Billy MacKenzie: a eulogy for pop's great
The Glamour Chase
The Maverick Life Of Billy MacKenzie Tom Doyle BLOOMSBURY £12.99
Every picture tells a story. In this biography of the late singer Billy MacKenzie, there's a photo, circa 1971, of St. Michael's School's under-15s Football 11, posing in full kit, arms traditionally folded. Off to one side, for reasons unexplained, there's MacKenzie, in day clothes, hands on hips, with matching defiant grimace. Even this early, he was the outsider, a boy who possibly knew too much, but about whom we know too little.
What is known is that he was born in Dundee, paired up with instrumentalist Alan Rankine to form The Associates, one of the most charismatic pop groups of the early-'80s, went it alone in a half-hearted, commercially disastrous manner. Then, in January 1996, just weeks after landing his first record deal in six years, took a fatal overdose of pills. A tragic demise is a quickfire route to oversentimentality but The Associates are the group that fellow musicians from the same era regularly cite as an influence. In his foreword, Bono writes, "The Associates were a great group: we ripped them off. Billy was a great singer: I couldn't rip him off. He was Caruso on a balloon of oxygen.
MacKenzie was also a schemer, dreamer, manipulator, charmer, spendthrift (he'd instantly splurge his advances, then demand living expenses), expert projectile vomiter (helpful when winning over punk crowds), breeder of whippets (he'd let them freely shit in his pastel-shaded hallway) and bisexual who kept shtoom about his private life, even from friends.
Q writer Tom Doyle's shared Dundee upbringing not only allows a firm grip on MacKenzie's motivation and insecurities (starting with him being the eldest son in a large Catholic family) but the trust of the singer's inner sanctum, who try as best they can to explain why he fought the machinations of record companies shunning pop stardom and ending up self-detonating his chances. "It's all for the glory of the music, and nothing else matters," was his justification.
When MacKenzie's mother died of cancer in 1996, nothing else apparently did matter, and her son's belief in "joyful chaos" crumbled. MacKenzie's rollercoaster life, which Doyle expertly documents through every tumultuous swerve and dip, ended just six months later, his talent sadly never fully realised.
By Martin Aston