Billy MacKenzie was an Associate and then an absentee. Jon Lewin witnesses the return of a little satellite dish.
"THE ASSOCIATES," nods Billy MacKenzie enigmatically, "are the listeners." This may come as a surprise to you if, like me, you've always thought of The Associates as that Scottish band who had some juicy hits in the early 1980s.
What we have apparently mistakenly known as The Associates started life in Dundee in 1976 when singer Billy MacKenzie formed a duo with guitarist Alan Rankine. They were called The Ascorbic Ones - a very forward-thinking name, as Billy points out, with its overtones of 'acid' (ascorbic acid is actually vitamin C).
At a time when most of Scotland was geared to the Postcard label's image of pop as the jangliness of Josef K and Orange Juice, MacKenzie and Rankine were somehow different. They looked different, behaved different, and took a different attitude to their putative career in pop music, releasing as their debut in 1979 a cover of David Bowie's 'Boys Keep Swinging', mere weeks after the original.
In 1980 The Associates (as they were known) unleashed "The Affectionate Punch" on Fiction, a debut LP that led to comparisons with Talking Heads and David Bowie, and some disappointment. So disappointed were Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie that they took the unusual step of releasing a remixed version of "Affectionate Punch" some three years later.
During the following year 'The Associates' released a string of singles (compiled in 1981 on "Fourth Drawer Down"). By then, Rankine and MacKenzie were sounding wonderfully different too, using distorted drum machines and a whole forest of guitars to underpin Billy MacKenzie's glorious voice. There is a unique melodrama to the echoey, peculiar productions the pair conjured up, usually with the assistance of producist Mike Hedges, but it was the combination of Billy's soaring, pure vocals with the angry grange of the backing that set them apart and gave them a string of dazzlingly innovative indie hits. "What used to happen," Billy recalls hazily, "is Alan would use a lot of open chords, which is why I was singing in that register."
Billy MacKenzie's voice has operatic range and versatility, but it retains the warmth and humanity needed for successful rock or jazz vocalising. Amazingly, he claims to have had no vocal training at all. He doesn't even exercise his vocal cords. "No, not really. Actually, I think that I've got a larger-than-normal oesophagus, a really big voice box," he laughs heartily, rubbing his throat. "I think it's even got finer over the years."
In February 1982, the chaps signed to WEA and began a brief but glorious excursion into the charts. They'd changed again: the guitars were less prominent, married now to pianos, strings, and a deep, glossy production that set off MacKenzie's singing to campily moody effect. Three singles - 'Party Fears Two' (theme music for Radio 4's Week Ending), 'Club Country', and '18 Carat Love Affair', and a superb album called "Sulk"... and that was it. Shortly afterwards, Billy MacKenzie and Alan Rankine parted company.
Billy attempts to explain. "I felt like 'Sulk' was the zenith of our musical collaboration, and from there on I thought it was going to be a bit downhill. By that time I was working with another friend, and
although it was flawed, musically it was completely adventurous. It was Alan, actually, that started it off. He wanted to go out and play, I just didn't want to go out of the studio.
"In 1982, after 'Sulk', me and Alan could have easily took the U2 route, and become extremely successful, because I would say that Edge was influenced by Alan's sound. I could espouse that type of rock element, but it was distasteful..." Billy frowns. "Also, there's something vulgar about success."
Strange words for a pop star. Wasn't Billy ever worried about making a living, vulgar success or no? "No, because I could always earn money. I was a quite successful businessman up in Scotland - a designer - and my uncle has a multimillion pound property business.
The family is the Dundee equivalent of Dynasty," he explains. "I could have been earning 40 or 50 grand at 24 or 25. Rut I always wanted to earn my own money."
So Billy went back to Scotland. Two years later, another three singles and the LP "Perhaps" came out bearing The Associates' name. Musically, the records followed the progression of "Sulk", moving further away from noisy guitars and more towards piano-based Europop, with half the songs written by Billy in collaboration with guitarist Steve Reid, the other half by Billy alone. So how has Billy's writing changed over the years?
"Early on I'd make up the bassline, then we'd work from the bass. But it went to piano around 1984." Billy says he rarely writes his songs
at an instrument. "I don't have a portastudio because I've been able to work it all out in my head. Essentially, what it is, is I have a very well developed musical psyche, and I could actually just see it all and hear it all. I was taught to have a photographic memory at school, so I always remembered six-part harmonies without having to write them down. I am intuitive musically."
The songs can come to Billy at any time. "Usually when you're least expecting it," he grins. "You get this thread of an idea musically, and usually you know if it's going to be something substantial. It's always an intuitive thing with me. I say disregard the technical thing, go with how you feel."
Having the ability to work in this way has given Billy firm opinions. "I feel that music isn't to be worked on or laboured over. It should be savoured, and it should be spontaneous, and... just like a dream, but in a musical form."
By comparison to "Sulk", "Perhaps" was a rather under-done work, and the singles failed to break the Top 40. Disagreements with the record company followed, culminating in WEA's refusal in 1988 to release Billy's next album, "The Glamour Chase". "Like losing a baby," says Billy. While WEA argue that they withheld the finished record because it was no good; Billy suggests that his reluctance to toe the company line is more to blame. "It was like going to bed with somebody you didn't like. There were some fantastic people at Warners, but the powers that be didn't see my way, and I certainly wasn't going to go the route they wanted."
It's taken Billy MacKenzie another two years to shake off both his contract with WEA and a reputation for eccentric behaviour. Late last year he signed to Circa Records (a Virgin offshoot), and last month released his first album for six years.
"Wild & Lonely" is possibly his best yet. His voice has improved, and although the tension that Rankine's guitars used to bring is still absent, it's been replaced by a new confidence in the writing and the arrangements.
Billy's not afraid of using complicated chord structures underneath his melodies. He attributes this to his eclectic musical tastes. "Musically, I'm sort of like a little satellite dish, picking up lots of things from the past, the present, and the future. I'm musically receptive." He smiles. "Um... in the 1960s, I was like a sponge. They used all these really exotic chords then - Burt Bacharach, or Lieber & Stoller, would write soul melodies that had classical overtones, and, of course, John Barry used all these 'suave' type chords. I think I'm more of a jazz musician in a pop idiom, because I can sing in such a free-form way. I've got a lively musical psyche."
The unconventional song structures of "Wild & Lonely" are another by-product of Billy MacKenzie's intuitive approach. "I'm not sounding conceited, but it's all done through feel, so you can't really talk about it. You feel them, and you sculpt them with your hands, get hold of them and sculpt them so they're just like sound sculptures."
Bearing in mind the arguments Billy had with WEA about producers, did he feel that Julian Mendelsohn had added much to the new LP? "Quite a lot more bass end, a rounder sound. I think it's an easylistening album in a lot of respects. It's got a really good pop aura, you know what I mean? It's got a shiny, goldy little halo. But nothing incredible."
Billy talks about his interests outside music. It's fairly common knowledge that he breeds whippets, but I was surprised to find that he ran for Scotland in his younger days (100m, 200m) and that he has recently written a film script. But it would be a mistake to assume that Billy has a diffident attitude to his music: he feels deeply about what he does. Does he feel driven to make music? "Hmm," he muses. "Yes, but not all the time. It is something that has given me great joy, but I don't really think of this as a career. I'm a day-to-day person money isn't my goal."