Thursday, June 21, 2012

The sound of young Scotland: Josef K, The Fire Engines and The Associates

One of Josef K's best songs, "It's Kinda Funny", was inspired by Ian Curtis's death. 'I loved Joy Division and was really freaked out that he could take his own life aged twenty-three', recalls frontman Paul Haig. 'Just the thought of how easy it was to disappear through a crack in the world'. Nevertheless, he stresses that "It's Kinda Funny", while 'not a happy song', was 'still saying you don't have to be depressed about life - you can still laugh about it'.

Josef K - It's Kinda Funny 1980

Throughout the Josef K songbook, Haig sounds high on anxiety, finding an odd, giddy euphoria in doubt. Nourished by an intellectual diet of Penguin Modern Classics and European existentialism, songs like "Sorry for Laughing" ('there's too much happening') and "Radio Drill Time" ('we can glide into trance') addressed 'man's endless struggle'.

Josef K - Sorry for Laughing 1981

Josef K- Radio Drill Time 1980

On their masterpiece, "Endless Soul", the singer's suave croon surfs the fraught glory of Josef K's guitars, as if trying to strike the correct, flattering posture in the face of 'the absurdity of being alive in a godless, vacuous universe', as Haig puts it.

Josef K - Endless Soul

On The Fire Engines' archetypal tune "Discord", high-toned beetling bass and loping drums create a nervous, hyperactive funk; the guitars throw out electric sparks like live wires that are cut and writhing, while singer Davey Henderson yelps like a pixie version of James Brown at his most agitated.

The Fire Engines - Discord 1980

For the next single, "Candyskin", Pop:Aural's owner Bob Last hired half a dozen string players - 'not as expensive as you might imagine' - to add a hilariously incongrous symphonic patina tot he group's jagged sound.

The Fire Engines - Candyskin 1981

For their self-released debut single, The Associates covered Bowie's "Boys Keep Swinging". As a way of announcing themselves to the world, it neatly combined homage to one of the biggest influences on singer Billy MacKenzie's vocal style and sheer hubris (their version came out in late 1979, only months after Bowie's original had left the charts).

The Associates - Boys Keep Swinging 1979

In August 1980, just as the music-press buzz about Scotland was building, Fiction released the debut Associates album, The Affectionate Punch: windswept never-never pop. The striking cover image showed MacKenzie and fellow Associate Alan Rankine as athletes hunched together at the start of a running track - a 'clean', healthy, faintly Nietzschean image expressing the singer's belief that music, bodily movement and physical fitness were closely related. 'Bill had been a very good runner. I had been a very good tennis player', recalls Rankine. 'So that imagery was related to trying to be...not superior exactly, but rising above ther shit and nonsense of rock 'n' roll and the music business'.

The music The Associates produced during their speed-addled sessions was 'psychedelic' - not in any literal, flashback-to-1967 way, but in its pursuit of mutated sounds, saturated textures and unusual instrumentation. 'We got into glockenspiels, xylophones, vibraphones, but using them in a manic way that hadn't been done before', recalls Rankine. 'We also did vocal treatments - "Kitchen Person" has Bill singing down the long tubing off a vacuum cleaner, while on "White Car in Germany", some of the vocals were literally sung through a greaseproof paper and a comb!'

The Associates - Kitchen Person 1981

Possibly The Associates' all-time classic, "White Car in Germany" taps into the un-American "Europe Endless"-ness of Bowie's Berlin trilogy: MacKenzie operatically declaims cryptic lines like 'Walk on eggs in Munich' and 'Düsseldorf's a cold place/Cold as spies can be' over a metronomic march rhythm.

The Associates - White Car in Germany 1981

"Q Quarters", another immortal classic, sounds like Habsburg dub. Its furtive rhythm, broken balalaika riff, echoing footsteps, and dank electronic atmospheres evoke Cold War scenarios: The Third Man and The Ipcress File, partitioned cities, deportations, informers and double agents. 'Ooh, that's a dark song", says Rankine. 'Bill just let rip with the imagery. The line "Washing down bodies seems to me a dead-end chore" comes from his grandma, who had worked in the morgue during the Second World War'.

The Associates - Q Quarters 1981

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