Alan Rankine was the maestro of the Associates’ post-punk pop – and an architect of indie

As the multi-instrumentalist musical force behind the Scottish art-pop band, and later as a producer and label boss, Rankine was an adventurous, experimental, inspirational figure
Alan Rankine of the Associates dies aged 64

It starts with a constellation of synthesiser drones and a piano riff that sounds as if it’s being played on crystal chandeliers, and ends with a sample of smashing cups. In between, the Associates’ Party Fears Two is five and a half sweeping minutes of art-pop perfection – a song commonly hailed for the vaulting, otherworldly vocals of mercurial singer Billy Mackenzie yet every bit as much a testament to the songwriting and musicianship of multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine.

Formed by Mackenzie and Rankine between Edinburgh and Dundee in 1979, the Associates were genius architects of magical, muscular outsider anthems; a febrile cocktail of sex, drugs, chaos, breathtaking good looks and rampant creativity. For a fleeting period in 1982, they kissed the sky with three hit singles. As a producer, Rankine helped craft a shimmering swathe of 1980s music for artists including Cocteau Twins, Paul Haig and the Pale Fountains. In the 1990s, as a lecturer at Stow College in Glasgow, he played a critical role in the origins of another seminal Scottish band with a distinctly outsider outlook, Belle and Sebastian.

Born in Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire, Rankine was a hard-rock kid in the mid-1970s when he saw an otherwise forgettable Dundonian cod-funk band fronted by Mackenzie, a tearaway young lad with a fantastical voice destined for greater things. Rankine quickly invited him to join his cabaret band Mental Torture. “He arrived in a taxi wearing straight-leg trousers,” Rankine told Simon Reynolds in his post-punk history Rip It Up. “I had an Afghan coat and flares and hair down to my arsehole.” Their clash of worlds had explosive results, and the partnership matured into the Associates.

The Associates: Party Fears Two – video

Rankine knew Mackenzie was gay when they met, though it was never discussed. In juxtaposition with his fey mannerisms and flamboyant sartorial style, Mackenzie was street-tough and unafraid to show it. “He will kick your fucking head in four times over before you can blink,” Rankine once spoke fondly of his bandmate. Somewhere therein lay the unique tension at the heart of the band’s music and aesthetic.

Having made their debut in 1979 with a cover of David Bowie’s Boys Keeping Swinging, the Associates forged a reputation as studio addicts, pulling all-night sessions and throwing everything but the kitchen sink at tracks in search of a sound at once uncanny and majestic. Rankine played every instrument on many of their recordings, and Party Fears Two producer Mike Hedges called him “a maestro at pretty much everything”. Weird sounds were conjured from experiments including vocals sung through comb and greaseproof paper, and water balloons rubbed against guitar strings. White Car in Germany, the Kraftwerk-y opening track from the Associates’ 1981 compilation album Fourth Drawer Down, still sounds like the future.

As record label money started to flow, the Associates became famous for their excesses. During sessions for their defining album, 1982’s Sulk (“Abba on acid,” as Mackenzie called it), they were said to have spent half their advance moving into individual rooms in an upmarket London hotel, including an extra room for Mackenzie’s pet whippets which he fed room-service smoked salmon. Enthusiastic if naive drug users, Rankine and Mackenzie once snorted seven grams of speed believing it to be one gram of cocaine, and consequently found themselves side by side in hospital on heart monitors.

(L-R) Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie operforming at University of London Union, 30 January 1981.
(L-R) Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie performing at the University of London Union in 1981. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

The Associates’ peaked in 1982 with a run of miraculous singles: Party Fears Two, which broke the Top 10, the galloping Club Country and the extravagant 18 Carat Love Affair. Memorable appearances on Top of the Pops projected their wit, panache and mischief. In one, Rankine wore a fencing suit and plucked a banjo; in another he strummed a guitar made of chocolate which he then tried to feed to the audience. But the band’s success rapidly melted away. Rankine quit in 1982 after a fallout with Mackenzie over the last-minute cancellation of a US tour. Mackenzie carried on the band in name only for two more albums before going solo. The Associates burned briefly but phosphorescently. In Rip It Up, Reynolds writes: “If I had to pick one band that fulfilled the New Pop dream of a chart-busting music that combined pop’s flash with post-punk’s perplexity, it would be the Associates.”

Their split didn’t stop Rankine. Highlights of his subsequent production career include former Josef K singer Paul Haig’s underrated 1989 album Chain. And in the late 1980s he decamped to Belgium to make a string of lush solo albums that are ripe for rediscovery. In 1994 he began working at Stow College in Glasgow, helping students set up their own record label, Electric Honey. Their first album, made by a bunch of scrappy misfits, was released in 1996 and became an indie classic: Tigermilk by Belle and Sebastian.

“He was one of the few mentor figures that the early band had ­– somebody that actually sort of got it,” frontman Stuart Murdoch tells me. “We were tickled, we really liked the Associates. The fact that Alan was the class teacher, it was funny. He still cut a suave figure. We only formed because Alan said: ‘OK, make this record’. He really embraced the group and gave us every opportunity. The label also released early albums by Snow Patrol and Biffy Clyro.

In 1993, before he began working at Stow, Rankine had reconvened with Mackenzie to begin working on new Associates material, generating much hype and speculation. But Mackenzie couldn’t commit, and the partnership fizzled out for the last time. Mackenzie killed himself in 1997, aged 39. On the Associates’ legacy as one of the great could-have-beens of British pop, Rankine always remained philosophical. “These things happen,” he told Reynolds. “All I know is I worked with one of the best singers in the world.” Where many might have wilted in the presence of such greatness, Rankine rose to it and matched it all the way.


Malcolm Jack

The GuardianTramp

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