Lynn Hanna waits on The Associates to serve up the new pop menu.
FOR POSITIVE proof that pop is pushing in the very opposite direction than those who still pour stale scorn on the new values would have you believe, you can use The Associates.
If a faceted pop can share and bare or consider some spiritual query, then their recent succession of singles have come close to the heart and soul of the new musical matter. Unlike those who seek small answers in simple solutions, they use their music to move, to motivate; to transmit. 'Kitchen Person' in particular is some deep drive scoured; like most of their music it shares that same sense of necessary, involuntary investigation.
The cafe where The Associates meet to eat each day has a discreet bourgeois continental charm. Polished mirrors, dark furniture, French food and a solid air of respectability give it an atmosphere that's blatantly at odds with the rock mentality that preaches austerity as long as it's for others.
Like footballers or fighters. The Associates are theoretically in training, trying to stick to a routine during their recording schedule. As you might gather from listening to their singles, they place great importance on the relationship between emotion and physicality.
"It all seems to run together because music and body movement are so closely related," says Billy Mackenzie in his soft, rich Scottish accent.
"Athletes have to keep themselves really well. They get mortal drunk but they stay straight for another month before they do it again. We relate athleticism to music on lots of different points. The thing I like most in the world, other than sex, is dancing. And because I can respond physically to music, I'm naturally athletic as well. You get totally involved in the pleasure of dance, plus it's good for you."
After the relative disappointment of 'The Affectionate Punch'- "a baby's album," says Billy, although it's an LP that sounds more pertinent in the current climate -The Associates have been making music whose vital impulse and generous spirit you can hear in 'Tell Me Easter's On Friday', 'Kitchen Person', 'Message/Speech'. That a hypocritical distrust of a fragmented, explorative pop of which The Associates are one of the best examples happens to coincide with a decline in the fortunes of the major record companies is an irony that they aren't slow to appreciate.
"The only reason why people are saying the music business is on a downer is because they're not earning so much money. They're just screaming because they can't get enough to sustain their overblown lifestyle. I don't know many people in the music business who are helpful or intuitive. They can muck musicians up and effect them heavily. Record companies want groups to stick to formulas.
"We've tried to demolish that side of things. That's one of the reasons why we've put out the singles, to show people that you don't have to stick to a disgusting formula, because that's one of the reasons the business is in a mess anyway. Greed comes to grief."
While Billy Mackenzie expands and explains, clarifying the thoughts and theories that all The Associates have formed and refined together in a natural response to making music, guitarist Alan Rankine sits at the table in affable silence.
Bass player Michael Dempsey, who joined The Associates from The Cure after both groups had toured together, is also at the cafe, although drummer John Murphy is absent from the interview since he's away picking grapes in France.
Mackenzie and Ranking first formed their association in '76 in Scotland, where Billy comes from the sort of area which some of rock's pseudo-artisans would probably envy.
"I stayed in the deprived area of Dundee and Alan stayed in the uppity area."
"It wasn't uppity, it was just the usual residential area." says Alan indulgently.
"It was so! It was dead snobby. Where I was, it was the real tough nuts area where if you left your shoes outside the door wi' mud on there, they'd be missing. Lucky I was always well cared for, eh?"
Together they served a musical apprenticeship by playing for 18 months on the professional cabaret club circuit, a formative influence of which there's ample evidence in the care and precision of their work.
In contrast, the tour they undertook last year turned out to be something of atypical rock fiasco. Dogged by dire equipment and poor organisation, they decided to stop playing live for a while, since they felt they'd lost sufficient control over their output.
"It's sort of a rotten side to speak about, but it's dead important, because, in the end, the people who come to see you are disappointed because they can't hear what you're doing properly, and there's some big, fat thing sitting there laughing. We didn't hate doing it. It was brilliant having an audience relate to you. But we decided to stop doing it until we could de-hippyfy the organisation."
Some of the material they played live will surface on 'Pacifically West', the LP that they're currently recording in a Camden studio.
It's characteristic of The Associates' diverse and prolific approach to pop that their third LP will be released four months after their second. They're also planning an LP of cover versions - "So if anybody out there has got their own song that The Associates can play about with, we'd be interested to hear it" -plus working on sidelines such as an Associates instrumentation around the basic skeleton of a Billy Holliday song and a plan to record a Dean Martin song with Billy's dad.
And admiring the room for musical manoeuvre allowed in the operation of groups like The Banshees, The Associates have also been collaborating with other musicians on projects that go under the names of 39 Lyon Street or Orbidoig.
"It isn't just us, us, us all the time.You've pot to forget that. You miss too much. It's great to be thrilled by other peoples' music, you feel so close to them.
"Some people are saying that there isn't any music around at the moment, that they don't know which way things are going to turn, that music and fashion have come to a peak. But what has heartened us has been four years of explosive development with young people. And there'll be another thing, not a trend or anything like that. I think good songwriting will come back with a bang quite soon. I think 'Love Action' is a very, very good song, and they'll be loads of things like that. I really love quite a lot of other people's music just now. It's redefining emotion."
THE ASSOCIATES' pop music makes an intelligent use of intuition. Like the cabaret of a showbusiness tradition, it contains something of the spirit of an adventurer who will court emotion just to savour the sensation. In the torch song tradition, there's an atmosphere of deliberation in exploring an irony, while Billy Mackenzie's extraordinary voice adds to that sense of an almost fraudulent manufacture of an avid emotion. Their best songs achieve a balance between calculation and consummation; an exigency viewed by an involved voyeur who stays detached enough to examine the experience.
"I think we understand the songs intuitively, but we don't really go into them unless we're drunk and we babble on about things, like we did last night. We pick on an emotion as if to say, Right, you're going to get the treatment, and sometimes the treatment works and sometimes it doesn't. We give it a good try anyway. We don't give up easily at all on trying to define an emotion.
"It's really frustrating when you get to a point in a song and you hear there's something there to a seal on, something of emotion that goes along with the lyric," adds Alan.
"Most of the time that doesn't happen. Like we don't try to write a song we just let it happen, the same with dance. Things came out easier that way, because there's no tension while you're doing it. It's like maths or something like that. You re either good at it or you don't go near it.
"Associate lyrics are for sharing, to show people all the stupid little spots that we've been in or you've been in, or anybody's been in. Now when I'm in a mess, it doesn't bother me that much, because I think Well, I'm getting an emotion out of it for a song." says Billy.
"When I went back to Dundee, it was great because every body goes up to each other with massive problems. It's like a counselling service up there. And it's good for people to express that. It's too sad to keep it and bottle it all in."
Since they signed to Situation 2 from Fiction, The Associates have flirted with the independent chart success, but they've not so far proved to be an invigorating injection into the mainstream of commercial music or found their proper place in pop. In the past hauled as a great pop hope, but with a first album that didn't prove as indelible as desired, there's a careful, self-contained determination about The Associates that makes me think that far from being a spent force, they're still poised at the starting line.
"All the music that we do is for the audience that we have, for them to relate to. It's a bit of a dream really, but it's no dream-like, because you've got all those ears listening, and maybe you can touch on different emotions, that's the best thing.
"If you're emotional and expressive, people think you're half-daft or something, because you have the courage to show what you're like. A lot of people can clam up and behave themselves. We can't really behave that well. There's a certain wildness, a Celticness. And it's anguish, I'm sorry to say."
For everyone that wants a pop music that tries to meet the new mood and needs of our time, there's someone who would like to see rock confined to effects not causes, and relegated to the sate, impotent sideline of a spurious '60s alternative where it can make as much rebel noise as it likes without being remotely revolutionary.
If you're sick of pomposity and condescension, if you want a pop that provokes and communicates, that ultimately aims to educate, you could always Associate.