Those Last Impressions: Billy MacKenzie

When Billy MacKenzie committed suicide in January, he was about to re-launch a career that sparkled briefly but brilliantly with The Associates. Lucy O’Brien recalls the daft japes, the dog breeding, and a truly great voice…

“SOUL MUSIC is expressing hurt in a poignant way,” Billy MacKenzie once said, “It’s an exorcism, a hilarious exorcism. People get strength from that. That’s why I like singing about real issues. I don’t want to sing about ceramic ashtrays.” MacKenzie’s gift was ever to elevate the mundane into glorious pop opera.

A warm-hearted maverick with a talent that was difficult to harness, MacKenzie never quite regained career momentum after 1982, his heyday with The Associates. In October 1996, aged 39, he signed a new deal with Nude, home of Suede, yet – poised on the brink of fresh success – he was overwhelmed by a depression triggered by the recent death of his mother Lily, and on January 23 he committed suicide. The music MacKenzie was working on was, by all accounts, the best since The Associates’ celebratory breakthrough album, Sulk, an audacious mix of his favourite influences, from blues to glam.

“I have different mixtures in my blood – Celtic Irish, John Knox Calvinistic, and on my father’s side, Romany traveling gypsies. Genetically I’ve got the lot, and that’ why I’ve a romance with rhythm and melody,” explained MacKenzie. Born in Dundee in 1957, he grew up listening to The Rolling Stones, Nancy Sinatra and his mother’s collection of jazz divas such as Dinah Washington and Lena Horne.

“My mum liked soul. She thought she was Dusty Springfield. I remember her standing in front of the mirror putting on false eyelashes and singing. I’d imitate her. No wonder I had personality problems.”

His grandmother was a jazz singer and his uncles played rock’n’roll guitar, so it wasn’t surprising that MacKenzie, the eldest of six children in a riotous Catholic family, opted for a musical career.

“There was always singing about the house,” he remembered, “and if it wasn’t singing, it was fighting.”

The MacKenzie clan built an empire of second-hand shops in Dundee, and a friend recalls how they were “very good at wheeling and dealing. There was gypsy stock in there, very colourful and artistic.”

After a stint in local covers bands, Mackenzie traveled around America and, at 17, was married in Las Vegas. It was a brief union and before long he was back in Dundee, running The Crypt, a designer clothes store on three floors with custom-made coffins for changing rooms. MacKenzie would regularly go down to London with £10,000 stuffed in his pocket to buy wholesale designer gear in Soho, which he would sell in Dundee as one-offs.

He would bring this stylistic savvy to his performances, along with a hefty punk influence. In the late ’70s, he and his mother were seen at Rezillos gigs.

“I was 20, she was 40, yet she thought Fay Fife was brilliant. She used to be at the back of the hall pinching glasses of snakebite.”

And it was at this time he was first spotted by Alan Rankine, then playing in a group in Edinburgh.

“The first time I saw Billy it was 1976 and he was performing with a band that were fairly shocking, but his voice was outstanding.”

Three weeks later Rankine needed a singer, so he got in touch. MacKenzie moved in with Rankine and his girlfriend, and they wrote together compulsively for the next three years.

There were several name and line-up changes before the pair became The Associates. At one time they were The Ascorbic Ones and when they joined ex-Polydor A&R man Chris Parry’s Fiction label (home of The Cure), they were Mental Torture.

“A contact dropped their tape by in early 1978. I was struck by the singer’s searing voice and the scorching guitar,” remembers Parry. “It was intense and untypical of music at the time. I wanted to sign them but I couldn’t find anyone else who liked them. I played a tape to Adrian Thrills at NME and he said. Yeah, that is bloody mental torture. Their dramatic Bowie-esque thing didn’t strike the right chord for the young media trendies.”

The Associates’ early work was a raw mixture of minimal electronics and rococo punk pop that Parry found difficult to package. He kept the duo on hold for a year while they made exploratory recordings, including a version of Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ on their own Double Hip label, before signing them properly in 1979. Their charged, experimental debut, The Affectionate Punch, was released the following year.

“It didn’t work straight away, but by the end of 1980 it really started to take off. People realized its magic,” claims Parry.

Already proving intensely prolific, The Associates moved on to Situation 2, an offshoot of Beggars Banquet, where they released a series of 12-inch singles, collated on the 1981 album Fourth Drawer Down. From the stylized metallic surge of ‘White Car In Germany’ to the chilling post-apocalyptic vision of ‘Q Quarters’, these songs, though still avant-garde in approach, evinced the strengthening melody lines that would go to make up the undeniable grandeur of Sulk.

By 1982 The Associates were ready to take on the Big Time, and signed a major deal with Warner Brothers. This was when they were at their peak.

“We had a symbiotic thing. We played off each other and wound each other up,” explains Rankine. “Sometimes Bill was an absolute joy to work with. It was never a workmanlike performance, just varying degrees of excellence or over the top.” He remembers them writing ‘Party Fears Two’ in 1977, five years before it became a massive hit.

“He’d travel over from Dundee, we’d go out on a Saturday night, get wrecked, and work all Sunday. We were at my parent’s house very hungover when we came up with the ‘Party Fears’ hook. It was neither disco, nor punk. To us it was so poppy it sounded like an advent for soap powder, but we knew we had a hit. It took a while to put it out because at first we were too esoteric for the punks and too rough and ready for the Durannies.”

Post-New Romantic, as British designer pop broke, Warners took a risk on the Scottish duo. “They had Modern Romance and Dollar and nothing else when we came along, so they snapped us up and gave us everything we wanted,” chuckles Rankine. Sulk, their first album for Warners, was a pinnacle of the so-called New Pop, with its vast swathes of melody, crystal-clear production and MacKenzie’s soaring, swooping vocals. It yielded the Top 20 hits ‘Party Fears Two’, ‘Club Country’ and the spin-off ‘Love Hangover’/’18 Carat Love Affair’. By the end of 1982 The Associates were partying hard and fast, and it was then that MacKenzie’s ebullient, mischievous spirit went into overdrive.

He would go to Monte Carlo for a night and blow £5,000, or book himself into Claridges for a week, just for the hell of it. He had a fleet of cars, even though he couldn’t drive. And when he got bored (which was often) he would play practical jokes, like substituting Vim for a line of cocaine on the studio engineers’ desk. His ability to vomit at will became legendary on a tour with Siouxsie & The Banshees. The Associates were getting gobbed on by the hardcore punk crowd, so MacKenzie went off stage for five minutes, downed four Pernod and blacks, then came back and sprayed the first four rows with projectile vomit. “The crowd loved it,” laughs Rankine, “They cheered us on after that.”

Another time he wound down the car window and launched his special vomit missile over a group of passers-by. There was also the time MacKenzie had a woman driver. As she drove him around, he would sit behind her masturbating into a bucket.

“He was a great mimic and very cheeky,” says Parry, “but there was also a desperation about him that was tiresome. Everything had to move at a million miles an hour. It became exhausting.” Although the scene was awash with cocaine and alcohol, MacKenzie tended not to partake. He was so hyper he found drugs unsettling and, as for drink, after a skinful, says Rankine, “he would throw up and fall asleep”. After months of hedonism, it became apparent that MacKenzie found the day-to-day reality of being in a successful rock band an onerous and destabilizing drag. At the end of 1982, after three hit singles and a hit album, as they were about to sign a deal in America, MacKenzie pulled out of a world tour.

“I fell out with him then,” admits Rankine. “He didn’t want to become a self-parody, whereas I was willing to play the game and deliver to the fans. I found it very frustrating. Everything we’d worked on for over seven years was down the tubes. I’m not blaming Bill now, it was just circumstances, like a divorce.”

MacKenzie went back into the studio to work with a variety of musicians as The Associates, but MacKenzie lacked the rigour of a true collaborative partner, and his post-Rankine output was patchy.

Disillusioned, he spent more and more time back in Dundee, walking in the hills and breeding pedigree whippets. The slender dogs became his trademark: he would pose with them for photographs and bring them to record company meetings, where they would wee over the polished pine floors. Yet in a newly reshuffled and streamline Warners, MacKenzie felt increasingly isolated.

The follow-up to SulkPerhaps, took a painfully long and expensive time to record, with MacKenzie frequently at loggerheads with the label.

“Billy was a sweetheart,” remembers Max Hole, then head of A&R at Warners, “but he never managed to find a musical soul mate like Alan Rankine and he couldn’t do it on his own. He had a lot of ideas in his head but couldn’t find anyone to translate them in the studio. That’s why everything took so long.”

Perhaps was finally released in 1985 to widespread acclaim. It may have lacked Sulk‘s full-scale attack, but embedded in the mix were wonderful tracks such as ‘Breakfast’, a transcendental, piano-led torch song. Even then, MacKenzie managed to sabotage his own success.

“We went close to the Top 40 and we got Top Of The Pops. Billy, bless him, went on, decided he was bored with the melody, and as it was a live vocal he sang a completely different tune,” recalls Hole.

MacKenzie found the next album an even greater ordeal. The Glamour Chase, a lush combination of offbeat dance tracks, large ballads and eccentric crooning, went way over budget and became his personal Heaven’s Gate. Though he spent years on it, the album was never released.

“He had terrible trouble finishing it,” declares Hole. “So when his contract expired we agreed that it would do him good to have a fresh start elsewhere.”

In the early ’90s he released two unremarkable dance-oriented albums, Wild And Lonely and 1992’s Outernational, on Virgin’s Circa label, and again, did little to promote them, preferring to stay in Dundee with his whippets. “I’m a country boy at heart. When I was 15 you wouldn’t find me in a disco, it’d be the hills,” he explained at the time.

In 1993, after collaborating with a variety of artists, including Paul Haig, Yello, Fini Tribe and Annie Lennox, he called up Rankine again and they spent several intense months on a batch of new songs. The material was inspired, but conditions were far from ideal. Rankine remembers working in MacKenzie’s cottage one day, while nine dogs sat on the sofa watching TV: “They had the run of the house and the place stank. We were writing in the middle of it.”

Although they had enough songs for an album, MacKenzie later backed out when the pair of them went for a record deal, anxious not to be “tied down”.

It wasn’t until 1994, the year before he was declared bankrupt, that MacKenzie seemed to find his way again. He began working with Steve Aungle, a friend, keyboardist and co-writer from Dundee. Over three years they worked on 40 songs.

“He was singing better than ever,” confirms Aungle. “Before, he was a real belter – Maria Callas on speed. But in recent songs he had a new, mature dynamic in his voice.”

Although Nude Managing Director Saul Galpern was skeptical about MacKenzie’s post-Associates output, he was impressed by the new material.

“This time it felt right,” he says. “It was loungey, beautiful and credible music. There was no question in my mind that he was on his way back.”

MacKenzie signed a deal and talked excitedly about the music, but events were to overtake him. Friends talk of his “gossamer-like quality” before he went home to Dundee for the final time. Many speculate that it was the thought of wrestling with the music business again that sent him over the edge, others that it was more the weight of personal grief that led him to take a drug overdose in his father’s garden shed. Remarkably, much of his early music remains deleted.

“I’ve always been a hippie, singing beautiful soul melodies. I’m a love child. I want everything to be harmonious, I can’t bear it when it’s not,” he once said.

That, maybe, is how he will be remembered, as one of the greatest soul singers Britain has produced.

10 great MacKenzie couplets

1. I’ll have a shower and then phone my brother up/Within the hour I’ll smash another cup (‘Party Fears Two’)
2. A drive from nowhere leaves you in the cold/Refrigeration keeps you young I’m told (‘Club Country’)
3. I’m glad I had this vital heart attack/It clears psoriasis (‘Nude Spoons’)
4. Taxidermist gave life to Hugh/It sits and begs and stares at you (‘Breakfast’)
5. I’m not one for surgery/Amateur senility/White car in Germany (‘White Car In Germany’)
6. Transport to Central/We need more like him/Do all you can to keep him alive/His jawline’s not perfect, but that can be altered (‘Transport To Central’)
7. Z is the black sheep of the alphabet/Z is the masculine letter/They said that Gs could starch their sweaters (‘A’)
8. I don’t know whether to over or underestimate you/But when I come over you then put me under/Personal taste is a matter of gender (‘A Matter Of Gender’)
9. Since when did you cook breakfast for/Lieutenant Paul in ruined Mirador? (‘Breakfast’)
10. Come to Q Quarters/We’re watching heads of state down here/Washing down bodies seems to me a dead-end chore/Floors me completely/Beauty drips from every pore (‘Q Quarters’)

© Lucy O’BrienQ, 1997

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