Tag: Billy Mackenzie (Page 3 of 4)

ALAN RANKINE Interview

Photo by Paul Cox

Like their contemporaries JAPAN, Scotland’s ASSOCIATES are a band that burned briefly but brightly.

Fronted by the mercurial Billy MacKenzie and driven musically by multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine, the group’s entire back catalogue has been remastered, accompanied by a new compilation. The MacKenzie / Rankine era albums ’The Affectionate Punch’, ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ and ‘Sulk’ have been supervised by silent partner and bassist Michael Dempsey. These 2CD deluxe editions include previously unreleased tracks and 28 page booklets featuring unseen photos, rare memorabilia and extensive sleeve notes to do justice to the ASSOCIATES legacy.

The young Alan Rankine grew up in Linlithgow, a town that was stuck between Glasgow and Edinburgh in more than just the geographical sense. The way he and MacKenzie came together seemed almost predestined, with the pair forming a live covers band to keep themselves afloat as a sustainable entity, while demoing their own material.

Courted by a number of labels, they decided to take control of the situation and independently released a cover of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ only weeks after the Bowie original came out. As if by magic, Fiction Records offered a deal and their first album ‘The Affectionate Punch’ came out in 1980.

However, they were unhappy with their time on a conventional label and opted thereafter to licence their material, first with Situation 2 for their second album ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ and WEA for their commercial breakthrough ‘Sulk’. During their run of three chart hits in 1982, it would be fair to say ASSOCIATES gave SIMPLE MINDS a run for their money in the art rock stakes.

But stardom was not really something that suited ASSOCIATES, particularly MacKenzie. Sadly after the cancellation of a world tour, the pair parted ways, leaving SIMPLE MINDS to head for the stadiums while A-HA took up the mantle left vacant for melancholic cinematic multi-octave synthpop.

With the upcoming reissues soon to be released, Alan Rankine kindly spoke about his time with ASSOCIATES and the legend of Billy MacKenzie.

You and Billy played in a covers band which seems miles away from the usual route to the way bands at the time. Is the cover ‘Eloise’ on the ‘Very Best of ASSOCIATES’ indicative of the material were you playing?

Bill and I had a real affection for these kinda big sounding singles from the ‘67-‘68, we’re talking about things like ‘Rainbow Valley’ by LOVE AFFAIR, horns and strings and stuff. So we ended up doing a punk version of ‘Eloise’ by Barry & Paul Ryan, it was at breakneck speed!

As his catalogue has shown, Billy was very comfortable with doing covers?

We were both very keen on doing the occasional cover version. When we were in the studio or even at soundchecks, we would start playing ‘Brown Sugar’ or ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ by THE ROLLING STONES, or a Bowie or Roxy song. And then we would go onto ‘The Look Of Love’ by Dusty Springfield.

You and Billy bonded over a shared love of ROXY MUSIC, SPARKS and Bowie. Was it a gradual process coming up with that Venn diagram which became your sound?

I know exactly what you mean… it’s a Venn diagram with a few circles crossing over, but central to a lot of it was Bowie, a bit of Roxy, a bit art of art rock a la THE TUBES maybe and a bit of zaniness like THE REZILLOS. There was always an element of cheekiness in there. Anyone that was into music at that time just could not help be influenced by Bowie, but I think we had a more cinematic approach.

We loved our film themes, how they could hug your emotions and pull you this way and that way, just with a change of a chord here and the introduction of a different instrument there.

The cover of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ forced Fiction’s hand and led to the recording of ’The Affectionate Punch’. You seemed to almost immediately find your own sound.

We did the recording of ’The Affectionate Punch’ very quickly in about three and a half weeks including mixing and mastering. Then we went into rehearsals and only played three songs from the ten track album which didn’t please the record company very much. But we just said “F*** YOU”, we just played what we felt was good. ’The Affectionate Punch’ has a lot of keyboards on it and we wanted to go out as just guitar / bass / drums / vocals. We played ‘Gloomy Sunday’ as well, which didn’t surface on record until 1982, so it was a bit of a mish-mash.

How did you get back into using synths again?

When you’re out there playing live to 600-700 people, it’s really fun to have a post-punk aesthetic but when you start recording again, it’s a luxury and you’ve got to have this sound. So we had five keyboards all lined-up ready to go, five different guitars and five different amps. We would work at breakneck speed, not because there was a time pressure, but because we had so many ideas coming into our heads at the same time. We wanted sumptuousness and for it to be dripping with silk and satin, we didn’t want cotton! *laughs*

Which keyboards where you using?

Digital-wise, we used the Synclavier. These geeky guys used deliver this thing which we hired by the day and it had floppy discs. It was fairly primitive, but it worked. Apart from that, we used Oberheims, Solinas, Yamaha CS80s, that sort of thing… there was another one starting with a ‘P’ but I can’t remember what it was! *laughs*

We liked to try and do different things; very seldom did we just use a preset sound and not put an effect on it in some way. Sometimes, we would just play a sound and hold down the notes of a chord and changed positions as the chord progression changed, and the sound would open up as the snare drum would hit. So it was like a Wah-Wah effect which was in time with the snare. The snare drum triggered off the sound, so it would open up and immediately shut.

‘White Car In Germany’ was an obvious nod to KRAFTWERK and LA DÜSSELDORF, but I seem to remember Billy saying he was really into THE HUMAN LEAGUE?

Yes, I can remember when we were in Ashley Newton of RSO Records’ BMW and he was playing THE HUMAN LEAGUE when he drove us to the studio. We thought it was great; I wouldn’t call Phil Oakey a vocalist, I would call him a vocaliser and there was brilliant songwriting from Jo Callis who was in THE REZILLOS. He wrote ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ so yeah, it was just the sheer pop of it. To us, it was really no difference between that and ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA, that’s bloody genius!

You and Billy popped down to The Blitz Club occasionally and you documented your experiences on ‘Club Country’…

We were definitely there fairly early on when it was in Great Queen Street. Yes, it was a bit exotic and yes, it was a bit pretentious but it was a young animal finding its feet; sometimes it did feel a little bit elitist and I think that was the nature of the beast, it was what it was. I don’t think we really fitted in; I think SPANDAU BALLET fitted in there but I think we fell between two points. We were not New Romantics, we were not post-punk… were we new wave? I don’t know! The closest I can think of, if there was a category called Barking Mad, that’s where we would lie! *laughs*

What was the approach to recording Billy? Do you remember any particular quirks you can remember?

Recording Bill was such a luxury. After I went on to produce other people, I thought everyone was like that, I thought they all got it in one or two takes! God, how wrong I was! I found myself thinking “this is sh*t” and they’re on like their 40th take in the studio and it’s still not right! So you’re having to make up composites of five different takes! On ‘White Car In Germany’ and ‘Kitchen Person’, Bill did sing through greaseproof paper and a comb. And into the bargain, on ‘Kitchen Person’ he was singing down the hose of a vacuum cleaner before it got to the mic.

‘Party Fears Two’ hit the top 10 in early 1982. The instrumental version included on CD2 of ‘Sulk’ brought a tear to my eye for a number of reasons. It revealed a lot of layers and each instrument has its own voice, but ultimately, Billy is missing…

You’re exactly right there; it’s like a great big hole. Yes, the instrumental sounds good and you can hear things more clearly in a more defined way. But yes, the lyrics, the vocal expression and the colour of the human voice, Bill had it all.

Looking back, you weren’t ones for following the usual script. With the subsequent success of ‘Sulk’, it set you on the path that led to implosion of the band.

We recorded ‘The Affectionate Punch’ in the Spring of 1980 but promptly ditched most of the album and did new songs, some of which would appear on later albums and played in Scotland.

I’ve looked up our gigography and we were up there for about two and a half months, playing maybe thirteen or fourteen gigs. So there was no tour laid out in front of us, it was more “oh, have we got a gig this week?”

Then we moved down to London and it was slightly more structured there. We’d play a month of Sundays at The Marquee etc but still, not like a world tour. But having your life mapped out for the next fifteen months, where you’re going to be, who’s going to meet you, how many radio stations you’re doing, how many press interviews you’re doing, that to Bill was just an anathema… that would freak anyone out, but it freaked Bill out because he was being boxed in. All we really wanted to do was be creative. Or if he was going to do a concert or two or three, that would be enough… ten days into the future was enough for Bill to take.

’18 Carat Love Affair’ is often considered the anomaly in the ASSOCIATES’ cannon and has been described as “quasi Neil Sedaka”… how do you look back on it? In retrospect, it was quite subversive to have a perfect pop song about a secret gay relationship in the charts in 1982.

Yeah, that’s another one. With ‘Party Fears Two’, the piano motif was written by us in 1977… we stared at each other hungover one Sunday morning and said “this is good but we can’t use this right now”. And indeed, we didn’t until five years later, the market just wasn’t there for it. Similarly with ’18 Carat Love Affair’, to me it’s like 60s pop song, the melody, the feel of it. I like the fact it’s got an agony aunt in the lyrics, Evelyn Home who was in ‘Woman’ magazine and it was about a secret gay affair.

Is there anything you could have done differently in retrospect to keep the partnership together with Billy?

I really don’t think so, because Bill needed to stretch his legs creatively and work with other people… I get that now. At the time, yes I was mad as hell and all the rest of it, but that’s what he needed to do. He needed to work with YELLO and write the lyrics and melody to ‘The Rhythm Divine’; he needed to not be with me. I don’t think there was anything we could have done about that.

You continued to record with other artists like Paul Haig and Winston Tong. Would the recordings you did with them be an indicator of how ASSOCIATES might have sounded if you’d continued to work with Billy?

They’re different in that Paul’s a great vocalist, but he’s not Billy; he’s not got a four octave range and Paul really can’t sing unless it’s through microphones, he needs his voice to be electrified for him to feel comfortable.

Winston? Not the greatest singer! You had a forty-five minute window to try and get a performance out of him before he fell over, he was taking a little too much heroin although I’m glad to say he’s clean now. But he was having a real bad time when he was recording the ‘Theoretically Chinese’ album with me.

Again, with Paul and Winston and with whoever else, everything was done very quickly and it was always a great laugh and good fun.

After several solo records on Les Disques du Crépuscule and Virgin, you got back together with Billy in 1993 but he didn’t follow it through with the pressure for live shows. Was there no-one willing to take ASSOCIATES on as a studio-only band?

No, all the record companies were interested, but they were saying “PROVE IT!”… that was like a red rag to a bull for Bill, he just said “I’m not f***ing proving myself to anyone! Get real!”

Would the environment of today with self-releasing been better for him?

It probably would have suited Bill right down to the ground.

Are you surprised by people’s continual fascination with the band?

I think there’s a great deal of good will with regards the memory of ASSOCIATES and the memory of Bill, plus a certain amount of frustration because a lot of people that heard us in ‘81 and ‘82 hadn’t seen us play live in 1980-81, so you never know… *laughs*

What are your personal favourites from these releases?

On ‘The Very Best Of ASSOCIATES’, it’s got to be ‘International Loner’ and ‘Edge Of The World’. These were both done in the 1993 sessions; I see and hear them as a much more mature sound. I suppose ‘Skipping’ is probably my all-time favourite, although really, it’s ‘Party Fears Two’ because it gets played a lot.

But also, if you go back to the cover versions, ‘Long Hangover’ because I can remember being in Moulin Rouge Studios and Bill did that in two takes. There’s something about doing a cover version because you’re not in any way insular or self-conscious. Just watching and listening to Bill in full flight without a care in the world, there’s something very special about that.

What does the future hold for yourself?

I’ve done everything from perfume adverts to wet your panties teen pop. I just write and write whatever comes into my mind.


ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Alan Rankine

Additional thanks to Stuart Kirkham at Hall Or Nothing Independent Publicity

The expanded 2CD deluxe edition reissues of ‘The Affectionate Punch’, ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ and ‘Sulk’ are released by BMG on 13th May 2016

The 2CD anthology ‘The Very Best Of ASSOCIATES’ is available now via Union Square through the usual retailers

https://www.facebook.com/theassociatesofficial/


Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai and Ian Ferguson
28th April 2016

It’s Better This Way: The ASSOCIATES Legacy

The timely release of ‘The Very Best of ASSOCIATES’ featuring their hits ‘Party Fears Two’, ‘Club Country’ and ’18 Carat Love Affair’ creates an opportunity for the work of Billy MacKenzie and Alan Rankine to be re-evaluated and re-discovered.

With a partnership covering a period of just three albums, this anthology is only a part of the story. It’s an artistic legacy that has influenced the likes of Claudia Brücken and Björk, along with HEAVEN 17, A-HA, and SIN COS TAN.

Thus, the new 2CD slipcased deluxe editions of the MacKenzie / Rankine era ASSOCIATES albums ‘The Affectionate Punch’, ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ and ‘Sulk’, supervised by bassist and silent partner Michael Dempsey, delve even further with a treasure trove of previously unreleased tracks, accompanied by 28 page booklets featuring extensive sleeve notes, unseen photos and rare memorabilia.

With Billy MacKenzie’s otherworldly four-and-a-half octave range on top of Alan Rankine’s intricate instrumentation, ASSOCIATES were a majestic and outlandish new pop take on Weimar cabaret in a newly emerging electronic world. But MacKenzie’s eccentricity could make him difficult to work with and led to the pair eventually parting ways in late 1982. MacKenzie continued sporadically with the ASSOCIATES name and as a solo artist, but always a troubled soul, he sadly took his own life in 1997 a year after the death of his mother.

Very much Bowie fans, ASSOCIATES opened their account with a not particularly good cover of ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ in 1979, released not long after the original. MacKenzie was very much into reinterpretation and despite this lacklustre debut, history has shown he could be highly adept at it.

On the second CD of extras, an unreleased take on Barry Ryan’s ‘Eloise’ explores heavier rock templates and points as to where ASSOCIATES could have headed instead of the kaleidoscopic sound they became known for. Poignantly, ‘The Very Best of ASSOCIATES’ includes a live cover of ‘Gloomy Sunday’, a suicide song composed by Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress in 1933 and said to have cursed every artist who has ever performed it.

ASSOCIATES’ first long player was the guitar dominated ‘The Affectionate Punch’ with its great ‘Low’ pitched title song opener on Fiction Records. But the duo were quickly dissatisfied with it, so they requested to end their deal and reworked a number of tracks for its subsequent 1982 re-release; this reissue campaign reinstates the original 1980 album.

Aspiring to expand their sound with a wider palette, the first musical signs of a fascination with European electronic music came with the funereal pulse of ‘White Car In Germany’. The swirling electronics were intended to sound as un-American as possible and accurately captured post-war tensions under the spectre of the atomic bomb. It was part of a singles deal with the Beggars Banquet subsidiary Situation2 which eventually formed ASSOCIATES’ second album ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ in 1981.

Also featuring the almost out-of-tune ‘The Associate’, the quirky instrumental showcased their sense of fun with MacKenzie’s distorted screaming making its presence felt. Meanwhile ‘Q Quarters’ and ‘Tell Me Easter’s On Friday’ were produced by a young Flood, later to work with DEPECHE MODE on ‘Violator’ and ‘Songs Of Faith & Devotion’. The resultant press exposure led to a deal with Beggars Banquet’s distributor WEA.

Throughout this period, Rankine and MacKenzine were almost holding themselves back, fighting against the poppier instincts that had come from their love of early ROXY MUSIC, SPARKS and Philadelphia soul. In the interim, they produced yet another cover ‘Kites’ for RSO Records, under the pseudonym of 39 LYON STREET with Christine Beverage on lead vocals. Originally recorded by SIMON DUPREE & THE BIG SOUND, it featured a more post-punk disco template and prepared for ASSOCIATES’ brief entry into the big league alongside fellow Scots SIMPLE MINDS in Spring 1982.

With its iconic jangle piano line, ‘Party Fears Two’ was the first time that many had heard the neo-operatics of Billy MacKenzie. Dealing with the perils of schizophrenia, it also kick started the brief imperial phase when ASSOCIATES subverted the UK charts with an outlandish approach that fitted in with the concurrent New Romantic movement. They felt a slight affinity with The Blitz Club crowd, but noting the scene’s vacuous nature, MacKenzie and Rankine opted to attack it in the magnificent ‘Club Country’.

Produced by Mike Hedges, the parent ‘Sulk’ album, featuring different versions of ‘Party Fears Two’ and ‘Club Country’, was a triumph. From the frantic instrumental ‘Arrogance Gave Him Up’ to the chromatic overtures of ‘Skipping’ to the evocative drama of ‘No’, the music had the basis for being more accessible, but was still challenging and inventive. Although MacKenzie’s more bonkers instincts couldn’t be masked on tracks like ‘Nude Spoons’ and ‘Bap De La Bap’, the brilliant ‘It’s Better This Way’ was art and pop in perfect unison.

Associates+BW

Photo by Sheila Rock

ASSOCIATES’ imperial phase closed in the summer of 1982 with ’18 Carat Love Affair’; it was their most commercial offering and described by MacKenzie as their “quasi-Neil Sedaka” song. While the narrative was subversive in the extreme, being about a gay affair that MacKenzie was trying to hide, Rankine was uncomfortable with its overt poppiness.

So unhappy was Rankine, that the song was instrumentalised to become the ‘Sulk’ album closer ‘nothinginsomethingparticular’. Whatever, ’18 Carat Love Affair’ possessed one of the greatest synthesizer riffs ever. Released as single, after it charted, it was eventually flipped for the B-side, a joyous art funk cover of disco-era Motown standard ‘Love Hangover’ which Rankine was more satisfied with.

Sales of ‘Sulk’ meant a demand for touring and a nine-piece live band featuring notable musicians such as Martha Ladly and Stephen Emmer was assembled by Rankine for a world tour. But in the cocaine frenzy that was now seriously affecting the partnership, MacKenzie pulled out of the tour, disillusioned by the expectations of success.

The duo reconvened in 1993, demoing six songs including ‘Stephen, You’re Really Something’, MacKenzie’s response to THE SMITHS ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’. But any label interest came with the pre-requisite of live shows; for MacKenzie, that was unacceptable and sadly that was that.

ASSOCIATES’ strength and weakness was their refusal to play the record industry game, but it led to both triumph and tragedy. In that respect, the most tearful moment in this series of deluxe reissues is the previously unissued instrumental of ‘Party Fears Two’ found on CD2 of ‘Sulk’… while the marvellous subtle layers of Rankine’s arrangement are now more revealed, what ultimately is missing is the voice of Billy MacKenzie 😢


Dedicated to the memory of Billy MacKenzie 1957-1997

With thanks to Stuart Kirkham at Hall Or Nothing Independent Publicity

‘The Very Best of ASSOCIATES’ is released by Union Square / BMG as a 2CD digipak set and download

The expanded deluxe edition reissues of ‘The Affectionate Punch’, ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ and ‘Sulk’ are released on 6th May 2016 in a variety of formats

A 500 edition green vinyl 7 inch version of ‘Party Fears Two’ backed with ‘Australia’ is available for RSD2016

https://www.facebook.com/theassociatesofficial/

http://www.billymackenzie.com/


Interview by Chi Ming Lai
9th April 2016

A Short Conversation with BORIS BLANK

YELLO co-founder and instrumentalist Boris Blank is to release a boxed set of unreleased soundtrack material recorded between 1977-2014.

Together with partner Dieter Meier as YELLO, the Swiss duo’s tongue-in-cheek avant pop attained a worldwide cult following with songs such as ‘I Love You’, ‘Lost Again’, ‘Vicious Games’, ‘The Race’ and ‘The Rhythm Divine’ featuring Dame Shirley Bassey. Their music notably appeared in films such as John Hughes’ ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and Michael J Fox’s ‘Secret of My Success’.

‘Electrified’ is a solo collection of soundtrack work from Blank; this limited edition boxed set will contain 3 hours of unreleased music. Over the years, he wrote a large number of soundtrack ideas that were never publicly released.

Originally launched as a Kickstarter project, the 58 musical sketches range from the race friendly uptempo title track ‘Electrified’ that was commissioned for Volkwagen, to the more abstract, spacey vibes of ‘The Time Tunnel’. The reggaefied synth strings of ‘The Last Mile’ give a stylised diversion to the rhythm while ‘Future Past’ buzzes and whirs over a thumping four-to-the-floor beat. The unsettling beautiful ‘One Minute To Go’ could have been in a John Carpenter movie while the sombre, tribal jazz of ‘Cult Of Mirrors’ is in another world.

These tracks make up the main 45 track part of the release covering 1984-2014. But there is a bonus cassette / download of material that was originally recorded between 1977-83 onto Revox A77 2-track or compact cassette. The electro scratch flavoured ‘Aqua Marine’ begins this ‘Rote Fabrik’ archive section and will not disappoint YELLO fans. There’s also the surreal drama of ‘Echo Gang’ and ambience of ‘Violetta’ while the percussive ‘Young Dr Kirk’ brings in some detuned harmonics into the equation. The boxed set also contains a 36-page booklet of Boris Blank’s personal photographs, biography and comments.

Boris Blank kindly spoke to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK about ‘Electrified’, his career with YELLO and working with the late Billy MacKenzie

BORIS BLANK_image

How did you manage to have so much unreleased material in the vaults for this ‘Electrified’ boxset?

I have a great similarity with squirrels. They bury their nuts and dig them out when needed. But sometimes they forget about them. In the last 35 years, I’ve written about 200 tracks that were never used. Ian Tregoning, the man who brought YELLO to the UK, was on a visit 2 years ago and we started listening to the vaults. One hard-drive alone contained 26 songs that are now on ‘Electrified’. That was the decision to launch a boxset on this scale.

‘Electrified’ was made possible by the Kickstarter platform. Is crowdfunding the future for an artist in your position?

I think, there are two important points for crowd-funding:

1. A set of this complexity would never be published by a record company, because it would be too expensive. I also have complete control of content and packaging.

2. You have an immediate feedback from your fans, so you can see very quickly whether the project is concluded or not. This saves energy.

It must have been fascinating to listen back to the recordings, but also be reminded how the electronic instrumentation was developing through the years?

Amazingly, they sound very good. Some of them almost timeless. Working with modern technology is much more convenient though, it stops you making final decisions.

What were your favourite synths?

The ARP Odyssey was my first love. One of the few analog synths I still have. Herbie Hancock used it on the ‘Sextant’ album and it changed my life. I saved up and bought one.

Did the variety of recording media that would have been used present any issues in terms of the final sound quality of the product? For instance, was there any good material that had deteriorated which had to be left out?

In the early days I recorded directly onto cassette, sometimes bouncing tracks and playing new parts at the same time. The synths were also pretty noisy so there were several ‘technical challenges’ on the ‘Rote Fabrik (1977-83)’ material. Luckily, no material was dropped because of deterioration.

Was any of this ‘Electrified’ material ever considered for YELLO?

For 35 years now, I make music for YELLO like a painter who paints dozens of pictures for an exhibition. In the end, however, it takes only 12 or 14 tracks for a YELLO album so the rest of the images remain in the workshop. These are the songs. These are now ‘Electrified’.

What are particularly your favourite tracks on ‘Electrified’?

Mmm, it’s like asking a father to pick his favorite child. My current favourites are ‘The Time Tunnel’ and ‘Electrified’. I recommend the videos, they’re amazing.

With this box set, and Dieter Meier performing solo concerts, what is the state of play at the moment with YELLO?

2014 is the year of the side-chain. 2015 starts in a few months and YELLO will return to the main street. The new album is nearly ready.

The late Billy MacKenzie was a regular collaborator of YELLO, what was he like to work with and what was your favourite work you did with him?

The songs ‘Capri Calling’ and ‘Because You Love’ still get under my skin. Working with Billy was always a pleasure. He worked fast and sang with his whole heart and soul, he gave everything. You could see it was very emotional for him. And for me.

What would you say were your proudest career moments with YELLO?

Proud is a funny word but yes, I am proud that YELLO still exists in 2014. In 1977, I never would have believed it.


ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Boris Blank

Special thanks to Lee Puddlefoot and Josh Cooper at 9PR

‘Electrified’ is released by Blank Media as a vinyl / CD / cassette boxset on 15th September 2014. A limited edition 20 track promo CD is also available.

http://yello.com

https://www.facebook.com/yello.ch


Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
5th September 2014

Untouchable: A Short Conversation with GLENN GREGORY

This month sees the launch of a new project created by Dutch film composer Stephen Emmer, a one-time member of MINNY POPS, whose previous collaborators have included Billy Mackenzie and Lou Reed on his solo albums ‘Vogue Estate’ (1982) and ‘Recitement’ (2008) respectively.

He also worked with Claudia Brücken on the ACT album ‘Laughter, Tears & Rage’. Titled ‘International Blue’, the album is a concept that pays homage to the art of the pop crooner, but with a twist. So imagine a combination of Burt Bacharach, Scott Walker, Nick Cave and David Bowie. Produced by Tony Visconti whose work with David Bowie and Marc Bolan had gone down in legend, the orchestral collection connects with the Synth Britannia world via the casting of HEAVEN 17’s Glenn Gregory and ULTRAVOX’s Midge Ure among its line-up of guest vocalists.

The first single ‘Untouchable’ featuring Glenn Gregory is a poignant ballad of loss and heartbreak; it has also been written as a tribute to the late Billy Mackenzie of ASSOCIATES, a mutual friend of both Emmer and Gregory. Recorded at the world famous Abbey Road Studios, the song is swathed in multilayered textures and smooth reverb to provide a perfect setting for celebration as well as remembrance.

Glenn Gregory kindly took time out from recording the new HEAVEN 17 album to chat about his three contributions to the album, Billy Mackenzie and why pop, not rock, rules…

How did the collaboration with Stephen come about?

It was a Facebook thing funnily enough! I got a message from Stephen who had this connected past from working with Billy Mackenzie and Claudia Brücken. He suggested working together and sent me a link to two spoken word albums. They had really interesting people on like Lou Reed and I thought “I love the sound of this, it’s really lush and interesting”.

We got on very well on the telephone and spoke for two hours. We knew a lot of the same people so I was surprised we’d never met before. He sent me a track and recording went very well, I was pleased with the vocal. Shortly after that he sent me another one which then became ‘A Break In The Weather’ and that was even better as we had got a bit of rapport by then as we’d talked about the art of the crooner, Scott Walker and how beautiful those type of songs are. There was no consideration for making it suitable for radio, it was “it goes where it goes” and that freedom was really nice. It got me into a different way of thinking.

Then he sent me this third track ‘Untouchable’… I immediately fell in love with it, it was lush and emotive. I started thinking about the people that both me and Stephen had known, and Billy Mackenzie came up.

‘Untouchable’ pays tribute to Billy and starts with the lyric: “The cup is smashed…” – what was in your mind?

Stephen loved HEAVEN 17’s version of ‘Party Fears Two’ and I started writing these lyrics that were becoming about Billy. That line is obviously a throwback to “I’ll smash another cup…” and it’s carrying on from ‘Party Fears Two’ really. I found it very emotional in the studio and when I was singing it, I actually shed a tear and wondering how he got to that stage where he could commit suicide. I know why as he was upset and depressed after his mother had died, but I was trying to be inside his train of thought really. Billy changed a lot through his career and as a person. But his beauty and his talent, it’s untouchable.

I sang it and really liked the lead vocal but then I started playing with different notes, melodies and harmonies. Then I got really big and pushing my range… I was almost fainting doing the vocal! I thought it was fantastic and sent it to Stephen, he was blown away. We had another two hour phone call at the end of that day to decompress. He thought it was wonderful and understood why I liked it so much. I’m really happy we got it together.

What’s your favourite personal memory of Billy Mackenzie?

You know he was completely into Whippets and bred them? ASSOCIATES lived in a hotel round the corner from me and the whippets had their own room! It’s crazy! So my favourite memory was when we were mixing ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’ for the BEF album…

Billy came in and went “one of my daughters has had a puppy, do you want one?”, I went “NO! I DON’T BLOODY WANT ONE!”. This went on and on and I said “NO!”, so he eventually he went “oh, no worries”.

But that night, we were going to a screening of ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ at The Scala Cinema in Kings Cross. We were stood in the bar chatting with Rik Mayall and Robbie Coltrane when Billy arrived in a big overcoat and his black beret. We said hello and he went “Alright… by the way Glenn, I brought you a present” and took out from under his coat, this tiny whippet puppy… I was like “BILLY!!! F*CK OFF!” but I thought “I’m never gonna get out of this one!”

So the dog stayed with us all night and wandered around the cinema, p*ssing and sh*tting everywhere! But I fell in love with it and I am now on my fourth Whippet. I’m as much in love with them as he was. In fact, the Whippet I’ve got now is called Billy… we got him about two months after Billy had died. But of course, I then had to phone Billie Godfrey, HEAVEN 17’s backing singer to tell her “I’m calling my dog Billy, but not after you, I hope you don’t mind” *laughs*

You’re no stranger to working with an orchestra having done so on ‘The Luxury Gap’, ‘How Men Are’ and more recently, on the ‘Night Of The Proms’ shows in Germany… what are the main challenges for you working within an orchestral format compared with electronics?

I don’t really think there are many. When you do it live, I guess you’ve got to be more flexible in that the orchestra is more in control than you are. When you have a band and you make mistakes or change things, the band can catch up with what you are doing. But you can’t really do that with an orchestra. When we did the ‘Night Of The Proms’ things in Germany, it was amazing but quickly, you realise you are not in control at all, you’ve got to do what they do at their tempo, you’re being conducted as it were. But in a recording environment, there’s no real difference at all apart from the lush beauty that it brings…but that’s not saying electronics doesn’t have a lush beauty as well.

One of the other songs you’ve done with Stephen is called ‘A Break In The Weather’ which has a sort of ‘Wild Is The Wind’ meets Bond Theme quality about it. What was the inspiration behind this?

I was thinking of Scott Walker and Burt Bacharach, interesting songs like that and that style of writing. I was trying to find a connection, I had a melody and everything but then I took the dog for a walk in the park. It was cold and the sky opened up and I thought “we need a break in the weather”. So I got inspired to write about a relationship that needs some space when there’s been a break up and there’s the hope of getting back together.

You recorded ‘It Was A Very Good Year’ for BEF ‘Dark’ which follows similar territory. Has there always been a Scott Walker wanting to fire escape in the sky? *laughs*

I’ve always been a really big fan of crooners, my mum had an enormous collection of Anthony Newley singles and was really into Dean Martin. I remember I was listening to them even when I was starting to get into KRAFTWERK and NEU! So it’s always been there. The way I sing anyway, people always used to say I sounded a bit like a crooner, that baritone type thing. I like pop and Dusty Springfield… even Cilla Black. They’re just good songs, it’s good to have that sensibility. It’s pop, not rock. I was never into The Stones, I don’t really get them. I’d much rather listen to Scott Walker or Anthony Newley.

What was it like working with Tony Visconti?

That was amazing, what a nice guy. We were at Abbey Road together and he told me some great stories.

How was the Koko concert with HEAVEN 17 doing that early HUMAN LEAGUE material for you?

We really enjoyed that Virgin40 gig. I completely loved it. It was a challenge doing those songs to make them sound as much like the original ones but then, it is different because I’m singing them and not Phil. Mine and Phil’s voices are pretty similar in a lot of ways so they did kind of fit. You know I love those songs. Every time I see Phil, I plead with him to do those first two HUMAN LEAGUE albums, just even if it’s once!

Did you hear about the HEAVEN 17 fan who complained to Koko’s manager about you doing HUMAN LEAGUE songs?

Yes I did! What can I say? He did come to see HEAVEN 17 so I can understand him being a bit p*ssed off. But there’s a total history line there all the way through even to the extent that there was a possibility that If I’d had not gone to London, I would have been the singer with THE HUMAN LEAGUE originally.So there really is a complete line of history through the whole thing and most HEAVEN 17 fans know that; there’s a shared love of those two bands so I think most people enjoyed it.

Is there a HUMAN LEAGUE song from that era that you haven’t performed yet but would like to give a go?

I think ‘Dreams Of Leaving’ would be right there on the list. In fact, Martyn Ware and I talked about that in the studio a few weeks ago so you never know! We toyed with ‘I Don’t Depend On You’ for the BEF weekender at The Roundhouse but I don’t know why we didn’t do it. That came on my iPod the other day on shuffle and it sounded great. I was actually there when they recorded that one. They always used to stay at my house when they came to London… house??? That sounds very grand! They actually used to stay in my basement flat and sleep on the floor! *laughs*

And how is recording of the new HEAVEN 17 album coming along?

At the moment, it’s fairly loose… I’m doing that deliberately, the drum tracks are very basic and I’d say as guide, the tracks are more like the electronic side of ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ than ‘The Luxury Gap’ or ‘How Men Are’. Whether it will when we’ve finished, I don’t know. It’s feeling more ‘Travelogue’ era HUMAN LEAGUE / initial ‘Penthouse & Pavement’. It’s going to get pulled both ways so it could be a bit funky as well like early PRINCE.

We usually only do three or four days together and then do the rest on our own because you need time to focus on what you’re doing. Otherwise you take turns at being sat behind the other and going “DO THIS! DO THAT!” *laughs*


ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Glenn Gregory

Special thanks to Sacha Taylor-Cox at Impressive PR

‘Untouchable’ by Stephen Emmer & Glenn Gregory is released on 7th April 2014 and available via the usual digital outlets, Stephen Emmer’s album ‘International Blue’ featuring further songs by Glenn Gregory plus Midge Ure and Liam McKahey is due out later in 2014

http://www.heaven17.com/


Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
7th April 2014

A Beginner’s Guide To BILLY MACKENZIE

Photo by Richard Haughton

When ASSOCIATES appeared on ‘Top Of The Pops’ in March 1982 with ‘Party Fears Two’, it was the first time that many had experienced the kaleidoscopic vocal of Billy Mackenzie.

With the passion of an otherworldly Orbison crossed with David Bowie and Russell Mael, Mackenzie’s outlandish operatics with a four-and-a-half octave range made him a stand out character during the post-punk era, especially with his love of whippets.

With influences like early ROXY MUSIC, SPARKS, Philadelphia soul and jazz, he sounded like Mario Lanza on amphetamines with a modern majestic take on Weimar cabaret. But as his ASSOCIATES founding partner Alan Rankine experienced, Mackenzie’s personality quirks could make it difficult for him to channel his obvious talent.

With his notorious eccentricity and mercurial temperament, this inevitably led to the pair parting ways in late 1982 after just three albums. It could be argued that if Mackenzie had been prepared to play the pop game, could ASSOCIATES have been as big as A-HA?

Martyn Ware, who worked with Mackenzie on both BEF and post-Rankine ASSOCIATES recordings, said in 2011: “Everybody knows he was bonkers and had a particular take on things but musically, we fitted together very well. He lacked a little in terms of understanding the production process and how sound fitted together but what he lacked in that respect, he made up for in his arrangement ideas”.

Photo by Sheila Rock

Always a troubled soul, Mackenzie sadly took his own life in 1997 less than a year after the death of his mother. But his legacy has lived on as a key musical influence on Nordic acts such as BJÖRK and SIN COS TAN while songs such as ‘Club Country’ and ‘Party Fears Two’ have remained in the public consciousness, courtesy of covers by ONETWO and HEAVEN 17 respectively. Also, an upcoming single ‘Untouchable’ by Glenn Gregory and Stephen Emmer has been conceived as a tribute to him.

Scattered across more than ten full length albums, various collaborations and one-off recordings, what songs deserve to be on an imaginary compilation as an introduction to Mackenzie’s work?

Here are 18 songs which ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK have chosen to gather the sporadic genius of Billy Mackenzie. They are in the majority his most accessible recordings and also include a significant number of covers; but there are no apologies for that. The aim is to prompt further investigation into his vast catalogue by being simultaneously populist and elitist 😉


ASSOCIATES White Car In Germany (1981)

ASSOCIATES debuted with a fairly guitar dominated album ‘The Affectionate Punch’ but signs of a fascination towards the Neu! musik aus Deutschland came with the funereal pulse of ‘White Car In Germany’. The swirling electronics, cold atmosphere and treated percussion were intended to sound as un-American as possible. The lyric “Aberdeen’s an old place – Düsseldorf’s a cold place – Cold as spies can be” accurately captured post-war tensions under the spectre of the bomb.

Available on the ASSOCIATES album ‘Fourth Drawer Down’ via BMG


ASSOCIATES Party Fears Two (1982)

With its iconic honky tonk piano line and sophisticated arrangement, ‘Party Fears Two’ was a magnificent song about dealing with the perils of schizophrenia, made all the more resonant by Mackenzie’s operatic prowess . It also kickstarted a brief period when ASSOCIATES subverted the UK charts with an avant pop approach that fitted in with the Synth Britannia template of the times. Emotive to the Nth degree, the original single version is still the best and total perfection.

Available on the ASSOCIATES album ‘Singles’ via WEA Records


BEF The Secret Life Of Arabia (1982)

Mackenzie’s version of ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’ with BEF was even more eccentric and histrionic than Bowie’s original from ‘Heroes’. Featuring Britfunk exponents Jo Dworniak of I LEVEL and Neville ‘Breeze’ McKreith of LIGHT OF THE WORLD syncopating to Martyn Ware’s thunderous Linn Drum program and Roland VP-330 textures, it was one of two Mackenzie voiced tracks that formed ‘Music Of Quality & Distinction Vol1’ opus.

Available on the BEF album ‘1981-2011’ via Virgin Records


BEF It’s Over (1982)

This eccentric cover of the Roy Orbision evergreen ‘It’s Over’ closed ‘Music Of Quality & Distinction Vol1’ and featured among its guitarists Hank Marvin and John Foxx whose studio The Garden was the venue for the recording. Operatic extremes with a pop heart, Mackenzie was on top form as Martyn Ware’s beloved Linn Drum led an orchestral arrangement by John Barker that gave him plenty of room to indulge in his big theatrics without overplaying the emotion and despair.

Available on the BEF album ‘1981-2011’ via Virgin Records


ASSOCIATES Club Country (1982)

ASSOCIATES felt an affinity with the New Romantic movement but following a night out in The Blitz Club, Mackenzie and Rankine noted their perceptions of the scene’s vacuous nature via a musical outlet. ‘Club Country’ threw in vicious synthesizer lines, manic rhythm guitar and crashing treated drums. Mike Hedges’ layered production was key to the song’s impact. Kind of reflecting CHIC’s experiences at Studio 54, ‘Club Country’ was Synth Britannia’s very own ‘Le Freak’.

Available on the ASSOCIATES album ‘Singles’ via WEA


ASSOCIATES Gloomy Sunday (1982)

From ASSOCIATES’ debut single ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ onwards, Mackenzie was very much into reinterpretation. Poignantly, ‘Gloomy Sunday’ was a suicide song composed by Hungarian pianist Rezső Seress in 1933. With English lyrics by Sam M. Lewis, it was made famous by Billie Holiday in 1941. Updated with synthesized seasoning and a hypnotic bass backbone from Michael Dempsey, its genius lay in retaining the original’s impending doom.

Available on the ASSOCIATES album ‘Sulk’ via BMG


ASSOCIATES 18 Carat Love Affair (1982)

Described as a “quasi-Neil Sedaka song”, ’18 Carat Love Affair’ was a fine example of ASSOCIATES’ supreme avant pop. Martha Ladly’s girlie shrill went hand-in-hand with the incessant synth riff in this tale about a gay affair that Mackenzie was trying to hide. But Rankine was uncomfortable with its overt poppiness, so it was instrumentalised as ‘nothinginsomethingparticular’ to end the ‘Sulk’ album. It ended up on the US version of ‘Sulk’ with a revised tracklisting.

Please note, the rare 1988 CD of ‘Sulk’ based on the US Edition is the only way that the original single version can be obtained digitally as the version on the ‘Popera’ collection, the remastered V2 edition of ‘Sulk’ and the later ‘Singles’ compilation is an inferior mix with half the synths and backing vocals missing!

Available on the ASSOCIATES album ‘Sulk (US Edition)’ via WEA Records


ASSOCIATES Those First Impressions (1984)

Continuing where BEF had left off but with more obvious use of synths, Martyn Ware produced this single for Mackenzie’s solo return as ASSOCIATES. It had the classic ASSOCIATES sound despite the absence of Alan Rankine who had left in late 1982 following Mackenzie’s refusal to tour the ‘Sulk’ album. But although it was a good song, some of the magic was missing. It could have been why ‘Those First Impressions’ narrowly failed to crack the UK Top40.

Available on the ASSOCIATES double album ‘Perhaps / The Glamour Chase’ via WEA


ASSOCIATES Kites (1984 – released 2003)

Originally a surreal psychedelic number by SIMON DUPREE & THE BIG SOUND, this was first recorded by ASSOCIATES in 1981 under the pseudonym of 39 LYON STREET with Christine Beverage on lead vocals. Mackenzie recorded a new version with himself on lead vocals in a more frantic arrangement for a BBC Radio 1 session in 1984 as part of a getting back on the horse process for ‘Perhaps’. These recordings  captured an interesting interregnum in Mackenzie’s career.

Available on the ASSOCIATES album ‘The Radio One Sessions Vol. 2 1984 – 1985’ via Strange Fruit Records; 39 LYON STREET version available on the ASSOCIATES album ‘Singles’ via WEA


ASSOCIATES Waiting For The Love Boat (1984)

Mackenzie loved THE HUMAN LEAGUE so as well as working with Martyn Ware, he roped in ‘Dare’ producer Martin Rushent for several tracks on ‘Perhaps’. ‘Waiting For The Loveboat’ was the last song Mackenzie and Rankine actually wrote in their first phase together but it was solely credited to Mackenzie as part of their eventual divorce deal when they split in late 1982. ‘Waiting For The Love Boat’, though more glossy in sound, could have easily come off ‘Sulk’.

Available on the ASSOCIATES album ‘Singles’ via WEA


ASSOCIATES Breakfast (1985)

‘Perhaps’ was a comparative disappointment as an ASSOCIATES album after the wondrousness of ‘Sulk’, with many of the tracks suffering from being too long and too smooth. But one song which stood out was the epic string laden drama of ‘Breakfast’ produced by Martin Rushent. It is possibly Mackenzie’s greatest single moment, the melancholic piano motif setting the scene for an entire film noir in five minutes with its widescreen dramatics and mournful tension.

Available on the ASSOCIATES double album ‘Perhaps / The Glamour Chase’ via WEA


YELLO featuring BILLY MACKENZIE The Rhythm Divine – Version Two (1987)

Written in collaboration with YELLO, this immense brooding ballad became a European hit for the Swiss duo featuring the vocals of Dame Shirley Bassey. ‘The Rhythm Divine’ had been written as part of an ambitious project about Marilyn Monroe under the working title of ‘Norma Jean’. Mackenzie’s own vocalled version was released as a 12” single in its own right, while it was also due to be included on ‘The Glamour Chase’ album which WEA then refused to release for being uncommercial.

Available on the ASSOCIATES double album ‘Perhaps / The Glamour Chase’ via WEA


ASSOCIATES Fire To Ice (1990)

If there was a computer programme to produce a composite ASSOCIATES hit single, then it probably would have come with up ‘Fire To Ice’. With Mackenzie now free from all the hassles at WEA and finding a new home in Circa Records, ‘Fire To Ice’ acquitted itself well as a potential hit single following ‘The Glamour Chase’ debacle. But despite the fresh approach to a classic sound, ‘Fire To Ice’ failed to capture mass sales recognition needed to re-establish Mackenzie to a wider audience.

Available on the ASSOCIATES album ‘Wild & Lonely’ via Circa Records


YELLO Capri Calling (1991)

A smooth, sunset romance in collaboration with old friends YELLO, the title said it all. ‘Capri Calling’ was a most beautiful set piece that captured a gentle Mediterranean spirit. From YELLO’s ‘Baby’ album, a fair number of Mackenzie best songs post-Rankine were with Boris Blank and Dieter Meier. So it was a shame he never did a full album with the duo. The soaring ‘Baby’ title track which Mackenzie also did with YELLO later featured on his first solo long player ‘Outernational’.

Available on the YELLO album ‘Baby’ via Mercury Records


APOLLO 440 Pain In Any Language (1997)

Widely known to be the last song Mackenzie recorded, ‘Pain In Any Language’ was a sombre collaboration with APOLLO 440 which sounded fittingly like a lost ASSOCIATES track. This was an air of ethereal Cold War chic with synthetic cimbalom and windy sweeps for that epic Eastern European feel that Marc Almond often liked to strive for. Fittingly, APOLLO 440 played at the 2007 tribute gig at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire alongside BEF and ONETWO.

Available on the APOLLO 440 album Electro Glide In Blue via Epic Records and the BILLY MACKENZIE album ‘Auchtermatic’ via One Little Indian


HAIG / MACKENZIE Transobsession (1999)

Posthumously released, this midtempo dance number was from a joint album Mackenzie had been working on with Paul Haig, another underrated Scottish talent. Lyrics such as “calling all nations, station to station” harked back to Mackenzie’s love of Bowie while his voice still had relevance in a modern club orientated world. Also from these sessions was a recording of EURYTHMICS’ ‘Here Comes The Rain Again’ which surfaced on the 2004 electro collection ‘Auchtermatic’.

Available on the HAIG / MACKENZIE album ‘Memory Palace’ via Rhythm Of Life


BILLY MACKENZIE Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth (2001)

Part of the ‘Wild Is The Wind’ covers EP issued by Rhythm Of Life, this heartfelt version of ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ was close to equalling the fabulous SPARKS original. Stripped down to piano and strings with Mackenzie’s haunted falsetto at the centre, this was a fine reinterpretation. The posthumous ‘Transmission Impossible’ selection issued in 2004 ensured that more people could hear it.

Available on the BILLY MACKENZIE album ‘Transmission Impossible’ via One Little Indian


BILLY MACKENZIE Boltimoore – Original JiiHoo Bootmix (2011)

The vocal from Mackenzie’s stark cover of Randy Newman’s ‘Baltimore’ from the ‘Wild Is The Wind’ EP was flown into a hypnotic bootleg dance track by ace Finnish producer Jori Hulkkonen. With deliberate incorrect spelling of our hero’s name to mask its illegal nature, this was a haunting ghostly return from the heavens to the dancefloor. Mackenzie would have loved it and had he been alive today, he would have almost certainly been working with Hulkkonen.

Available on the 12 inch vinyl release ‘Boltimoore’ b/w ’Ghouls’ via Kojak Giant Sounds


In memory of BILLY MACKENZIE 1957 – 1997

http://www.billymackenzie.com/

https://www.facebook.com/theassociatesofficial/

http://whippetatthewheel.blogspot.co.uk/


Text by Chi Ming Lai
24th March 2014, updated 16th June 2019

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