Guilty By Association
Billy MacKenzie stands accused, Billy Black hears the evidence.
HE'S BACK. And although it's been two years, an aborted LP and a thousand rumors since we last heard the Associates' flighty, feisty pop, listening to the new single, the perfectly paced, ' Those First Impressions', it's as if Billy MacKenzie has never been away. Because despite the line-up changes that followed the departure of MacKenzie's associates Alan Rankine and Martha Ladley, there's no mistaking that this is the group that brought 'Party Fears Two' and the brooding beautiful 'Sulk' LP.
'Wot, no progression?' you cry. Well OK, Billy is singing better than ever but you really are missing the point. When every other band has to herald its return from a commercial lull - however brief - with a new image and maybe even a totally different musical style, the Associates' strength has always been their sense of vision - perspective if you prefer.
For in MacKenzie we have a further string to Scotland's fearsome songwriting bow, a man who has written songs - hundreds of 'em - and is now (and over the next five years and four projected albums - the first of which is out in September) quietly and methodically getting them recorded and released.
As those of you with a good memory will remember the process began with an independently recorded LP called ' The Affectionate Punch ' before moving swiftly on until, in the other long hot summer of 1982, the Associates scored hits with 'Party Fears Two', 'Club Country' and '18 Carat Love Affair', the first two from their 'Sulk' album. The timing was perfect.
In the summer of Perfect Pop when the likes of Nicky Haircut and Martin ABC were showing that stance (whether it be fantastic shirts or lame' suits) could go as far as substance in that year's lurid charts, the Associates represented a similarly captivating force.
But confusingly, and to the exclusion of all other pop contenders at the time, the Associates' stance was their substance (ie. all those songs).
So if the creative chemistry didn't work out for the Associates that year, forcing them to bow out on (what seemed like) the eve of their first ever nationwide tour, it didn't really matter.
Whatever happened, nothing could take all those songs away from Billy MacKenzie.
Which is why, two years on, I find myself chatting with the surprisingly short but disquietingly alert MacKenzie over reviving tea in the press office of his record company, WEA.
SO BILLY, tell us about Alan Rankine, did he jump or was he pushed ?
"It was me really. When I get the hump with someone or something I just want to finish it there and then, for always."
So what caused 'the hump'?
"When I get excited and want to move on to a new project I've got to do it. I can't do things for the money or the glamour or the fame. I've got to do things for the adventure and I think Alan was a little more security conscious than me. Which doesn't make him a better or a worse person than me, just that we couldn't carry on working together."
And what was the 'adventure' that left Rankine remixing 'The Affectionate Punch' for subsequent re-release on his lonesome whilst you went off in search of pastures new ?
"Experience; and putting that experience of living into my music to give it some authenticity so it isn't plastic and fabricated like so much else of the stuff that's around at the moment."
And the aborted tour ? I've heard a number of stories that boil down to you losing your nerve or spending all the money given to you by WEA up at the Palace before the thing had even started.
A dismissive smirk.
"The truth is, the set wasn't up to scratch and the musicians weren't fit enough and I was fed up of babysitting. I'm extremely quality conscious and I can't play a set that has even one filler in it; every song has to be good or I can't do it. What's the point of giving people duff material? It's happened to me enough times and I find it a real downer."
To me, 'Sulk' didn't have a single filler on it, so how does MacKenzie view that album in hindsight?
"It wasn't the exact production I was after but there were some nice atmospheres captured on it, especially on the song called ' No'."
At the time the production intrigued me, it sounded incredibly thin and glassey. Was this deliberate?
"It was meant to sound glassey but it was also supposed to carry a lot more weight. It didn't have the weight I was after so it suffers a titch for that but it still has some interesting sound on it and it doesn't date as much as other 'produced' albums from around that time like, say, 'The Lexicon of Love'.
'Sulk' has a ramshackle quality, it sounds clanky, "
Unfortunately, the follow up didn't come together so easily. Last October Bill had suggested we might expect the Rushent-produced platter early in '84 but here we are halfway through the year and only a single (albeit a good one) to the Associates' illustrious name. Rumours again. MacKenzie spent 50 grand working on tracks that, when presented to the lords at WEA, were dismissed as being of 'inferior quality'.
Gossip apart, what exactly happened to the album we were expecting at the top of the year?
"It just sort of had to be re-done."
Do you mean you scrapped the whole album ?
"Well we didn't scrap it, it scrapped itself. It sort of got lost so we had to re-record it. We'd spent about four months on the thing so it was a kinda painful thing to do but then you can't go on without being pained - that's the price."
You mean the 'tortured artist suffering for his art' syndrome?
"It's not suffering for your art, just that people don't want to hear songs about how happy you are unless you're Jonathan Richman, and he wears a bit thin. No, people want to see you suffering. And squirming. And WRITHING ! "
WRITHING APART, some of the new tracks have been produced by Heaven 17's Martyn Ware, what made you use him?
"It was nice to meet somebody who was as outgoing as I am but had a humanitarian side to him."
Do you like Heaven 17?
"I like what they're about. I like the concept, if you like, the striving for truth."
"Maybe, but what's that? This year's perfection is next year's imperfection."
So what do you strive for?
"I strive for focus. I like to focus things. "
Something that takes time and a testing avoidance of the blinkering trappings of the conventional pop pose. During his 'lost years' (that's not too over-dramatic is it ?), Billy spent most of his time at home in Dundee walking his Whippets, doing the odd gig abroad with his 'mysterious' keyboard player Howard Hughes and guitarist Stephen Reid and generally laying low.
"You can live quite happily without the music business. You don't need things to be happening to you all the time to feel a fulfilled person. That sounds pretty deep doesn't it ? "
It sounds pretty refreshing. So you didn't miss the life of yer average pop star, the constant round of Top Of The Pops, the occasional Pop Quiz?
"I certainly didn't miss any of the trappings but I missed the freedom to go in and record whenever I wanted to. That's the most important thing in the world to me. I could go into a studio every day of my life and have something worthwhile to show for it in the evening."
"I could be caught up in a war in the Lebanon or I could be sitting in me granny's front room talking about her hairnet, It's all the same to me."
But with all those songs ( he smirks at this ) what keeps you writing ? Surely the easiest thing in the world would be for you to use up the songs you've got before bothering to write any more?
"I write songs because it's fun to do. Y'see I don't write all of them by myself, I'll sometimes share the writing with someone else simply because I hate glory hogs. I hate all this 'I played all the instruments, designed the sleeve and directed the video, my name is Midge Ure' kind of thing. I like to share my experiences with other people and see them getting happy. It's when other people are happy that I'm usually happy. And when everybody is sad I tend to be sad."
WHICH REMINDS ME, tell us about the movements in the Associates camp. What's happened to the old members?
"Martha's doing her own single, Mike Dempsey's with the Lotus Eaters and Alan has worked with Paul Haig, Fiction Factory, the Pale Fountains, the Cocteau Twins........"
Could you ever work with Alan again?
"I don't know, I think I'd have to grow up a bit first."
And the new band?
"They're enthusiastic, interesting and courteous. They're all courteous types and I like that."
Do they constitute a backing band for Billy MacKenzie?
"Well I'd hate to have that said about the Associates, I'm happy being Mr. Quality Control Man."
Could you work with other bands?
"Yeah, I could. I think I could be a really adventurous producer. I'm getting quite good at it, listen to the B side of the single."
Is there anybody you'd really like to work with?
"Yes, David Attenborough. I'd be his servant, running around getting antibiotics for his bee stings! And Ron Mael. The scary looking guy in Sparks."
How do you react when people go in print saying they reckon Billy MacKenzie is a major vocal and songwriting talent (like Severin did in a recent Banshees article?)
"It's really nice and I'd say the same about other people but personally I hate all the fuss, it embarrasses me. It's enough for me to know I'm good, I don't like being told as well. Look, my head could get so big I might blow my top! But really all the fuss that goes on in the pop world, it's so prissy isn't it?"
Finally, Billy, how does it feel to be back in the rat race?
"But, it's not a rat race now because I can see it for what it is - it's like British Leyland. Professionaly, I'm ecstatic but maybe I deserve to be because I'm nice and honest. Honesty is very important to me because if I'm not honest my stomach turns over and churns and my conscience explodes!"
So what's the last lie you told?
"It was for one of those questionnaire things that pop mags have and I wrote that I was five foot seven and a half inches when I'm only five foot seven."
Well, at least you didn't try and make out you were 19 like some pop stars do.
"Oh I could never do that. Besides I'm nearly 28 and that's not old enough! Alan Delon didn't start looking good until he was 37. I've always wanted to have smart wrinkles like Charles Bronson or James Coburn. Those are the men that all the girls I know seem to want to go to bed with. They don't like pretty boys."
And the album, what's it going to be called?
"It's called 'Perhaps' - no earth shattering significance I'm afraid."
And the one after that?
"It's going to be called 'The Glamour Chase', it's the name of one of the songs. I haven't got titles for the albums after that."
Still he's got plenty of time to think of them.