BILLY MACKENZIE : A SMALL APPRECIATION

dp-the-associates-billy-mackenzie-by-gilbert-blecken-1994-1

Most people with even just a passing acquaintance with early 80s UK pop music will be vaguely aware of Billy Mackenzie thanks to the run of three chart singles – Party Fears Two, Club Country and 18 Carat Love Affair – enjoyed by his band Associates back in 1982. If those three classic 45s had been all that he had ever lent his distinctive and unique vocal talents to, then Billy Mackenzie would still be worthy of having a place at the top table of pop geniuses for they are unlike any other hit songs of that era that more than three decades on still have the ability to impress and astonish with every single listening.

It will be 18 years ago tomorrow since Billy took an overdose to end his life just two months short of his 40th birthday – and there will be a special guest posting coming your way from one of his biggest and long-standing fans  – Sid Law – who for a number of years kept the flame alive in a tremendously informative and quite unique fan site called Whippet At The Wheel (click here).

The site was only up and running for a short period of time and there were only ever 32 postings….but what made it so very special was that Sid was posting songs and music that otherwise had never been made commercially available at any time…and he’s kindly doing the same tomorrow as well as allowing me to put up a piece of music today. I’m really thrilled and honoured.

At the time of Billy Mackenzie’s his death, he had been largely forgotten by most music fans and considered an irrelevance by all but the most loyal of his fanbase. As is so often the case, it took death for a more honest and meaningful reappraisal of his career to happen and if anything he is better known today than he was even at the height of his fame.

A lot of this has to do with the initial 1998 publication of The Glamour Chase by Tom Doyle, in which Billy’s life-story is told with huge affection and honesty. The book led to a 40-minute long television documentary here in Scotland (currently available to view on YouTube – just click this link), and then in 2009 a play was written and performed in his home city of Dundee and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Two years later, Tom Doyle revised and updated the biography, leaning on much of what had been said and written in the first decade of this century, a period in which a poll of many hundreds of Scottish music bloggers had voted Party Fears Two as the greatest ever Scottish single and in which many famous musicians the world over had cited Billy Mackenzie as being as big an influence on them as anyone else.

As with any well-written and well-researched biography, the book filled in a lot of gaps in knowledge in terms of the personal and fleshed out much in terms of the musical. It shed light on the complex nature of Billy’s love for his home city; as a teenager he couldn’t wait to escape its confines in a period when it was in very steep decline – physically, economically and culturally – but it was also his place of refuge when things weren’t going so well for him. It highlights just how hard he and others worked to make his band a success – it wasn’t until the release of their 10th single and 3rd LP that Associates finally had a hit – and tries to make sense of the accompanying madness and chaos that led to the band, in its most commercially successful guise, imploding almost immediately.

In a pre-internet age, when all we could rely on were carefully crafted press releases or interviews in music papers/magazines, fans could only look on and wonder why Billy always seemed to be at loggerheads with his record companies and why his material, when it was released (if it was released!!) seemed to veer violently between the brilliant and the banal with very little in-between.

We now know with hindsight that Billy struggled with the constant commercial failures and was bemused by the success of many others who were making music in the late 80s and early 90s. He put himself under huge pressures to turn his career around but all he succeeded in doing was to make himself more and more ill as time passed – not that he let on to anyone as his public appearances still saw that cheeky, mischievous grin and glint in the eye, albeit he never went anywhere without a beret as he hated the idea of going bald (there’s a great clip in the STV documentary of a performance in which Billy provides evidence that no matter how handsome a devil you are, it is impossible to look good while wearing a wig).

But his death, even to those of us who were long-time fans, came as the most huge shock. Billy had been somewhat out of the limelight for a few years, and it was almost impossible to find any Associates records as they had been long-deleted by record companies. But we had been reading that he was on his way back having just signed a contract with a new label and was busy in the studio.

It’s since become apparent that a series of events, not least the death of his mother, triggered-off a bout of very serious depression for Billy, but it was an illness that he hid even from those who were closest to him as is quite clear from the documentary with his father and a sister making very brave and heartbreaking contributions.

Billy’s death was sad and tragic. But I think, having read The Glamour Chase, that it was an ending that was in some ways inevitable.

His legacy is a volume of work that has highs and lows, and one that is dominated by that 1982/83 era of Sulk. Even as I mentioned earlier, even if it had just been the three singles from that era that he had left behind then Billy would still be a legend in pop music.

He possessed, without any doubt, a unique singing voice. He had attitude and a fierce streak of independence.  And while he had the support of some in the music industry who stood up for him at all times, it was still a requirement that sales had to be healthy, failing which you had better be willing to bow-down before the powerful moguls and do what you’re told.  He failed in the former and he wouldn’t ever dream of doing the latter.

It’s impossible to guess what the past 18 years would have been like if Billy was still alive. He might have found the magic touch for another hit out of the blue (a la Edwyn Collins and A Girl Like You). Most likely however, is that he would still be recording albums to be bought by just the hard-core of fans, for it took his death to rekindle interest in his work and the re-release of most of his material. But as I say, we just don’t know.

I’m just someone who appreciates the music he left behind, whether as a band member, solo singer or as a collaborator with countless others.  When I first penned a tribute to him over at the old place, marking the 10th anniversary of his death, one of the songs I went with was a cover of a Roy Orbison number that he had recorded for Music of Quality & Distinction Volume One, a 1981 project from the British Electric Foundation.  Knowing my love for that particular cover, Sid sent me something a little bit special that I’m now sharing with you:-

mp3 : B.E.F. featuring Billy Mackenzie – It’s Over (Orchestra Mix)

R.I.P Billy.   You were a sublime talent and you are much missed.

PS

Such has been the amount of stuff that Sid has been sending over to me that I will be keeping some of it back for other posts in the coming days.  It really is the most incredible set of emails to ever fall into my Inbox since the discovery of ‘lost’ Paul Quinn songs and videos.

15 thoughts on “BILLY MACKENZIE : A SMALL APPRECIATION

  1. IMHO – the finest not only out of Scotland, but of them all. if i had to live the rest of my life with only one artist in my music collection, billy is the one.
    yes, billy, you are missed. terribly missed.

  2. Great post – Billy was a magical one-off and I’ll never stop listening to his work. Look forward to your coming posts – Whippet at the Wheel was a great site!

  3. Lovely piece, JC. Brought a tear and all that.

    So many memories associated (sorry) with Billy. A true God. Flawed of course, but a unique talent.

    If people haven’t, then the book is well worth tracking down. And as an aside, it’s a shame that the play didn’t get more of a run as it was great.

    Of course, had he survived, he’d be guesting with Ronson and Calvin these days. But just think how good that might have sounded.

    RIP

  4. I can hardly see for the tears in my eyes (to misquote Bowie). I’m sure you and Syd have some gems for us. Thank you for this tribute.

  5. Billy MacKenzie was a true one off. That I had the privilege to discover The Associates and follow MacKenzie’s wonderful, magical and ultimately soulful and tragic career is something that’s never lost on me.
    The Glamour Chase is, for me, one of the best written music biographies ever written. The opening track on the first postumous album Beyond The Sun, Give Me Time, is striking in it’s irony. To the end he was making music that mattered.

  6. My version of Echo and the Bunnymen at the Lyceum (support from U2) was Billy and Paul Haig at Moray House in Autumn 1986, From what I recall, there was only one band, with both taking turns. It ended up with Billy screaming the place down.

  7. Echorich just alerted me to your MacKenzie thread. It’s always time to appreciate Billy MacKenzie! I enjoyed Sid’s blog and even provided a track or two. He folded before I could get him the final track that I only ever got in late 2012, the 6:00 edit of “The Secret Life Of Arabia [dub mix]” that turned up on the NME “Mighty Reel” cassette of 1982. Sure, it was just a minute or so shorter than the cut on “Merhods Of Dance” vol. 2, and was for MacKenzie trainspotters only, but that track always thrills me in any form.

  8. Thank you for this thread it is great to see that Billy is not forgotten. He was the most amazing talent, my most loved artist and I miss him dearly. What joys he may have afforded us we will never know but what joys ( and tears) he left us will always be a part of my life.
    Rest well Billy.

  9. Mopyfop, I too was at that gig in Edinburgh, I am sure the venue was called Wilkie House, in Cowgate? Paul and Billy had played a previous joint gig in Glasgow at cardinal Follies night club but they came on hellishly late (after the dancing had finished!) and, even though I was much younger then, it was on a Thursday night or something and I was far too tired/worried about going to my woork the next day to properly enjoy it.

    The Edinburgh gig was much better, best remembered for him premiering Empires of Your Heart (easliy best track off the then unreleased Glamour Chase and much better version here than the version that later came to light when that album was finally released). There was another great track from both gigs called With Shadows To Fall, that I have never heard a recorded version of. Anyone know if there is one?

    Finally, I don’t remember the screaming the place down, but I seem to remember he wrestled Paul’s guitar off him at the end of teh closing number (introduced as being called the following mouthful :My Love Provisionally Her Only Wish) and thrashed away at it. Bless him, clearly not a musician!

    One hell of a singer though when he put his mind to it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s