Once upon a time (the early Eighties), there was something called "new pop". For about a year Morley's pipedream of a chartbusting music that combined pop's flash and dazzle with post-punk's perplexity and unease, come true. Glamour; danceability, luxury, the lore of romance, were revelled in and unravelled, simultaneously, thanks to a creed of "passionate irony".
In retrospect, not a lot of the music of that dizzy era got beyond being meta-pop, ie: rock criticism in pop flesh. The Associates did. Billy Mackenzie had the bodymoves, the shimmying, supernatural panache, above all The Voice, whereas Martin Fry was always a dead-below-the-waist dork in a low-rent lame suit. Perhaps the crucial factor was that Mackenzie had never been into rock'n'roll. His love for Diana Ross, disco, Sparks, wasn't gestural, a reaction against punk, but seethed in his blood. And in Alan Rankine, he had his own Eno to peculiarise The Associates' resurrection of Roxy/Bowie glam-odromatics.
The Associates stint as a pop phenomenon was tragically brief. Their only Top 10 Hit, "Party Fears Two", was a fractured vignette of the agonised tentativeness of EITHER o faltering courtship OR a slow break-up (I've never been able to work it out). With its oblique lyrics ("Even a slight remark makes no sense and turns to shark") and highly strung falsetto harmonies, "Party Fears" fused the grandeur of cabaret with the schizoid delirium of psychedelia. "Club Country" was nerve-edged aristo-funk, whose lyrics saw right through to the emptiness at the heart of the New Romantic/cocktail culture of the time. "The fault is/ I can find no fault in you/ If we stick around/ We're sure to be looked down upon." Like the rest of the "Sulk" album, "Club Country" is at once torrid and glacial, fusing European hauteur with American disco feverishness.
"18 Carat love Affair", the last Associates hit, was a vehicle for some of Mackenzie's swooniest singing: falsetto to get drunk on, sorrow to drown in. Its flipside was a hyperventilated version of Diana Ross' "Love Hangover", whose title neatly pinpointed The Associates' aesthetic: love as inTOXICant, malady, madness, pop as hysteria.
After this delirious zenith, and the departure of Alan Rankine, The Associates returned with the relative composure and controlled classicism of '84's, "Perhaps" LP. "Those First Impressions" had beautiful bass palpitations, a fine vocal performance, but something was missing. The twee scenario of "Waiting For The Loveboat" and the gloopily lugubrious "Breakfast" were small-scale, merely tasteful.
Then there was a long silence until '88's "Heart Of Glass". But even at the nadir of his career, Mackenzie was too smouldering a singer for Blondie's glassy-eyed disco music anthem. Read Lester Bangs on Blondie as ultimate blank generation meets Pop Art void-oids, and you'll realise that, even on autopilot, Mackenzie injects too much lip-quavering "emotional truth" into Harry's ciphered lyrics.
Since then Billy recovered his dignity, if not his madness, with last year's "Wild And Lonely". But to be honest his latest material sounds chastened and cowed compared to the extra tracks on this CD: on Yello's "The Rhythm Divine", Mackenzie finds, in Boris Blank a new Alan Rankine, and in Dieter Meir a kindred spirit in nostalgia for a bygone, pre-war European "ancient regime". And the five tracks from "Fourth Drawer Down" (pre-chart top Associates) still sound like nothing on Earth. With "Q-Quarters", "Kitchen Person", "Message Oblique Speech", "White Car In Germany", it's like Scott Walker had never retired, but got turned onto Can, Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire, and returned with an even an even more baroque, festering, visionary paranoia than before.
We cry wolf too often with the old mystic effusions, but you simply have to hear this stuff, it'll make your insides spin.