Not sulking but lonely nonetheless, Billy Mackenzie, famed as a Whippet-fancier and
possessed of the finest set of vocal cords on
Tayside, is bouncing back.
Alastair Mabbott catches
up lost ground.
WHIPPET UPAND START
It‘s all there in the voice. An extravagant song that ducks and swoops with the birds it charms from the trees. curls around inexpressible emotions and mocks the weak human ﬂesh that gave it life. How often have you heard that said about. say. Roland Gift?
Billy Mackenzie was an anomaly in the early 19805 for the reason that he‘s even more ofan anomaly now. A restless. headstrong Dundonian with a kitten‘s boredom threshold. his insistence on creative control short-circuited his career as a pop star. but so has it prevented his muse being diluted by head-scratching record company middle-men. The Associates was never the kind of group that did things the easy way.
At a time when punk had left few statues standing. the cabaret circuit hardly seemed the creative hothouse that might nurture innovative and dynamic talent; but it set up Mackenzie and his original Associate. Alan Rankine. for an unusual pop career. commencing with their debut. a cocktail version of David Bowie‘s ‘Boys Keep Swinging‘. The first album. The A ffeclionale Punch, and Fourth Drawer Down. a compilation culled from early singles on the Situation 2 label. can still be found. and show just how far The Associates could veer from the mainstream. often (in tense. thrilling tracks like ‘Kitchen Person‘ and the outstanding ‘Tell Me Easter‘s on Friday‘) quite brilliantly.
Squ was the album that broke them. though. Glittering. drama-ladcned. and a confident stab at mainstream synthetic pop. it
‘l’m hlasé about the mechanics, but the soul of the music, you know what I mean, it does everything . . .that’s where I get most of my happiness. . . lnthe right company I’m good company, in the wrong company I am negaﬁveﬁ
‘It I had it my way, I’d like the
musicto be free. I’d like itto be sold in ironmongers.’
spawned their first hit. ‘I’aity Fears Two‘. on the face ofit anirresistible pop single. but behind Rankine‘s gorgeous piano melody. the usual cliches had been replaced by riddles. perplexing lyrics that obscured as
much as they conveyed. The Associates conformed to nobody‘s rules but their own, but became stars none the less.
After the hits ‘Club Country’ and ‘18 Carat Love Affair‘. their momentum spluttered. Mackenzie ignored the pressure to move to London. dabbling in property so that he wouldn‘t have to rely on the benevolence of record companies to survive. and tended his beloved whippets. The Associates‘ contract with Beggars Banquet terminated. and although. Perhaps. released in 1984 on WEA and the final album Mackenzie and Rankine made together. was eventually to sell as well as Squ . it was not widely regarded as a high-water mark.
Mackenzie still defends Perhaps as a courageous album . claiming that it preceded a lot ofwhat is happening now. But his low and scattered profile in the years that followed — guest appearances on Yello‘s ()ne Second album, a version of ‘Heart of Glass‘ under the Associates banner and a couple of live shows with Paul Haig (the Edinburgh gig was Mackenzie‘s last live appearance) — gave the impression that he was stuck for inspiration. flitting butterfly-like between things that caught his fancy.
Wild and Lonely. the new album for Circa Records. marks his return to public life and a leap of faith for both him and the label. In an industry that likes to keep its charges trained along well-defined lines. like whippets chasing bogus rabbits. dealing with characters as wayward as Billy Mackenzie can be more trouble than it‘s worth. And Mackenzie‘s reputation for being somewhat cavalier with his employers has gone before him.
‘Yeah.‘ he admits. ‘I‘m blasé about the mechanics. but the soul ofmusic. you know what I mean. it does everything. It‘s everything to me. because that‘s where I get most ofmy happiness. But it‘s just that I wanted to take a different route from the usual formula. and Circa are very forward-thinking that way. In the right company I‘m good company. in the wrong company I am negative. And that‘s why most ofthe large conglomerates are splitting up into different factions now. The monster. which is the uncaring large corporate identity. has to be slain. You even get that in retail in Britain as well. because quality I believe is shoddy in that respect. Take it down to more individual or small companies.‘
He was touched by the way he was actually signed. not through the usual A&R channels but by the head of the company, who spent the day in Glasgow with him. ()ver a blackcurrant and Perrier he announced. ‘Billy. I think we‘re here to do something‘. and slid a contract across the table. 'In fact. they were being too nice to me.‘ he recalls. ‘I had to say. “Stop. I‘m not used to this.“ ‘
Mackenzie seems eager to please. but isn‘t there a a real worry he‘ll run up a fortune in studio bills and then not bother promoting the result. perhaps going off to Switzerland instead. or enrolling in a school for
vets? Not at all. he claims; he‘s aware of the responsibility he‘s taken on and. to affirm his commitment. contritely resolves that he‘s going to have to work doubly hard. The migratory Mackenzie has even roostcd in London for three months. ‘because I really want to share this album with them‘.
His articulacy momentarily deserts him. when he‘s asde how heartbroken he would be if Wild and Lonely died a death. After a few false starts. he declares. ‘If money wasn‘t involved I‘d be really upset about it. But because money‘s involved it kind oftaints it for me anyway. I want people to like it but I don‘t want them to think ofit in money terms: that cost £9. And ifl had it my way. I‘d like music to be free. I‘d like it just to be sold in the ironmongers. But it‘s not to be.‘
Although Rankine is long gone. and the former partners rarely see each other, ‘The Associates‘ continues. as a useful. ﬂexible banner. devoid ofany fixed stylistic. ifyou‘ll pardon the term. associations. ‘1 think what else it is.‘ he expands. ‘is that I get really fed up with people saying Billy Mackenzie this and Billy Mackenzie that. It bores me. You see your name in print. and I‘d rather have The Associates. It‘s much cooler! And I don‘t like to feel that everything‘s revolving around me. I get claustrophobic like that. I like a certain amount ofattention. but The Associates is a good buffer for that.‘
He describes his role as 'the main energy‘ ofThe Associates. a slave to the excitement and enthusiasm that grips him to work on the songs until they‘re completed. With the ‘perceptive and receptive‘ musicians he has had working with him. Wild and Lonely has come easily. ‘The canvas is very open.‘ he warns. ‘I haven‘t got any fixed ideas. The only idea is that I‘ll go with how I feel.‘
The energy is still spilling over into different projects. He will probably go to Switzerland to work with Boris Blank of Yello again. and the album he was going to record with Paul Haig last year may now happen. (For the record. despite the rumours. there were never any recordings made with Trevor Horn or Dave Stewart.) He‘s keen to play live again, assuming he can get it all prepared to his satisfaction. There are also other projects. concerning film. more specifically scriptwriting. about which he is more evasive. As before. diverse activities shouldn‘t be confused with a lack of direction.
‘I always think that it‘s forward. because if you look at The Associates. they never really used the tried and tested formula. so that must mean some type ofprogress. Also. I‘m very much influenced by so many different types ofmusic. so just as you might have a very modern left-field pop song. so the chorus might turn into something from a 19405 Hollywood B-movie. So I don‘t think time factors come into it really — The Associates embrace the past and the future.‘
Wild and Lonely is released b y Circa Records on Mon 19.
4 The List 9 — 22 March 1990