Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Radio One Sessions Volume One 1981-1983 - The Associates

Radio hasn't been the same without John Peel.  He was one of the rare DJs who managed to transcend the usual constrictive categories that bedevil how we must identify the sounds that entertain (or not) our ears.  If anything he was promiscuous, playing anything and everything that took his fancy.  It made for an interesting experience!  And throughout all the ramblings about the Associates I think I have more than enough times conveyed that is something I liked about their approach to music - they did what they liked and, for the first three and a half albums, it worked.  So bring these two worlds together, the environment of the Peel session and the brains of an inventive, willful couple of artistes and there is hopefully fireworks, loud sizzles and bangs and ooohs and aahs.

Collected here are four sessions, three for John Peel (with Alan Rankine 1981, 1982, without Alan Rankine 1983) and the last for Kid Jensen (1983).  Stripped of obsessive compulsive production tendencies the first two sessions are Sulk made raw, anarchic even, without the shiny glossy polish which would pronounce them POP!  Yet its never shambolic or indulgent. Growing addiction to spangly 80s guitar (check!) is well served here (too much girl, I can't do technical terms)  'Me myself and the tragic story' complete with feedback and spooky oooohs from Billy Mackenzie sounds less like a current affairs programme as it does on 'Sulk' (as Arrogance gave him up).  If Billy Mackenzie seems subdued then he is BACK in full force for a hectic 'Nude spoons' and 'It's better this way'.  For some reason unbeknown to me I never really warmed to 'A matter of gender' however it improves with the addition of shimmery guitar and slightly more anxious vocal.  By now the late nights and hedonism must have been setting in. 'Ulcragyceptimol' has its sense of fun, 'Put me down, I'll be a good boy, honest' sings Billy and you don't quite believe him so he gets increasingly squeaky about it (it worried me when I looked at my iPod recently and realised how many squeaky male singers exist there, maybe its a subconscious affectation of mine?)  Skip forwards to 1982 for the second Peel session or, it's alternative title, 'some more reasons to weep for the break-up of messrs Rankine and Mackenzine.'  Instead of its resultant cheesy 80s stomp, 'Waiting for the Love boat' is far more subtle, although obviously starved of a sufficiently deep enough drum Billy Mackenzie is forced into sombrely proclaiming 'bom bom bom' at regular intervals over muted guitar and what sounds like a glockenspiel.  'Australia' too is less frantic, instruments wreathed in fog, whilst half chewed words emerge like spectres in the distance.  Nothing pedestrian about 'Love hangover' either with its sparse beginning, voice and piano, sounding like some arty performance at the Barbican with cats wailing in the background before funky song proper.  By 'A severe bout of career insecurity' there has to be something really spectacular to keep up the subversiveness.  Its not enough that the lyrics seem to be detailing some kind of breakdown (although inevitably its probably about something else entirely). Exhibit A - affected, sullen accent to singer's voice.  Exhibit B - breaking into the Sound of Music halfway through.  I am definitely a fan of the misuse of hideous musical 'songs' (grumble had to sing them in school choir grumble grumble).

Then it gets all serious.  No more larking about in the studio.  Two what might be called 'Torch songs' (or those songs people now might wave their lighter too, guess that's safer than a torch but must also be dying out now with the smoking ban) 'God bless the child' and 'This flame'. Theoretically such things should move my stone eyes to tears but despite the beautiful Mackenzie voice, sparse piano, it ain't happening.  Maybe because I just watched a film about a gigantic scary monster taking over Manhatten and my mind is full of images of monsters biting people before they die a horrible death from explosion.

The last session for Kid Jensen in 1983 covers four songs which would end up on Perhaps.  Due to the increasing reliance on mechanical means of instrumentation (although I can hear guitars, they're alive!) there is little discernible difference between these and eventual album versions, though it could also be my cloth ears.  'Helicopter helicopter' would benefit from being trimmed as a crunchy bassline does not for an interesting experience make.  'Theme from Perhaps' is Perhaps minus singing so you have an opportunity to appreciate the wobbly synth rhythms which curiously sound more dated now then the earlier stuff.  'Perhaps (Schizophrenic version)' was not broadcast and it is evident after one listen why not: prefiguring Prolapse by several years (Scottish band with strange shouty male singer and melodic if combative female singer) a strange Scottish man shouts and (kind of) sings his way through a rambling story which seeks to offend on every level.  This is Steve Reid.  Somewhere in the background Billy Mackenzie sings away to himself (fittingly in the explanatory notes it explains that he was lying on the studio sofa with the microphone between his knees, evidently he was only half awake and so did not realise the butchery going on).  Lurching from mess to the subdued grandeur of 'Don't give me that I told you so look you' is one of those classic Associates moments, sadly spoilt by murky cheesecloth dropped over the speakers.  And closing with 'Breakfast' was a good move, although it doesn't quite hit the giddy heights it deserves.

Fleeting moments as fireworks are.

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