SPOILT BRAT, SILLY PRAT OR VISIONARY GENIUS?
Former Associate and would be Bash Street Kid Billy Mackenzie
claims to JON WATSON that he's not really crazy.
Photographic evidence PETER ANDERSON
Whatever happened to Billy Mackenzie?
Only a year ago The Associates seemed to have the world at their feet; with three hit singles behind them and their first tour in two years stretching out in front they were at a point of pop success undreamt of in the days of their 'Affectionate Punch' debut. Then it was gone. Without a sound, without a word of goodbye The Associates ceased to exist.
It was at the time of the silent death throes of the group that I first met Billy. He was in his home at Dundee, recovering from an imaginary throat infection, dreamt up to excuse him from The Associates' tour; and reliving perhaps the finest prank in a long career of mischief. Only days before he'd taken six whippets on a train journey from Dundee to London and on his arrival at a London Holiday Inn had demanded a doggy minder. Later that night he'd been sighted traipsing through the hotel foyer, leading a howling dog's chorus, dressed in full drag, watching the whippets as they pissed up the legs of passing businessmen.
Billy had had a ball and, needless to say, WEA, his record company, had picked up the tab. Even then the poor suckers never knew that one of their biggest selling pop acts was no more. As for his public, the only further thing they heard from Billy was the solo single 'Ice Cream Factory', released under the name Mackenzie Sings Orbedoig. Written by fellow Dundonian, multi instrumentalist and, new collaborator Stevie Reid, it was a hilarious swirl of semi-surrealist fantasy that blended, in the tradition of Associates masterpieces like 'A Girl Named Property', elements of classic pop with an eccentric modernity. It was shiny, white and superb and it flopped. Billy didn't care but WEA were, according to Mackenzie beginning to get cold feet.
"I wouldn't mind being a whippet," he whimsically informed NME at the time, but as far as WEA were concerned he was in the dog house.
An LP was recorded by Mackenzie and Reid. "A wild album," Billy called it as he and Stevie ran riot in the studio, an LP of orchestral euphoria, big Screen themes and music to get shut in cellars to.
"The best record I've worked on in three years." gushed producer Martin Rushent in a Telex to NME.
It was an LP that could mess up the polite parameters of modern music I concluded, but it still hasn't seen the light of day.
Whatever happened to Billy Mackenzie? I was wondering late on a bank holiday Monday night. The telephone rang...
"We've just been apple raiding up St. Johns Wood," Mackenzie grinned and greeted me with a typical prankster's boast, as I arrived for the impromptu interview. lt was late, my eyes felt as if they'd undergone a light sandblasting and I wasn't easily charmed. Had I been called out to discuss the further attempts of Mackenzie to achieve the status of honorary Bash Street Kid?
His eyes flashed in an encouragement to join in the celebratory spirit of mischief. With his neatly clipped hair and denim dungarees he looked, but for the pointed shoes, like the bright eyed kid with the wicked schemes and the winning way, the kind of kid who thought he could snap his fingers and the world would come running. Of course that I was here interviewing him when under normal circumstances I would have been comatose attests to the fact that he usually gets his way.
Throughout Billy's career there's always been the implication that he's the boy who never grew up, a 12 year-old Dorian Gray, maintaining the enthusiasm and irresponsibility of a child. He can be insufferably brattish or charming and candid, and like a child he can never decide whether he wants attention or wants to be left alone. It seems he picked up stardom as a toy to amuse himself for awhile, and slung it aside when he tired of it.
So Billy is a brat of modern pop. So what? We maybe swamped in would be adolescents picking up the garb of childhood again. What makes Billy important is that this man child is for real. If all the pop world's a stage then we are reaching the last scene of this "strange eventful history', the second dotage, toothless and tasteless, heading towards oblivion. After the first innocent childhood of pop, the adult orientated '70s and the belated snotty adolescence of punk, we struck upon the second childhood somewhere around 1980 when words such as 'innocence' and 'freshness' crept back into the lexicon of praise.
Whatever the pretences of the time, it was an attempt to recapture the music of a past age, or at least the crazy fanishness that surrounded it. The signs were obvious; Haircut 100 in the sort of hooded garment your mum used to buy, Orange Juice in shorts and schoolboy sandals, and of course Clare Grogan striking the pose of perfect retardation as the 20 year old with the toothy twee image of a 12 year old Shirley Temple.
Music has become as self-conscious in its adolescence as it used to be in its adultness; viz the extremely rich Kemp twins clinging on to be cosseted in the maternal nest until well into their twenties in a desperate attempt to maintain the magic of the years of discovery.
In the midst of all this smothering indulgence, though, the spirit of the true innocent has been hiding in the most unlikely of places - in Nick Cave, that strange ungainly child in the corner, in the wonderment of Jim Kerr and in the wild antics of the show-off Mackenzie.
Mackenzie is not making any contrived attempt to recapture a lost spark, he is simply like that, the refreshing opposite of the dominant pop star of the day, and as they kow tow record company manipulation Mackenzie continues in his own sweet way and fully expects the record company to pursue him. That's what has got him into trouble.
"They never questioned the bills when we were in the studio, so we just went out and got the whole LP orchestrated," he comments matter of factly. "It did cost quite a bit, but the result is just brilliant, it's the best music I've ever been involved in.
"But they want something that they think is commercially viable, they want DLT to like me - and I just couldn't give a damn. All I ever wanted to do was better myself with the music that was coming through me."
Mackenzie's hopeful naivety is so strong that he fails to understand any one or anything that stands in its way. That, it seems, was a fundamental point in the break-up between himself and Rankine:
"I really do rate Alan very highly; he comes very near the top, if not the very top of my ratings of great musicians. What he didn't realise, though, was that it was his talent that was his security, not any money or benefits that were going to come his way because of that. He was insecure and all fucked up about money."
Money, on the other hand, is something that Billy Mackenzie never gets bothered about, as WEA might tell you. With Stevie Reid he has a far more understanding relationship:
"Stevie's the same as me, it's all for the glory of the music and nothing else matters. He's also got the same sense or humour as me, which most people don't understand - most people think he's just a nutcase, but it's only that he can't express what he means properly.
"Personally I'm over the moon that the break took place, because I got so much material written in that year. If I'd just have carried on being Billy Mackenzie the pop star I would have come to the point where I'd just have been fabricating situations to write songs about. Now I've had some time to come through scrapes and just live a life, to be frustrated and to have disappointments and to find material to write about. I've got quite high ideals, so for a listener all I ever do is document personal disappointments, musical and lyrical.
"The disappointment comes when I can't match up to the tune that comes through me, because I really believe that music is a much more powerful force than any one single person. It can be totally contrary to the mood that I'm in at any one time, I could be feeling really happy and some huge death and doom theme will just run through my mind, or I'll be really sad and some happy little country and western theme will come through me.
"Disappointment never bothers me, though, I can only use it."
That sounds very close to Jim Kerr's idea of music being the translation of an atmosphere.
"Well, Jim is another person of extreme finesse; there has always been an underlying classiness to Simple Minds, the same sort of breadth of vision that I think the best of The Associates music conjured up. It's a gift, and you definitely are given your qualities by someone else. Perhaps there's some Celtic God sprinkling them in our paths." A conversation with Billy Mackenzie is frequently bizarre, sometimes ridiculous. I wonder does he understand the rest of the world?
"No, it just seems to be a scramble for affluence, people striving to do things, and then just crumbling up when they get where they want to go, they just can't cope with success, they're too insecure."
But didn't you crumble up through insecurity when The Associates were at the peak of their success?
"That wasn't insecurity that was just my good taste coming through. I didn't think we were good enough.
"Every song has something personally good about it, but when I get success I just get fed up with it and want to kick it away."
Haven't you suffered from that perversity?
"No, because I've written three years of music out of that one year of observing. Most People I bump into are really greedy, in a monetary and in a personal sense, they have different ideas of success to me. What success anyway? I don't think it's being number one. What me and Steve have done on this album is what I call success - its a mile above The Associates mark one."
So if it's so wonderful how come WEA won't release it?
"Because I'm being rapped on the knuckles for winding up what they thought was a successful group."
You've been a bad boy Billy.
"That's right - they'll probably delay the release again when they find out about this interview," he glints, "but I don't care."
"Superior men who were irresistibly drawn to throw off the yoke of any kind of morality and to frame new laws, if they were not actually mad, had no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad." - Nietzsche.
Let us make no bones about it, a conversation with Billy Mackenzie is a downright strange experience. In discussing the sensuality of kitchen utensils, for example, he treads a tightrope between eccentricity and madness. He simply does not think the way other people think.
It is that uneasy eccentricity which has always been the distinguishing factor in The Associates music, painting the most bizarre and grotesque scenarios and charging them with an unexpected humour in the exuberance of the music. Sometimes you can't help wondering though, is Mackenzie going his own sweet way to the borders of insanity?
"Music," he begins when I ask him the usual state of the art question, "will continue to be the number one phenomena until about 1985, because it's free and it touches all emotions. After that though, everything will have been said and been done and the freedom that people have within the world will all have been expressed. I don't think there will be another big movement, it'll all be something that is looked back on. Not that music will ever finish, but there will be advances in health that will reach the same emotions that music does. The body as a whole will take over the wondrousness that music can provide. They're going to find incredible advances in the body and music will decline. There will be new found emotions that will satisfy the need that music does now. "
Is that not a disappointing thought for you as a musician?
"No 'cause it'll just be put on a different channel - if music is channel 28, there'll be a channel 30. It'll involve music and this new physical thing: In a lot of ways we're the transitionary stage, because we have always advocated a notion of physicality in our music right from the cover of 'The Affectionate Punch' with the athlete."
What about people like Test Dept. Neubauten and SPK?
"I think they're bloody marvellous, I really do. I see us as being involved in the same sort of thing but the physicality is more inherent in our music."
But hasn't music always been physical?
"Well, basically what I'm saying is that we don't really know that much, I think in the future we're going to communicate by a knowing sense." Eh?
"I think humans have about 40 senses but we only use seven. There's going to be breakthroughs in that, like in the TV show The Champions. There's going to be a race of superhumans - or rather humans were always super anyway, it just takes time to realise the wondrousness of the human race."
How long have you had these ideas?
"I've always had them, I mean just the other day I went into the bathroom and put on this talcum powder and it was like I'd smelt it in another world, it was like... it gave me a bigger high than drink or drugs have ever done. It only lasted for a few seconds, but if I'd been able to sustain that feeling, it gave me a bigger high than I've had for years, ken what I mean? It hit some receptor and evoked something deep down in me.
"lf I was able to have sniffed that talcum powder instead of taking drugs, which I always thought were a waste of time anyway... there's only one musical phrase that can do that for me and that's in 'She's A Woman' by The Beatles, there's just a few notes in that that make me want to put the needle back to the beginning again and again and just listen to that phrase over and over. If only you could sustain the high, that would be you set, you wouldn't have to worry any more about the mundane earthly bound things that really just restrict the brilliance of people."
You mean we are stardust we are golden?
"I suppose it could be seen in that hippy sense, but then hippies were never very athletic or Olympian people, they were always like neanderthal types, cave dwellers, so that gets that out of the way. What I'm saying has got an athletic basis.
"I just want to know a lot more about the human race. I believe the human race has always been super, but through ignorance they became unsuper.
"By about 1985, though, people will begin to shape up."
How much do material things affect you?
"Shapes affect me, with buildings and with songs. A lot of the time I visualise the music that I produce, it's just that you can't see it. I visualise forms like little houses. I like to put the shapes of inanimate objects into the audio sense.
"I don't actually understand it, I haven't got to the stage of being able to understand that plant pot, for example, or its relation to anything else.
"Basically we understand very little, we're all groping in the dark and we just have to find things that don't scare us too much. People don't act the way they should because everybody is scared of something and therefore it restricts everything."
But one of the things that makes The Associates songs so powerful is the sense of fear that exists within them.
"No, all my songs have come out of freedom and are about personal disappointment; all I have never done is document personal disappointment."
How about 'Q Quarters'?
"That's about what we think is the right way to live. Maybe it's considered political, because it's about watching heads of state where you're observing these people who think they know how to run a country and run their lives, and they all know fuck all."
It's a frightening thing to listen to though.
"I think it's beautiful, that's your fear. Fear is only something that you think you need."
Do you not find it exciting?
"No - it's just the biggest communication."
You just said it was the greatest limit.
"Well it's a vicious circle."
I don't understand what you're on about.
"Well think about it when you get home."
Do you like winding people up Billy?
"I don't consider I ever have wound anybody up although some people probably think that I have, I just like to play pranks, I get great enjoyment out of that, but not really to anyone's detriment."