Saturday, August 14, 2010

a lesson in rediscovery

There have been few male singers as amazing as Billy MacKenzie. I stumbled across a couple of Associates videos last night after devouring the most gorgeously delicious slice of red velvet cake. In a moment of sugar ecstasy, I was transported back to a time when the pop music landscape was overrun with extraordinary talent.

The subject of Associates came up yesterday in a conversation I had with a fellow music obsessed friend of mine. That led me to trawl the interwebs for a few songs to hold me over until I infuse my iPod with their exquisite tunes.

Billy MacKenzie gave me goosebumps with every note that fell from his lips. It's hard to understand how something like "Just Can't Say Goodbye" wasn't a massive hit. It had all the right elements - a soaring vocal, killer hook, ABBA-esque piano bombast and spine tingling, girl group style backing vocal arrangements.

Of course, the UK was in the throes of acid house in 1990. Sadly, this glorious single didn't even bother the chart. The rarely seen video is glamorous, claustrophobic, euphoric and slightly seedy. Certainly one of the best of its time.

Watch where you're swinging that thing, Billy. You're liable to poke out someone's eye!

It's so easy to get stuck in a YouTube k-hole. Sometimes it turns up diamonds. Check out this rare clip of Associates performing the Dave Berry hit, "The Crying Game", which peaked at #5 on the UK singles chart in 1964. It was famously covered by Boy George in 1992 for the film of the same name. Watch Billy throughout. You can see there's some kind of internal dialog going on behind his eyes. Genius.

My introduction to Associates was through an unlikely avenue. When my father started his career in television, his first job was at a production house in Manhattan where he dubbed music videos and performance clips for the labels. The building was directly across the street from the MTV studios.

Knowing that I was obsessed with all things pop, he used to dub off an extra copy of all the videos he thought I would like. So, in 1982, I saw the following appearance from "Top Of The Pops".

Billy's urgent, insistent, operatic vocal captured my attention immediately. The Baroque inspired keyboard lines were unique and quite like nothing I'd hear before. The haunting voice at the end following Billy's mighty yelp sent shivers down my spine. Dad was spot on.

I didn't come across Associates again until 1985 when I began shopping for import singles in Greenwich Village on a regular basis. One day, my eyes fell upon the 12" single of "Waiting For The Loveboat". I recognized the name and bought it without having heard a note. Another mighty fine purchase indeed.

Coincidentally, right after I bought the single, I saw the video for it randomly, late one night on MTV. I was hooked and had to have as much of their recorded output as possible. Unfortunately, as with many of their singles, "Waiting For The Loveboat" failed to crack the top 40 in the UK.

Associates volley between being heartbreakingly beautiful and lovingly tortured. Each track on "Singles" is a gem worth unearthing. Start digging.


  1. Billy MacKenzie was an artistic genius! I have spent the last almost 30 years collecting anything and everything he has done. His Associates work is heady, strange, emotional and distant all at once. The version of Secret Life of Arabia on the first B.E.F. Music of Quality and Distinction volume is superior to Bowie for me. The Perhaps album is pop ahead of its time. Finally the later albums are from an emotional soul, full of turmoil, ecstacy, doubt and defiance. He left this flat earth way too soon. I find myself listening to his music now more than ever.

  2. OMG...again you turn up with a post about a band whose album (Wild and Lonely) I was obsessed with back in the day. Marvellous stuff.
    "It's so easy to get stuck in a YouTube K-hole" hahaha

  3. I was quite the latecomer to Billy & the Associates, but like you, I had to own everything I could get my hands on once I got a taste of THAT VOICE. Seriously the most underrated vocal talent of the past 30 years. His death was quite sad and tragic, but his voice continues to haunt me. Those piano ballad songs he recorded close to his death are chill-inducing ("Winter Academy", "Blue It Is", "And This She Knows", "Beyond the Sun"...all AMAZING).

    Some of my favorite moments of his were the one-offs he did with Yello (writing and singing the original version of "Rhythm Divine" before Shirley Bassey took over), and my all-time topper, "Pain in Any Language", done with the techno-rock band Apollo 440. MONOLITHIC.

    Thanks for posting about Billy. I always love it when I find a fellow admirer. Now, where is that biopic???

  4. Holy Toledo! Your dad dubbed the cream of MTV's largely unaired archives for you…??!! I so seriously would have deeply envied you in the eighties!!!!!!!

    The ultimate MTV contest (in my mind) was always "Raid The MTV Archives!" The winner would get access to the vaults, looking much like the last scene in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" except where there were crates there would be rack, upon rack of U-Matic carts. All there for the winner's personal access.

  5. You might want to pop over (shamelss plug here).

    Fellow fan and obsessive collector.