Why, 15 years after the death of Billy Mackenzie, the music of The Associates still matters…
Its fifteen years today since the flamboyant Associates singer Billy Mackenzie tragically took his own life, but the music he created with his musical partner Alan Rankine still endures and shall be his enduring legacy”Â¦
Mackenzie was a talented runner and deeply enthusiastic about fitness (witness the sleeve of the Associates debut album “The Affectionate Punch”Â, which shows him and Rankine on the starting line for a race). If you’re wondering what this has to with anything, whilst I was having a run recently one of the Associates best known songs, “Party Fears Two”Â (from their majestic third album “Sulk”Â) kicked in. Granted, this offered a significanctly slower pace than my usual running soundtrack, but something in Mackenzie’s vocal doesn’t encourage you to slow down. The moment in which Mackenzie sings, “AWAKE ME,”Â is a display of a voice of such opulent depth that a very simple lyric becomes something strangely movement, that hits the listener like the sound of bursting into life. The euphoria of what they created courses through the listener like the feel of fitness itself; for all this enthusiasm, Billy Mackenzie probably had no idea what perfect running music he had created.
But of course, that is just a very personal take on a band that reached many people. The Associates music was influenced by the grandeur of film soundtracks and as a result was lush and monumental; but far more beautiful than any film soundtrack had ever been. Rankine (now a lecturer in music at Glasgow University) was a multi-instrumentalist who managed to fulfil and transcend the ideas of their influences with the soundscapes he created, but it is Mackenzie’s voice which gives their music that other worldly quality of stirring beauty. Whilst he is highly regarded as a vocalist, his voice defied convention; like free verse poetry, it takes not a structure but weaves and flows all over the place ”â never completely in-key, but never off-key either, in a way that matches Rankine’s sometimes oblique sound structures. None of this sounds commercially viable on paper, so it says something for the sheer brilliance of the Associates that they did reach a proper, Top-of-the-Pops, significantly charting level of success.
Those first three Associates albums ”â The Affectionate Punch, Fourth Drawer Down and Sulk ”â are timeless because they have never sounded like anything else. They cannot be described as having an eighties sound in the way that their contemporaries did, and as a result they transcend time.
The group fell apart when Rankine left, but at the time of Mackenzie’s suicide on January 22nd, 1997, he had been planning a comeback. It is utterly tragic that we never got this; so lets pay our respects with acknowledgement to Mackenzie’s legacy ”â THAT voice, which can turn the simplest of lyrics into something so moving that every hair on the back of your neck can stand up”Â¦