CSFTD #20: The Associates – Party Fears Two

Another flashback to the 1980s and a new wave, post-punk band that some say could have been as big as David Bowie had things worked out better for them. To complicate matters there are camps that say that The Associates’ leader, Billy Mackenzie, was directly influenced by Bowie (which is fairly clear from this performance, even if he dressed like Frank Spencer from the 1970s TV sitcom ‘Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em’) and others that prefer the theory that, latterly in the 1980s, Bowie was influenced by him.

The Associates came out of Dundee, a city that has contributed more than its fair share of rock musicians for its size, including also 1970s soul brothers The Average White Band, Danny Wilson, K T Tunstall, who went to school there, and Snow Patrol, which formed at Dundee University.

Billy Mackenzie and guitarist Alan Rankin (playing banjo in the video) performed under two different names before changing again to The Associates. Their first single under that name was a cover of Bowie’s Boys Keep Swingin,’ released only a few weeks after Bowie’s own version. But their first album, and several other non-album singles, didn’t mark them out as anything special.

Their breakthrough came with Party Fears Two, which was released in 1982 during a wave of synthpop popularity and it was followed by two other hits including Club Country, and their most successful album, Sulk. But Mackenzie, who was plagued by depression, lost the will to tour after Rankin left the band. Subsequent albums did not sell in the same numbers, failed to make the charts, and the record company even refused to release one of them, The Glamour Chase, on the grounds of lack of commercial appeal.

In 1991 the band split up and Mackenzie carried on alone, making solo material and contributing to three albums by Swiss band Yello. He also worked with a new partner, Steve Aungle. Various attempts at an Associates revival came to nothing, again reputedly because of Mackenzie’s unwillingness to tour. Then, following the death of his mother, he committed suicide, in 1997.

By then most of The Associates’ material had been deleted but subsequently it has been reissued and belatedly it has been acknowledged that The Associates were one of the most inspired bands of a musically inspired decade. One chronicler described them as ‘the great should-have-beens of British pop.’

They were certainly ahead of their time in the same way as were fellow early 1980s Scots Altered Images, whose Clare Grogan was doing Madonna before Madonna, and, more to the point, the way Bowie was, and it is often forgotten that his popularity didn’t come instantly by any means. For some it happens eventually, for others it doesn’t.

The song seems to be about Mackenzie’s (the ‘party’ as a third person surrogate) fear of having a relationship. His insecurity highly influenced his song writing throughout his career. It contains the indecipherable lines “Have I done something wrong? / What’s wrong’s the wrong that’s always in wrong.” Donald Rumsfeld would have been proud of that one.

The keyboard theme will be familiar. It has been used for several radio and TV programmes.

A number of times during this Top of the Pops performance Billy turns to look up, presumably at a big screen where he can see himself. Surprisingly, he doesn’t pay the same degree of attention to his keyboardist, who eagle-eyed readers will recognise as Martha Ladly, the other Martha from Martha and the Muffins, who featured in CSFTD #18. She certainly got around; she also collaborated with Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, suggesting the title for their most commercially successful album, Architecture and Morality.

© D J Bentley, 2016