Coalescing in the mid-'60s as the California folk scene transitioned towards folk-rock, The Association are one of the era's most underappreciated bands. It struggled to earn respect as rock became dominated by albums rather than singles, and tastemakers often dismissed the band as soft pop due to their smooth harmonies and a string of giant hits like "Windy" and "Never My Love."
While the hits have stuck around in the pop culture consciousness -- and the band has remained active in some form right up to the present day -- these songs are also all many listeners know and continue to pigeonhole the group. The Association is a great pop band, but there's a lot more going on in its full catalog.
To this day, a scan of used record bins won't take too long to yield a copy of the band's awkwardly-titled debut album, but good luck finding one that's not beat up. Released in the summer of 1966 by Valiant Records, And Then… Along Comes The Association is a rare example of a mid-'60s rock album that actually sounds good in stereo. This one's not vocals-on-one-side-and-instruments-on-the-other; rather, listening on headphones reveals a detailed and natural-sounding mix. The album was one of the first -- and, unfortunately, few -- big commercial successes for now-legendary Wisconsin-born "sunshine pop" producer and artist Curt Boettcher, but it's one heck of a calling card.
The band's first big hit, the cryptic "Along Comes Mary," paved the way for the studio time (and probably the cost involved) for the album. It's on there along with a folk-rock take on Billy Ed Wheeler's jazz-folk number "Blistered," the spacey "Message of Our Love" written by Boettcher and "Mary" author Tandyn Almer, and a whole mess of strong group-written originals, including the monster hit ballad "Cherish." It's a near-perfect album from the strongest musical year of the '60s.
So, why isn't The Association as mythologized today as say The Byrds, a band that had arguably less commercial success at the time, and was also less consistent musically? Well... it's hard to name any one factor.
Despite the success of And Then… Along Comes The Association, the group was unhappy with Boettcher's decision to hire studio musicians, so its members hired Jerry Yester to produce their next album. Showing their eclectic nature, they then chose to release the decidedly odd psych number "Pandora's Golden Heebie Jeebies" as the follow-up single to "Cherish," which probably left fans of that song scratching their heads in confusion.
After another single on Valiant stalled in the middle of the charts, the label was bought by Warner Brothers. While the company quickly steered The Association into its longest string of pop chart success, this also seems to have shielded the group from having much luck at attracting an underground rock audience to their finely-crafted albums. As sales dropped, the label let their albums go out of print -- other than the continually selling Greatest Hits -- rather than keeping them available for new listeners to discover.
While many great bands over the years have experienced similar label disinterest once the hits stopped, The Association waited much longer than many others to see their original albums reissued, before it finally happened in the mid-'00s. (Valiant Records, VLM-5002/VLS-25002 (stereo), 1966; available on CD from Collector's Choice)