The making of The Associates’ “Party Fears Two”

After a night out drinking, two friends conjure up a magical piano riff. But the time’s not right, so for three years it stays “in our back pocket”…

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It remains one of the great Top Of The Pops appearances. On February 25, 1982, The Associates made their first serious assault on the national consciousness, performing the transgressive pop of “Party Fears Two” to a teatime audience. The spectacle of Billy Mackenzie – resplendent in belted raincoat and beret as he negotiates the thrilling peaks and plains of the determinedly Delphic lyric – still excites four decades later.

Based on a glistening piano line written before The Associates even existed, “Party Fears Two” evolved into the first song recorded for the band’s classic third album, Sulk, becoming their sole Top 10 hit and signature song. Its blend of pop smarts, elegantly unexpected hooks, swooping vocals and disquieting lyrics render it a glorious puzzle defying easy explanation.

A deceptively unguarded examination of outsiderdom, Mackenzie claimed it was inspired by two girls trying to crash a party his younger brother was attending by smashing in the windows with their stilettos. Alan Rankine, Mackenzie’s partner in The Associates and the song’s co-writer, divines a deeper meaning. “I think it’s more nebulous than a specific event,” says Rankine. “It might have been based on that, but Bill and I were always just fucking outsiders. We never fitted. We felt like imposters. We felt like we’d got in with forged papers. Even when we did get into parties, we were bored shitless, but we had to prove to ourselves that we could get inside. For me it’s about feeling alienated, like you don’t belong and feeling also that other people seem to be doing it with ease.”

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“Party Fears Two” was recorded at the start of the wild sessions for Sulk, The Associates’ third album, produced by Mike Hedges, who had worked with the band since their 1980 debut, The Affectionate Punch. Its regal progress was the peak of their brief reign of magnificence. Rankine left soon afterwards, frustrated by Mackenzie’s inability to play the promo game. “None of the then requirements to consolidate success were in any way part of Billy’s nature,” says bassist Michael Dempsey. “The idea of him marking his diary with a year of repeated activity spent waking, travelling, sound checking and performing was, to all who knew him, never remotely likely to be realised.”

Though Rankine and Mackenzie explored the possibility of an Associates reunion not long before Mackenzie took his own life in 1997, “Party Fears Two” stands as the ultimate testament to their partnership. In a catalogue scattered with gems, it’s revered as the brightest diamond. “I’m good with that,” says Rankine. “Very happy indeed.”

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