ASSOCIATES: THE AFFECTIONATE PUNCH (1980)
1) The Affectionate Punch; 2) Amused As Always; 3) Logan Time; 4) Paper House; 5) Transport To Central; 6) A Matter Of Gender; 7) Even Dogs In The Wild; 8) Would I… Bounce Back?; 9) Deeply Concerned; 10) A.
Although there were many places around the world in which a man could get unhappy in the early 1980s, Scotland would probably count as one of the top contenders. Cold climate, coal mining, and bagpipes will do that to you, I guess; throw in Margaret Thatcher, and there's a good enough recipe for suicide, even if took Billy MacKenzie, the frontman of the Associates, twenty years of an up-and-down musical career to remember how it goes.
In 1979, the chief idol for this young aspiring creative unit, consisting of MacKenzie, multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine, and whoever else would drop in at the local studio, was David Bowie; they even released his own ʽBoys Keep Swingingʼ as their debut single. Unsurprisingly, much of The Affectionate Punch actually sounds like Bowie, although, of course, on a much less professional and experienced level. On the other hand, it's got such factors as youth, fresh energy, and novelty on its side — and, perhaps, even a dim feeling that Billy MacKenzie might be more genuinely «into the spirit of it all» than the lovable old con man Bowie. After all, Billy MacKenzie did end up killing himself, and the old con man is still alive. Crap argument, I know, but still worth some sick consideration.
Anyway, this is what they usually call «post-punk», meaning «music that punks begin to play when they get tired of being punks». Dark, angry, melancholic, aggressive, heavy on the bass, the echo, and the creepy guitar effects, low on solo instrumental passages and pretty melodies. The vocalist sounds like a slightly higher-pitched Bowie most of the time, but occasionally tries on the morbid Old Testamental solemnity of Scott Walker, and always sings with an echo, because he obviously does not like the idea of getting too close to his audience. The multi-instrumentalist clearly has more fun laying on the bass parts, which are loud, driving, catchy, and moody, and less fun adding the guitar, which he regularly plays in Andy Summers mode (i. e. the fewer notes played, the better, because the great reggae gods told us so). And, apparently, Robert Smith of The Cure adds some backing vocals — which I could not ever tell without the liner notes, but I'm thinking that his actual presence in the studio was a bigger kick for MacKenzie and Rankine than any possible contribution he could make. Because, let's face it, just one look at Robert Smith, and your depression quotient goes up five points.
But also, The Affectionate Punch is the band's most «rock»-oriented album, with a general live feel to all the tracks — pretty soon the duo would be moving in a synth-poppier direction. Not that this is particularly important: the Associates rocked on a moderate scale, with a bit of theatrical restraint and somewhat limited playing technique. They fare much better on the songwriting scale: quite a few of these tracks easily stand competition with Lodger-era Bowie in terms of creative ideas, even if, to me, only one stands out as instantly memorable: ʽEven Dogs In The Wildʼ, a superbly bleak, pessimistic look at humanity, encapsuled in a grumbly bass groove, an anthemic-romantic guitar riff, and a repetitive chorus that somehow trascends its repetitiveness and grows into a mantra of despair: "Even dogs in the wild, even dogs in the wild... could do better than this". This is the one they snatched from Heaven; not so sure about the others.
Still, as long as the others move along at decent tempos, they manage to be tense, sharp, and paranoid, just as the doctor ordered. The title track bounces on a sea of old-fashionedly distorted guitar chords and piano counterpoints, as MacKenzie and his vocal backers sing about "the affectionate punch" that "draws even more blood". Think about the deep meaning long enough to go crazy, and fandom will be your reward. ʽPaper Houseʼ shuffles along to a tricky tempo and a flood of wailing licks that remind of The Edge's style, but without the heroic echo effects. And on ʽWould I... Bounce Backʼ, MacKenzie wonders "if I threw myself from the ninth storey, would I levitate back to three?" against a wall of phased guitar sound that does seem to be bouncing up and down. (Don't try this at home, though).
Some of the slower ones really drag and require a deep admiration for MacKenzie's handsome, but not all that original operatic intonations to turn into personal favorites (ʽLogan Timeʼ; the noise-drenched ʽTransport To Centralʼ). But, since the band has a solid understanding of all their influences, and since MacKenzie rarely, if ever, goes completely over the top, and since the lyrics are appropriately obscure and ambiguous most of the time, The Affectionate Punch has no glaringly obvious downsides, other than failing to make it into the year's top 10 most impressive releases. And for all those who think that pop music really reached its zenith with Berlin-era Bowie, Joy Division, and Echo & The Bunnymen, The Affectionate Punch is required listening in any case. One could even say that the MacKenzie/Rankine duo paves the way for the much better known pairing of Morrissey and Marr — although the differences are as copious here as the resemblances. Anyway, a modest thumbs up.
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