The Associates’ Billy MacKenzie 20 years on from his death – an under appreciated gem

Billy Mackenzie in 1994 (Photo Credit: Gilbert Blecken)

Billy Mackenzie in 1994 (Photo Credit: Gilbert Blecken)

20 years after the death of The Associates singer, Getintothis’ Cath Bore reflects on his life and legacy.

I first clapped eyes on Billy MacKenzie as he was miming badly to Party Fears Two on Top of The Pops, The Associates’ debut performance on the show, I think.

He had a brilliant pop star smile and wore a beret, and a belted mac buttoned up to the collar, and was transfixed and amused by his own image in the TV monitors grinning back at him. It was in the days before facial contouring was a thing, thick pan stick foundation and bold stripes of blusher along the cheekbones the way to go, him and Associates partner in crime Alan Rankine both slapping on a full palette of make up,

MacKenzie and Martha Ladly on keys smiled at each other naughtily. Straight faced, Rankine played a banjo – even though there isn’t one on the bloody record – dressed in a lancing outfit and with chopsticks in his hair.

What a tableau, what sight to see; what a song to hear.

“I’ll take a shower then phone my brother up” is a nonsensical line for a top ten pop song, and yet Party Fears Two even now jerks out an essential reaction. A friend of mine says whenever she even has a shower she always wonders about giving her sibling a call, because it feels the right thing to do.  Even though, notably, she’s an only child.

The Associates had two more almost top 30 hits, Club Country and 18 Carat Love Affair, and, thinking back, it seems a little odd they bothered the charts at all. Not that these songs aren’t stone cold pop classics, but because even now they sound bloody weird; beautifully bonkers. These songs are ingrained in the memory, and Sulk, the album they are taken from, has aged remarkably well for a 1980s pop album.

There’s so much to love in The Associates records, and Billy’s solo work. His tenor voice is the obvious first off, of course; multi-octave if the experts are to be believed. Not that technical specs are the important thing here; it gets to you, his voice, even now after all this time. It soars from crunchy and goes so high and grandiose you think it will crack ‘cos it has to, because nothing gets that big. But it doesn’t break, like, ever. It’s not operatic; it’s too feral. It’s just him.

Billy MacKenzie died 20 years ago in January. He would have turned 60 last month had he lived, but these major anniversaries remained little remarked upon within the wider musical world. I expected a BBC 4 night of celebrations, a TOTP best of at least, but there was nothing. In 2016 fans were delighted that remastered releases of Associates albums The Affectionate Punch, Fourth Drawer Down and Sulk were given the deluxe treatment, and his final work, Beyond The Sun, is being released on limited edition vinyl – 500 copies only – for the first time in by One little Indian on 16 June.

Billy was demoing the songs on Beyond The Sun before he died, the bulk written with long-term collaborators Paul Haig, formerly of Josef K, and Steve Aungle. Simon Raymonde from Cocteau Twins among others completed the work he was unable to finish. It is a beautiful album, with layers of synth and straight ahead pop, lyrics dark and music bright and bittersweet; his voice, as ever, hurts. It’s a pleasure-pain thing.

With all the big music names who died last year, and one year anniversaries commemorated loudly and throatily – the queues on Record Store Day from beginning to end of folk wanting, needing the Prince and Bowie releases are a testament to that – I guess Billy MacKenzie’s been lost in the glamour chase rush somehow. Most of his shelved and unreleased recordings (including The Glamour Chase album) have come out since he died, yet his name doesn’t get dropped into conversations often. It’s not cited by musicians as commonly as it should for my liking. And it’s frequently the case people don’t quite know who he is.

When Wild Beasts first emerged in 2008, it seemed to me straight away they’d been listening to The Associates. It was obvious really, that slightly bleak 80s pop synth sound, and even Hayden Thorpe‘s falsetto, to an extent.

wild beasts

Wild Beasts (Press Photo)

“We put out our first singles where all people would talk about The Associates so when we went back to it we were like, oh, yeah, this is kind of what we’re doing!” Tom Fleming from the band told me. “I think maybe it’s because we were surrounded by bands who sounded like The Associates. It’s great music and I’m glad it’s got a second coming as it were because it went underappreciated at the time.”

Good. I like what I’m hearing so far.

“But in terms of its influence on us it was definitely something we got through the water rather than directly because honestly when we made our first record,’ he adds. ‘We weren’t even aware of them. Hand on heart.”

It was a bit distressing to hear this, but thinking about it some more, what Fleming says makes sense. After those three hits, Mackenzie carried on The Associates name without Rankine, who got a proper job, curating a music course in Glasgow where in the 1990s he signed and developed bands such as Snow Patrol and Biffy Clyro via the Electric Honey label, through which Belle and Sebastian’s debut album Tigermilk was released.

Later, post-Associates, Mackenzie brought out a series of mainly collaborative works, yet to the mainstream, apart from writing lyrics and providing backing vocals for Yello‘s The Rhythm Divine in 1987, sung by Shirley Bassey, his voice and songwriting didn’t get heard too much outside his fanbase.  And despite this, that ‘through the water‘ influence is felt in all manner of ways.

In the original edition of Tom Doyle’s book The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy Mackenzie, published a year after he died, a delightful gossipy tome, Bono writes the introduction, confessing to U2 borrowing from The Associates somewhat. (Please don’t think badly of Billy for this; he is not to blame for U2.) In later editions of the book it is the mighty Bjork who pays tribute in the opening pages in Bono’s stead, her own 18 carat love affair with The Associates starting in her mid-teens when she worked in a record shop in Reykjavik, across many oceans, over the water this time.

She talks about how listening to those records helped her find her own identity as singer, that wildness, instinctive and primitive his voice was. That’s it, you see. Bjork has it right there. It’s not something you carbon copy and put out there. Some things hit you in the heart and they stay there and influence what you do, no matter what.

It’s through the water that Billy MacKenzie drifted into the lives of The Smiths’ fans, through William It Was Really Nothing in 1984, a song to which Billy issued the witty riposte Stephen, You’re Really Something.

Oh Morrissey, honey. What are you like?

I loved seeing crime author Ian Rankin’s most recent Inspector Rebus novel, Even Dogs in the Wild, in bookshops when it was published 18 months ago. Named after The Associates song from 1980, I liked the thought of unsuspecting crime fiction fans reading the book, Billy coming into their lives, through the literary water this time.

Of course there’s more direct musical tributes as well.

In The Cure‘s Cut Here, Robert Smith tears strips off himself for giving Billy the blow off backstage at a Cure concert a few weeks before his death.

Say by The Creatures was written for him, Siouxsie Sioux reflecting on a final intended meeting that never took place.

On the 20th anniversary of his death, I hopped over to YouTube, to see him living and breathing apart from anything else, though I’ve seen these videos and films many times before. It’s all there, footage of Top Of The Pops, The Tube and the rest, and importantly Billy’s mythical 1984 set at Ronnie Scott’s popped up, a fan’s favourite.

Billy  MacKenzie, the torch singer before I knew what one was, with piano and violins delivered an astonishing and classy performance including interpretations of This Flame, God Bless The Child, The Crying Game, and his very own Breakfast.

It struck me, watching it again. How much his singing, presentation, interpretations of other people’s songs, influenced me. He set my default position, if you like. I hadn’t even heard Scott Walker yet, and here Billy MacKenzie was, setting out a gold standard stall of delights. The way I look at it now, this peformance alone was him making me ready for all the things I love today, setting out the groundwork for when I was old enough to get it properly.

He was brave from early on, on reflection, choosing to do cover versions of songs by others when it was not trendy – who wants to be fashionable anyway? We could go on forever on this, The Associates embracing the cursed Gloomy Sunday, cheekily covering Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging, mere weeks after the original single came out; at of course at Ronnie Scott’s he took on God Bless The Child, and won.

So yeah. His influence is felt through the water, happily. And it is picked up by more than many of us realise.