Up in space it’s always 1982…
This year marks the twenty-sixth anniversary of Billy Mackenzie’s death, taken in the first month of 1997 by his own hand. Sadly, January hasn‘t been kind to the other half of The Associates either, with the news of Alan Rankine‘s passing on the third day of 2023. At least these wildly talented two are reunited in wayward uplift on a cloud somewhere above Scotland.
A first rate charmer with a devilish twinkle in his eye, Billy had the voice of an angel. Once you’d heard the Associates you were either hooked, or your teeth were on edge every time one of his records came on the radio.
Either way, given his operatic, other-wordly multi-octave range, it was impossible to forget the maverick Scottish vocalist. Indeed, Party Fears Two, Club Country and 18 Carat Love Affair (a double A-side with a bold reworking of the Diana Ross disco classic Love Hangover) remain some of the most distinctive singles to come out of Britain in the early Eighties.
Hailing from Dundee, Mackenzie had formed the Associates in 1979 with fellow Caledonian Alan Rankine, kicking off proceedings with a cheeky cover of David Bowie‘s Boys Keep Swinging while the original was still in the charts. Having finally achieved commercial success in 1982 (both Party Fears Two and its parent album Sulk made the Top 10, the band, however, split.
The now solo Associate (he kept the name on until the Nineties) was a controversial figure within the music industry, whose wild and mischievous antics possibly did him more harm than good. Over the ensuing years, this whirlwind personality gained a reputation for unhinged career tactics, free spirited nature and knack for squandering large amounts of record-company money.
During his lifetime, Billy’s unique vocal gifts attracted the attention of Shirley Bassey, Annie Lennox and Björk. However, in the tradition of Syd Barrett and Nick Drake, MacKenzie’s tale is one of thwarted talent and, ultimately, tragedy. He kicked it in the head when he was 39, having been found dead at his father’s home in Scotland, on January 22, 1997, having taken his own life. He was a schemer and dreamer, a breeder of whippets and a bisexual who revealed next to nothing about his private life, and probably the finest male vocalist Scotland ever produced. Paying tribute, Siouxsie Sioux wrote the Creatures’ 1999 single, Say, about Billy.
Prompted by a comment by my fellow Ants fan and friend Steve Day, 1982 was the year I started buying records that weren’t by Adam Ant. On 12 August the Associates appeared on the BBC‘s long-running music show Top of the Tops for the last time as a duo, performing 18 Carat Love Affair, which happened to be the first Associates record I’d invested in. Wonder if the bare bum might have been a factor.
Every wondered who the female guest is on stage? It’s Echo Beach‘s First Lady muffin, Martha Ladly
It isn’t a performance you see repeated very often but it’s a story that’s told quite a lot whenever the Associates’ blend of luxurious Europa pop and financial extravagance is retold. While Billy exudes his usual magnetism without actually doing too much, Rankine, stage right, is playing a chocolate guitar, £230 all in from Thorntons, and you’ll see he has two of them. You’ll see it if you’re quick, mind, as whether the director had spotted it or not is unclear but you don’t get to see his confectionary instrument all that much, or at least a good look at its constitution.
There’s a brief shot at 1:29, then at 2:00 Rankine’s trying his best to give the first one away before realising he’d best get the other one and continue trying to look convincing. Would you willingly take a lump of chocolate cradled by a swarthy, wifebeater-wearing axeman for several minutes under hot studio lights?
The girl in question giggled and went bright red. Still, that’s rock ‘n’ roll, uh.