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.
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.