The Associates' Alan Rankine on '˜special' bandmate Billy Mackenzie

It's 40 years since Alan Rankine first met Billy Mackenzie, and The Associates were born. As their music, which electrified the post punk scene, is re-issued, Rankine shares his memories with Fiona Shepherd

Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie  in 1983. Picture: Sheila Rock/REX/Shutterstock
Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie in 1983. Picture: Sheila Rock/REX/Shutterstock

Culture loves an anniversary but there’s never a bad time to celebrate the life and work of The Associates, still one of the most audacious pop bands Scotland has ever produced, fronted by the extraordinary Billy Mackenzie.

This month, fans can rekindle their 18-carat – nay, 24-carat – love affair with the band via remastered re-issues of their first three albums, The Affectionate Punch, singles compilation Fourth Drawer Down and the breakthrough hit Sulk, while curious newcomers can sup on a sumptuous Very Best of Associates compilation.

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If you must have a hook on which to hang your adoration, it is 40 years since budding keyboard player Alan Rankine first encountered the force majeure of Billy Mackenzie - as a disembodied voice on stage at a packed gig. “I’d never heard anyone like him,” says Rankine. “I said ‘I have got to get with that guy’. Within four days, Bill had left Dundee for Edinburgh and within two days of being in Edinburgh he was living on the sofabed of my flat. We just clicked immediately.”

Billy Mackenzie performs on The Tube. Picture: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Keen anniversary watchers will have spotted that the timing of this fateful meeting coincided with the first cathartic howl of punk rock but, while Rankine will happily cop to a punk ethos, the nascent Associates, trading under a variety of names, were determined to plough their own furrow.

“At that time all the punk bands in Edinburgh were playing Nicky Tam’s [situated on Victoria Street] and getting paid £15 a night,” recalls Rankine.

“It seemed to us that they were almost like pop-up shops. You know, they would try for two weeks and if that didn’t work, they’d regroup and be back with another name but essentially the same stuff. We said ‘f*** that, let’s do some miners’ welfare clubs and chicken-in-a-basket hotel gigs. We were doing the covers of the day, we just learned six new ones every Sunday. That way you were getting £100 a night, so it kept us afloat so that we could do all this writing.

“Bill would come through religiously to my parents’ house in Linlithgow, getting two trains on a Saturday evening. We’d go out and get slaughtered and then on Sunday we’d be at the piano, drinking tea, flicking fag ash all over and feeling wretched. But somehow you can get away with that when you are 19 or 20.”

Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie of The Associates performing at University of London Union, London, United Kingdom, on 30 January 1981. Picture: David Corio/Redferns

It was during those early writing sessions that they hit on the exhilarating keyboard hook they would later use on their debut hit Party Fears Two – “that motif took as long to write as it did to play” – but it wasn’t until the Sulk sessions that Rankine feels they “hit a mother lode of creativity. It was unstoppable. Fast forward a few months and we were on Top Of The Pops.”

On one TOTP appearance, Rankine played a chocolate guitar from Harrods. “I just fed it to the audience, right into their gobs. And I had a spare one in case the big Super Trouper lights melted it. That was going to be given away as a prize to the fanclub but they ate that too.”

The young band acquired a reputation for profligacy, living for five months in a Holiday Inn in Swiss Cottage, with a separate room for Mackenzie’s beloved whippets. “Every week, the computer printout of our bills would be 35 pages long. We liked cashmere jumpers, what can I say? If we could have had cashmere Y-fronts, we would have had them.”

Well, this was the age of record company largesse and pop star excess after all. But Rankine downplays the group’s appetites. “We were never a band that went into the studio and said ‘where’s the booze, spliff me up and chop one out’. Cocaine gave me the same feeling as dogging school at the end of term. Other bands were getting it in by the kilo, and bands’ PRs would hide that. Not us, we were lightweight. We told our guys ‘if we come out a club and fall in the gutter, we want a photograph’.”

Billy Mackenzie performs on The Tube. Picture: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Rankine shows off an old snapshot of Mackenzie projectile vomiting – a skill perhaps not quite on a par with his stratospheric vocal skills – but by late 1982, Mackenzie was certainly sick of promotional responsibilities, and bailed on a US tour.

“We’d gone from a four-piece band in 1980 to a nine-piece, and it was just overblown, so I don’t blame Bill for not wanting to do that. He needed to stretch his legs.”

In the end, it was Rankine who walked first, leaving Mackenzie to continue with the Associates name. There were further hits and two more albums but the sense of adventure was gone.

The pair briefly reunited in 1993, thanks to behind-the-scenes matchmaking by their fathers. “I hadn’t seen Bill for 11 years but it was like I hadn’t seen him for two weeks. It was like two old socks in a drawer who had found each other.”

Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie of The Associates performing at University of London Union, London, United Kingdom, on 30 January 1981. Picture: David Corio/Redferns

They wrote 11 songs in one weekend, and demoed a handful, including Stephen, You’re Still Really Something, a playful reply to The Smiths’ William, It Was Really Nothing, suggested by some to be inspired by Mackenzie.

This cherished flurry of activity was to be the last time Rankine would work with Mackenzie. Less than four years later, Mackenzie took his own life, defeated by the death of his mother and years of struggling with mental health issues.

“Bill and I never had a cross word, not once, but there was always the feeling I got from him that he couldn’t switch off. He was always on to a scary degree. He would say ‘sometimes I feel like I want to open my head and pull all the clothes out of the washing machine and iron them and fold them neatly and put them back’. I could detect real angst in that.

“But I’m so glad that I met Bill. We were mad, we brought stuff out of each other, and it was magical. Bill was special.”

• The Affectionate Punch, Fourth Drawer Down, Sulk and The Very Best of Associates are out now on BMG