One of the best albums of the nineteen eighties in an already overcrowded arena, Sulk was the high point of Associates’ canon and a landmark LP release back in 1982. Nine months after the Human League had shook the pop charts, the fashion world and the musical establishment with Dare – and nine months before The Smiths were to make an indelible imprint on British indie music – Billy MacKenzie and Alan Rankine delivered a missile of an album that sounded nothing like anyone or anything else around.
That indeed was its problem, because the pop world was self-destructively tribal back then, and those whose faces didn’t fit found themselves in an impossible situation. Sulk just wasn’t easily categorisable; unlike Dare it didn’t crystallise everything about a certain genre down into one easily digestible Long Player. Instead, it left the average early nineteen eighties pop fan dazed and confused – just like the men who made it.
Associates had been a middling Glasgow post-punk band, a little too obsessed with Low period Bowie and their own reflections in the mirror. “Up until 1981, we had been living on air”, Rankine once said. Like Simple Minds, suddenly however they came good, and at precisely the same time. Just as New Gold Dream ushered in a new, sophisticated, multi-layered sound for a scratchy new wave outfit that once called itself Johnny and The Self Abusers, so Associates seemed to find their true selves during the recording of Sulk. The result was breathtakingly different to anything else around, a bold, audacious and soaring record that melded the passion, power and intensity of punk with a wholly unexpected musical sophistication and lyrical maturity.
Sulk featured two sublime singles, Party Fears Two and Club Country. Indeed, it was on the strength of these that WEA fronted up £60,000 to record the album, making it one of the most expensive of a ‘new’ act at the time. This in turn sparked a whole sequence of events that was to give this album the quirkiness and the fissile edge that runs through it. Mackenzie and Rankine decamped down to London, booked themselves into an opulent hotel and even took an additional room for Mackenzie’s pet whippets. More of the advance was blown on clothes and drugs, and the rest went on recording the LP in a lavish way. The record company was prepared to put such a huge advance their way because they knew how strong the songs were – this became the band’s capital asset. Moreover, being a canny Glaswegian, Mackenzie knew they knew, and demanded even more money. Going in to the recording of Sulk, he behaved like he was the new David Bowie, and got away with it.
Recorded in Camden Town’s Playground Studios, the sessions were – according to Rankine – “madness”. So much so that drummer John Murphy left after finishing the recording, saying he couldn’t cope. A few months’ later, the band was on Top of the Pops with Party Fears Two. Although striking looking, the boys refused to go along with the role playing that the programme required, famously refusing to mime properly. Contrast such behaviour to Duran Duran’s supine acquiescence in the face of any TV camera, and you can see the two very different cultures at work. Both were labelled ‘New Romantic’, but Associates just didn’t make very good ones; they were unwilling to be pigeonholed by a self-important London music press, and instead elected to have fun. “I don’t think there’s been any exaggeration about what went on,” Rankine told The Guardian in 2007. “If anything, I think people have been holding back a bit in their recollections.”
It shows. Sulk is all over the place – it oozes angst, desperation, psychosis, confusion, anger and alienation in a way that puts The Smiths to shame, but has humour too and never fails to pull you back up with Billy Mackenzie’s blistering vocals. He was surely the most talented singer of his generation, having a startlingly rich, powerful and expressive voice that was able to dazzle across a crazily wide range; perhaps this is why no one of note has ever covered an Associates song – they’d struggle to do it justice…
His lyrics were sometimes brilliant, at other times nonsense. From fragments of failing romances to hedonistic excess, from the superficiality of nightclubbing to the sneering of other people, the targets of Mackenzie’s opprobrium were as diverse as they were intense (“The alcohol loves you, while turning you blue”). They were all set to dense, layered guitars and keyboards (the latter courtesy of Martha Ladly of Martha and the Muffins), underpinned by supple, almost funky basslines which surely gave New Order’s Peter Hook a few pointers about where next to take his style. Overall, the record is a racket – an enchanting, cacophonous racket admittedly, but it’s not a something you would chill out to on the beach. Even now, thirty two years later, it still has the power to stir the soul and set the mind alight – not least to reflect on the tragic suicide that awaited Billy Mackenzie some years later. He was a one-off, and Sulk was his finest hour.