Friday, September 04, 2009

she loves me not - alan rankine

In his inspiring work 'Rip it up and start again: postpunk 1978-1984' Simon Reynolds cautions us to be wary when dabbling into the music of our post-punk heroes after 1984. Not only had the shiny bauble of New Pop become 'bloated' and 'plunged into decadence' but Pop Stars suddenly found themselves spokespeople for the world on a scale never seen before. It was the time of the Po-Faced Political Message but also of Pop Stars blowing hugely ridiculous budgets on videos and yachts, champagne and cocaine, the record labels getting fatter and fatter. Everything Went Over the Top in the security of a bouyant market and Smugness ruled in the pop charts, epitomised by those horrible Spandau Ballet songs 'True' and 'Gold'. By 1985, as Reynolds quotes, even the great John Peel was lamenting that "I don't even like the records I like." But there is something strangely addictive about 'bad' music, after all witness the whole 'Guilty Pleasures' movement. And a dabble here and there into the post-1984 cultural wilderness can be rewarding, although generally anything from the mid-late eighties does suffer for being inflicted by what was deemed fashionable in the day, i.e. too much honking saxophone, overwrought female vocals and bathed in that smooth, syrupy production that makes it hard to distinguish the real instruments from the synthesisers. Far from being 'Abba on speed' New Pop began to sound like Abba had swapped the speed for Ovaltine.

It seems to me it was more the loss of the Punk and Post-punk spirit that Reynolds and Peel were mourning, the warped beauty of New Pop that for a brief moment lit up the mainstream more brightly than the bland monotony usually labelled 'Pop' music. Looking back there are treasures to be found. The Cure's 'Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me' (1987) is the best twisted Pop record ever made after 'Sulk'. Paul Haig descended into 'The Warp of Pure Fun' in 1985 and emerged with his dignity intact, while 'Perhaps' (1984) saw Billy Mackenzie haphazardly balancing between youthful hysteria and a growing propensity towards a 'maturer' style (although the later, unreleased, 'Glamour Chase' would see the transformation complete). ZTT were doing good things e.g. with Propaganda, although they were overshadowed by the crass antics surrounding Frankie Goes to Hollywood. David Sylvian, Gene Loves Jezebel, The Wake, Siouxsie and the Banshees.... the Post-Punk greats did not die they just reinvented themselves. However the mainstream certainly returned to the 'manufactured' - no longer could it be countenanced that something like 'Party Fears Two' could sneak into the top ten, into everyone's living room and steal their hearts with its sultry shimmer.

Into 1987 we wade, when Billy Mackenzie's erstwhile Associate, Alan Rankine, released 'She loves me not'. Prior to that he had spent time producing other peoples' records (such as the Cocteau Twins and Paul Haig), working with cultish record label, the wonderfully named Les Disques du Crepscule, and living in Belgium. It's not quite a forgotten classic but like Haig's 'The Warp of Pure Fun' (of which it is reminiscent and not entirely a coincidence since Alan Rankine produced it) it is just that, a fun record which, in this period of 80s revival, is able to stand up to (and maybe even surpass some) contemporary attempts at melding the guitar with the synthesiser. Responsible for most of the instruments / parts in the Associates, Alan Rankine has a keen ear for melody which makes even the weaker songs palatable, but even he was not immune from the taint of sax and syrup. The mid to late 80s also seemed to be to the detriment of the guitar, which almost disappears into the murk here, surprising since Rankine ranks with the best of the Post-Punk guitar pioneers in terms of the sounds he managed to conjure with his fingers and a few effects. Still there is enough sophistication to make up for the disappointment that it sounds, well, so conventional at times. Especially when compared to the diverse and wonky marvellousness of 'Fourth Drawer Down'. It's like listening to 'Perhaps' - you know that both men had to move on and could not have produced another 'Sulk' (and nor would they want to) but it makes you yearn for its weirdness, it's boldness in abandoning the typical song format and its attempt to cram every possible emotion into one circle of vinyl.

And 'She loves me not' certainly starts with a bang! and ends with the apocalypse! clamouring for your ears' attention. 'Beat Fit' has rather silly lyrics but is infectious and introduces several of the 1001 synthesiser noises which identifies this record as a spawn of the 80s - as does the hyper female backing vocals and ubiquitous saxophone. Luckily this is not too intrusive keeping as it does to the rhythm of the song rather than meandering all over it. Alan Rankine's singing voice is remarkably urbane, slightly gruff and cynical at times, but that seems to suit the world-weary, even baffled, tone he affects. 'Days and Days' is the first of one of the more schmaltzy songs here, along with 'Last Bullet' they are quite light and relatively forgettable, but then I have never been a fan of ballad-type songs so they are probably okay if you like that kind of thing. 'Loaded' juxtaposes icy, melancholic synths (the ones that remind me of speeding down German autobahns at night lit only by orange sodium) and a softer vocal, ostensibly about throwing your cares away and having a good time but underlaid with that sadness it suggests it can only ever be ephemeral? Finally a guitar is spotted from very far away singing to itself in the background. 'Enough of that' says the sax and wrests domination of 'Your Very Last Day', unfortunately quite a plodding song despite Rankine's attempt to enliven things up with a dramatic vocal, but tones its influence down for 'The Sandman' which deals with a chilling subject (child abuse) in a surprisingly sympathetic way, when it potentially could be very clunky especially since Rankine's lyrics are far more literal than his former partner's. 'Break for Me' adopts that cod-reggae rhythm that was once so popular (please don't bring it back!) and that 'shimmery-curtain' percussion thing but apart from those two crimes against music it is a pleasant moment, a break after the frenetic rush of 'Lose Control'. And certainly a moment's pause is required before the stand-out track of the album, a slight intake of breath before the aural assault begins. Betraying more than a little of the 'more is more' philosophy that so drove the Associates ever upwards towards musical greatness, 'The World Begins to Look Her Age' is an attempt to capture the end of the world, well what the end of the world would sound like if only hysterical female backing singers, chuntering saxes, synthesisers and Alan Rankine were all that were left. Into this one song Rankine crams an album's worth of ideas and sounds and textures; its overloaded certainly and in the hands of someone less skilled it would probably collapse under its own weight, but this was the man responsible for 'Club Country' and however he does it, somehow it works! It's like magic because taking it all apart it's a pretty much standard 80s pop tune but combining all the unprepossessing elements together with a random song structure, explosions, layer upon layer of alarm and panic, ramping it all up and over eleven, well... it's an exhausting experience. But like the best of the Associates it makes you feel; its more than wallpaper or something to put on in the background and ignore. This is a song that defies being ignored! And it's certainly better to go out on a bang than a whimper. So yes, there could be many things wrong with this record but when it works the sheer verve reminds you that greatness never dies completely.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, there are no videos of Alan Rankine solo on YouTube so a badly taken picture of the album cover is all I can offer in way of illustration. Luckily he is a very handsome fellow :)

And just for fun, the Associates do 'Club Country' on Top of the Pops, Alan keeping out of the bizarre sartorial choices made by some other members of the band, thinking here of Martha Ladly in the swimsuit!

1 comment:

dgsauthor said...

This is an album that has always intrigued me, as well as SLMN, I also have a version with a different track listing cat number TWI 672, 1986 copyright called The World Begins to Look Her Age, black cover Alan Rankinge photo on rear. Your description of it is very good, enjoy your blog, cheers