Karen Carpenter, Sylvester James and Billy Mackenzie, all have one thing in common: Voices so unique that a just few bars into a song and they are instantly recognisable. There is no mistaking Karen’s velvet notes, Sylvester’s falsetto or Billy’s devilishly wicked whoops and calls.
In his 1997 obituary for The Independent Pierre Perrone says: “Billy Mackenzie had the voice of an angel.” I’m not sure I’d agree with Mr Perrone’s sentiments; however Billy did certainly have a voice with wings.
Born in Dundee in 1957, Billy was a paradoxical pop star, who craved fame but did almost anything in his power to prevent himself achieving it. Best remembered for his time with musical genius Alan Rankine, as one half of The Associates, it took 10 singles and 3 albums before he was commercially famous.
Growing up, Mackenzie was afforded the freedom other children lacked. As a result of this freedom Billy grew up with a mercurial personality and an energy that was impossible to contain. There are many stories that are well documented about Billy’s life, most are true, some are Billy’s impish half-truths and a few are urban legends.
Since his death in 1997, the words legend and Billy Mackenzie have appeared many times in the same sentence.
Blessed with a remarkable four and a half octave range, it was what he did with his voice that set him apart from his contemporaries of the time. In the early eighties while Boy George was challenging gender, Billy was challenging genre. Using a spiralling operatic voice Billy created songs that confronted the music industry; never before had mainstream pop featured so many hoots and yelps.
There have often been comparisons with Tim Buckley’s, Starsailor. I cannot concur with these comparisons, as even within the most frenetic, cacophonous song Billy was always coherent. Far from being a random assortment of shrieks and melismas, Billy’s songs were always painstakingly thought through. Even when he sang other peoples songs he had that innate ability to make you believe you had never heard it before. Mackenzie had that rare talent that meant he could make any song his own.
With a thrilling encyclopaedia of emotions and an overwhelming passion for music, Billy was perfect for the early eighties. During his second appearance on Top of the Pops, clad in a white vest with a just hint of blusher, the camera loved him. He gestured, posed and pouted directly into the nation’s living rooms, and with a smile he stole hearts. Sadly this mainstream popularity was short lived.
After parting company with Rankine and retaining the name, Billy continued to record as The Associates. Despite the large financial backing of WEA, the next album didn’t fare well and the following one was never released during his lifetime. Further projects and collaborations came his way, and everyone who worked with him was astounded by his talent. He may have been one of pop’s perfectionists but he was never self-indulgent, he instinctively knew what worked.
After years in the musical wilderness, there was new interest in Mackenzie. He’d recorded new material and signed a lucrative publishing deal with Sony, and got a new recording deal with Nude. However suffering from clinical depression and devastated by his mother’s death, Billy Mackenzie turned his back on music and took his own life.
It isn’t death that has made this charismatic Scot a modern icon; it’s the loss of a unique voice and a matchless talent. I believe no music collection can ever be called ‘complete’ without at least one album by the man who recorded the song, ‘Kitchen Person’ whilst singing through a vacuum cleaner tube.