ASSOCIATES Singles (Warner Strategic Marketing)

A double CD of Associates singles might sound like a bit of a stretch, but allowing for the fact that it also takes in pseudonymous works credited to 39, Lyon Street and Mackenzie Sings Orbidoig as well as Billy Mackenzie’s solo years “Singles” does indeed contain exactly what it says on the tin.

Could they possibly have announced their intentions and influences any more blatantly than with a debut single cover of David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging”, recorded whilst the original was practically still in the charts? It’s a curious but not unappealing version, made mainly from a slithering bassline and Mackenzie’s astonishing, operatic vocals. Think Pet Shop Boys trapped in Bowie’s Berlin, all hopped up on a very strange brew indeed. The aforementioned 39, Lyon Street – essentially the Associates but with one Christine Beveridge on vocals – offer a blank-eyed interpretation of Simon Dupree And The Big Sound’s 1967 hit “Kites”, an unexpected highlight of this collection. Other tracks from these pre-fame years suggest a noirish world of spy movie intrigue, all street lamps, cigar smoke and Kurt Weill. Yet modern sounds abound as well – the opening moments of the “Low”-ish “White Car In Germany” have an almost Aphex Twin hardness to them.

The real fun is to be found when such high-minded artistic ideals become gleefully corrupted by the rush and gush of low pop. There’s no finer four minutes here than the magnificent “Party Fears Two”, the duo’s highest-charting single, later to enjoy an extended afterlife as the theme music to Radio 4’s “Week Ending”. Everything comes together here – that clanking, gothic piano riff, the bizarre lyrics, Mackenzie’s startling, startled vocal. Try as they might they would never top it, even the other singles from 1982’s “Sulk” album paling in its shadow.

Instead, in concert with the departure of instrumentalist Alan Rankine, Associates singles began to display highly polished, glossy productions. All that remained was that voice and some breezy tunes that slid sleekly past like, well, a white car in Germany – presuming that the white car in question wasn’t a Trabant. “Breakfast” tiptoes on Marc Almond territory, velveteen, varnished decadence hung heavy with fog rolling in from a cold war thriller. The kitsch pop of “Take Me To The Girl” and “Baby” could almost be forgotten moments from the darkest recesses of Dusty Springfield or Sandie Shaw’s back catalogues. The mysterious barbershop quartet stylings of “Country Boy”, on the other hand, are unlike almost anything else in rock. All of this, though, almost inevitably suffers against the awesome pop juggernaut of “Heart Of Glass”, inferior to the Blondie original though it may be.

Despite its reasonable price and clarity of concept, “Singles” seems an excessive package. Associates enthusiasts will already own this material, whilst the interested beginner not sated by the more agreeably compact 1991 compilation “Popera” would be better served heading towards the original albums.  Nevertheless, cherish “Singles” for its single (pun unintended, honestly) minded determination to ensure that the brief, blinding brilliance of the late Billy Mackenzie is not forgotten.