“You got a heart of glass, got a heart of stone. Just you wait til I get you home.” – Pet Shop Boys, West End Girls
After the initial shake up that the Associates gave to early Eighties music with a number of eclectic, eccentric singles and the two albums, The Affectionate Punch and Fourth Drawer Down (a contract-filling compilation of A and B-sides), they displayed their full house of a record with the bizarrely bold Sulk, an album many in Britain still consider one of the musical events of the decade. But after Billy created the musical divorce between himself and fellow Associate Alan Rankine, there was a dense silence for a few years.
Until 1985’s Perhaps, in fact, the record that established Billy as the lone Associate. Borne out of the ashes of The Glamour Chase, an album Warners point bank refused to release, the set had a troubled gestation, and despite bringing in a number of noted producers and musicians to help out, it was the classic case of ‘too many cooks…’ and the LP received mixed reviews.
Perhaps a tad overambitious, the album took on pedestrian pop pap head on, slicing through the mid-‘80s malaise with adventurous grace. Lush and playful, it showed Billy’s vocals adjusting into a less hystrionic rush. Less a hysterical Bowie on steroids, but still throwing that amazing voice around his notes like one slings a silken scarf about the neck. Seductive ease was the style, and stylishly clever lyrics the norm.
But then… another deafening silence. Until 1988, when Billy’s whacked out techno-pop cover of Heart of Glass tripped into clubs. This lead to the rumours about his next album, until the stories of musical bloodshed and artistic war waging crept out instead of a long-player. Mucho mistrust indeed.
Since it was an audience favourite during the Associates’ infrequent live shows, Mackenzie had agreed to record a more electronic dance version of Blondie’s late Seventies chestnut. Perhaps inevitably, in the first indication of a climate that exists to this day of launching new acts – or indeed re-launching ailing ones – with a cover version of a well-known hit, Warners made enthusiastic noises about the track having single potential.
Helmed by former Adam and the Ants drummer Chris Hughes just after he’d hit his producer’s purple patch with Tears For Fears, HOG’s grandiose synth stabs and widescreen delivery wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Pet Shop Boys’ epic Introspective opus released the following month.
A slightly unspectacular retread of a much-loved classic from the time when disco didn’t suck, there is a lingering argument that Billy was bulldozed into releasing Heart of Glass as what was inevitably classed as a comeback record, issued, coincidentally almost ten years to the day that the original had first appeared on the band’s epochal Parallel Lines album.
Although the track became a floor filler on the club scene of Blondie’s home turf, New York City, Heart of Glass limped into the British charts at No.56. Cue the not uncommon story of a disillusioned pop star blaming everyone but themselves:
“Being totally honest about it, it was the record company’s choice. I’m still about half a million pounds in the red and they’ve never got anything back so, although it was a mess, I thought ‘Why not?’ When the tape came back I thought it sounded like early Can, early electronic music, so I started enjoying it a bit.”
The accompanying video hardly helped matters either. Adhering to a lumpen storyboard that involved wandering in and out of a set depicting a caravan park full of cheesy circus performers, the singer offers an agonisingly stiff and uneasy performance, as if recognising the whole scenario around him to be slightly ridiculous and hugely embarrassing.
Perhaps of greater interest to collectors of the Mackenzie muse, were the various B-sides and additional tracks scattered across various formats.
Heaven’s Blue is a charmingly brief, piano-led instrumental presaged the sort of reflective, majestic music that Billy would go on to record in the ‘90s and would be collected on the remarkable posthumous releases Transmission Impossible and Beyond The Sun.
Her Only Wish is a nervy Mackenzie production that shows that he didn’t need Alan Rankine to make music that was fully worthy of the Associates name. The resulting track had an edgy vibe that could have seen it rubbing shoulders with Fourth Drawer Down material, had it not used tech that didn’t exist in 1981.
The other two songs here are unique Mackenzie rarities on the 3″ CD, the Associates first compact disc single, in fact. The swoonsome Breakfast is an alternate take to what had been released nearly four years earlier, though still produced by former Buzzcocks and Visage knob-twiddler Martin Rushent, fresh from his fall-out over-saturation with the Human League.
Finally, trivia fans, the version of Those First Impressions (the second Associates single I purchased, after 18 Carat Love Affair two years earlier) is unique for the slightly longer drum intro that was edited off all previous issues.
Produced by Heaven 17’s Martin Ware in 1984, one would like to think that Mackenzie was particularly enamoured of the drum fillips and lamented their excision on all previous issues of the song, and putting his foot down, demanded its appearance here. As Debbie Harry would say, Ooo ooo ooo whoa.
Featured image: Lower Manhattan and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center from the Liberty Island Ferry, 26 September 1995 © Steve Pafford 1995, 2018
It Was 35 Years Ago Today: Associates do confectionary on Top of the Pops is here