metamatic (1980) speaks to me of the consequences of modernist excesses that continue to constrain so many town and city centres in their concrete grip. remnents of the clean, bright future shock that so quickly turned sour (10 to 20 years or so) leaving fearsome dark subways reeking of piss, tower blocks of crumbing panels and needle gardens, souless neighbourhood shopping centres heavy with metal shutters and choking on litter. a country on the verge of collapse sold to the economy and selfishness.
they may at first, appear so very bright and shiny. 'plaza' is almost a hymn to queues for cinemas, seminars in lounges, giant 'hoardings of italian cars', smoke glass, outside escalators (like childhood memories of san diego, the amazement of the outside escalator!). i can almost imagine being 'on the plaza' shielding my eyes from its white concrete glare. but an undercurrent of violence exists here - 'i remember your face from some shattered windscreen' - and its meaning suddenly becomes a whole lot darker. in the offerings presented here, it seems as if john foxx becomes the machine - his voice as synthetic as the music which skitters in the background. he stands alone too on the cover, gazing blankly into a screen of bright light as he reaches to touch it. listen closely to catch the unsettling atmospheres he creates; at turns jittery, sometimes atonal, often harsh. it's not pretty even if the textures created are striking. unsettling too are the lives of the anonymous, unknown inhabitants of this dystopia - 'he's a liquid', 'someone's gone liquid in the sheets', 'melt into a mass,' 'he was a new kind of man' 'faces blurring, faces merging' 'they read the bible about a flood'. whilst the 'underpass' might represent progress it comes at the cost of collective amnesia - 'well i used to remember / now its all gone / world war something / we were somebody's son' - set to a catchy refrain. still, it's all harsh shapes, supremely masculine, no tenderness or romance to speak of - for every poetic couplet such as 'she was dressed in a white suit / she looked like a bride too' is juxtaposed with the image of 'it's a burning car.' its all too real to be escapist with the legacy of the future world experiment still mouldering around us.
at times it can be relentless, especially with two CDs worth of material to peruse, and the music can at times sound distinctly dated or reminiscent of computer games, yet it has worn quite well. i would also suggest that the themes are still pretty relevant - the cruel anonymity of the city, the feeling that violence is never far away, the fear (real or manufactured), the search for meaning in a relentlessly changing world (just look at the evolution of the ipod / iphone for god's sake). i guess it fits my love/hate relationship with the city perfectly coz sometimes even in the hideousness of grey-streaked concrete can be found beauty.
After the quiet introspection of 'Systems of romance' Ultravox's debut arrives to blast away any notions you courted of them being fey dreamers or detached onlookers of a society descending into its own scumminess. Here they seem to be in the thick of the horror as 'Satday night in the city of the dead attests' all raging guitars and not-at-all-sedate singing from John Foxx as he spitefully lists all the manner of mundane violence taking place on our nation's streets (ring any bells?). Here the roots of punk and glam-rock are more evident over the later love of swishy noises from synthesisers, although they creep in here and there alongside gorgeous stabs of violin. Most arresting is 'I want to be a machine', a lengthy ballad to the desire to cast off messy complicated emotions for the relative security that detachment brings. It starts off quietly enough, only an acoustic guitar to accompany Foxx's plaintive vocals, bringing in subtle violin and slowly building to an exhilarating, if unsettling, climax.
Concerned with themes of alienation, disgust and the desire to either disappear or adapt in the face of confusion, these are all perhaps resonant today at least for those who feel out of place in society, unable to see how it reflects their desires or needs.
After the spikiness and hyperactivity of 'Ha! Ha! Ha!', Ultravox's third album is palpably different. A collision of atmospheric guitar and clunky synthesisers, tinged with elements of dreamy psychedelia, it seems to suggest that they were heading towards a softer sound, whilst retaining the energy and spirit which defined their earlier offerings. However, Ultravox were pretty much unable to ignite much interest in the minds of the public in the late 70s, although moving into the next decade such a sound was to forge ahead as part of the 'New Pop' and 'New Romantic' movements. Instead they only found their visions slighted, so much so that the band were dropped by their record label, struggling on for a while until singer John Foxx left the group to retreat into studio seclusion (resulting in the entirely synthesiser-led 'Metamatics'). It was not until their second incarnation (via the adoption of Midge Ure) that Ultravox were able to find success. The world would finally catch up but by then, some might argue, their sound had been diluted as to become risible.
In the twenty-first century 'Systems of romance' sounds surprisingly less dated than I expected, considering the preponderance of now-dated electronica. Perhaps because of the recent resurgance of electro-pop and related detached musings on the human condition (okay, maybe there is less of that) it is not so alien. The opener 'Slow Motion' is frankly astounding, swooshing in on electronic waves and bravely setting the agenda for anyone who wants to effectively meld machines with guitars. 'I can't stay long' is my favourite, John Foxx's at times clinical, at times melodic, always bizarrely rational, singing style here is perfect, capturing evocative moments in the sparsest of poetical couplets. The theme of dissolving / disappearring is one which crops up repeatedly: like for those who are content to be under the radar ('The quiet men'); playing with identity ('Someone else's clothes'); changing states of being... throughout an underlying sense of unease pervades everything. Just what are we? Even the most energetic tracks such as 'Blue light' incur an anxiety in its disturbing almost-disco, though it is most evident in 'Dislocation' with its moody, echoy backing and distant, heavily altered vocals (setting the template for early Depeche Mode perhaps). There is nothing fixed here. However, despite the cleverness I can't help thinking Ultravox don't always take themselves too seriously, the playfulness demonstrated by 'Maximum acceleration' which features whistling! Furthermore, they haven't been completely devoured by technology as most of these songs retain the band's post-punk roots, the glides and swoops of (new guitarist) Robin Simon's guitar remaining prominent. And 'When you walk through me' reminds me of something like 'Arnold Layne' with its syrupy-sound and surreal narrative. Finishing just perfectly with the sublime 'Just for a moment', which loses none of its magic for being recorded in a barn of all places (one good thing about remastered albums are the extensive sleeve notes which offer up such nuggets of information), and it slides away, leaving dreamy thoughts of the 'long green light of a July afternoon / sliding down a vague conversation.'
i'm finally nearing the end of my odyssey to purchase the album back catalogue of the associates (note to self - its not wise to give into an obsession!) thanks to a combination of shops, ebay and internet shopping sites. there are gaping holes - still waiting for Amazon to find perhaps the only copy of sulk in existence! how exciting and the nightmarish is it to live in a world where you can have almost anything you want, when you want! sadly it took the death of singer Billy Mackenzie for this state of affairs to be realised. for 'true' fans of the Associates it previously was but a dream to be able to get their hands on past glories, and in the case of 'the Glamour Chase' it was never even released by the record company after their relationship with the larger than life chanteur,not that good during the making of 'perhaps' (1985), went from bad to worse. something about him spending a shedload of money and not producing anything they deemed commerical enough. but lets leave the messy complicated bits to rest and let the music speak for itself.
With 'Perhaps' you can kind of appreciate the dilemma that Billy Mackenzie was in at the time. He had been involved in making what many describe to be a masterpiece (Sulk) and his long-term musical collaborator Alan Rankine had departed after various insurmountable problems surfaced between the pair. No pressure then to follow it up with something equally amazing and to show that he was not dependent on the magical and inventive musical soundscapes dreamt up between him and Rankine! And to give Billy his due, he has a pretty good go. I was prepared to be quite disappointed by this considering the sort-of consensus that deems Mackenzie and Rankine became lost without each other, descending into musical decrepitude, but... I actually liked it!
However nothing can compel me to like 'Those first impressions' which to me sounds uninspired - I am glad I had not been in the position to have to judge the associates on this song alone. It's fine as a pop song but it doesn't engage me at all, possibly because Billy sounds (to my ears) so bored singing it. 'Waiting for the loveboat' is better, bouncier with amusing lyrics although it goes on for faaarrr toooooo long at the end with Billy apparently being tickled or attacked somewhere subterranean (apparently they chopped off an interesting finale to make it fit on the LP). It could also do without the annoying honking saxophone, never an instrument I can connect with emotional subtley or estactic raptures. 'Perhaps', 'Schampout' and 'Helicopter Helicopter' continue in the same vein, pop with a deliciously wonky feel, although the lyrics can be a bit silly and the musical accommpaniment perversely jarring. 'Breakfast' in contrast comes flowing ludicrously easily into the ears, a tender and beautiful ballad (and I normally hate ballads) with minimal fuss which suits Billy perfectly. 'Thirteen feelings' is radically different again with its dramatic strings, driving beat and soaring vocals. I find that I prefer Billy's singing on the last four offerings, like on 'The stranger in your voice'; luckily he is on top form because most of the musical arrangements are forgettable. I am hard pressed to find anything is as appealing as Alan Rankine and his glorious guitar work. 'The best of you' is a duet with Eddie Reader, however there seems to be no point for her to be there for, as with most of his duets, Billy's voice stamps all over hers. If I was being evil I would say that the theme of this song perfectly encapsulates my feelings about the Associates' career... Still, I'm not evil so I will only say that I was happy until the dreaded sax reappears (eek!) wailing away with its evil intent to ruin my listening experience. Still, it's redeemed by the discordant chords of the strings at the end. The sax is back on 'Don't give me that told you so look' however it is easily ignored for the fantastic title, which Billy also manages to sing very suavely. Overall it presents quite a downbeat ending to the album as a whole and leaves you rather despondent as to what could have been.
'The Glamour Chase' came a few years later but you could be mistaken for thinking it was from an entirely different artist. It was never released during Billy's lifetime which much have been extremely frustrating for him, more for the politics surrounding it rather than it being a terrible album. It's not always to my taste, definitely straying into more what I would call conventional pop territory, more sleek than raw. After the often scatter-brained lyrics and sometimes petulant attitude of 'Perhaps' (like that godawful saxophone) it seems that Billy is presenting himself here as more mature, more sophisticated, more smooth. A reincarnation that results in some pleasant enough sounds like opener 'Reach the top' and a cover of Blondie's 'Heart of glass' but they glide by pretty unremarkably. 'Terrorbeat' has that 80s bass which reminds me of Level 42 so yuck. 'Set me up' is pondorously slow and has a potentially cheesy voice over - where Billy betrays hardly a crumb of his lovely Dundee accent - but finally a song works for me, mostly because a pleasing harmony is achieved between voice and tune and it doesn't overstate itself. 'Country boy' is like 'what'?? - it would make better sense without the obviously clunky bass/drum and the lyrics about a 'pretty virgin' who should be a 'lure' to the narrator's 'prey' is a bit ick. 'Because you love' is the kind of ballad I would avoid like the plague - I cannot help but think of the 'power of love' by Jennifer Rush which upsets me unduly, as does the squelchy bassline. 'The Rhythm Divine' is infinitely preferable if I had to be stuck in a room with it - also famous for being sung by Shirley Bassey, my irrational prejudice against her means that I can happily assume that Billy makes a better job of it. I felt nothing like hatred towards 'Snowball' but its too close to jazz/ swing for me to want to listen to it repeatedly - again Billy does a good job but its not going to convert me yet. Back on safe ground with 'You'd be the one' and 'Empires of the heart' - no need for irrational prejudices against these. 'Empires...' is my favourite because there is emotion in the singing and for once the music does something interesting, although it is still too glossy. Of the last, 'In Windows all' is another ballad, pleasant enough, 'Heaven's blue' a short poignant piece of piano before PAM!! the energetic stomp of 'Take me to the girl' provides an upbeat finale. I cannot listen to this song however without thinking of the video where Billy looks bored out of his brain - find it on youtube and weep at the terribleness of this and most Associates videos - so its kind of tainted. Easy to sing along to however if you like that kind of thing.