The Associates – Sulk – Round 10: Tom’s Selection

The late 80s and early 90s were a time of musical epiphany for me; not so much for the newly made music I was acquiring (although much of that was great) but more due to my realisation that, with an open mind and a bit of effort vast troves of undiscovered sonic treasure were lying in wait. I loved to pore over the music papers reading the band interviews intently, trying to determine the influences of my favourite new group, the albums they regarded as inspirational, and I soon realised that these albums tended to be much better than the record that was actually being plugged by the band in interview.

So, whilst I had a thing for Spacemen 3 at the time, the music they introduced me to through their interviews (Suicide, Television, Stooges, Can, Modern Lovers and many more)  has been played far more regularly in my household than, say, Recurring or Playing With Fire. The touchstones come in and out of fashion (I haven’t seen, for example, Starsailor or Astral Weeks referred to much in the last decade – two albums that were omnipresent in the British music press back at the turn of the 90s), but the weight of history is (almost) always a good judge of what constitutes a ‘classic’. However, the major music publications seem to have a frustrating tendency to gravitate to the canon – do we really need to be told that ‘Blonde on Blonde’ is a great album, yet again – so for the real gems, those wonderful records that have slipped into obscurity, I found the artists themselves to be a rich and surprisingly reliable source.

I can’t recall when I first became aware of Sulk (I don’t think it was through the Spacemen 3) but I do remember finding it on many occasions in second-hand record shops and walking on by, perhaps thinking that the last thing I needed in my collection was a load of sub-Duran New Romantic twaddle. It was also one of those records that appeared so frequently that I always thought to myself, ‘I’ll get it next time’. And then eventually it stopped turning up. And so I really wanted it. And I couldn’t find it! By the time I eventually secured a copy of Sulk, my levels of anticipation had become dangerously high, beyond that point where the outcome could normally be anything other than disappointment…at least that would be the case with most ‘ordinary’ records. But Sulk is anything but ordinary. Yet another ‘one off’ (they seem to be cropping up every meeting, these ‘one-offs’), Sulk is surely the weirdest, most challenging music ever to be referred to as ‘pop’. To echo my comments about Nick’s Rita Lee record from the last meeting, it is almost inconceivable these days that a record like Sulk could shift sufficient copies to reach number 10 in the album chart and stick around for 20 weeks.

The album itself is curiously put together, book-ended as it is by two instrumental tracks (‘Arrogance Gave Him Up’ and ‘nothingsomethingparticular’) – ironic considering Billy Mackenzie’s unimpeachable singing voice! Time hasn’t been as kind to these tracks and their reedy synths and tinny drumming, whilst nodding back to Bowie’s ‘Low’ and ‘Isi’ by Neu, in no way reflect the gargantuan complexity and thrilling innovation abundant throughout the album’s core. But as soon as the opener, Arrogance… finishes, it is clear things are going to be strange. ‘No’ begins with 30 seconds of unsettling guttural noise before erupting into a doom laden world of minor chords and ominous vocals that manage to sound both stately and otherwordly yet not crap (ie as in Goth). From thereon Mackenzie  is unrelenting, battering his audience with yelps and howls before suddenly diving into the depths of his remarkable four-octave range. The music is skittery yet magisterial, at times disorientating and always fascinating. To appropriate the words of one of my fellow DRC members Sulk is ‘one of my favourite albums ever’. Sub-Duran New Romantic twaddle this most certainly is not!

Nick listened: That opening paragraph, if you pushed the dates back a decade, could be something I would write, almost spookily so.

Anyway, once again Tom has chosen an album that I have owned for years but never listened to properly; I bought Sulk alongside Fourth Drawer Down probably six years ago or more, both albums together for a fiver or something, purely based on vague internet renown for the former album and Billy Mackenzie’s voice. Rob and Tom were insistent that I’d recognise Party Fears Two; I didn’t.

Sulk itself is, as suggested, a bizarre record: the drums seem too quick, too chaotic, for the songs; the synths and keyboards are somewhere between Bowie’s Berlin years and the worst 80s Miami Vice cheese, triggering cognitive dissonance regarding one’s taste; Mackenzie’s voice, and what he’s singing, are so flamboyant and strange as to seem avant-garde, yet we’re told this is pop? I think it’s only pop because it isn’t something else; pop by default.

Did I enjoy it? I was confused by it, which is a good sign, but I’m not sure what I thought of it yet. Like Pere Ubu, I’ve got the CD out of my racks and put it in a little pile mentally marked “to listen to soon”. Sadly I think Tom’s, and often Rob’s, choices suffer to my ears because of my antipathy to vinyl; that vinyl warmth that so many people love is like a veil over my ears on first listening, and I don’t feel like I’ve been able to hear the record properly a lot, especially if it’s in any less than terrific condition. I’m going to get teased for being a fidelity snob again…

Rob listened: Weirder than Nick’s Brazilian? Quite possibly. Either way, this is becoming a theme of the Club: records which either sound, or get filed as, ‘pop’ and turn out on revisiting, or closer listening, to be madder than a beach ball full of speeding frogs. I knew the two singles from ‘Sulk’ and ‘Party Fears Two’ is a fave, but hadn’t heard the album. It’s surprising. Had it been released in the last five years the critics would have been falling over themselves to praise its polyrhythmic precocity and we would assume The Associates were both wildly creative musicians and bulging-brained boffins. I haven’t looked back at the reviews, but I suspect back then they were just considered noisy Dundonians.

Anyhow, by far the major theme of the Club thus far has been the examination and revelation of how we listen to and discover music. Tom’s post and Nick’s response made me realise one of the key differences between their approaches and mine. Although in many ways we have ended up in the same places, amidst the hurly burly of discussion over the last 6 months, I’ve found myself wondering whether the way they seek music differs in some fundamental way to the way I do. Now I understand. When I read interviews, reviews and lists, and register the names of the bands and albums that have shaped the bands and albums that I love, I rarely, if ever, go looking for them. I’m never intrigued by a band’s advocacy of some long-lost obscurity whilst I am always irritated and dismayed when artists and articles talk about new bands they have discovered and of whom i’ve never heard. I love to read lists as much as they do, but when I scan them I do so looking for affirmation of the records I already have, rather than rare unseen names waiting to be learned and investigated.

I’ve thought a lot about this over the last couple of days and I could go on at even greater and more tedious length, but that’s what our meetings are for.


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