While 2016 seemingly marked new highs of celebrity/icon death count, try to imagine what 1997 would have been like if the world back then was social media-obsessed. The deaths of Jeff Buckley, Michael Hutchence, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, John Denver, and The Notorious B.I.G (among others) would have surely caused a big stir as in most cases these were young artists cut short in their prime and still had a lot of potential.
Billy MacKenzie, at 39 was another name to add to this list. It was January, twenty years ago today that saw him overdose on a combination of paracetemol and prescription drugs putting an end to what was looking like a promising comeback.
He is remembered more for being half of The Associates, a Dundee post-punk outfit pushing the boundaries with sound and experimentation. The abstract direction of musician Alan Rankine alongside the operatic, often otherworldly voice of MacKenzie led to two styles that were at odds with each other yet was as engaging as it was bizarre.
In 1982, “Party Fears Two” was a UK Top Ten single as unlikely as “O Superman”, full of hooks but with no real singalong chorus. It acted as the preview to the album Sulk, their zenith, and one of the albums of the 1980s. It has the perfect blend of the weirdness seen on their early EPs (wonderfully captured on the Fourth Drawer Down release) as well as more accessible work (“Club Country” was the most obvious choice of single to date).
Sadly Rankine’s involvement with The Associates ended here and Billy continued to use The Associates name alone for the rest of the decade with lessening levels of success.
The 1990s saw Billy look at a solo career. The influence of the rave culture and dance music appealed to him and his 1992 album Outernational was his first offering. Sadly, trends were changing so rapidly and listening to it now makes you wonder if it actually sounded dated at the time. The forward thinking of early Associates recordings (sampling a hoover, filling a drum kit with water…) seemed to be a world away.
1996 saw a different side to his songs. A series of simpler, piano-heavy songs made up the bulk of the album “Beyond the Sun”, and looking back to Associates songs like “Breakfast”, here was a sound that allowed his voice to be centre stage. He hadn’t lost faith in electronic music, as previous collaborations with Yello and Apollo 440 had shown, and while the song “3 Gypsies in a Reataurant” seemed a little out of place on the album, tucked in on the posthumous release, Auchtermatic with other unreleased songs showed where some of his ideas were going.
Despite the album charting and gaining critical acclaim, events within his own life at this were not so rosy and the death of his mother affected him greatly and led to him taking his own life. Unique voices seem to be lacking in modern music and his is an original voice that should not be forgotten…