There are certain people whose influence, and the interest in their lives, far outweigh the success that they achieve. Call it charisma or cultish appeal, it is not simply about what they do, but also how they do it. The life in itself becomes something to be deconstructed and discussed, often over and above the work they produce. Examples include Alexander Trocchi, Jack Kerouac, James Dean, Lord Byron and Billie Holliday. Billy Mackenzie was such a person; a man who had the looks of Dean and Byron, wrote with the obscure poetry of Kerouac, and whose voice was often compared to Lady Day, although so singular was this voice that you could never doubt that it was his and his alone.
Before I read Tom Doyle’s biography of Mackenzie, The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy Mackenzie, I knew the basics. I knew that Billy had a voice that could move me to tears, that The Associates, the band he shared with Alan Rankine, had produced some of the best music of the early eighties and, with their 1982 album Sulk, had made one of my favourite all time records. I knew that his subsequent music career was typified with more disappointment than success, but that when he got it right, as he did on collaborations with Yello and Barry Adamson, then that voice stood out in the increasingly bland pop landscape of the late 80s and early 90s.
Doyle’s book fills in the gaps and goes some way to explaining both the appeal and career of Billy Mackenzie. What emerges is a picture of a man who just wasn’t made for those times. The early days in Dundee, while not always idyllic, turn out to be the happiest of Billy Mackenzie’s short life. The young man played, ran and sang with unbridled pleasure. As he gets older life continues to move at a blur which hints that this is a life which would burn out rather than fade away. There are marriages of convenience, money spent before it was earned, and friendships made and forgotten with what some would consider indecent haste. It is little wonder that Billy’s companions of choice where whippets, which he succsesfully bred. They must of been the only ones who had a chance of keeping up.
The Glamour Chase is a book which, like the singer’s voice, is suffused with melancholy and regret. As fellow torch singer Marc Almond remarks ‘To sing like that, you have to know pain. Billy was a tortured soul.’ This is true, and Doyle does a great job of examining the reasons for his torture, but what I have always taken from Billy Mackenzie was that he was able to move from sadness to almost elegiac highs, the voice soaring to lift your heart and soul. Have a listen, and look, at this clip of The Associates playing ‘Party Fears Two’, the song from Sulk which, to the casual listener, has defined Mackenzie’s career. It moves from a kitchen sink scene to a dissection of love which sees his voice soaring above all, making those initial concerns insignificant. And watch Billy’s face. As much as he tries to hide it (and considering the performance is obviously mimed), this is a man having the time of his life:
What becomes increasingly obvious is that Mackenzie was never more happy than when singing, although not necessarily in front of strangers or large crowds. His fear of flying would also have a crippling effect on his ability to tour, but he didn’t need to make excuses, it seems that he was more than capable of deliberately sabotaging his own career. After Sulk,
The Associates were one of the hottest properties around. Critically acclaimed by an increasingly hard to please music press, they were one of the few bands that could be on the cover of Smash Hits
one week and the NME
the next. The album made many end of year best of lists alongside Simple Mind’s New Gold Dream,
Orange Juice’s You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever
and Altered Images Pinky Blue
. When you add in records by Aztec Camera, Josef K and the debut single from The Blue Nile then 1982 was one of Scottish music’s golden years. From Sulk
this is ‘Club Country’:
It is clear that the prospect of fame and fortune began to terrify Mackenzie on a very base level causing him to self destruct, and some of the stories in The Glamour Chase are jaw dropping in the scale of excess, and can really only be explained as the acts of a man to whom life was an increasing struggle. Hiring rooms, and ‘baby’ sitters for his beloved whippets, in some of London’s best hotels, moving from top restaurant to the next, stopping only to vomit in-between to make room for the next gourmet meal, or taking a taxi from London to Dundee, all in the pay of the record company, which would be fine except this was all added on to his advance. When you add in that the cost of the records were increasing as the sales diminished the story of Billy Mackenzie increasingly becomes one of disappointment and disillusion. Again it is music that saves the soul, and his most fruitful, and happiest, association after The Associates effectively disbanded was with Swiss electro-eccentrics Yello. Here is one of their collaborations, taken from the band’s never completed project about another star whose life became an obsession for some. This is ‘Norma Jean’:
The goodwill towards Mackenzie, from family, friends and musicians alike, never wains. Although some decide that they can no longer work with him, there is little bitterness evident. Even his most excessive behaviour seems to be forgiven, often with a shrug that ‘that was just Billy’. It’s interesting to compare Doyle’s book with last year’s Nileism, the biography of The Blue Nile by Allan Brown, as there are similarities in the two tales. Both Mackenzie and The Blue Nile are hugely influential artists who tried to pave very individual career paths and who had to battle with record companies (often the same ones). But The Blue Nile apparently handled the situation much better than Mackenzie ever could, and maybe it is as simple as the fact that Mackenzie seemed determined to do it alone while The Blue Nile, most of the time, had each other. The paradox for Billy Mackenzie was that he needed collaborators yet refused to collaborate with them. It was, with the odd exception, Billy’s way or no way at all.
Billy Mackenzie was obviously a complex man, and, although Doyle’s book is a fascinating and gripping read, it is ultimately a tragic tale. Not only because Mackenzie died two years younger than I am now, but because what haunts the book is the question of what could have been. Among the dedications which bring the book to its close is this from Siouxsie Sioux who rightly says ‘You couldn’t not admire him as a vocalist. But there was a sense that he was let down, in that life wasn’t big enough for him.’ Or perhaps, as Don Mclean sang about another tortured artist, ‘this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you’.
I’m going to leave you with Billy singing live at Ronnie Scott’s in 1984. This is what he did best, and is how I will always remember him. This is ‘Breakfast’: