GOODBYE MR. MacKENZIE
ANDY DAVIS REMEMBERS THE MAN AND THE VOICE BEHIND THE ASSOCIATES
On 22nd January this year, Billy MacKenzie took his own life. He was 39 years old. He took an overdose of prescription drugs and died in a garden shed in the grounds of his father's home in Auchterhouse, Dundee.
It was the shed where he kept his beloved whippets - Billy was one of the leading trainers in the U.K. After discovering his son's body, Billy's father Jim burned the shed down. The police said there were no suspicious circumstances, and it later emerged that Billy had been suffering from depression, and had reacted badly to the death of his mother, Lily, the previous year. He left a note apologising to his family, but said nothing of a specific reason for his suicide.
The tragedy of Billy ,MacKenzie's death becomes even more apparent in light of a recent upturn in his career. After having spent the last ten years virtually a forgotten figure, he was planning a comeback. He'd recently signed to Nude Records, the label behind Suede, and was working on a new album, "Beyond The Sun". Billy mistrusted the music industry, believing it full of people who were manipulative and dishonest. But in Nude boss Saul Gaulpern, he had apparently found a sympathetic ear.
Billy died before "Beyond The Sun" was finished. It was left to Gaulpern to oversee its completion,and he commissioned suitably ornate piano, guitar and string-section overdubs to add colour to Billy's initial recordings. "Beyond The Sun" will be released on 6th October, with proceeds going to Macmillan Cancer Relief and the Samaritans.
Stark and less cryptic than much of his earlier work, "Beyond The Sun" picks up where 1990's beautifully tragic "Wild And Lonely" album left off, and shows that Billy had been keeping up with developments in music while he lived in semi-retirement. The opening track, the seductive "Give Me Time", is as emotionally fraught as any of his previous solo outings, but swaps the Associates' old Roxy/Bowie/Sparks jitters for a more relaxed Portishead-style backbeat. Not that the old influences have been banished, though: "Three Gypsies In A Restaurant" is pure "Fascist Groove Thing"-era Heaven 17, and if "Sour Jewel" wasn't inspired by Sparks' "Amateur Hour" then Oasis have never heard the Beatles.
In the light of 90s dance music, Billy's obsession with keyboards no longer seems out of time. But even at his synthesised best, he never let technology obscure the heart of his music, and the pensive ballads on "Beyond The Sun" serve to remind us that whether in love or out of it, Billy appeared to suffer from permanent heartache. It's frank, honest stuff. "My new material," he told Melody Maker last year, "is comparatively ...nude".
MacKenzie possessed, he said,"an extreme repertoire of emotions", and an intense passion for music. "I'm rabid", he confessed. "I've got musical rabies. I sing myself to sleep. It's my best friend." His voice was his greatest asset. Even his command of numerous musical styles torch-song balladry, camp 70s melodrama, "Low"-era Bowie eeriness couldn't overshadow the power of his operatic technique. "What a great voice. What a talent to lose," said his Associates partner, Alan Rankine. And according to Echo & The Bunnymen's lan McCulloch, Billy's voice "was frightening. I only had two-and-a-half octaves, and he had this four-and-a-half octave glass shattering job.
The fact that Billy remained a credible figure until his death was due, in part, to his distaste for commercialism. Preceding George Michael's and Prince's clashes with their record labels by nearly a decade, Billy's relationship with WEA was wracked with tension and misunderstanding. Billy was signed to Warners for most of the 80s, and his back catalogue is littered with unreleased and cancelled records. Perhaps his disinterest in stardom had something to do with it: he seemed happiest living in Dundee, breeding his whippets.
"He contacted me in the autumn of 1991 and said, "Do you fancy doing an album?". Alan Rankine recently recalled. "I said,'Yeah'. We ended up getting together in late '93. We wrote about 17 or 18 songs in a weekend." Another major label deal was offered, but once again, Mac found himself unable to adapt to the restrictions such a deal demands. He insisted on being allowed to work on other projects rather than devoting himself full-time to the Associates. When that proved unacceptable to the powers-that-be, both the deal and the reunion fell through.
"He wasn't perfect," concluded Rankin. He was very mercurial, sometimes too much so. But I've had a lot of laughs in my life, and I've never laughed as hard as when I was with Bill".
JUST CAN'T SAY GOODBYE
IN JULY 1994, BILLY MacKENZIE GAVE WHAT TURNED OUT TO BE ONE OF HIS LAST FORMAL INTERVIEWS. GILBERT BLECKEN ASKED THE QUESTIONS.
RECORD COLLECTOR: The Associates were initially hailed not only as a great band but also as an important one. Were you conscious of being ahead of your time?
BILLY MacKENZIE: I had my influences, like early Roxy Music, Sparks, the whole Philly sound and jazz as well. But there were also reasonable amounts of imaginative and surprise elements to the music. I am a very good technical player, so I would pick the chords and then Alan would work with them and embellish them within the chord structure, maybe with another chord that really didn't fit.
It was more of a feel thing, but with Alan's musical expertise. So in that respect, I think what we were doing was fresh. And it really wasn't calculated. We didn't think, "We are going for this market"! We just went with things we felt were really good within ourselves. Still, I wasn't really comfortable on the first album, 'cause I think it was very stylised. There was a certain beauty to some of it, but it really got more textured on the second album, "Fourth Drawer Down".
RC: What it was like being a pop star in a small Scottish town like Dundee in the early 80s?
BM: It seemed that the whole of Scotland was against me, because I was really out on a limb. They thought "Who is this impostor?", 'cause I wasn't doing the three chords stuff. In Dundee, people even wanted to attack me 'cause I was flamboyant. They thought of me as pretentious, although it was very natural for me to do things I did. So Dundee definitely wouldn't support somebody like me. Also, it was very unlikely that something would have come out of this area. But maybe the fact that I reacted against this mentality gave me the drive to do something. So in a way, Dundee made me what I am.
RC: Is it true that your most successful album 1982's "Sulk" is still your personal favourite?
BM: Yeah, it is. I even thought of working with Mike Hedges again. Maybe I will ask him to produce two of my new tracks. But I'm not sure about that yet.
RC: I thought "Perhaps" was a very demanding album. Even the cover photo of you looked austere and sexually ambiguous at the same time.
BM: Yeah, it was meant to have the effect of a pimp. A lot of the musical content was very glamorous and sexual. I was more of a tough person at that time, behind the image, but they were puttin' that image on me to obscure it. It was a mask. I was meant to be tough and tender at the same time. And there was a lot of femininity to the music, although I had a very masculine drive. At first I thought the cover should be in black-and-white. Elvis would have done that. It was also a reaction against the black goth thing. It was meant to stand out and be odd.
RC: After the "Breakfast" single, many people expected your music to become more balladesque. Why didn't it?
BM: It was too easy. Ballads come easy to me, but I still wanted to be experimental, to develop and stretch my imagination. I could have cashed in on those tracks and made a lot of money, but I thought, that's not the point. I always went with my instincts. I'm not emotional or wrapped up in psychodramas all the time. There is a very fun side to me as well; I can laugh at tragedy. I didn't want to be a doom merchant and sell myself like a Leonard Cohen. All these tracks were written after I'd fallen in love for the first time; they were a by-product of that. But once I got over the heartbreak of love disillusion, I went back to my own level of harmony. I just got a bit carried away. I'm glad I did, though, because I am a very emotionally intense person, but also very happy and spontaneous. So that's why I didn't carry on with that. I didn't want the public to see me as someone who is always emotionally bankrupt.
RC: What other memories do you have of your time in London during the mid-80s?
BM: I felt like a college student who had left his friends and family. And the things I saw there I was really angry about. Those political values ... and I thought the situation with the homeless there was terrible. Just the whole humanitarian issue ... it was just dog-eat-dog. No real friendliness. Everything was so superficial. So if I came across very angry or nasty, it was just that I was affected 'cause I couldn't do things about housing and friends who were on drugs. I was really frustrated and wild. In some ways, I was born a Buddhist and I have Buddhist values, although I've never ever studied anything about Buddhism at all. But a side of me tries not to judge people, and I don't like the word hate or any form of unthoughtfulness.
RC: In 1985, you released the brilliant "Take Me To The Girl" single, but why no accompanying album.
BM: Basically, because the head of the label at Warner Brothers wanted me to be a show puppet. The direction they wanted for me was totally wrong. They wanted me to be calculated, and I could never be calculated. I have to be heartfelt. There would always be a dreaminess coming through. I found it was too much of a headmaster thing, and I'm a very rebellious person against anything that's autocratic. I wanted to retain my individuality, if anyone can be individual at all. At first, they even wanted "Take Me To The Girl" to be a special limited edition single that wasn't part of an album. I did have quite a bit of material for an album at that time, but I didn't wanna have posters and videos and all that. I wanted people to basically find the albums for themselves, rather than have them forced right into their living rooms. Today it would be different. I want to present what am doing now because I've got much more control.
RC: Three years later, "The Glamour Chase" album was completed but remains unreleased. Are you disappointed by that?
BM: Yeah, I think it would have been really good at the time, because there were some very strong songs on it. Especially one called "Empires Of Your Heart", which is as good as David Bowie's "Heroes"! But I was quite pleased with the whole album. What happened was that the company offered me no support whatsoever, but when I came back, the A&R team loved it. I think this really upset them, that I could do it without their support. So it was all an egotistical problem.
RC: Were all the songs on the follow-up "Wild And Lonely" new at that time.
BM: No, they weren't. They were songs I had written previous to "The Glamour Chase", and some of these ended up on "Wild And Lonely", because I didn't have enough new material for that album - the poppier ones like "Fire To Ice" and "Just Can't Say Goodbye". Maybe I shouldn't have done that, but nevertheless I think that the songs were really accomplished.
RC: You sound as if you don't like that album very much.
BM: It's not that I don't like it. It was recorded in a very difficult emotional state. One of my sister's babies died, and I was really upset at that time. I wished I had used more real instruments on it. Also some of the tracks could have been a little faster. Saying that, it did allow another audience to understand that I loved pop music, too. It showed that I wasn't just off-the-wall and obscure.
RC: In my opinion it's also the album which features your best singing.
BM: To a certain degree. But it's only now, after 15 years, that I can really say that I'm singing the best. My singing on "Wild And Lonely" was good, but I think now I'm in a different class.
RC: There is a track on "Wild And Lonely" called "Fever", which describes an affair you had with an older woman as a 14-year-old. Why did you wait so long to write about that experience?
BM: A lot of it has to do with emotional maturity. And when I was 14 years old, I was quite experienced in some ways, because in Scotland there's nothing else to do. All the boys and girls are having sex when they're about 12. We all used to meet in class before the teacher came in, just to kiss. I think children should be really protected, but I think that boys really know what they're doing by the time they're 14. They're very passionate and crawling up the wall for sex. They shouldn't have to wait 'til they're 16! And I was really mature and confident at that age, too. At that time, I used to look after some children in a house that was also visited by three or four prostitutes. And those prostitutes were really nice. They would encourage me with this older woman. I think she was 22 or something, so she wasn't that much older.
RC: How are your relationships with women today?
BM: I'm a traditionalist. I am still friends with all my former girlfriends. But I can't have a romantic liaison if everything is not just perfect. All my friends who are in relationships right now are having problems. I'm very choosy now about relationships.
RC: Very little is known of your private life. Do you have any children?
BM: I've got children from when I was in America. I was married in Las Vegas when I was 17, and I had them when I was 17 and 20. But that's really difficult for me to talk about.
RC: Let's talk about your solo album, "Outernational". To me, it lacks the warmth of some of your previous records.
BM: I think it has a glacial beauty. It doesn't always have to be demonstrative. Fire can burn, but so can ice. And that would direct the attention to the lyrical content as well. Some of it had a lot of religious connotations, like "Colours Will Come". I think that it's an emotionally detached album in some ways, but it also has a strong message. Maybe it appeared like I wasn't trying or expressing, or that there was a block. But it wasn't. There was a calmness and a lot of beauty in that album.
RC: Do you think your vocals sound a bit restricted?
BM: I think we got a balance. At the same time, I didn't want to over-sing. It can be too hysterical. I think that's great in a live situation, but a whole album like that can be really tiring for people to listen to. "Perhaps", for example, can be really exhausting. I like to mix light and shade. The music I'm doing now has a different type of strength altogether. It's a lot more out again, and I don't sound so silky anymore. The music has no analysis, it's just very pure. That's the stage I'm working towards. It has all the strength of the music I did over the last 15 years, but with the wider knowledge I have now.
RC: What projects are you working on at the moment?
BM: There's an album called "Outerpol", which is a harder version of "Outernational". And there is a ballads album under the name of "Winter Academy", which is more in the "Breakfast" vein. It's very elegant and melancholic. And then there's another album that's very souly. I really don't mean to spread myself over too many styles, but if I'm enjoying something, I'll do it. I think we're going to finance it ourselves. It's quite tough doing it that way, but it's really rewarding. I celebrate the struggle more. It makes me pay more attention to the details. And I've become a lot more resourceful and resilient.
I used to be really wild, and people didn't understand that that was just one side of me. I am very disciplined at the same time. People probably expected me to end up with a drug-related problem. I should have been the one that was hooked on heroin or took LSD for a year. But that very conscious, disciplined side of me wouldn't allow it. I was just like a wild student of life for a while, but at the same time I knew when to stop being a party animal and get on with work. I don't need drugs to make me feel real or unreal. They don't really assist me. I've got an extreme repertoire of emotions anyway. I must have lived many lives before.
RC: Do you believe that?
BM: Yeah, I think it's got a certain logic behind it.
RC: Your music was sometimes regarded as kitsch. Do you have an opinion on kitsch visual artists like Jeff Koons or Pierre et Gilles?
BM: I like all that. Things don't have to be controlled and serious. If that type of expression doesn't come out, then something can be lost. After all, kitsch is the working class kingdom. That side of things has got to be explored.
RC: At the end of '93 you teamed up again with Alan Rankine. What happened?
BM: For maybe ten years Alan was hoping to work with me again. In a way, he couldn't free himself from me. When we got back together, it was uncomfortable for both of us, but there were still some things that were good. But the picture was more intricate than that. Other things were going to reveal themselves which were important than the music. Alan just wanted it to be us and no one else, and I couldn't have that. He didn't like the fact that I was doing some other stuff with Paul Haig as well. He might have found that threatening. But there was nothing threatening about it. I certainly wasn't going to be held to work as a duo for the next five years. It was just too shocking.
RC: Are you still fiends with Alan?
BM: Yeah. Although Alan's background is more Anglo-Saxon and safe, mine's more street and I'm more willing to take chances, whereas Alan's got a conservative streak. I pushed Alan towards a lot of things we did on "Sulk", the more experimental things. That said, I'm very aware that he's a great musician.
RC: What are your feelings towards musicians you've influenced who've since become much more successful than you?
BM: They wanted success more than me. I certainly had too much to learn behind the scenes. It was like the difference between cinema and theatre. They were the film stars, but I was always more involved in theatre.