8:22pm

I seemed to be all over everything else that was happening in Post-Punk during '79-'83 but for some reason [because I lived in a cultural backwater perhaps?] Associates were a band I'd read about but never, ever heard. I didn't even see any records in the bins as imports. It wasn't until I saw a US CD of "Popera" in a used bin that I could preview with phones on that I had an opportunity to hear their music. I saw the title "White Car In Germany" and thought, "I'll try that one on for size."

Lieber Gott in himmel how had I missed this epiphany ten years too late?! Suffice to say that buying anything by Associates became priority one. In fact, this event in 1990 marks the infraction point whereby I first became more interested in older music rather than contemporary sounds. With acid house and rave styles predominating, and grunge about to happen, I wasn't getting the love that I had from music back in '78-'83. The mid-80s was very conservative and stultifying. I wanted music to push boundaries and thrill on its own. Let me tell you; dance music of the late 80s/early 90s without drugs really sucks! It really was Pink Floyd all over again.

After hearing Associates, I wanted more of this buzz and I realized that I would have to look backward, towards bands and artists I had not caught the first time or perhaps overlooked because I was too busy chasing after the likes of Japan, OMD, Simple Minds, and John Foxx. This has remained my modus operandi for over twenty years now. I try to remain open to new bands, but I also guard the door closely to prevent exposure to the likes of a Lady Gaga or anything sold via the TV [which I stopped watching 20 years ago].

Regarding "Sulk," it remained until the V2 reissue until I heard something approximating the original album, but the truth of the matter is, every pressing of "Sulk" has been tampered with following the original WEA UK LP. The "US Version" I never saw, even though I live in The States, but I managed to snag the German CD pressing of this in the early 90s. The V2 reissue is much better; I was completely floored again the first time I popped that disc on and finally heard "Bap De La Bap!"

I can't remember ever having heard such monstrous, yet thrilling music back in 1982! Even hearing those Frankenstein beats that sounded like they had been ripped apart and crudely stitched back together in 2000 was shockingly contemporary. Eighteen years earlier I might not have been prepared for the likes of that. I finally managed to buy a clean UK LP pressing of the original album a few years back, which is the only one free of remixes, edits or tampering of any kind. I need to take the time to give it a good listen!

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redmanthinks
Sep 23, 2012 2:38pm

Stilll a great album, and Breakfast deserves a few moments of your time too.

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redmanthinks
Sep 23, 2012 2:39pm

In reply to danmac:

Right on the money.

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Rob J
Jan 4, 2013 10:52pm

I saw The Associates at the Marquee in 1980 after the release of their marvellous debut album. There were more people in the band
than in the audience, but they were compelling.
"4th Drawer Down" was released the following year to critical
acclaim, but few sales.

Then "Party Fears Two" was issued. Anybody of a certain age will recall Billy Mackenzie's magnificent performance on TOTP in
the spring of 1982. When "Sulk" came out, NOBODY had heard anything like it before. It was truly astonishing, and the thirty years since its' original release has not dimmed its' incredible allure. Only Tim Buckley has matched Billy's vocal on "Skipping". It also included Billie Holiday's "Gloomy Sunday",an ode to suicide which takes on a very dark hue when
one recalls Billy's tragic death.

But that was way in the future. "Sulk" is a masterpiece. Only The Wild Beasts have attempted to match its' deranged beauty. Beg,steal or borrow.

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