THE social secretary who booked The Associates to headline a rag ball at St George’s Hospital School of Medicine in London must have had a warped sense of humour.

The group’s appearance on October 4, 1980, was a night to remember … for all the wrong reasons.

The audience consisted of 600 student doctors and nurses, dressed in smart suits and party frocks. Well, for the first two songs in the set at least.

The Scottish band – formed by singer Billy Mackenzie and guitarist Alan Rankine – were being feted by the music press. The Associates were the name to drop.

It was all going well, until they took the stage.

They tore into the first song, Me, Myself and the Tragic Story … a fiery instrumental which featured Mackenzie playing a one-stringed guitar with a metal fork he’d pinched from the college cafeteria. The party-goers looked aghast. At the end of the number there was virtually no applause.

They went into the next song – an early version of Bab De La Bap – with Mackenzie’s soaring operatic-style vocal whoops and Rankine’s jagged, metallic riffs further alienating the crowd. The room emptied.

But the audience’s total apathy seemed to energise Mackenzie, Rankine – plus bassist Michael Dempsey, a founder member of The Cure, and drummer John Murphy, an Australian musician who sported a striking Eraserhead haircut and wore thick woollen gloves and a heavy tweed overcoat throughout the show.

They were astounding. It was one of the best gigs I ever saw The Associates play.

All Mackenzie and Rankine ever sought was a reaction … good or bad. They’d ruffled a few feathers when they emerged on the Scottish music scene in 1979.

On April 27, David Bowie released the single Boys Keep Swinging – a track from his 13th studio album Lodger – which peaked at No7 in the UK charts.

A few weeks later, Mackenzie and Rankine – both passionate Bowie fans – followed with a jarring cover of the song on their own Double Hip label. It caused controversy.

“We were just seeking attention,” Mackenzie admitted. “Bowie was untouchable at the time and we were taking him on – or trying to – with his OWN song.” The furore led to the single being reissued by MCA Records. It failed to chart but paved the way for one of the most ground-breaking debut albums in Scottish rock history, The Affectionate Punch.

I first encountered The Associates in the Radio Clyde canteen in the summer of 1980.

They’d driven from Dundee to Glasgow in a barely roadworthy band van to record an interview to promote the LP. But the DJ failed to show up.

“You know about new bands. Go and talk to them. This is embarrassing. Try to smooth things over,” pleaded an exasperated producer.

Any fears I had of being chewed out over my colleague’s no-show evaporated when Mackenzie instantly went into charm offensive. It was impossible not to warm to him.

I got chapter and verse about The Affectionate Punch.

The songs had evolved while he and Rankine had played on the local cabaret circuit to raise cash to keep the group afloat.

The pair – plus a session drummer – recorded the tracks on a meagre budget provided by their label, Fiction.

“I’ll send you a copy,” said Mackenzie. It arrived a few days later and just taking the record out of the cardboard postal envelope was a thrill in itself.

The stunning cover artwork was a bold statement.

It showed Mackenzie and Rankine – dressed in vests, shorts and spikes – preparing to start a race on a wet running track.

The shot had been taken on the sports ground of Wormwood Scrubs prison in London at 2am. Mackenzie bore a resemblance to comic strip hero Alf Tupper, the Tough of the Track, from The Victor. But I’ve never seen two less convincing looking athletes.

It’s still difficult to describe this breathtaking piece of work. There was nothing in Scottish music to compare it to.

I’m still not sure there is even now, more than 40 years on.

Tracks such as Logan Time, Even Dogs in the Wild and the sprawling Transport to Central sounded more like themes from art-house movies than pop songs.

It was difficult to imagine the more conventional A Matter of Gender – kicked off by Mackenzie’s feral yelps – or Would I … Bounce Back sitting comfortably in the charts. That’s what made the songs so interesting.

A – which closed the album - featured Mackenzie singing letters of the alphabet over Rankine’s edgy, metallic guitar. They even had the gall to release it as a single. Not surprisingly, it failed to make a dent in the Top 40.

But Mackenzie’s soaring vocal range was so different, so away from the norm, he’d have you captivated if singing the telephone directory.

In the NME, Paul Morley said the album was “a kind of masterpiece”.

Chris Jones of BBC Music said: “Few bands today would dare to be so audacious.” I agree.

In any straw poll of Associates’ diehards, their second album, Sulk, in 1982 – which included the

breakthrough hit singles Party Fears Two and Club Country – would be voted the creative highpoint of their studio releases. No argument from me there either.

But with The Affectionate Punch, nothing could have prepared me for the impact of such an adventurous record.

It was baffling, beguiling and challenged you to invest time to really absorb the textures of the music.

While it wasn’t an easy – or instant – listen, the rewards were plentiful. I’ve never heard anything quite like it.

THE Billy Sloan Show is on BBC Radio Scotland every Saturday at 10pm.