THE ASSOCIATES -
MUSICAL HYBRID VIGOR
By Sandra A. Garcia
There are certain artists whom you know aren't merely going to fade away into the twilight of musical creation. These are the survivors you know will be back, even if it's been long years since their last foray into the mouth of the musical beast. They send up signals, like flares from the sun, that they are creating, thinking, planning their return, while their devoted fans know they will be back to slay bigger dragons. One such artist is Billy Mackenzie. And his fans are loyal.
"That's a brilliant compliment! That's exciting!" he enthuses in his strong Scottish accent, "especially when I came to America, I thought there'd be a handful of fans, a dozen or so in New York City... I never thought about it. But I discover I'm a reasonable cult figure, but I hadn't a clue! I think too the people who like the Associates like it for the right reasons, not just to put it in the record collection cause the next door neighbor has it."
Billy Mackenzie is a man to wait for, no matter how long he keeps his public on edge. After the initial shake up that the Associates gave to early eighties' music with a number of wild singles and the first two albums, The Affectionate Punch and Fourth Drawer Down, they displayed their full house of an album with the bizarrely bold Sulk, an album many in Britain still consider one of the musical events of the Eighties. But after Billy created the musical divorce between himself and fellow Associate Alan Rankine, there was a dense silence for a few years. Until 1985's Perhaps, the album that established Billy as the lone Associate, he bringing in a number of noted producers and musicians to help out. Receiving mixed critical reviews, Perhaps slices through ordinary pop pap with adventurous grace. Lush and playful, it showed Billy's vocals adjusting into a less hysterical rush, he still throwing that amazing voice around his notes like one slings a silken scarf about the neck. Seductive ease was the style, and stylishly clever lyrics the norm.
But then... another deafening silence. Until 1988, when Billy's whacked- out cover of Blondie's 'Heart of Glass' tripped into clubs. This lead to the rumors about his next album, until the stories of musical bloodshed and artistic war waging crept out instead of an album.
Billy pulls a classically forlorn face, relating, "It's an education cause there's things you find out about yourself. I am at my worst when I try to be nice to people in a false situation. That's one that can kill me off. Cause I like to be nice naturally, but in a false situation, that's that.
"Every time I'd come out of my British record company in the '80's, I felt unclean. And I was getting treated well, it was the way they were treating their other artists. And that's why I acted with such venom and vehemence against them. And the corporate figure, he wasn't able to intimidate me. But the way they treated other artists was diabolical. They never had the spirit, they weren't good teachers," he accuses strongly.
But now Billy has a fine relationship with his new labels in Britain and America, Circa and Charisma respectively. But before these saviors of his recording career there was trouble. "I try to be quite altruistic, but you need to feel aggressive. Cause things were wrong, and that kind of mixture, it is really a struggle for the soul. When you're in music, I'm a slave to the music, cause if I don't do it I get ill!" he declares with impish drama. "If I don't write I get ill, I get panic attacks! Where there's another side to me where I'm really courageous, but this other side, I get all withdrawn till I feel the work is finished, then I'm fine. It's a heady mix of excitement and patience. That's the mixture, and it does play on me! I couldn't imagine any other business making me feel any which way at any time! That's the price I pay for the luxury," he declares.
So imagine the torment that occurred in the late Eighties when Billy's drives were thwarted. "It was horrific! Any other artist, that would have been it! Finished!" he exclaims. "But I do feel like I get help, especially the help of my family- they're brilliant!"
Billy has a deep relationship with his family, a fact he refers back to often. But his other relationship, like with Warners UK, doesn't bring warm memories. Billy is quick to point out, "It wasn't Warners. It was one man, the head of the company. He said to me in 1982, you work for us or go.' That was basically it. So of course I still had to do things my way," he grins, those dimples popping all over, as he falls into seriousness with mercurial speed. "So I got rotten things done to me, like holding my retainer for 40 months, and they making like they were going to put you over to another company to get an override so they could stop my money. They really tried to fuck me over. And they I made a great record and they shelve it! With all this, he was like 'I am gonna wear you down, you'll learnt who is master,"'he growls with a grimace. "So in the end when I delivered The Glamour Chase to Warners, all the people in the A&R department, they were all excited and when they got excited it was too much he'd done everything to break me but no. He couldn't understand that I was a different creature. And he had all this power in the music business..."
He gives a rueful smile, remembering, "It was a really good album song-wise. They were powerful. But it's still on ice now. We could buy it back, but Circa can't do that right now. Hopefully, they will release it.
"It's like, any business, you get strangled! But sometimes you've got to stick up to people like that, and I'm glad to have done it."
But at such a price! So there's a lost Associates album sitting in the vault over in Britain: watch how fast that will be released if Mr. Mackenzie hits the charts. But for now there's a new album that's available for world listening, Wild and Lonely, and it's release has Billy crossing the seas to meet long time admirers and newly won converts. A much calmer album then his earlier works, Wild and Lonely can at times be so rich that your ears will hurt. Aside from one questionable disco romp (but we'll excuse this charming man just about anything) the album is a warm introduction to people not familiar with this wild and never lonely voice. But Billy honestly expresses the trouble he has with this album: "It's hard in a way cause it's the first time we've allowed a producer into the Associates camp," he points out. "So there was that, and it took only eight weeks to do, all in all, which was quick. I also worked with two unknown musicians that I'd just met for ten minutes years earlier, but I'd always kept them in mind. I just phoned them up and said 'do you want to work with me?"'he laughs.
And, of course, these two young musicians, Phillip and Blair, fell dead to the floor in a faint. "They did freak!" laughs Billy. "But it was the type of thing where I could have worked with the best musicians in Britain, but I wanted to take that risk. So I'm pleased with it as far as the solid songs on it. It's really a crossover album. I don't want to be an elitist and I don't not wanna appeal to 50 year old women cause that woman could be Susan Sontag. But I enjoy that it does have cross-over appeal, but it hasn't got the edge that I want, and so... as he gives a little shrug, relaxing back to sip his tea. "But three-fourths of it really translates well live, and I've done a few shows in Scotland, in the Glasgow Cultural Festival- that was great!" he remembers. "But I think once again, when people look on it as a body of work, next to say the next Associates album, I think that they will help each other. I was pretty pleased, but in some ways it wasn't adventurous. But when you've got eight weeks to do the album...
"I'm not like a press darling either cause there were a couple of reviews that really slighted it. But then I kinda understood that in some ways, but I'm not justifying it, but there were some reviews as he shakes his head, "what happened is they've stayed in 1982, and they want Sulk part two. But to tell you the truth, I was fed up with being the musical equivalent of The Shining," he grins, pausing to sip his tea anew as he waits for my laughter to die. "I was fed up with that deep baring your soul music, although there is some of that lyrically on this, but I wasn't going to be sort of like entertaining the listener by having them think I was being tortured. I was just going through normal things like disillusionment, where before I was really racked up! And I'm a bit more comfortable. I really don't need to have a mass seal of approval. Every performer wants to be loved, though," he notes with wry amusement.
"But I had an interesting seven years cause friends that I met in Scotland... I wouldn't have met if I hadn't gone back. They made me understand myself, and the world at large much better. And if I had stayed in London I would have never met these special people who keep me on my toes. I'll never vegetate there."
Billy's never been one to wallow in his own self pity. Like he claimed, many other artists would have thrown it in and moved to a cave. But taking his time and raising his whippets in Dundee paid off, as the lively proof is sitting before me serving tea, as jaunty and clever as ever in his views.
"The time felt right for me. Because the fact is that I'm enthusiastic- I've never been into sitting in the corner like a disciple of Williams Burroughs. I'd rather be sorta like The Flintstones with a heart or something. I've never been into that tortured artist, I'm not self-obsessed," he reiterates. "I'd like to be, in fact, as I think that'd be a very easy way to be, and a cop-out. Unfortunately, I'm not like that," he claims with a sly grin. You have to watch out for these charming men and their word play.
"I didn't really want to make myself available in the '80 cause it sucked," he continued bluntly. "And there were issues that I wanted to talk about early in the '80's, that surfaced later on, and so people are more aware, and it's a lot more humanitarian now. My heart lay in bigger issues than what sort of drugs you've gonna take that night. There was a lot of that mentality that went on."
Billy doesn't look on this retreat in the late '80's as a hibernation from the tangled British music scene. "I just went back to Scotland and encouraged people to be into their own country and not have hang-ups about being Scottish cause for the last 250 years we've been under this Anglophile umbrella and there's a lot of that inferiority attached to young Scottish people and I think artists need to free their souls, cause Scotland's soul was in chains. And I would say 'you don't need to go to England, you don't need to go any place, stay at home and be yourself, instead of being this other creature, which was an aggressor.' I wanted to energize, give hope, plus I've been traveling for all these years, since about 1974..."
Hold it, wait. Since 1974? Considering that Billy's only 33 now, that means... "Yeah! Back when I was 17 I left for L.A., and I worked cleaning out swimming pools, and worked in thrift stores. I went to New Zealand, and decided to work my way backwards. I didn't go to college or the university, and I thought my education was gonna be through travel. So I started at the other side of the world and decided to work my way back."
Not only charming but ambitious too. "But I was. I left the house when I was 12 years old. I just felt adult enough. I had parents that really didn't get on that well, and since I was such a mature person two weeks after being 121 was," as he makes a rapid motion with his hand, "out there! I could do what I wanted. And it's funny cause when I was younger l used to stray far from home, nothing phased me at all. But as I've gotten older, the people are pulling me back, a lot too many people, it's horrible!" he laughs with mock terror. "They have their hold on me!"
This earlier achiever claims when he was nine he had already planned never to vegetate at any level. "I had a head start on most people! I was quite ambitious, and some of the time when you're dealing with people like Paul Morley, and some of the London highbrow crowd, all I got by on was enthusiasm, and a love of music. I thought, 'well, I've got to make my bed in the lion's den here' and because my education was, due to family situations, it was thwarted, through no fault of my parents, they were just immature.
"So that was quite an anxious time, cause obviously you want to know the ramifications of Peruvian politics and if you didn't know about that well forrr-get it" he mockingly exclaims with great disdain. "That's what it was like. It's different now with house music as you don't even need to know how to think, you just have to know how to do a variation on a slam dance. I had the groovy element but my education was always," as he gives a sad sigh. "But then again I wanted it all I suppose!"
After being so independent for so long, to walk into that lion's den must have been like torture to a strong- spirited individual. But Billy drops his voice low, intoning, "I never put up with anything, really, because men don't frighten me. I think if there were female bosses there would have been a difference cause they would have taken me into a corner and made me feel guilty," he laughs. "I just thought that men were bigger motherf.." as he gives a polite gesture to excuse his wording, "then I ever was, cause I put all men in one pack, and I thought they were all as shitty as each other, given the circumstances.
"I don't mind being judged by men, but being judged by women is always..." as he gives a playful shiver. "I think cause I was brought up to think men were horrors, that was put into my mind by a group of women. But that's cause a lot of Scottish men were still stuck in prehistoric ideas. The women in my family were very new age, and grew, but the men still had their brains in their underpants!" he grins. "So all the women I knew were all budding Shirley Maclaines a young person. Plus I had a female teacher from the age of eight to twelve, so that on top of having a mother that was quite advanced, we were more like people are now, aware, but back them we were consider the weirdos, the freak elements. It was still quite a queer thing in Scotland. They were a pocket of Bohemians."
This eldest of six points out what this did for him. "I had no fear really. I was never worried about me, I was only worried about the people I loved, my brothers and sisters, and family break-ups. I was drawn back in 1982, I felt that I should be there for them, cause I was very close. Sort of like an Italian family: very close but we fight all the time. But if I had been in London and say something had happened to my brother," he shaking his head, "I saw it as being selfish.
"I spoiled my brothers and sisters, they could just totally get around me. So there was that close relationship. But basically they're all like 12" remixes, I felt!" he chuckles. "It was funny cause later on I got an astrological chart and it was like 'What's this with your brothers and sisters, you're all practically one!' We've all done each other harmonic favors in the past... she never saw a chart as strong as that with the ties. It was interesting!
"We've all got an appreciation of the same things. We're all musical, dancers or sports-like... we're triangular." Again that flash of quick dimples. "I really didn't require my parents approval, cause it was me who gave them approval. But I used to think 'Well you're not good enough to be my parents' at a young age. I used to think my mum was cause she was a siren, but my first recollection of my father, was, I said to me mum, 'get rid of him!" he laughs. "I remember when I was about three and a half, he'd been away to sea and he came back, and I was like 'who's he?' and ever since that I've held that against him! I never thought he was quite good enough!"
Eventually there was a divorce, so Billy claims, "I was right, intuitively as a kid I was right, because for quite a while there were lots of problems. He was a '50's gambler type. Me and me sisters, we suffered quite a bit. It's a shame cause you always try to make-up, but to me that's embarrassing. I know a lot of people who go through that... there's always one parent you don't get along with.
"The good thing is, when you're younger, before you grow up, you have a really good judge of character, and it's in the 20's when confusion sets in. A lot of confusion... but then again, I took a lot on!"
Even when Billy describes his musical ability, he comes back to his family. "I think I'm quite luckier than most people cause I've got a feel for five different forms: the pure form, the soul, the psychedelic, the classical and opera. So... I think that's also because I'm a mixture genetically... I'm a mix of Celt, Gypsy and Flamenco/Spanish. I've got a lot of different bloods and such in me... I've got musical hybrid virrrgor!" He positively glows with this grand statement, rolling his "r's" for maximum effect.
Definitely one of a kind. Billy Mackenzie: The fascinating new strain that will energize the '90's!
THE PUREST FORM (Part two from February/March 1991)
Our main Associate Billy Mackenzie is insisting that we stop into a liquor store. I pull the car we're in over to the curb and follow him in, he purchasing a bottle of bourbon. Once outside he walks to a small park, halting to pull out three un-marked white cassettes from his coat pocket. Placing them on the ground he proceeds to soak them with the bourbon, he then producing a match, declaring, "I don't anyone to hear these, they're horrible, I hate them!" I let out a yipe as he strikes the match...
Why I had that dream about Billy Mackenzie after I interviewed him I'll never know. I wanted to contact him and ask him if he planned anything rash. Perhaps I was dreaming about the release of his singles collection by his old label nemesis. I may be feeling his reaction to it after all he's been through on the higher plane then again I may have eaten Mexican food...
"There will always be turmoil," Billy declares during our late afternoon tea in Washington, DC. "There's a line from the new album, 'Imperfection is only there for your protection...' So I did always have obstacles. There's things you always worry about. Like I have four nephews and nieces now, and I look upon them as my own. I worried about them, their world and their education. And obviously your parents are getting older you worry about them even though you've had problems with them. You become the parent. So there's that, and there's always the bigger issues, which are huge. "He gives his best positive smile, declaring, "But lam not going to be a martyr. I'll put my foot down there. I've got little clues about the scheme of things. I'm not embarrassed to say I believe in a higher power, and a positivity. And I've got that belief, and I like being a Catholic. And I wouldn't mind being a Protestant either. But I like being a Catholic," he grins.
Billy also has a positivism on the ultimate scheme of things, stating, "There had to be a Billy Mackenzie or Associates concept... there just had to be. Just like there had to be Marvin Gaye or Frank Sinatra, cause they're elements of everyone, and everyone can see themselves in that person. But a lot of people have emotional dyslexia. To understand more about themselves, you must teach them to grow as a person.
"But by no means do I think I'm a professor on human behavior. But because that I'm in touch with myself, that's why I can't take drugs as well. Cause I'm not myself and I con myself, I'm lying," he declares. "I was one of the only ones who didn't take drugs. The old high every night, smokin' thing. Then a lot of them went onto heroin. So that was quite heavy, and a lot of my pals went down like that. And I wasn't doing that so they were turning against me. So that was another obstacle. Emotionally I was broken, but my spirit wasn't. That was always intact".
In his own Mackenzie style, Billy ties all of this back to his beloved tormentor, music. "In a way it's like a purification, your work. It's like why I dislike myself when I have a negative attitude, so my work's a purification. And I think I'm gonna get to the time, hopefully, when I can just be more of the spirit like a child's, a lot less bruised."
He straightens up, leaning to pour more tea as he declares, "I think maybe what it is, looking at me now, if the '70's hadn't come, if the spirit of the '60's had stayed with me m really at my best... ok, so I can be really poignant, but I'm at my best when I'm singing about poetry, loving and joy... so I wish the '70's hadn't come cause I would have found even more my own way." He pulls his 'aren't I a naughty boy' look, giving a conspiratorial grin. "It's selfish, isn't it!"
There isn't anything selfish about Mr. Mackenzie! The music he gives to the world sounds like a soul opening for all to hear. There's a painful emotion and vulnerability in his songs, for all their danceable feel. Graphic realism. He exclaims, "Yeah! It's disillusionment. When I put my faith in somebody and I feel betrayed... because I know people could come to me with the world, and they honored me by saying, 'by the way, I would like you to...' But I'm the type of person that opens my mouth and lets people know too much. But people should do that, but too many keep it to themselves and that's a bad thing. I can be too open.
"But I'm not into that hairshirt thing... I was just open and honest, and got it out. Now I don't feel a need to do that, I can be detached. I'm there for just a bit of an agony. But I am happy and I don't covet anyone's success, like U2's success, or any of the British bands who come across here. There's a lot of them who just give into the mix, and I think, 'that's OK for them.' I would have found it like going to this fabulous restaurant, and then going to that same fabulous restaurant for a year. You'd have novelle cuisine till it's coming out your eyes! So like I said, I like luxury but not grandeur.
"That's like when people say so what is normal and I say a balance. That's what's in it for me. The normal components of water is H20, so that's what supports life. And that harmony... I've got to have that in myself. I go right off balance cause of working. When the creative craziness come upon me, I get panicky. Sometimes I've got to go to bed cause I can't cope!" he shudders in terror.
So what about the touring angle? Why do we see so little of the Associates live? Billy isn't adverse to the concept, but he has his own ideas about the process. "Touring is the way I understand my musical psyche. As an athlete I was only good at the 100 and 200 meters, or long jump. Now I look upon these touring animals as decathletes... The only time they're comfortable is when they're away cause if they stayed in one spot they'd find out they don't like themselves!" he laughs wickedly.
It doesn't look like touring is a reality in the near future, although Billy still upholds his positive feelings. "I really want to bring the joy to people. If the planets are in alignment, I'd like that. But I'm also the most disorganized person... I'm organized for chaos. People have this preconception of me, that my house would be like a laundry. But that's not so!" he smiles. "But I'd really like that, to get the chance, mentally as well, to be right. I'd like to think that I was taking the music out for the right reasons, and not for making money, or for getting my ego massaged. I don't want that sort of thing. I want people to join in and get a sense of oneness. Atmosphere is what I want to create, an atmosphere that people can enjoy and share."
His mood mercurially shifts upward once again, he declaring, "Creativity, I'm very happy now. I used to think time's my friend, not my enemy. If I had been given too much too soon I would have given it all away. So it wouldn't have worked!"
If we could give Billy the world, we'd feel privileged. Billy's the type of person that you want to protect, I quelling overwhelming urges to do physical violence to people who insult his work. Even if I like the person!
There's a physical arena that Billy's never really competed in: the all-important video image sweepstakes. His refreshingly flippant attitude explains why he's not a household word in this world of MTV megahype, where you can sell eight million albums without singing a single note, or sell even more by lifting other's work. "I feel that videos are totally frivolous, that I've got to involve myself in the visual side. Some people think I'm quite camera shy. I'm not that, it's just that I don't like shavin'! " he laughs. "Maybe that might work for Mickey Rourke, that look, maybe he likes it but it's bad going!" The videos that exist for 'Fever' and 'Fire to Ice' are odd affairs, two winks towards that dominant monster.
Billy would rather retain his love affair with the actual music, unlike the churlish charlatans merely grasping at the shallow glory. "I have got just as much enthusiasm now for music as I did when I was five, It's still the purest art form, music is. Cause you can't lie with music. You can lie with literature, you can lie with film, but you can't lie with music. And I like that. And it's the art form that has the most longevity. I mean you can look at a painting, but a song can move you like ten paintings. It's got the most mileage. When all else fails I still get my Motown collection out!"
In this age of Milli Vanilli and Vanilla Ice, hurrah for Billy, the champion of music as an art form. If only his songs could be used as talismans against these despicable despoilers of modern music. Billy expresses the following thoughts: "The only time frame I would think I would have really felt comfortable would have been the 11th century. Cause there were a lot of breakthroughs then, from the 11th century on cause that's when the first houses of education were being founded, colleges and universities... that would have been really exciting. That's when they first started really creating literature. I felt very misplaced in the '80's."
Billy feels more in tune with today, claiming, "It's much more attractive coming to the end of a millennium scary as well!" he exclaims. "But in life that's when you have to establish yourself. A do or die situation. That's when I feel tired and faced with my music.. I can feel it's do or die. Everybody's just gonna have to learn to be brave again: for women to want to be Joan of Arc, or men to want to be Saint Francis. Instead of being safe in that little box, you've got to go out there, even though you've got such massive doubts about yourself.
"It makes me even more aware of how threadbare the world is, emotionally threadbare with racism against all minority groups. What a load of crap being racist is! It takes up too much time, to hate, and I hate myself for being like that. If I'm hating anyone I'm just hating myself. I think 'well, you are really stepping out of line' and it kills me to be so negative.
"There's the potential people overestimate their ego and underestimate the spirituality. I'd like to think that I'm really wonderful, to be self-possessed but I know there's something bigger, there's always going to be something bigger than you."
In acknowledging this Billy proves he doesn't operate on self-inflated ego. "That's why the band is called the Associates, cause it's meant to be democratic. The Associates is also the listener, the receivers. I never really thought it was mine, I just had the chance to tune into what it is.
"I do get tired of it sometimes, I'm only human after all!" he declares dramatically. "But I think, 'well, let's see, if the Beach Boys didn't do Pet Sounds there'd be a loss!"'
And for every inspirational album, there's a tonnage of total trash obscuring the art form Billy holds so dear. But let Billy give the final laugh on that. "I think what it is that there is a need for bad work, cause bad work illuminates good work. Hey, they're doing us a favor by showing how bad it really could be! So it's positive!"
Our Mr. Mackenzie. You just want to take him home with you. And isn't it curious how Billy's former label has released a compilation of the Associates' singles? Can the release of the long-shelved Glamour Chase be far behind? Billy must be having a laugh!