Audrey Redpath wasn’t expecting Billy MacKenzie’s family to turn up at her debut gig fronting Band “A.”, founded specifically to play the late Associates’ vocalist’s songs from his band’s first album, The Affectionate Punch. This is exactly what happened, however, when Band “A” played the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh, when others who had been enthralled by The Associates’ audacious way with a tune packed the venue’s ballroom to witness Redpath and co’s homage to MacKenzie and the band’s other half, Alan Rankine.
While songs from the album that writer Paul Morley hailed as ‘a passionate cabaret soul music, a fulfilment of the European white dance music Bowie was flirting with back then’ were hard enough to play, the presence of the extended MacKenzie clan added extra edge.
“I didn’t know they were coming,’ says Redpath. “They’d sent a message, but we missed it. In the end it didn’t matter, because they seemed to love it, were really supportive and totally gave their blessing to what we’re doing. They came again when we played in Dundee, and we had a really good chat with them. I think they just like hearing the songs. A guy called Steve Knight was at the Dundee show as well. He’d played bass with The Associates on the first Affectionate Punch tour, and he knew how hard it was to play some of the songs, so it’s just as well we’d rehearsed them as much as we did.”
The Associates were formed by MacKenzie and Rankine in 1979, and cheekily introduced themselves to the world by way of a self-released and unauthorised cover of David Bowie’s song, Boys Keep Swinging, mere weeks after Bowie’s own version had become a hit. This first of many maverick moves garnered the duo the attention they were looking for, leading to them signing to the Fiction label and releasing The Affectionate Punch. It would be another two years and two albums later that The Associates would go fleetingly stratospheric with the breathless pop genius of Party Fears Two, but the template for doing things on their own terms was set early on.
Such wilful individualism arguably led to a parting of the ways between MacKenzie and Rankine at what should have been their world-conquering peak. While Rankine put out a series of under the radar albums on the Belgian Les Disques du Crepuscule label, MacKenzie retained the Associates name for two more albums before releasing material under his own name prior to his passing in 1997. As a statement of intent, The Affectionate Punch is a complex collection of songs difficult for any band to pull off.
“It is a challenge, I have to say,” Redpath understates somewhat. “We’re all huge fans of The Associates, and we started thinking a couple of years ago about how the fortieth anniversary of The Affectionate Punch being released was coming up in 2020. We started listening to the album again, and we got together to try out a couple of songs. That seemed to work, and we enjoyed it so much we kept on doing it, and before we knew where we were we’d gone through the whole album. It was challenging at points learning the songs, because they’re so unique, but we kept working at it, and there was an edge to things when we played the songs, but we had a passion for them. That’s what drove things.”
Redpath is no stranger to music. In the mid 1980s, she was the voice of Pop Wallpaper, and then Grace River, with the latter releasing a single produced by Rankine. She also sang backing vocals with Big Country on Made in Heaven, written for Alan Rudolph’s film of the same name, and worked with ex Josef K singer Paul Haig. Haig had collaborated with MacKenzie, and more recently gave Band “A.” its name. Redpath also created the Audrey Sings Nico show, and appeared alongside the likes of Isobel Campbell and Duglas T Stewart of BMX Bandits in Mondo Morricone, and with Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub and Chris Thomson of The Bathers in Je T’aime Gainsbourg.
With such a pedigree, Band “A.” is in no way a tribute group. As a female singer, Redpath doesn’t attempt to imitate the sonic largesse of MacKenzie’s vocals. Nor are the band, made up of guitarist Dave Guild, bass player Brian Branford, keyboardist Mike Nolan and drummer Ali Wilson, simply replicating Rankine’s similarly off-kilter arrangements. Rather, Band “A.”’s take on The Affectionate Punch is an interpretive homage that sees them put their individual stamp on the songs while retaining the essence of the originals.
“It’s really modern,” Redpath says of The Affectionate Punch four decades on. “It still sounds really fresh and original. The lyrics are quite full-on and really expressive. There are all these different meanings you can attach to them, and when you start working on the songs you become aware of the incredible detail in them. The arrangements of the songs as well are really intricate and really clever. You put all that together, and you can see that the chemistry Billy and Alan had was really special.”
Plans for Band “A.” include a focus on original work, but their liaison with The Affectionate Punch is far from over. Redpath hopes they might do something in August to tie in with the anniversary of the album’s release date, and she expresses a desire for a larger event, where both contemporaries of the band and those they influenced could take part.
“The Associates were such a unique band,” says Redpath. “When you listen to Billy MacKenzie’s voice, it has such an impact on you emotionally. Playing the songs live is such a great feeling, and for people like us who were fans of the Associates, hearing the songs live will be a reminder of what a great record The Affectionate Punch is. Hopefully they’ll feel the same as us, because it’s such an important piece of work.”
Band “A.” play Oran Mor in Glasgow as part of Celtic Connections on January 18.
The Herald, January 16th 2020