The Associates Only The Lonely
After years of trauma and record company hassle, Billy Mackenzie has finally freed The Associates of all obligations and recorded the album he always wanted to make. Steve Sutherland joins the celebrations.
Billy Mackenzie's dead. He's passed over for the best vocalist award at the Brits so he throws himself in the Thames and, although they never find the body, he's missing presumed drowned. It seems he couldn't take the ignominy any more. George Michael won the award. Then, strange things start to happen. A critic bearing an uncanny resemblance to Paul Morley is murdered, his arteries horrifically hardened with on injection from the pulp of a million bad reviews. The head of a major record company is found slumped in his office, blood trickling from his ears, his brains blasted out by the cacophony coming from his new audio-digital, touch sensitive stereo equipment.
Another top record company man is choked to death on a pie made from his pet poodles and the body of a woman executive is discovered at a beauticians. She'd gone to have her legs waxed and wound up being mummified in the stuff.
The police are baffled. They can find no connection between the killings, no pattern until George Michael's found, burned to a crisp under the new ultra-tanning machine at an exclusive health resort. Suddenly it's clear as day. The panel who'd picked the Brits' Best Vocalist and the recipient himself have been systematically and most imaginatively assassinated by Billy Mackenzie.
The wee wag hasn't drowned after all. He'd been washed up on the mudflats under London Bridge and revived by a bunch of squatters who were so bored and starved for kicks, they agreed to help Sir Bill on his mission of revenge ...
Billy laughs as he relates the plot, shamelessly nicked from a film called "Theatre of Blood" in which Vincent Price plays a Shakespearean thespian who survives suicide to dish out death to his critics in a manner that most befits the particular play each slagged him in. Billy has plans to film his version soon, a la "The Comic Strip" ,a final, funny, two-fingered salute to those who've done their utmost to make his life a misery over the last 10 years.
His trouble began in the early Eighties, the instant he signed his effervescent Associates to Warner Brothers from Situation 2. The Associates were the darlings of the music press and, while "Party Fears Two", "Club Country" and "18 Carat love Affair" frolicked hysterically in the charts, "Sulk" was voted 1 982's Album Of the Year in the MM Critics' Poll. Billy was the jewel in the crown and the jester in the court of the New Gold Dream, but he had a problem with the corporation and the corporation had a problem with him. He instinctively rebelled against authority figures and the label instinctively balked at the money Billy was spending In pursuit of his madcap schemes.
They made another album together the mis-marketed, slightly mis-shapen and misunderstood "Perhaps", but Billy's highly strung extravagance and insistence on quality over quantity were anathema to WEA.
Still, they tried again, just for appearances sake, and Billy recorded "The Glamour Chase", an album that bit the hand that fed, railing against the practices he considered to be souring pop and lowering our standard of living - the very practises which Warners excelled in. What the company saw as the deadly serious side of a pop career- the touring, the promotion, the star stuff - Billy saw as a game. And what Billy considered the be-all and end-all-the music the company considered incidental, the soundtrack to a pretty face in a sharp suit.
The album was never released, Billy was apoplectic and artist and label finally parted company.
"At the time, if I'd seen any of those people, I'd have killed them. It was nothing to do with me personally, it was just that they were affecting what could happen to me in the studio. They were affecting my creative personality and anybody who does that - Warners, friends, family, anybody - honestly, I could kill them.
"But I suppose, it truth be told, they couldn't carry on with me the way things were going. Respect goes to people who want to take the rock'n' roll route because it's a tough and extremely strenuous way of life, but I just knew from my musical psyche that it was going nowhere for me. I wasn't a willing participant. I found it a cul-de-sac for me, musically and intellectually. I just didn't like being a part of that big company think tank. It lust didn't suit me.
"I look upon it this way: even though they spent half a million on me, I don't think The Associates have a price on their heads, in money terms anyway. I can't equate the two. I've never been able to equate money and music - it's too pure for that.
"They gotta use my name for eight years and I got to use their money to develop, so I think that's quits. They got their fair share out of using The Associates to brighten up their dull roster.
"But even though every time I went into Warner Brothers I felt as though I'd got instant leprosy, I didn't walkaway from it feeling great. I felt as though I had severe whiplash. The freedom was sweet, but I suppose it was like someone coming out of jail - for the first month or so they're traumatised and they've got to adapt."
Billy took his time. Never losing faith in his rich, superglam camp Caruso of a voice (he once said he could sing on his death bed if he had to), he spent a month or two comforting his sister who'd just lost her baby and then ventured tentatively back into the studio with Philip and Blair, two virtual unknowns who Billy had met briefly over the years and whose "exquisite taste" convinced him they could fulfil their creative potential within The Associates. The sessions went well and, despite his reputation as a "difficult artist", Circa Records, home of Hue And Cry and Neneh Cherry, signed him up and gave him 40 grand to go back into the studio unhindered and unsupervised and finish the album, with he help of Julian Mendelsohn and Chester Kamen.
Billy couldn't believe it. No one had shown this much faith in him for years.
"We recorded 15 tracks in eight weeks. I felt inside out half the time. It was a mad frenzy. It was delicious and crazy and neurotic. Circa had given me total control and I felt I had to give them something back because they'd been so supportive.
"It was thrown up in the air and we juggled with it and shaped it and twirled it about and kicked it off the wall and pummelled it and panel-beated it and spat on it and chewed it up and pissed on it and slept with it and loved it and licked it and ... d'you know what I mean? We done everything with it.
"There was a lot of spontaneous affection went into it and all he musicians involved were very natural and intuitive. We were all over-excited and that's the worst state that I could ever be in because, when I'm overexcited, my brain's like a computer print out. It's like somebody's got a remote control on my emotions and they flick from channel to channel to channel and I don't know who the f*** I am. So it kinda evolved, it was a metamorphosis. We just sort of charged about the studio. It was perfect.
"Now all I want to do in the future is work with unknown musicians and develop a relationship with them and keep things fresh and organic, reinventing emotions and remaining optimistic."
The album is "Wild And Lonely", a collection of mature pop songs about the ups and downs of relationships that presents Billy as a calmer crooner than the traumatic tenor we've come to know and love - a man who, if not in control of his emotions, is well in control of emoting them. It's really saying something, considering how highly rated he is as a vocalist, that he's never sung better and he agrees he's in greet voice, although he doesn't know why, claiming his blood pressure was through the roof most of the time and he didn't feel relaxed at all.
While the work he's best remembered for- the Situation 2 singles and "Sulk" - were like collages of cardiac arrest, nerves smashed against a wall and then pieced together again at random, a sound mosaic of a nervous breakdown, both hilarious and haunting, "Wild And Lonely" never sounds messed-up, anguished, or desperately ironic. It sounds joyously alive and aloof.
"This album is a purge because, in the past, if you f***ed about with me, you f***ed about with the music and that was where a lot of the lyrical ideas came from, the pressure I was under. But I think I would always have preferred to be Burt Bacharach than Jacques Brel. I was only Jacques Brel to exorcise these mega-feelings and turn them round for myself. I'd really rather be head-in- the-clouds and whoopy dippy.
"I'm not Nick Cave, I'm not a tortured artist. Me singing or me writing, get me happy and let the conscious flow come. And now these run-ins that I've had with people over the past 10 years are over, I'm gonna be able to just drop the grief which is a fantastic thing."
Billy says the heavens must have smiled on him because the album feels "less corrupt", suggesting his voice is as much a marvel and a mystery to him as it is to the rest of us.
The intrigue of it is limitless. I remember once, I was listening to Tell Me Easter's On A Friday' lying face down on a couch in the studio, and I had an orgasm. I was listening to the combination between guitar and my voice and it actually got me in such an emotional state that I had to run away to the toilet. I mean, I didn't even need to touch myself!
"It was a very rare occurrence but it lust shows how much music can get me in a froth."
Whether "Wild And Lonely and its first single, "Fever" (which reminds Billy, for some complex emotional reason of the period between the Second World War and the advent of rock'n'roll, "the lost years" as he calls them) will froth up the charts, it's already a success as far as Billy's concerned.
"It's honest and it's personal because it deals with the human condition," he says. "There's no guises and no theatrics. The Associates have got their musical identity very much in focus.
"This is gonna give it away a bit but I'd rather be outernational than international. I think I would have been a good psycho-analyst because I'm quite perceptive and very understanding emotionally. And I' m luckier than most people because, when I laugh I laugh hard. I'm very happy with things at the moment but I'm still torn at any different time of day. Sometimes my life is like a really beautiful painting and then something will come along and put a great big huge rip through the canvas. It's a bit frightening, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
"I remember once I wasn't sleeping well and somebody said to me, 'Well Billy at least I can sleep at night' and I said, 'I feel sorry for you'."
The Associates have always been larger than life, melodramatic.
"lt's my desire to escape the mundane ... like buying spilt bananas at the grocer's shop," explains Billy, "Things can irritate me to such a point that I get into a frenzy but then, when I get into the frenzy I always escape into the music and use it as an absolution. It's like going into the equivalent of the dream world. Things get resolved through the music just as things get resolved through dreams. If you dream, it's larger than life and in the music it's larger than life also because there's a deeper primal understanding there.
Billy equates the ecological equilibrium that people have decided they want for the world with what he wants for his music.
"I was always looking for that spearhead to puncture the Achilles heel, to sour things so that people could really be honest about polluting their minds or polluting their lives. I'm still that purist," he says, recalling all the interviews he's given where he's slagged off London in favour of his native Dundee.
In fact Billy feels The Associates are right time right place at last with the advent of the optimistic Nineties.
"I got my musical freedom and Romania got it's freedom," he says."We've hit this magical 1990 figure where there aren't any rules anymore and that's expressed in the charts, in fashion, in street designs, everything. I knew that the multinational corporate was going to crumble, whether it be in fashion, the arts or music. I knew it was always gonna come back to individuals.
"Fashion is dead, the High Street is dead. All the bad the bad quality that made people uncomfortable and sweaty is gone. There's never gonna be a return to the shoulder pad, unless in a very "Comic Strip" sort of way. I mean each decade should be an embarrassment to the one that follows, until we get to the decade when the balance arrives , when there's nothing to be embarrassed about.
"I'm kinda waiting for that. I'd like to be around to see that natural euphoria without being hysterical. Contained euphoria is when people are really cool."
At long last it seems what we've always wished for The Associates may be coming true - success as a consequence of Billy's refusal to compromise, the way Robert Smith has achieved it with The Cure.
"Oh, I'd like to sell records by the truckfull in every in every country," says Billy "except England...and South Africa, of course, Japan .. .I don't want jump on any caring pop star routine, but I definitely won't be playing Japan because of what happens to the whales and dolphins."
And when Billy returns from his prospective world tour he hopes will create the swirling black hole that Kraftwerk once pitched him into, he will return to his beloved Dundee.
"Scotland's got its freedom now, just like Romania has and the USSR will. Scotland has found its identity through the optimism of its artists and it now has a belief in itself as part of Europe, not a part of England, I mean, everyone knows that England should be sawn off and left to float because its arrogant and steeped in pomp. It needs a little bit of humility, but it's got to no bad before it comes good. Thatcher's doing a good enough job at that.
"Yeah, she's a space cadet but then I don't trust any of these politicians - they're all basically charlatans." And, of course, no Associates feature would be complete without mention of Billy's whippets. It seems he's just had pups.
"Animal behaviour has always been a great source of intrigue to me. I think the way that we've evolved, we're better at toyland, we've developed in a very 'how can this amuse me?' way. There's something very playful about the human species that a lot of other animals don't need. They don't need intelligence.
"But our curiosity has got us here and each generation gets closer to the perfect human. We're much better men our rock'n'roll fathers were in the way we treat ourselves and other people. And the Sixties' kids will be a lot better ... and the E'kids although, unfortunately, a lot of them are born with addiction.
"People are truly learning how to retax. It's only insecurity that makes people the way they are. And Fear. Once we're able to deal with fear and it becomes prehistoric... that's all that's keeping this place back from being paradise.
Wild, maybe, but not lonely much longer.