The Associates (2/2)

Billy

I

There’s a 1983 NME article on Billy Mackenzie with the title: Spoilt Brat, Silly Prat Or Visionary Genius? To which the answer would be: yes.

It’s written by Don Watson who seems to capture Billy in one paragraph:

Throughout Billy’s career there’s always been the implication that he’s the boy who never grew up, a 12 year-old Dorian Gray, maintaining the enthusiasm and irresponsibility of a child. He can be insufferably brattish or charming and candid, and like a child he can never decide whether he wants attention or wants to be left alone. It seems he picked up stardom as a toy to amuse himself for awhile, and slung it aside when he tired of it. [1]

Mind you, NME had been on to Billy three years earlier:

There is a concealed suaveness about him. In his eyes a hint that he’s humouring the rest of us. [2]

In 1983 Billy was two years away from getting his next album released, Perhaps.

II

Opinion is divided on Perhaps (1985).  It has been panned and fawned over.  The dark pomp is beginning to slip out of The Associates sound, but the shadowy twist is still there even without Alan Rankine who left at the end of 1982 frustrated with Billy’s unwillingness to tour.  I think it is a good album.  The Associates last album really.   Anxiety is certainly still there.  The first single – Those First Impressions –  has the same gloss of Party Fears Two, and the same unhappiness.

So convinced / Of my fall / That I fell / For feeling small.

And Waiting For the Loveboat performs the same emotional sleight of hand,

I said I love you
You said you know
That isn’t true
I said I want to

Billy liked a line break that shifted the meaning, or opened an unexpected angle.  That opening pair – I said I love you / You said you know – gets undercut twice, from you know, to you know that isn’t true, to the admission of its truth in the witty (or sad) I want to.  That is crisp, clever writing.

Billy was probably both honest and disingenuous about his writing; saying it came from somewhere, and that it both meant nothing and something.

“I just don’t know where I get the words from. When I first started writing words that was how I wrote…I didn’t understand it, and I never analysed it. I thought, ‘Well, if that’s coming from me, that’s OK’. I always know what it means even though I can’t explain it.”

“The lyrics are laced with humour, but they are usually about disillusionment, an emotion I’ve experienced a lot!” [2]

Disillusionment then.

III

“My background is that I’m more interested in individuals and if I’ve got an affection towards them, then I don’t really see hang-ups or boundaries coming into things.  So if you’re honest and you like either sex, if you’re comfortable with that, that’s ok….  It’s what’s behind someone’s gender that appeals to me.” [3]

I think they missed something, NME, in their articles about Billy.  It might have seemed like Billy was humouring people, and winding people up, but it also seems he was mostly humouring himself, and his contradictions.  By the mid 80s the disillusionment he said he felt must have been, at least in part, directed at himself.

He was eager to escape Dundee and happy there.  He found the entertainment business alluring and grotesque.  He was a beautiful performer who never seemed to feel at ease live.  His grandiose studio aspirations were part of his style and his self-sabotage.  He flirted with a kind of blurred sexuality but was probably diffident at best about the whole business of love outside his family and closest friends.

Billy was, as Alan Rankine recently opined, “on a sliding scale, about 90 per cent gay”…  At the same time, there were, said Rankine, occasions which emphasised Billy’s refusal to be categorised, sexually or otherwise.  “His sexual orientation seemed to change after Sulk,” says Steve Sutherland. “When I first met him, he had a girlfriend. After that, there was no question that he was homosexual.” [4]

No question?  I’m wary of what people make of a certain kind of man’s masculinity.  Bowie once said he was a closeted heterosexual.  True?  Not true?  Yes.

IV

After listening to, and watching, and reading about Mackenzie with all the hot feverish intensity my obsessions always follow, I have to step back and wonder why I find Billy and The Associates so compelling.

First there is the music.  From Boys Keep Swinging to the end of Perhaps I find it either thrilling or, towards the end, intriguing.  A dark, sharp-edged cabaret sunken in anxiety or preening on the dance floor.  It is all a delicious thing to hold in the ear and mull over in the mind, and the words – which at first seem a collage of nonsense – do seem, after all, to amount to something, to almost, but not quite, offer some kind of insight into the singer.

And second, there is the singer who is attractive for all of the reasons I have already tried to describe, but in who I specifically recognise two qualities I have in myself: an attraction to the idea of an exhilarating escape through art, and an awareness that your own personal qualities will lead to self sabotage and periods of grim despair.

Billy’s lows seem to have been well-hidden, but when they came they must have throttled him fast.  His suicide was a final sidestep that flat-footed everyone around him.*  I suppose that the act pointed to the inner life he must have almost permanently concealed.

Pointed to but did not explain.

What do you feel about Billy Mackenzie?

Sometimes he’s OK and sometimes he’s horrible. But he has a lot of manners

Is he a lucky bastard?

Always has been. Jammy….  I just hope it continues. And the songs, they just come. They just happen. Anytime. Any place. And I’m really good at it, basically. [5]


* Although, tragedy dogged the family.  After Billy’s death came the death of two brothers (an overdose, a house fire) and a sister (fell from a balcony).

[1] Don Watson, Spoilt Brat, Silly Prat Or Visionary Genius?: Billy Mackenzie (NME, 27 September 1983)

[2] Paul Morley, Associates: Boys Keep Scoring (NME, 27 September 1980)

[3] Garry Mulholland interview in Time Out, 1996 – in Tom Doyle, The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy Mackenzie (Polygon, 2011)

[4] Paul Lester, The Bizarre Life And Lonely Death Of Billy Mackenzie (Uncut, 1997)

[5] Paul Morley, Disassociate! The Associates (NME, 9 October 1982)