Billy Mackenzie

Billy Mackenzie

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”¦

Mackenzie was a talented runner and deeply enthusiastic about fitness (witness the sleeve of the Associates debut album “The Affectionate Punch”, 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” (from their majestic third album “Sulk”) 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,” 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 ”“ 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.

The Affectionate Punch

Those first three Associates albums ”“ The Affectionate Punch, Fourth Drawer Down and Sulk ”“ 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.

Sulk

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 ”“ 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”¦

28 COMMENTS

  1. The track he did with Apollo 440, on their LP ‘Electro Glide In Blue’, not long before he sadly died, (Pain In Any Language) is excellent and any fans of The Associates who’ve not heard it should check it out

  2. Thanks for that John/Amy. 15 years already?. Sounded like nothing before or since. Do n`t forget the “Perhaps” album, which, imo, is as good as Sulk.
    Much missed.

  3. Apparently, Billy turned up at his record company to be told the label were dropping the band. Obviously disappointed, he asked the exec if he could get a cab back to his house. He agreed. So Billy got in a black cab. To Dundee.
    Now THAT is class!

  4. It is misleading to refer to Fourth Drawer Down as the second Associates album since it is in fact a compilation of singles and b-sides released on the Situation Two label. Also, the Associates most certainly did continue to exist as a band after the departure of Rankine, with keyboardist Howard Hughes and guitarist Steve Reid. The first album released with this line-up was ‘Perhaps’ in 1985.

    • I know that they continued: I was referring to their gradual disintegration. Thank you for the pointers on “Fourth Drawer Down.”
      I’m to young to have witnessed The Associates at the time so I’m really pleased that people who did are being so positive about this article, thank you

  5. Nice article, but I find it a great shame that – like so many people – you pretty much ignored Billy’s output following the split, a lot of which is superb. I’ve always found it sad that most people seem to bypass what is really some great music, as if the man did nothing worthwhile after 1982. Nothing could be further from the truth, and those who choose to ignore Billy’s post Sulk output are (IMO) missing out.

  6. Nice read, and good to see that Billy Mackenzie is still being thought about. Check out the live album which came out last year. Also Wild & Lonely and Outernational were two chronically overlooked albums of pure class, Bill really deserved much more respect. We called our son Mackenzie last year, in recognition of this amazing talent whose memory deserves to live on.

  7. Those words “Awake Me” have a weirdlt exhilarating
    quality.
    I found his work with Yello especially haunting.
    Billy MacKenzie – a trouper to the last!

  8. Billy has been on my mind all winter. It’s been such a joy to discover the many facets of his voice and his pen. Unlike many, I’m not hooked on Billy because of the early Associates work. In fact I’ve still not heard most of it. His way with words and his sonic instincts and that VOICE are present in anything he ever did. Thank you for this post, it was good to know others have him on their minds and in their hearts.

  9. PS I HAVE to take a stand for Wild and Lonely. It was mis-produced for the most part. The SONGS, however are top notch all the way from start to finish. Also Outernational is fan-fricking -tastic and registers as being well ahead of its time.

    I have played “Fire to Ice” over and over and over and I”m totally delighted with it each time. And his vocal on that is simply world class. Perfect.

  10. visited billys grave at balgay cemetery in dundee last year made me sad
    but then listening to his music going up to scotland made me think of what he left us

  11. 15 years already? That’s so unfair as I only became a fan ten years late in 1990. If I had only heard them in 1980 they would have been among my core collections back then. The only new, contemporary Billy MacKenzie album I ever got to hear was “Outernational,” which was a real beauty. His suicide in 1997 gutted me.

  12. I miss Billy Mac so much… he had such a great talent and had such a fantastic voice, I listen to his music and his voice and it makes the hairs stand up at the back of my neck . Its Billy’s birthday on wednesday he will never be forgotten .

  13. got to know billy a little ,while raceing dogs which billy loved, much missed by many , one of the best singers the world has seen.

  14. I loved the associates in the early 80s. They defied simple definition and while everyone else was trying to be so different, Billy stood out with an effortless grace because he was different . Reading these other comments makes me realise I should now explore the delight of his later work.

  15. One of the most outstanding act of all time IMO next to Bowie and David Sylvian. The Affectionate Punch, USA version, is still my favourite album , then Sulk and Perhaps. If only music today could be as breathtakingly wonderful as Billy made. Beyond the sun was a truly sad album , you could hear that he was really getting back to amazing form before he gave up the will to live. I was lucky enough to see him perform in a church in Piccadilly London and will always remember what a maverick and outstanding vocalist he truly was.

  16. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in appreciating Billy’s great and unique talent, thanks. While working in Hot Press magazine, in Dublin, someone who knew I was an Associates fan, handed me a pre-release cassette of Outernational and, having listened to it, I concluded that Billy was about to conquer the world, finally. You’re right Ted, Outernational is sensational and those of you who only know his Associates recordings should check out his solo work and vice-versa.

  17. Hi Amy, love your tribute to Billy! Check out Tom Doyle’s biography The Glamour Chase, the Maverick Life of Billy Mackenzie if you haven’t already. Also on you tube fans have uploaded lots of unreleased material.

  18. Ever time I drive through Dundee on my way to Aberdeen I think of Billy. I drove up Park Avenue and thought about him as a kid growing up there.
    Sadly missed.

  19. There’s a fair few inaccuracies in your article, but that’s not a big deal considering how many outright lies are presented as fact as regards Billy these days. It was Billy not Alan that walked out after Sulk, the running thing was a joke, and was known as “The Running Joke” (he was far more interested in doughnuts and dogs). He was not “planning a comeback”, he just happened to sign a deal with a bad joke of a label called Nude Records, which was all too little too late anyway. Beyond the Sun is not a Billy Mackenzie album at all, it is a travesty thrown together by people who never knew him and with whom he had never discussed his plans, or who were chasing a few quid, and I’m afraid I include some family members in that. All that matters is the music, as HE made it. Tom Doyle did his best, but there’s only so much you can do when the raw material people are giving you ranges from bullshit to gobshite.

  20. In my view Billy Mckenzie is the greatest singer in pop music ever, and always criminally overlooked in greatest singer polls. There needs to be a film biopic about him so that a newer generation can be introduced to the timeless music of Billy and Associates. He died too soon but in Beyond the Sun he lift a solo masterpiece.

    • I agree – I’ve just joined Facebook and read all the fantastic comments about Billy – would love to see a bbc4 programme on this fab group ! RIP Billy – great memories…

  21. Does anyone know what other singers at that time thought of billy as a vocalist? I heard that he had a long and varied list of admirers ,

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