Obituary: Billy MacKenzie

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The Independent Online
Billy MacKenzie had the voice of an angel. Once you'd heard MacKenzie, the singer with The Associates, you were either hooked and became a fan, or your teeth were on edge every time one of his records came on the radio.

Either way, given his prodigious multi-octave range, it was impossible to forget the Scottish vocalist. Indeed, "Party Fears Two", "Club Country" and "18 Carat Love Affair" remain some of the most distinctive singles to come out of Britain in the early Eighties.

Born in 1957, in Dundee, MacKenzie was bullied at school and sought refuge in music. He played in cover bands as a teenager, sometimes with the talented multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine. They shared a love of David Bowie, disco and grandiose pop and soon formed a duo called the Absorbic Ones. In October 1979, they became The Associates and concocted a strange cover version of Bowie's "Boys Keep Swinging". The cheek of releasing this version (on their own Double-Hip label) only months after the original, attracted the attention of the music weeklies and of MCA Records, who took over the single.

Soon, Chris Parry, who had already signed The Cure to his Fiction label, expressed an interest. MacKenzie and Rankine joined the Polydor subsidiary and recorded The Affectionate Punch, a classy, eerie debut album which earned them comparisons with Joy Division and The Cure. They toured with the latter, even pinching The Cure's bass-player Michael Dempsey to assist John Murphy on drums. Moving to Situation 2 (an offshoot of Beggars Banquet Records), they created a breathtaking series of 12-inch singles ("Tell Me Easter's On Friday", "Kitchen Person", and "White Car in Germany" being the highlights; all the titles were later collected on Fourth Drawer Down in 1984), using the demo time afforded them by the major record labels who were now keen to sign them.

The early Eighties saw an upsurge of interest in Scottish bands, with Simple Minds, Altered Images, Big Country, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera making an impact on the British charts. The Associates signed to WEA and released the infectious "Party Fears Two". "I'll have a shower and then phone my brother up" might have been one of the more ludicrous opening lines ever but the song nudged itself into the national psyche, reaching the Top Ten in March 1982. "Club Country" and "18 Carat Love Affair" soon followed, heralding the arrival of the excellent Sulk album (also in that year's Top Ten).

MacKenzie's falsetto voice perfectly captured a time of innocence in those post-New Romantics, pre-Aids days. The sexual yearning and ambiguity were there, but it was merged with an operatic grandeur only so far hinted at by the likes of Scott Walker. MacKenzie was in stellar company, guesting on British Electric Foundation's Music Of Quality And Distinction, alongside Tina Turner and Sandie Shaw.

But, in a Time Out interview last year, MacKenzie admitted he was:

unprepared for success. Not only did I not feel like the spokesman for a generation, I didn't actually feel that interesting as a person. When my icons just seemed so supernova, I did think I had to match that. How could I, coming from a scuzzy scheme in fuckin' Dundee?"

The pressure for a follow-up got to Rankine, who departed (to production work and fitful solo career) and, with the help of guitarist Stephen Reid and producer Martin Rushent, MacKenzie struggled on under The Associates moniker. "Waiting for the Loveboat" and "Breakfast" stalled just outside the Top Forty and, after the Perhaps album in February 1985, MacKenzie retreated to his native Dundee and his favourite hobby, breeding racing whippets. When he subsequently presented WEA with an ambitious record called The Glamour Chase, the company panicked and shelved the project, forcing him instead to record a cover of Blondie's "Heart of Glass" in 1988.

In 1990, MacKenzie reappeared on Virgin's Circa offshoot but the Wild and Lonely album found only limited success. However, the 1991 release of the excellent Associates compilation album Popera proved that their music had aged much better than that of contemporaries like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. MacKenzie finally went solo in 1992 with Outernational but, from then on, he would only emerge from self-imposed exile to appear on other people's records.

He was still regularly name-checked by other acts (and the echo of his melancholy voice can still be heard in the music of the Blue Nile, McAlmont & Butler and Geneva) and had recently signed a deal with the Nude label (home of Suede). In last year's Time Out interview, Billy MacKenzie had the opportunity to reflect on his vocal talent. "Do I like my voice? Yeah, I do. And I like it even more now. I lullaby myself to sleep at night."

Pierre Perrone

Willam (Billy) MacKenzie, singer and songwriter: born Dundee 27 March 1957; died Auchterhouse, Tayside 22 January 1997.