THE FAULT is I can find no fault in them. It is 1982. I am younger. Top of the Pops is on. A Scottish band. Cheeky, charismatic, beautiful, led by two dark-haired Adonises (Adoni?) called Alan and Billy. They are playing a song called Party Fears Two. A tune that is giddy, ringing, mad. A voice – Billy’s voice – climbs inside it, soars above it. The voice stretches beyond, way beyond, my imagination.
I am 19 and in love with pop, the shiny newness of it, at this particular moment in time. And this, this rich, strange glory of a song seems like a sublime incarnation of all it can do.
Jump cut. It is more than 30 years later and I am reminded of an old passion. BMG have remastered and rereleased the first three albums – The Affectionate Punch, Fourth Floor Down and the masterful Sulk – by The Associates (the definitive article would disappear after the first album).
The band has not always been well served by mixes but this version, overseen by former Associate Michael Dempsey, has brushed off the dust and polished these records to a gleam, burning off some of their inevitable eighties-ness and revealing their wilful ambition. A utopian idea of adventurous pop that took its influences – Bowie, obviously, Roxy, Sparks, yes, but film soundtracks and 1960s pop too – and forged them into something new.
“I was listening to a song from The Affectionate Punch the other day,” the Alan mentioned above tells me. “Transport to Central. And I thought, ‘God, this is nuts.’ The things that we were doing harmonically and melodically, lyrically all at the same time. How did two 19 and 20-year-olds do this?”
Alan Rankine has lived a life since then. He has taught music, made his own, written songs for a boyband. But he is under no illusions. Those three records he made with Billy MacKenzie at the turn of the 1980s represent the best of him. “It’s never going to be as good as the Associates,” he admits.
It is the first of May, 2016 and we are sitting in Rankine’s flat in the west end of Glasgow talking about the past. “It’s a long time ago. Bloody hell. It’s 36 years. God almighty. I haven’t thought of it being that long actually.
“I think some of it is quite hard remembering because Bill’s dead and has been for almost 20 years. Sometimes you just have to go away and have a wee lucid cry.”

HeraldScotland:
Billy MacKenzie took his own life at the start of 1997. Scottish pop’s lost boy. But when Rankine talks about him it is with joy and humour. About how he came to live in a flat with Rankine and his then girlfriend in Ednburgh and how MacKenzie would score the couple’s lovemaking from the sofa bed in the other room. About the time Steve Strange invited Rankine and MacKenzie back to his flat and tried to get them both into bed. “His bed was pink satin,” Rankine recalls. “It was lurid. There were five bedrooms and he tried to say they were all taken.”
The legend of the Associates is a legend of excess. Some of it, Rankine, suggests, overplayed. “The cocaine thing. Believe me we were so small time. We were so green. Other bands were getting it by the kilo. Us doing cocaine was like playing truant from school. It was like a wee treat. I’ve seen people who say ‘I’m in a studio. I must do a line.’ We worked too hard.”
Then again, he admits, MacKenzie liked his dexedrines. “Yellows or blues. I can remember, Bill and I, we’d get some blues and we’d walk around Harrods all day. In Harrods there were people from every country in the world. They looked different. They looked exotic. We were people-watching – and speeding off our tits. It was highly enjoyable. But we only did it two or three times.”
There was no stinting on excess when it came to the studio though. There is nothing restrained about these records. They are sonically dense, with layer piled upon layer and MacKenzie’s incredible, show-offy, thrilling voice bouncing through it.
“We wanted to go ‘f**k it, pour it in.’ Look, it’s only three and a half minutes long. Why hang about? Maybe it was over-exuberance. Yes, it makes sense to build things up. But that’s what everyone does. And they still do it. Why?”
The range and hysterical reach of MacKenzie’s voice is what everyone remembers about the Associates. But Rankine’s own musical abilities deserve credit. Born in Bridge of Allan, the son of a school inspector and a secretary, he picked up a guitar when he was 11.
“It just seemed easy. Yes, it hurt your fingers, but just for a couple of weeks. And then I couldn’t stop.” He thinks he maybe took one lesson when he was 17. “The guy said to me ‘I can’t really teach you anything, Alan.’
“I had one piano lesson, again when I was 17. And the guy tried to pouf me.”
Come again?
“He started trying to put his hands on my legs so I had to clock him.”
Rankine met MacKenzie in Edinburgh in the mid-1970s. “We clicked immediately,” Rankine says. “It was fairly obvious that Bill was gay or bisexual or whatever but it wasn’t part of our vocabulary. It never came up.”
The duo made an impression with a cheeky unauthorised cover of Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging single a few weeks after its release. It got attention. Their first album The Affectionate Punch got them more.
The record sounded – sounds – fresh and European, a new refraction of Berlin-era Bowie. They were of their time and yet slightly outside it.
“There’s punk and post-punk. There’s new wave and new romantic,” Rankine suggests, “and we just don’t fit anywhere. We just slip through the cracks of everything.”
Fourth Floor Down - a gather-up of singles and B sides, by turns sumptuous and needling – continued the European experimentalism but by the time they came to the efflorescence of Sulk they were fully embracing their pop sensibilities.

They became exemplars of what the music press designated “new pop” – post-punk entryism that sought both to embrace and critique the hit single. But even then, when they were appearing on Top of the Pops, Rankine suggests, they stood a little to the side.
“We didn’t fit in with the showiness of the Durannies. We saw ABC before they were produced by Trevor Horn, but once Trevor got his hands on them it was a very polished pop sound and they’ve got simple lyrics. We don’t have simple lyrics. We have lyrics that are just out there.”
That’s why, he says with some regret, Associates songs don’t turn up in ads these days.
Still, Party Fears Two made the top ten. They had a world tour lined up and were booked into Robert Palmer’s studio in Nassau for the follow-up to Sulk when MacKenzie walked away.
“When I look back at some of the Top of the Pops,” Rankine says now, “the first two with Party Fears Two, Bill’s enjoying himself. There were two more for Club Country. I can see in Bill’s eyes on the screen the second one he ain’t enjoying it so much. And when we went back with 18 Carat Love Affair Bill’s beginning to take the piss out of the whole thing with his performance. I could see he was getting bored.”
The idea of the tour and the album seems to have been too much for MacKenzie.
“When you start to say this is your next eight months mapped in front of you, I think Bill just said ‘I can’t do that’,” Rankine reckons.
“I went on a bender for five months because it was everything I’d worked for ever since I can remember. I was angry at Bill then but after I totally got it.
“I wish it could have lasted a bit longer but it couldn’t have been any other way.”
MacKenzie retained the Associates name and made more records, some of them very fine, but none of them with the same bravura of those first three albums. “Bill went on using the name but I don’t think he should have because it wasn’t the same animal.”
Rankine went on to make solo albums but as he admits he’s no singer. “I must have conned Virgin out of £90,000 for f**k all. I really do distinctly remember thinking ‘I’m giving this seven months before I get the registered letter saying you’ve been dropped.’ Got it in five.”
Before I leave, Rankine plays me a song Twins of Gemini he wrote with MacKenzie way back when, and recorded a few years ago with the aid of Craig Armstrong and Big Dish singer Stephen Lindsay. A lovely lush thing, it is. The lyrics are, Rankine suggests, definitely about his friend’s sexuality.
“Bill hadn’t had a good time of it being gay in Dundee and not being really able to come out. He could sometimes be incredibly camp and play at it but he was also very masculine as well and he could fight like an absolute devil. Really vicious. He was scary.
“Then you’d get this other side to him when Bill was with his dogs. He never seemed to be relaxed at any other time. He couldn’t turn off. He was always on.”
MacKenzie was a living contradiction. Is that a flaw? Maybe. But you can hear it at play in these three albums. It’s what makes them special. In all their waywardness and beauty. Like Rankine and MacKenzie, maybe you can’t have one without the other.


The new remastered versions of The Affectionate Punch, Fourth Floor Down and Sulk are released on May 13.A double CD, Associates The Best Of, will also be available.