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Maybe, Possibly? A Look Back At Perhaps By The Associates
Ned Raggett , February 12th, 2020 09:30

The Associates’ fourth album was a notable commercial bomb after the smash success of Sulk, with Billy Mackenzie aiming to find a new way forward without Alan Rankine. Our man in San Francisco, Ned Raggett, takes a look at the first proper reissue of the album in thirty-five years to see what diamonds might be in the rough

Billy Mackenzie, as well as the group that made his name, the Associates, is always on the verge of being properly rediscovered. Such is the curse of the cult artist, one can say, but it's an essential truth. Mackenzie was an explosion of energy, a generous and passionate friend, an obsessively private soul and much more besides. Of all the questions that can be asked about him, his life and work, one is crucial - how in the world did he get away with so much artistically when his commercial successes were so sporadic?

Cherry Red's expanded reissue of the Associates' fourth album, 1985's Perhaps, confirms just how well Mackenzie could bend circumstances to his will when given the opportunity. Tom Doyle's still definitive biography, The Glamour Chase, delves much more into his loving and high-octane upbringing, his eye for the main chance, his gift of gab, all of which served him well in his nearly decade-long dealings with WEA.

Both Doyle and, in the reissue's detailed liner notes, Andy Davis, delve into the circumstances of Perhaps, and it could almost be a book on its own. There was Mackenzie's low boredom threshold, his having to work out a new core of musicians to work with following his fractious break with Alan Rankine, his own lack of musical training adding to the complications, studio sessions resulting in overdubs on top of overdubs, producers like Martin Rushent and Martyn Ware drafted in to help provide some focus. WEA, figuring his Sulk successes would automatically carry over, kept funding him and the album regardless, even as it was apparent Perhaps was on the brink of not happening at all. At one point the master tapes for the originally-recorded album mysteriously disappeared - per Doyle, they're allegedly still held by a close circle of Mackenzie friends - and the album that was eventually released was a completely new recording all around.

Given its resultant failure on the charts, it's telling this reissue of Perhaps is almost the first since the original release - and that the one exception was as part of a 2002 two-pack with a later even more notorious Associates album, The Glamour Chase itself, which Warner flat out refused to even release at the time. The overdue appearance of that made the addition of Perhaps, in a no-frills package released by the romantically-titled 'Warner Strategic Marketing,' seem like even more of an afterthought. Perhaps, as more than one critic has said over time, ultimately seems like something that essentially lived up to its name.

For all the chaos behind Perhaps, a fresh listen both reconfirms that so-so judgment and, maybe due to both any technical work on the rerelease and the passage of time, how Mackenzie shone more brightly here than might be guessed. Rankine was ultimately irreplaceable as a true creative foil and partner and the inspired creative choices they brought to the studio, with Mike Hedges's production work on Sulk as the pinnacle, weren't fully recaptured again. Yet Mackenzie's songs, however worked into shape, could still soar more often that not. Audibly, one can often hear that early 80s fervor transform into mid-80s slick politeness, pop that sought to meet the market where it was seen to be rather than forcing it to accept it. Davis's liners underscore the point further in terms of singles choices and producers and remixers. Even so, the album's three singles were all especially strong.

The first two, appearing earlier in 1984, also led off the album - neither rose to the chart level of 'Club Country' or 'Party Fears Two', but from this distance it's surprising they simply didn't do better regardless. 'Those First Impressions' is crisp, bright, in its trebly feel a portrait of where much mid-80s pop music was going. Yet Mackenzie sounds, not quite understated, but in easy control. Deftly sung in his falsetto for the most part, he matches sudden leaps in range with murmuring low tones, while the full line of the chorus - "Those first impressions/ that keep us guessing in old familiar ways" - has the air of something from Sinatra's amazing 1950s run. 'Waiting For The Loveboat', another instance of brightly upbeat "modern" pop for dancefloors, directly follows 'Impressions' but stands out from it, Mackenzie here much more playfully wry in lyric and delivery. Perhaps too wry, with a line like "Tests proved negative/ I was positively pleased" as AIDS started to fully explode into public awareness. Yet his sheer exuberance, especially on the chorus and the title phrase as well as numerous wordless cries throughout, simply can't be beat. The delicious way he delivers the line "Knowing what you want and taking full advantage" has the feeling of a personal manifesto.

Meanwhile 'Breakfast', which appeared as a single a month before the album's February release, is the not so secret dark jewel of the album. If it can't quite equate to the shattering torch ballad drama of Sulk's 'No', in many ways it's the often gentler, reflective cousin to the same, starting the album's second half and decisively breaking away from the first sonically. Shifting from mid-80s relative state-of-the-art production, here it's a piano and strings ballad with only the gentlest, softest of rhythms. There's a steady build of storm clouds in music and lyrics that never quite fully breaks but never have to. Mackenzie's singing is matched just so throughout, from his softer croons to, on the concluding chorus, his breathtaking turn on the engagingly cryptic line "Walk with me/ Someone is waiting in line!" The arrangement then cuts to just the beats, as piano then strings almost take solo turns in their own right, almost like a quiet curtain call.

The singles were all correctly chosen in the end even if they didn't connect with the wider public. The rest of the album is where the magic spell frays slightly, but not entirely, as the remaining songs all have something to recommend them one way or another. Mackenzie's either audibly the direct focus of the arrangement or doing his best finding his way among overstuffed approaches with the sheer ability of his voice. Examples of the latter can be found in 'Perhaps' and 'The Stranger In Your Voice', but better all around are songs like the nervous electronic paranoia of 'Schampout', with its classically offbeat Mackenzie line: "I'll never let anyone hypnotise me, I've never been a very good... swimmer." The heightened drama of 'Thirteen Feelings', a tense chase scene in feel that contrasts to the immediately preceding 'Breakfast''s more languid atmosphere, is almost a confessional with lyrics like "Strange perfumes intoxicate my leather head." Perhaps also concludes on a strong enough note with a songtitle for the ages, 'Don't Give Me That "I Told You So" Look'.

The extra tracks on the reissue make it nearly a definitive portrait of the era. The lovely stand-alone single that followed Perhaps makes an appearance: 'Take Me To The Girl'. It’s another sparkling piano-led number, winningly sung, upbeat and sweet, with another killer Mackenzie couplet: "My flesh was always weak/ My tango less than chic." Three alternate versions also appear, including a great late-night piano bar variant, 'The Girl That Took Me'. The only other flat out 'new' song included is a B-side remake of 'Kites', Simon Dupree & the Big Sound's killer late 60s romantic hit that he'd previously redone with Rankine years earlier as 39 Lyon Street. This version's pleasant but not quite as soaring.

The rest of the reissue’s additional cuts are all drawn from singles and the cassette version of the album, a mix of instrumentals, edits and remixes that's exhaustive but, aside from Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz von Oswald's bubbling cusp-of-the-90s remix of 'Waiting For The Loveboat', mostly kills time. What would have been amazing is if the various B-sides drawn from a legendary 1985 performance recorded and filmed at Ronnie Scott's could have appeared. Focusing on Mackenzie in a classic jazz/ torch song mode, these tracks, along with the various efforts he would soon start recording for and with the Swiss experimental electronic duo Yello, show further where and what Mackenzie could do given the opportunity during his seemingly fallow years of the mid to late 80s. One can at least hope that there's another phase of reissues to follow. Perhaps.