In which Billy Mackenzie attempts to re-write Associates history. Well it was probably not his intention but launching into the speedy delivery of Associates' classics minus Alan Rankine offers a very different prospect to the originals, conveying a vague, if not quite there, sense of 'let's get these over and done with.' 'Message Oblique Speech' in particular is twisted into some almost semblance of straight forward (if murky) guitar pop without the strange undercurrents of sound created on 'Fourth Drawer Down' and 'Kites' lacks the delicate sonic flourishes of the 39 Lyon Street version, its gentleness butchered by an un-sympathetic guitar. However, the insouciance with which Billy's voice soars and spins and meanders around with the melody keeps his performance compelling as always on this second volume of songs culled from the Radio 1 archives. So here are sessions for Richard Skinner, Janice Long, Saturday Live and Phil Kennedy. More successful is a suitably melancholic version of traditional weepy 'The Crying Game' where the beauty is all in voice and unobtrusive piano, and a low key 'Dogs in the Wild' which makes it into a kind of jazz version somehow working and likewise 'Gloomy Sunday' retains an incongruously uptempo backing along with a calmer, if still dramatic, vocal. I find the cover of 'Heart of Glass' unfortunately pedestrian. 'Obsession Magnificent' is better, Billy sounding re-energised and begging the question what happened to it? The equally powerful 'Give' would eventually turn up on Wild and Lonely as 'Something's got to give' and hearing it in its earlier form breathes life into what would be trampled into submission by lacklustre production (even if the production here is not the best either). And although I am not a fan of 'Take me to the girl' it endears with its softly spoken introduction from Billy (suggesting he could have had a fantastic career as a Butlins entertainer if that had floated his boat... I'M JOKING) and the casual delivery of the song itself, although the synths in the background spoil things by sounding cheap and nasty. The last three songs also appear on 'Perhaps' in a very similar guise, it might be my ears but I couldn't discern much difference to the finished article except 'Breakfast' sounds somewhat richer, slightly more lavish. But as I say that might just be my ears.
Whilst the 60s and the 70s are usually deemed revolutionary times for music, the poor 80s are usually remembered in the terms of the dross that clogged up the charts. Oh there has been a reconsideration of the early part of the decade when songs like 'party fears two' could ride high in the charts and the 'New Pop' seemed to offer a new hope for literate, melodic and fabulously camp pop that would engender some delight in watching re-runs of Top of the Pops. But why bother when you know you will only get Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Frankie goes to Hollywood or the hideous clones peddled by S/A/W and their ilk? My archaeology into 80s music (following links and connections) however has peeled back the layers to reveal that just below the surface of the glossy horror of the charts is an entirely different picture of artists sticking to their guns and experimenting the sounds in their heads without finding any glory or respectability from the majority of the record buying public, despite critical acclaim. Such is Paul Haig, formerly of the pneumatic Josef K, and about to release his tenth album. Leaving behind the spiky guitars and urgent vocals that characterised the Ks, Paul Haig has (according to my 'net researches) since dabbled in swing, funk, electronica and rock. There is also the collaboration with Billy Mackenzie (Memory Palace) uncovering a vision between the two men to want to swing precariously between genres, not labelling themselves as purveyors of crowd pleasing similarity. I started with 'The Warp of Pure Fun' purely on the subjective connection with the other Associate, Alan Rankine, who helped produce most of the tracks here and contributed guitars and keyboards. Although recorded in the mid 80s the album was never released until much later; like Billy Mackenzie, Paul Haig seems to have suffered from poor relations with his labels.
Enough of the history, which is probably very poorly expressed anyway! Considering my less than positive views of the mid 80s music - partly conditioned by a fear of descending into nostalgia - I approached with trepidation. But I found much to enjoy even if my powers of description are limited at the moment. Haig's voice is not the most romantic, but is dramatic and although it seems he might overpower the lighter arrangements, such as on 'One lifetime away', when the music builds to meet him it creates a pleasing juxtaposition. It cannot be said that you completely escape the typical 80s touches, including (horror of horrors) sax, overwrought female backing and those strange synth noises that they loved so much then, but generally it fulfils what I increasingly appreciate in pop music, conveying an intelligence and flamboyance without losing sight of the ephemeral joys pop brings, so not too clever by half to be horribly ironic and destroy whatever beauty and meaning it had. Most compelling is 'Endless Song' which I am currently playing to death because its combination of squalling guitar, minimal synth and Haig's pronouncements sends me into raptures for the unknown reason that it just does. How can you explain these things? Anyway, other good things come in the shape of 'The only truth' where Haig is helped by Bernard Sumner from New Order and others, and 'Sense of fun' where some poor sucker is lambasted for not having one (perhaps not so poor if directed at the record label ha ha). One to convince those who feel that the 1980s have nothing to offer, along with 'Sulk' and 'Metamatic'.