Billy Mackenzie: 1. First Encounter
I was 18 when I first met Billy Mackenzie in 1979. At that time I was a drummer looking for a band and accordingly placed an ad in the local Dundee paper ‘The Courier’. My main objective was to find a working band so I could start saving up money for a better drum-kit than the one I had. I received just 2 replies to my ad: one from a cabaret band from Kirriemuir and the other one from Billy. He invited me down to his shop ‘The Crypt’, a trendy fashion boutique in the centre of Dundee, to have a chat about the possibility of me joining his band.
The first thing that struck me about Billy was that he was very clean-cut and well-presented in an immaculate white shirt and black slacks. I remember noticing he had unbelievably white teeth as well. In contrast, I was a gawky first-year student in grubby jeans and a donkey jacket. The first thing he asked me was: ‘What bands are you listening to right now?’ I replied that I was listening to Talking Heads and Devo. That answer seemed to please him and he nodded his head thoughtfully. His next question was: ‘Can you play like a drum machine?’ I was a bit puzzled and asked what he meant. ‘I mean really mechanical with no fills or that.’ I said yes, I could do that no problem. Privately, I wasn’t so sure that I could but, like most teenagers, I was an accomplished liar.
He then explained that his band (which turned out to be the newly-formed Associates) was rehearsing in Edinburgh, and asked if I would be able to make it through there for a try-out. I was doubtful. I told him that I didn’t have a car and that in any case, there was no way I could travel through to Edinburgh (60 miles away) for rehearsals on a regular basis. There ended the interview. I had already decided to join the cabaret band from Kirriemuir who could offer regular gigs in working men’s clubs.
You could say I missed a golden opportunity to join a soon-to-be very successful band. But as it turned out, I got another opportunity to work with Billy some 7 years later in ’86.
2. First Recording Session
In 1982 I became firm friends with John Mackenzie, Billy’s younger brother. I had a small studio in the Seagate in Dundee and John used to come in sometimes to record ideas. We clicked right away- not just as people but also musically. It was John who finally suggested to Billy in ’86 that he should try doing some demos with me. Of course, I had heard all about The Associates by this point and knew that Billy had split with Alan Rankine and embarked on a solo career, signed to the Warner Bros label. Naturally I saw it as a possible career move if things went well, but on another level, I was curious to meet the famous eldest son, having met most of the rest of the Mackenzie family and having discovered that I got along very well with all of them. I was a rather tense, awkward individual at this time but they seemed to accept me as I was without any hesitation.
By ’86 I had given up the studio in the Seagate and instead installed an 8-track recording set-up in my flat at Baxter Park Terrace. An arrangement was made for Billy to come round one afternoon and he duly appeared. I offered him tea and went to the kitchen to put the kettle on. Billy followed close behind and immediately started to sing and hum things at me, explaining his ideas regarding the first song we were to start working on. I was slightly annoyed by such an instant bombardment but just said something like ‘Sounds great’ while I busied myself with the tea. He continued his ramble as we went through to the spare room where I had my recording set-up. It was a tiny room covered with brightly coloured ‘ABC’ wallpaper which I hadn’t bothered to remove- obviously the child’s bedroom of a previous occupant. ‘This is like an acid chamber, isn’t it?’ said Billy, blinking visibly. I wasn’t sure what he meant but got on with setting up equipment.
The first track we worked on was called ‘You’ll Never Know’, a 60s style ballad with a vocal line reminiscent of Dusty Springfield. I liked it a lot, but for whatever reason, it never got used on any album- there was later some talk about Annie Lennox singing it but I don’t believe she did. I quickly realized that I was playing the part of a ‘writer’s assistant’ at this time, rather than having any creative role but I was ok with that. I was there to work out chords and translate Billy’s hummings and whistlings into real musical parts. The second track we put down in that session was called ‘Set Me Up’ which later appeared on the shelved ‘Glamour Chase’ album- a kind of grandiose, Germanic funk number which Yello produced and made into an excellent finished song.
I was reasonably pleased with our first recording session together- I found Billy a bit demanding and full-on at times but this was off-set by natural charm and a sharp sense of humour. He seemed satisfied enough to suggest demo-ing the tracks properly at a studio in Edinburgh the following week.
3. Cars and Sandwiches
Throughout Billy’s career, he owned various cars but never learned to drive himself. In ‘86, at the time of our first recording sessions together, he owned a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. Jimmy, his younger brother, often drove the Rolls around Dundee and I had a few rides in it with 18-year-old Jimmy at the wheel. He would constantly open and close the electric windows while driving and, as a passenger, this could get quite irritating. I remember on one occasion, we stopped at a service station to get petrol and Jimmy put £2 in the Rolls, much to the astonishment of the attendant.
As mentioned in the previous part, Billy had suggested a trip through to Edinburgh to demo the two songs we had worked on in my flat. I was looking forward to a luxurious ride in the Rolls Royce but was sorely disappointed. When I met up with Billy at his mother’s house in Morgan Street, he indicated an old, battered-looking Ford Escort estate car and asked me if I was ok with driving it to Edinburgh.
‘Where’s the Rolls?’ I asked. ‘Jimmy’s got it’ replied Billy. As soon as I started driving the car, it was obvious that the steering was way off. ‘Billy, does this car have an MOT*?’ ‘An MOT? What’s that?’ I then checked the windscreen and noticed there was no tax disc on it. ‘Where’s the tax disc?’ Again, he had no idea what I meant. I explained the whole concept of road tax. ‘But I’ve already paid thousands in tax,’ was Billy’s response. I decided against attempting to explain the difference between income tax and road tax and continued driving.
Once we got onto the motorway, I struggled to get the car up to 70mph as it clattered and bumped along. ‘Steve, do you mind not going any faster than 50?’ Billy piped up, ‘I don’t like fast cars’. I dutifully slowed up and had to then suffer being constantly overtaken by honking trucks and coaches as we crawled towards Edinburgh.
About halfway there, Billy suggested stopping off for a sandwich so I pulled in at a motorway service station. I waited in the car and Billy soon came back with the sandwiches. Billy ate his in record time then watched me intently as I ate mine at normal pace. ‘Can I have a bite of your sandwich?’ asked Billy. I couldn’t really refuse him but then watched in amazement as he proceeded to eat the rest of my sandwich, talking constantly as he did so. After finishing the last mouthful he said ‘Sorry Steve- did I just eat all that?’
The recording session in Edinburgh was disappointing in terms of the results. The rough demo we had done in my flat sounded much better- so often this is the case. Professional studios can sometimes kill off the spirit of a song and it can be impossible to recapture it. Soon after this, I left Dundee and moved abroad to Amsterdam, then from there to London in ‘88. It wasn’t until 1990 that Billy contacted me again, by which time he had moved to London too, living in Hampstead and now signed to Circa Records. I was to be working on material destined for the album ‘Outernational’.
*MOT: stands for ‘Ministry Of Transport’ certificate- required by law in the UK to prove that a vehicle is roadworthy.
4. Hampstead Recordings
In 1990 I was living in a run-down council flat in Stockwell, south London, so that visiting Billy’s luxurious flat in Hampstead for the first time was like stepping into another world. I noticed that one of his neighbours in the building was Dame Peggy Ashcroft. I was shown in by Steve Phillips, Billy’s PA who also lived there and who had obviously been instructed to look after me. Steve carefully puffed out the cushions on the sofa for me to sit on and set about making tea and toast. Steve always had a tea-towel tucked into his belt which he would whip out every so often if some surface required a quick dust or a wipe. I had known Steve from Dundee and always liked him- very few people didn’t. As a PA, he was diligent and efficient- he took care of everything for Billy.
On one occasion later on, I was told that Billy couldn’t work that day because he had a hellish hang-over. I then witnessed Steve carrying a naked Billy like a helpless baby in his arms down the hallway. ‘I’m just putting him in the bath!’ he shouted out, by way of explanation. One of Steve’s other duties seemed to be frequent visits to the dry-cleaners. Billy had apparently ditched the concept of laundry and had every item of clothing sent to the dry-cleaners. Bob Johnson, Billy’s manager at that time, later showed me a dry-cleaning bill which ran into several sheets of paper: ‘And that’s just for last month,’ he told me with some dismay.
I soon had my equipment installed in the Hampstead flat and before too long, Billy appeared, having just returned from a walk on Hampstead Heath with his dogs. He always had at least two whippets on a leash, sometimes three or more, and was obviously dedicated to them. He regularly raced his dogs in competitions and was highly successful as a breeder- at least one of them became British champion as I recall. At one point, a few years later, he was accused by the whippet-racing community of crossing his dogs with greyhounds and had to attend a type of whippet-kangaroo court in Nottingham to defend his breeding techniques and eventually prove quite successfully that all of his dogs were of pure pedigree.
So our work commenced and over the ensuing weeks we laid down demos for several tracks, most of which appeared later on the Circa album ‘Outernational’: ‘Sacrifice and be Sacrificed’, ‘Groovature’, ‘Outernational’, ‘What Made Me Turn On The Lights’ and a track called ‘Stay Pure’ which didn’t make it onto the album. This time around, I was given a bit more creative freedom and came up with the chord structure for ‘Groovature’ as well as the middle 8 for ‘Stay Pure’ (which later became the chorus when the song was re-arranged by Moritz von Oswald). I didn’t labour the point regarding any possibility of a co-write since I was being paid generously for my work. I was eventually credited with ‘pre-production’ on the album and was perfectly happy with that.
Although ‘Outernational’ is now available on a re-issue, it initially suffered the same fate as ‘The Glamour Chase’ and was shelved by Circa when the label got itself into serious debt. The next time I hooked up with Billy was in ‘92 by which time he had left Circa and had moved back up to Scotland, living in Auchterhouse, just outside Dundee.
5. Panic in Auchterhouse
It was late ’92 when I first went to visit Billy in Auchterhouse, just outside Dundee. Despite by now being out of contract and without a label, he seemed as upbeat and enthusiastic about music as ever. I could tell that he preferred being out of the city and the Sidlaw hills surrounding Dundee are a prime example of the rugged beauty of that area. Naturally, it was a far more suitable environment for his large kennel of whippets.
I was only up in Dundee for a few days, on a visit from London where I was still living but left with rough demos of 2 new tracks: an instrumental called ‘A Mood for all Seasons’ and a song called ‘At the Edge of the World’. I told Billy I would work on them and return in a few months, which I did in the Spring of ’93. I revisited him several times that year and each time I would take a track away with me to work on. Because of this method of working, I had far more opportunity to play a more creative role and it became clear that we were now co-writing. During that year we wrote ’14th Century Nightlife’ and it was during the writing process of this track that I had an unprecedented experience: a panic attack- something I am not normally susceptible to and which, since that occasion, has never repeated itself.
’14th Century Nightlife’ can be found on the album ‘Eurocentric’ and is probably our most hated track in terms of public reaction. No-one ever liked it except us. Billy came up with one of the weirdest, atonal bass-lines I have ever heard and I put some discordant Hitchcock string jabs over it- all of this accompanied by a relentless techno drum-pattern. My brain started to throb and I felt like I was hyper-ventilating. ‘Billy, I have to go out for a walk- see you in a bit.’ I started to climb the hillside at the back of Billy’s house, clutching my head. I thought if I didn’t, it might explode. I eventually collapsed by a tree and curled myself into a ball, rocking back and forth. The attack gradually subsided and I was able to return to the house. When I told Billy what had happened, he just said ‘Oh, I get those all the time.’
It was during ’93 that Billy told me he was going to try to re-form The Associates with Alan Rankine at the instigation of Fiction Records boss, Chris Parry. He also told me that he and Rankine were going to demo some songs and asked if I minded them doing a version of ‘At the Edge of the World’. I was fine with that and accepted an invitation to drop in on them for a visit, as they were recording at a newly-opened studio near Auchterhouse.
I had always admired Alan Rankine and was looking forward to meeting him. But the feeling was obviously not mutual. He virtually ignored me when I appeared. Billy talked to me about it later: ‘Do you know what he said about you Steve after you left? He said: there’s something wrong with him. He looks ill.’ The attempted reunion of The Associates fell through eventually. Alan Rankine wanted Billy’s full, exclusive committment and Billy wasn’t prepared to give it.
6. Great King Street (1)
It was in January ’94 that I got a call from Billy. He had just rented a 2-bedroom flat on Great King Street in Edinburgh and asked if I fancied moving up there for a few months to do some songwriting. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I was living with my girlfriend Tara in a cramped room in a shared house in West London and we weren’t getting along at all. I badly needed an escape route and Billy had just provided it. Poor Tara had been subjected to several weeks of me working on ’14th Century Nightlife’ and it was driving her mad. Other occupants of the house who were staunch REM fans had also pleaded with me to stop working on the track. I told Billy all of this and he was clearly delighted to hear it.
Accordingly I hired a car the following month, filled it with my belongings and various equipment and set off for Edinburgh. Billy’s flat was a 70s throwback: formica walls, swirly carpets and frosted glass on all the doors. It became clear that I would be sharing the flat not just with Billy but also with two whippets: Drummond and Sophie. Drummond was a dog and Sophie was a human in a dog’s body. Sophie didn’t accept me at first and expressed this by defecating in my bedroom repeatedly. It was no use closing the door- she could open anything. But early one morning she entered my room and got into my bed. She nuzzled up against me and I knew she had relented- the defecation stopped immediately. On one occasion later on, I brought a woman back. Sophie wasn’t pleased and crapped on the woman’s shoes in the middle of the night.
As it happened, I had a piano in storage at my sister Karen’s house not far away, which I soon had moved into the flat at Great King Street. Billy hadn’t realized that I was a competent pianist and the piano became one of our main writing tools. I eventually developed a style which suited Billy and we began to accumulate a considerable collection of torch ballads. We worked very hard- sometimes doing 14 hour days and it wasn’t uncommon for Billy to wake me up during the night: ‘Stick on the equipment Steve- I’ve got something,’
The intensity of this work led to our first fall-outs. Billy had a habit of disguising commands with the word ‘please’, spoken through clenched teeth. I found this habit extremely irritating. In terms of acid-tongue remarks, Billy would have been a match for Joan Collins. But once he realized I was fuming, he always somehow knew how to diffuse the tense atmosphere. One time when we were recording in a local studio, Billy was winding me up to distraction with his ‘please’ tactic. Suddenly he caught my eyes in his and directed them downwards. He had thread his penis through a hole in his trouser pocket so that it was sticking out like a gun in a holster. The sound engineer saw it too and both of us couldn’t help howling with laughter.
7. Great King Street (2)
Not long after moving into the flat at Great King Street, I met a friend of Billy’s, Paul Haig, who lived just around the corner. Paul had enjoyed some recognition and success- first as the songwriter and frontman of the band Josef K and subsequently as a solo artist on Circa Records, which is how I believe he and Billy first met. Billy referred to Paul’s place as ‘Hollywood’ and I soon found out why. His flat oozed with style and glitz. Like Billy, he was always immaculately turned out with impeccable taste and had a very easy, charming manner. I liked him right away and we eventually became good friends. It was through Paul that we met Kenny Brady, a violinist who soon became involved with us in terms of the piano/vocal songs which by now had accumulated enough to comprise a possible album. It was Paul who suggested we should perform this material and even record an album of it- which we eventually did at Palladium Studios in Edinburgh.
It was also through Paul Haig that we became acquainted with his English friend, Sebastian Horsley, a millionaire dandy who swanned around Edinburgh in a red, velvet suit, swigging champagne and guzzling oysters. Sebastian had made his money on the stock markets and was an accomplished painter as well as being a rare example of an old school, upper-class gent. It was during our stay in Edinburgh that Sebastian decided to move back down to London and to celebrate his departure, he threw a lavish party at a 5-star hotel in George Street with free Bollinger and caviar provided all night for some 200 guests. He made a point of inviting not just his friends- but his enemies too, which I thought was a nice touch.
It was decided that Billy, Kenny and I should perform at this party and this was to be one of the few times that I performed live with Billy. I have to say that he was a bit of a drama queen about the whole affair and stayed in bed with his dogs for days beforehand, fretting about it. As always, he was worried about his hair which had thinned out considerably. He had put this down to an ‘accident’ with peroxide when some incompetent hairdresser had bleached his hair but to be honest, I didn’t believe a word of it. He finally decided to wear an outrageous Elvis wig for the performance at Sebastian’s party.
The gig went reasonably well- by the time we performed, the guests were all clearly plastered on champagne so it didn’t matter too much if the sound balance was appalling (which it was). However, as an upshot of this performance we were invited to appear on a Scottish TV Arts show called ‘Don’t Look Down’ a few weeks later. Again, Billy sported the infamous Elvis wig and we performed a cover version of the David Bowie song ‘Wild is the Wind’ for the programme with Kenny Brady playing 12-string acoustic guitar. This was later dubbed ‘Wild is the Wig’.
8. Back to business in London
In the late summer of ’94, Billy and I realized that our time in Edinburgh was up. We had accumulated a wealth of new material and it was time to get ourselves down to London, the epicentre of the UK music business, to try and get ourselves signed. We were both still extremely broke- we couldn’t afford to get another flat together so I moved back to the shared house in Chiswick, West London and Billy moved in with Steve Phillips, his former PA (see part 4) who had a small flat in Notting Hill. This was to prove a considerable stress factor for both of them. They had frequent blazing rows in that confined space and throughout ’95, it wasn’t uncommon for Billy to turn up on my doorstep with a huge suitcase, saying ‘Can I come and stay here for a while, Steve?’ But he would always go back after a matter of days.
We continued to write songs, mostly in my room at the house in Chiswick and tried out a variety of avenues in order to progress our careers, none of which seemed to lead anywhere fruitful. At one point we teamed up with a couple of German producers called Ben and Ralf who had a studio in Notting Hill. The agreement was that if we could present them with material they liked, they would record and produce it for free, with the option to release it on their indie label. They were very direct and very German. One day we presented a track and, after listening to it, Ralf said: ‘Ze bass line I like but ze song is shit.’ So we worked with the bass-line.
It was with them that we recorded ‘Anacostia Bay’ and a remix of ‘At the Edge of the World’. They released it on their indie label but failed to credit me on the sleeve which led to me screaming four-letter words at them. Billy said not to worry. ‘It’s only a poxy wee label anyway- we don’t have to work with them again.’ So we didn’t. Then there was some interest from a German dance label called Logic, which Sparks were then signed to. They financed a demo of the song ‘Mysterious Lover’ but again, nothing came of it.
During this rather frustrating period, there were a few amusing moments. One time we were in a studio with a remixer called James who had offered his services and who seemed to have a creditable track record, having worked with a dance outfit called Fluke. We had an instrumental dance track called ‘Consenting Holograms Have More Fun’ (one of Billy’s best titles in my opinion). We thought someone with James’s experience could probably do a good job on it.
But before we even got started with the programming, there was clearly a problem. James’s first question was: ‘What’s the bpm (beats per minute) of this track?’ ‘140’ I replied. James pushed himself backwards from the computer on the wheels of his swivel-chair, shaking his head. ‘What’s the problem?’ I asked. ‘I’m a house remixer- I don’t work above 135.’ Billy and I then argued the point with him that the track had to be that speed, otherwise it wouldn’t work- but he was adamant. Billy and I exchanged meaningful looks. What should we do? Abort the session? We were forced to down the tempo to James’s bpm limit of 135 and, of course, it didn’t work.
9. Holland Road (1)
In November ’95, two very positive developments occurred: 1. both of us managed to borrow enough money to set ourselves up in a basement flat in Holland Road, West Kensington, and 2. Billy found someone who was willing to manage us: Keith Bourton. Keith turned out to be not only a first-rate manager, but also a lovely guy who was a pleasure to work with. We were indeed fortunate to get him on our side at this time. His track record was impressive: he had been on the staff of the original Virgin label under Richard Branson and had gone on to manage not only Soul 2 Soul but also Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. Keith promised to get us a deal and he didn’t disappoint.
The relief of finding ourselves in a new and much healthier environment had its effect: our writing went into overdrive in ’96 and it was during that year that we produced some of our best work. Sometimes it can take just one song to convince a label that an artist is worth signing and so it was with us that the song ‘McArthur’s Son’ eventually swung things with a label called Nude Records.
Originally, we had written the song for the singer, David McAlmont who came round one afternoon to meet us. He was a very impressive-looking tall, black gentleman bedecked with glittering jewellery in a fox-fur coat. I reckon he had the largest pair of lips I’ve ever seen. At one point Billy pulled me into the kitchen where he was making the tea and whispered: ‘Imagine getting a blow-job from they lips!’ We played him a stripped-down version of the song with Billy singing and me on the piano. He seemed to like it enough to ask us if we could demo it for him. We did but ended up deciding to keep it for ourselves because we liked the result so much. It sounded like a Motown classic after we added a string arrangement and gospel backing vocals.
It was during this period that Billy’s PR skills came to the fore. Besides his obvious musical talents, Billy was a master at ‘vibing up’ (as he called it) over the phone. Billy’s phone bills tended to very high anyway but now our phone bills went through the roof. It was worth it though. It is this particular skill that many artists fall down on. It’s hard enough coming up with good material but then you realize if you have to become your own PR person if you want to get noticed. Billy had the classic silver tongue and heaps of self belief. His efforts, combined with Keith’s eventually bore fruit in the Autumn of ’96.
10. Holland Road (2)
By degrees, we were definitely making some progress in ’96. Billy was starting to get press interest and a few interviews were conducted in the flat at Holland Road. Peter Ashcroft the photographer did a shoot and came one day with a full crew. Billy always took advantage of any opportunity for theatrics and he milked these situations to the hilt. Billy had a friend who was a nurse and therefore had the necessary apparatus for taking blood pressures. Billy would get her to enter the living-room in full nurse uniform, on any occasion when we had such guests, upon which she would take both my and Billy’s blood pressures. ‘Me and Steve need to have regular checks,’ Billy would say in all apparent seriousness. It was hard sometimes to keep a straight face.
I mentioned Nude Records earlier and it soon became apparent that they were the main candidates for offering a deal. Billy’s past reputation as a wild spender and rebellious troublemaker scared off other labels. Keith was keen to get Nude to commit- so we invited the Nude boss, Sol Galpern and his A&R man, David Laurie to Holland Road and gave them a rendition of some our material. They seemed suitably impressed. I have to say we weren’t too sure about the pair- they were designer-scruffy despite being suited up. Sol had traces of fried egg on his tie and David wore grubby trainers with no socks. One other minus-point was that they weren’t at all keen on our electronic portfolio. They liked the piano-based material and saw the potential of adding string arrangements to create a collection of Scott Walker-type songs. Most of all, they liked ‘McArthur’s Son’ and it was this song that swung it in our favour- Sol was a die-hard soul fanatic.
So the deal was signed in September ’96 and there was soon talk of a publishing deal to follow. Nude were a subsidiary of Sony Music and Keith happened to be friends with Blair McDonald, the head of Sony Music. The London music business is essentially an Old Boys’ Club and Keith had plenty of connections in this respect. It was at this point, shortly after the deal being sealed with Nude that I detected a certain flatness in Billy’s attitude. ‘I suppose we better throw a party to celebrate all this,’ he said. ‘We don’t have to if you don’t feel like it, ‘ I replied. ‘No- we should have one. It’s what everyone is expecting.’ It seemed that I was far more upbeat than Billy about recent developments. I put this down to the fact that he had gone through this process on several occasions in the past, whereas it was all relatively new for me.
In October, the following month, Nude put us into Red Bus, Martyn Ware’s studio in London to demo some of our new material. This was to be our last recording session together but, of course, I had no idea at the time. We put down versions of ‘When the World Was Young’, ‘And This She Knows’, ‘Satellite Life’, ‘Beyond the Sun’ and ‘I’d Rather Lose You as a Lover’ (which later became ’14 Mirrors’). The engineer was Giles Hall who I was very impressed with and who, consequently, was asked to engineer the ‘Beyond the Sun’ album the following year.
11. Holland Road (3)
We planned our party at Holland Road for October. Our lease was due to run out the following month and we had already decided to get separate flats in London which we could now afford. We decided this not because we weren’t getting along but because it had been an exhausting year and both of us wanted some space. I assumed Billy would want to get a place where he could have dogs again.
For the party we bought in several hundred pounds’ worth of alcohol. Billy dyed his hair blond and donned a brown fur-coat with gold chains around his neck. I dyed mine blue and got myself a Doctor Zhivago suit. Strangely, after the party, I found blue hair dye all along the walls in the hallway just above the skirting-board, as if I had been crawling around on all fours, rubbing my hair along the wall. I have no recollection of doing this.
I can’t remember how many people we invited but it must have been at least fifty. We had assumed that the mountain of alcohol we had provided would easily last the night but it soon ran out. Everyone got very plastered very quickly. There was a fair amount of cocaine kicking around too- which has a tendency to put people’s alcohol tolerance through the roof. It turned out that there were certain tensions amongst some of our guests. Several ex’s of other ex’s had been invited. ‘I’m not coming if she’s coming,’ and ‘I’m not coming if he’s coming’ turned into a mantra. But they all came and there were several blazing rows in the hallway. Not to miss out on the fun, I deliberately invited two ex’s of mine.
As with most parties of this nature, it was all a bit of a blur. The one event which stands out in memory is Billy’s ‘a capella’ rendition of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ which took place in my bedroom- the room was packed with guests who all immediately stopped talking as soon as Billy started to sing. As it turned out, this was to be Billy’s last ever live performance. I know the lyric of this song well and noticed that instead of the line ‘I’m glad to go’, he sang ‘I’m sad to go’. He sat on the floor with his back against the bed in his brown fur coat and let rip. It was a remarkable performance and for several seconds afterwards there was a stunned silence. Then the room erupted into whoops and applause.
Shortly after the party we got a call from Keith. The publishing deal with Sony was on. Again, the rather flat response from Billy. He told me that he was going back up to Scotland to rest for a few weeks but that he would be back in January ’97 to sign the necessary papers for the Sony deal. I soon found a flat for myself in Highgate, north London and installed myself there. I remained positive and optimsitic about the future. I had no idea of what was about to happen.
12. Billy Mackenzie: Last Days
The publishing deal with Sony was signed on the 15th of January ’97 and Billy travelled down from Scotland with Steve Phillips to meet up with Keith Bourton and myself. Billy looked terrible. He looked pale and weary. I asked him what was wrong. ‘I’ve just got a dose of the flu,’ he replied. I had assumed that we would be celebrating afterwards but Billy said no, he didn’t feel up to it at all. After the signing we all left together and I remember watching Billy walking away with Steve Phillips. After about a hundred yards or so, he stopped and turned. He gave me a wave and I waved back. I never saw him again. I went for a pint with Keith but it was all a bit subdued. Keith tried to reassure me: ‘He’ll be fine. He just needs to rest for a while.’
A few days later, I called Billy at his father’s house up in Auchterhouse where he was staying. At first we spoke about music, and about working with Nude Records. There had been a development regarding our future recordings: Apollo 440 had agreed to produce for us. I had recently gone down to their studio in Camden to meet them and they were a lovely bunch of guys. Their track record spoke for itself. Billy agreed this was all very positive. There was a pause. ‘What’s really going on with you Billy?’ I had to ask. He then told me he had been hallucinating. ‘What kind of hallucinations?’ I asked. ‘Carnage,’ he replied. ‘Medieval carnage. Everywhere- even when I switch on the TV it’s there.’ I didn’t know how best to respond. He then said: ‘What am I going to do when I come back down to London, Steve?’ I found this a strange question. ‘Get yourself a nice flat with your dogs, Billy. You can afford it now.’ The conversation soon ended which was unusual. It was normally a case of trying to get Billy off the phone but not on this occasion.
Not long after that I received a phone call from John Mackenzie. There was no preamble. He just said ‘Billy’s dead.’ He was going to hang up but, of course, I demanded an explanation. ‘He killed himself- took a load of prescription drugs.’ I was stunned and couldn’t reply. John hung up. Naturally I instantly made arrangements to travel up to Dundee for the funeral. It wasn’t until this point that I was able to react. When I saw people outside the church crying, I went to pieces myself.
The wake was a disaster. A wake is supposed to be a celebration of a person’s life but there was too much grief and hysteria around for Billy’s. He had committed suicide at the age of 39 and it was all just too much. There was an upright piano there and I was bullied into playing ‘Beyond the Sun’ with Uncle Ronnie on the bagpipes. I could hardly play and made a thousand mistakes. Jimmy, Billy’s younger brother, had set up turntables and was playing Associates records. This didn’t last long- Billy’s favourite auntie, Betty, attacked Jimmy screaming hysterically, and sent the needle skating across a rare 12-inch record. People soon dispersed and I retreated to a pub with some friends where I drank myself into a stupor.
13, Billy Mackenzie: Psychic
It was shortly after Billy’s funeral, upon my return to London, that I started to think of a post-humous album for Billy. I threw myself into the whole idea as a means of staving off the intense grief I was experiencing. Billy and I used to ‘list out’ as he called it, drawing up lists of tasks that needed to be accomplished and I now did the same. I even pretended he was there as I did this, asking out aloud for his opinion on track listing, musical arrangement and so on. Even though he was gone, I felt his presence intensely. The emotion was bitter-sweet: on one hand comforting and on the other, desperately sad.
I then did something I never thought I would do in a million years- I went to see a psychic. I was and remain extremely skeptical about such things but a friend had suggested it and I thought well, why not? I made an appointment at the College of Psychic Studies in Knightsbridge. My thinking was: if I’m going to do this, I might as well go for the best I can find.
Accordingly I turned up there and was seen by a woman called Yvonne. The contents of her reading were astonishing to say the least. For the first few minutes she just sat there with her eyes closed. First, she got the name ‘Billy’ without any prompting from me. Then she said: ‘He’s asking for ‘Steves’. Billy is the only person I’ve ever known who has called me ‘Steves’ instead of ‘Steve’. But the next bit completely blew me away. She started to talk about a song. Apparently ‘Billy’ was telling her that this song was somehow important. What song? Then Yvonne said these words: ‘She lives by the sea.’ This is the first line of a song that I wrote with Billy called ‘And This She Knows’. I was stunned. The rest of the reading then became too general to be of any interest but this first part knocked me sideways- I finally left the building in a daze.
I thought long and hard about Yvonne’s reading. I refused to accept that it was incontrovertible proof that Billy’s ‘spirit’ was alive somewhere. But what other possible explanation could there be? I came up with two, both equally unbelievable: 1. Yvonne had somehow plucked all of this information out of my subconscious mind. 2. The College of Psychic Studies had a secret network of intelligence which enabled them to gather information about unsuspecting clients. The whole matter has remained unresolved in my mind ever since.
As if to compound all of this, I had a number of strange experiences in my flat in Highgate over the ensuing months. In my music room there, I would sometimes detect a very strong, fragrant smell like burnt incense. It would disappear as suddenly as it appeared, not fading gradually as a strong smell normally would. I thought this must be an olfactory hallucination but two friends of mine smelled it too. Then there was all kinds of inexplicably weird electrical stuff. Light bulbs flashing on and off, the TV suddenly going blank for a few seconds then coming on again. I checked with my landlady about the wiring but she assured me that it was fine.
Meanwhile, Nude Records had contacted me about recording an album as a tribute to Billy. Of course, I agreed to the whole idea and I knew Billy’s family wanted it.
14. Beyond the Sun (1)
The making of the album ‘Beyond the Sun’ was to last several months over the summer of ’97 and it was to be a testing experience. Jimmy Mackenzie, the youngest brother, came down to London to lend moral support and it was a godsend having him around. Someone had to represent the family’s interests and Jimmy quite willingly took on this role. The whole thing got very political in the end with Nude Records on one side, Billy’s family on the other, and me stuck somewhere in the middle with Jimmy speaking up for my side when necessary.
Nude had decided that Pascal Gabriel would produce 2 tracks: ‘Give Me Time’ and ‘Sour Jewel’ for the album and Simon Raymonde, bass player of the Cocteau Twins, would produce the rest. I was later to discover that Simon had little or no experience as a producer. Pascal, on the other hand, was highly experienced with an excellent track record and remains one of the best in the business. His contribution went painlessly and smoothly.
David Laurie, A&R man for Nude, eventually took me down to September Sound in Twickenham to meet up with Simon Raymonde. David brought a crate of beer and we sat out on the veranda of the studio overlooking the River Thames to discuss the album. I can remember Simon saying: ‘I hope you’re not precious about your material, Steve.’ ‘Not at all,’ I replied, ‘I’m open to all suggestions,’ which I quite sincerely was.
The first problem I encountered with Simon was the track ‘Beyond the Sun’- obviously of extra importance since it was the title track of the album. Arrangement-wise, I suggested that it should just be Billy’s vocal and piano with a few atmospheric electronic parts. Simon seemed to go along with this to my relief. However, the day after I had laid down the electronic parts, I came into the studio to find that a development had occurred in my absence. ‘I’ve put a bass part on it,’ said Simon. ‘See what you think.’ Before he even played it, I had my doubts. The piano part is full, with frequent octaves in the left hand. Why would it need a bass part?
My doubts were confirmed when I heard it. Simon’s bass part simply followed the root notes of my chords with the result that the bottom end had turned to mud. To be frank, it was a total mess. He looked at me expectantly once it had finished. I was tempted to say with a hint of irony: ‘I hope you’re not precious about your bass parts, Simon’ but instead, decided to be diplomatic. After all, I really didn’t want to fall out with my producer. ‘I think we would maybe have to work on the bass part a bit,’ I said carefully. ‘It would have to be something melodic rather than just doubling up the bass notes I’m playing in the left hand.’
Simon was clearly deeply offended by my judgment. Without even replying, he strode up to the mixing-desk, grabbed the fader of his bass part, and slammed it down to zero. He then stormed out, went to the live room next door and started to thump the piano furiously. I looked at Giles, the sound engineer, and he shrugged his shoulders. In Simon’s absence we continued and mixed the track ourselves. Before going home, I looked in on Simon who was still in the throes of his tantrum. ‘Alright Simon? See you tomorrow!’
15. Beyond the Sun (2)
The mix of the title track ‘Beyond the Sun’ turned out to be unacceptable to Billy’s father, Jim. ‘Billy’s voice is no loud enough and thon piano’s too thumpy, Stevie boy (as he always called me). Yous’ll have tae dae it a’ again.’ I asked David Laurie if I could remix it and he said no, we were already running over budget. So I stole the master tape from September Sound and took it to Adrian Sherwood’s studio, On-U Sound, where my friend Anth Brown worked as an engineer, and remixed the track with Anth, paying for it out of my own pocket. David Laurie found out eventually and was furious. ‘You can’t do that!’ he screamed at me down the phone. ‘Well, I just did David,’ I replied, ‘and it’s not costing you a penny, ok?’
As time wore on, I was beginning to find David Laurie, A&R man of Nude Records, more of an adversary than an ally. Why was he so difficult to deal with? It became clear that he was high on drugs on a regular basis, and if not, always in the process of coming down off them. I recognize dilated pupils when I see them and his were often like saucers. I would be speaking to him in his office about some important point regarding the album and he would look not so much at me, as through me, at a speck on the wall directly behind my head. I don’t mean to knock him for this- to not be in such a state as an A&R man of any record label in London throughout the 90s would be considered highly unusual. But it was hard to deal with sometimes. I really wanted to get along with him but was forced to give up in the end.
When it came to mastering the album at the Townhouse in Shepherd’s Bush, David really screwed things up. He either had a horrendous hangover that day or was on a drug come-down from hell. He looked like he had one foot in the grave and the other one slipping. He was supposed to collect the half-inch, 2-track master tape from September Sound and bring it to the cut. Not a difficult task. Instead he brought a jumbled collection of DAT tape copies and if I hadn’t brought DAT tapes of my own which happened to cover the tracks not included on his, the mastering would have had to be cancelled with disastrous consequences. ‘Where’s the master, David?’ ‘What master?’
If any confirmatory evidence were needed of this man’s continually spaced-out state, a music journalist friend of mine later called up Nude to get a copy of the new album sent out. Unfortunately for him he got David Laurie. David asked for my friend’s address over the phone. ‘What’s the postcode?’ ‘London N8’ replied my friend. ‘N8? Can you spell that?’ ‘What? It’s N8.’ ‘Is that E-N-A-T-E?’ ‘No, it’s N8’. My friend eventually hung up.
16. Beyond the Sun (3)
As mentioned in part 14, I had already fallen out with Simon Raymonde, my producer and, as I suspected, he was to get his revenge over my overruling him on his bass part for the song ‘Beyond the Sun’. Whether he intended it as revenge or not, I’ve no idea but it certainly felt like it. The song ‘And This She Knows’ had always been a bit special for Billy and me. Billy had got the opening lines from a dream he had about Kylie Minogue. In his dream, he had walked into a nightclub and there was Kylie on stage with a band, singing those lines. I’ve had the occasional experience of musical ideas coming from dreams and it is strange how they are unfailingly of top quality.
We had demo-ed the track at Red Bus in ’96 with a vamping electric piano part and our intention had always been clear: the song was to be played by a small band set-up with the Roxy Music song ‘Mother of Pearl’ in mind. When I explained this to Simon Raymonde, I came up against a brick wall. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I want you to work out a piano arrangement- it doesn’t need anything else.’ In desperation, but without much hope, I turned to David Laurie. ‘A small band? We can’t afford that.’ So I had to go along with Simon’s plan. If there was one song that I didn’t want to get overruled on, it was this one but I realized it was to be so.
As best I could, I put together a piano arrangement then got Malcolm Ross to put an Isley Brothers-type distorted guitar part over the instrumental section. Nude balked even at this modest addition and I had to fight to get Malcolm’s bill paid, even though he had done a thoroughly professional job. The end result was at best, mediocre- and at worst, downright bland. A potentially classic song had been ruined. Despite this, many people still like the version on the album but it could have been so much better.
If I have one major regret about ‘Beyond the Sun’ it is the way this particular song turned out. My one small consolation was that I got to record the piano part on a grand piano at Wessex Studios in Highbury Park- the same piano (I was assured by the technician) that Johnny Rotten had spewed up into when recording there with the Sex Pistols back in ’77. Given my general feelings about Simon’s arrangement idea, this seemed somehow appropriate.
17. Beyond the Sun (4)
By the time the album was finished, Simon Raymonde had produced two tracks: ‘And This She Knows’ and ‘At the Edge of the World’. He had walked out of the mixing session for ‘Nocturne VII’ because of a disagreement with the sound engineer, Giles Hall and myself over putting an echo effect on a part of the string arrangement that didn’t work and needed to be camouflaged somehow. He didn’t understand what we meant and obviously thought we were deliberately ganging up on him but we really weren’t. Aside from Pascal Gabriel’s two tracks, ‘Give Me Time’ and ‘Sour Jewel’, and John Vick’s ‘3 Gypsies in a Restaurant’, I had mixed three with Giles Hall, and two with Anth Brown at On-U Sound, which I ended up having to pay for myself. I didn’t get any production credits on anything as it turned out but I really didn’t care. At least Billy’s album was finished.
The finishing of the album wasn’t entirely the end of it. There now ensued a battle of wills between Nude Records and the Mackenzie family. Nude came up with the god-awful idea of combining ‘Beyond the Sun’ with another CD of Associates’ greatest hits, making a double-CD collection. It reached a point where Jim, Billy’s father said ‘Tell them to shelve the bloody thing. It’s no comin’ oot.’ At various times during all of this, it looked like all my work was going to come to nothing.
But Jimmy Mackenzie assured me that Nude would back down with their insane idea and they finally did. There remained a few squabbles over artwork. Fortunately I inspected the CD booklet before it went to print. There were some howling errors regarding Billy’s lyrics. The one I can remember was from the song ‘Sour Jewel’. Instead of the line ‘viewing all from freak to oblique,’ they had put ‘queuing up for a week to a beak’. At my insistence, these idiotic mistakes were corrected.
When it came to press, the music papers were directed by Nude to Simon Raymonde, who took full credit. He said in one interview how ‘difficult’ it had been working with Billy’s voice. He hadn’t even known Billy. I could scarcely believe my eyes but again, I was just relieved the whole affair was over. I later learned that several press people had tried to contact me via Nude who had told them that they had no contact number or address for me, even though they did. I’ve still no idea why they treated me this way. It was because of the songs I had written with Billy that they had signed him in the first place. You would think that might have entitled me to a modicum of respect. In the end, you just have to feel sorry for such people.
When Nude Records went out of business a few years later, I allowed myself a double-dose of Schadenfreude. I’m actually amazed they stayed afloat even for that long. The label had been propped up for a long time by their one success, the band Suede. To be fair, there were some nice people working there and I don’t wish to offend any of them. It’s just a shame that the MD and his side-kick turned out to be a couple of wankers. Good luck to them anyway.
I decided at this point that I wouldn’t address the rest of the catalogue of songs that I had written with Billy for a while, or at least until I felt able to face the prospect. When I finally did, with the album ‘Eurocentric’, I felt confident that it couldn’t possibly be more stressful than ‘Beyond the Sun’ to make- but I was wrong as it turned out.
19. Eurocentric (1)
After making the post-humous album ‘Beyond the Sun’ in ’97, I didn’t do anything about the rest of the catalogue of work I had co-written with Billy for a couple of years. When I eventually did, it came about as a result of a conversation I had with my friend Paul Haig in Edinburgh, who had recently started up a label called ‘Rhythm of Life Records’. He was planning to release an album of songs he had co-written with Billy and suggested I do the same. After all, I had more than enough material to do this and I knew Billy’s fans would want it. I started to rake through my master tapes to see what could be put together. It didn’t take long to compile a list of ten possible tracks for an album, though, like ‘Beyond the Sun’ it would be a pastiche of styles, ranging from electronica to piano ballads.
The agreement with Paul was that I would mix the tracks, pay the studio bills, then get reimbursed by the label once the album was finished. There was no talk of any advance and no written contract either. I could have taken the album to any number of independent labels but I wanted to work with Paul on it not just because he was a good friend, but also because we had already talked about the possibility of collaborating music-wise ourselves. Quality collaborators are hard enough to find, and I had always admired Paul’s catalogue of work. He had also been a close friend of Billy’s and so, all things considered, it felt right to release the album on his label. I assumed that doing it this way would give me freedom to make the album without having to compromise on content or presentation. And that I would be spared the ordeal of having to deal with incompetent producers and spaced-out A&R men.
So I set about the task of mixing the tracks, taking out a loan from the bank to cover the ongoing costs. This was a short-term loan but I had no reason to believe that there would be any problem in recouping the costs from the label. Meanwhile, Paul and Billy’s album ‘Memory Palace’ had been released. Personally, I rate this album. Unbeknown to me though, there were certain people who were already making comparisons between ‘Memory Palace’ and my album before the latter was even released. This is where the problems started- the end result being not only the premature deletion of ‘Eurocentric’ just two weeks after its release, but also the end of a friendship.
20. Eurocentric (2)
By the time ‘Eurocentric’ was finished, I had racked up a bill of £2700. Not a huge amount when you consider what some people spend on making albums. It was at this point that several unforeseen problems presented themselves. I had always had a good relationship with Billy’s family, including his father, Jim, who was in charge of the estate. I was surprised when I received a phone-call from Jim, raising certain objections to the album. He didn’t like the title. Why not? “It sounds too much like ‘eccentric’- Billy wasn’t eccentric.” I explained that it was Billy’s title- the title of a song that we had written. And there was more. He didn’t like the track running order either. Next thing I got a call from Jimmy, the youngest brother- again, someone who I had always got along with perfectly well. He too, wanted to interfere with my work- to my astonishment. To cap it all, I even got a call from a fan who wanted to take control of the artwork. It was as if there was someone behind the scenes deliberately stirring up trouble.
Meanwhile, the deadline for paying back the bank loan had passed. I called up Paul several times but received a wall of silence. My bank warned me that I would be charged a much higher interest rate on the loan, the longer it remained unpaid. Things were getting a bit desperate. I finally got hold of someone at the label: Willie, Paul’s partner and what he told me pretty much explained everything. “Paul’s really not happy,” he said. Why? “People are saying that Eurocentric is a better album than Memory Palace.” The explanation was clear but I was stunned nevertheless. Music is an art-form, not a competition. It is nonsensical and pointless to start drawing comparisons between two works. Aside from all that, why was I being blamed for this idiocy? All I had done was make an album.
Some three months past the deadline for repaying the bank loan, I finally received a cheque from Rhythm of Life Records for £2700. I had to pay an additional interest fee of about £400 to the bank because of the delay. Days later I received a call from Paul Haig. The vitriol in his voice was unmistakable. ‘Are you happy now you’ve got your MONEY?’ The implication being that I had only made the album for profit. Profit? I had lost money, not made any. Knowing what I did from my previous conversation with Paul’s partner at the label, I had originally intended to reassure him the next chance we got to speak. It’s easy enough to feel insecure about your work when people start talking. However, I lost my temper when I received this reaction. Like most people, I don’t take kindly to being scapegoated. His response to my rant was short and to the point: “Well you can F*** OFF then.” Click. He hung up.
I was hardly surprised when I learned that Eurocentric had been deleted just 2 weeks after its release. The statement from the label was that it had been deleted ‘at the family’s request’. I know this not to be true. It was deleted because of misplaced and absurd, professional jealousy.
21. Songwriting (1)
There are many ways to start writing a song. The starting point could be a bass-line, a guitar riff, a couplet of lyrics, a piano motif or any number of things. Billy’s starting points were always either a vocal line or a bass-line. The first is obvious since he was a magnificent singer but the second less so. For whatever reason, he had an affinity for bass-lines and this might be because in certain styles they can be just as important as the vocal line.
Once a song was in the making, he could then suggest other elements and there were no limits to his talents: string/brass arrangements, guitar hooks, piano lines, backing vocals- anything. Billy is widely acknowledged as an exceptional singer but his songwriting abilities are sometimes overlooked because of this. He wrote purely from instinct and had no knowledge of music theory. I have some understanding of the latter. Instinct is always best but theory can be very useful for those occasions when you get stuck and are not sure where to go next. It could be finding your way back to a chorus from a middle 8, or coming up with a chord substitution to give a second verse a slightly different flavour. I am what you might call a ‘chord-smith’ and with Billy, my knowledge in this area was often tested to its limits.
When it came to vocal lines, Billy would usually present something incomplete. I would then come up with chord suggestions which could guide the melody in different ways. I might say ‘What if I go down to this chord here?’ and Billy would find a different note to fit the change. In this way, we eventually ‘moulded’ something together which we were happy with.
Traditionally, songwriting partnerships consist of a lyricist and someone who writes all the music. Except for the song ‘Liberty Lounge’ (which I originally wrote as a piano piece) this was never the case with us. Billy had too many musical ideas for this to be possible and I’m pretty sure it worked this way with all of his other collaborations. I believe the Associates song ‘Skipping’ (a personal favourite) was written almost entirely by Alan Rankine, even down to the lyric, but this would have been an exception. I enjoy writing lyrics but never attempted to suggest anything in this department. I rate Billy as a brilliant lyricist and decided quite early on to leave that part of it to him.
As mentioned in part 2 (‘first recording session’), dealing with Billy’s ideas was a bit like facing an avalanche armed with a shovel. Some people seem to believe that Billy created everything on the spur of the moment, even his lyrics but this wasn’t so. He did his homework and turned up to writing sessions armed to the teeth. He definitely lifted ideas from other people’s songs sometimes but, to be honest, we all do this. You can’t be a prolific writer of any kind and rely on personal inspiration. I would recognize ideas he came out with as sounding familiar but always said nothing. After all, I am also ‘guilty’ of this method. The important thing is to transform what you’ve stolen into something else. It’s only a starting point. In order to deal with Billy’s ‘avalanche’ tactic I often had to resort to deception and trickery.
22. Songwriting (2)
There were two formats we used for songwriting: the piano or a recording set-up. When using the latter, I was obviously the one who dealt with the equipment and all the technical stuff. As mentioned previously, I sometimes resorted to deception to get a chance of putting my own ideas down- otherwise face being buried under Billy’s onslaught. We often used an Akai sampler and I would invent non-existent problems with the sampler in order to get Billy out of the room. ‘These samples aren’t loading up properly, Billy- it could take a bit of fixing. Why don’t you take the dogs out and come back in an hour?’ When he got back, I might say ‘That’s the sampler sorted out- by the way, I’ve got a top-line and chord structure for the middle 8. See what you think.’
Other times I would fake headaches, saying ‘I really need to lie down for half an hour, Billy.’ He always sympathized. ‘I know Steve, I’m too much sometimes, aren’t I?’ As soon as he was out of the room, I would shove the headphones on and jump back onto the recording set-up. These tactics I mainly employed during our Edinburgh song-writing phase. It became unnecessary later on as his respect for my writing abilities grew and he gradually loosened the reins. Billy had control freak tendencies when it came to music but we reached a point where our writing became so fluent that these tendencies disappeared entirely.
During 1996, our final year together, he sometimes left incomplete songs with me to finish off on my own. Our understanding had become crystal clear and he was never disappointed with the final product. It had taken some three years to reach this point. I wrote the backing track for ‘Sour Jewel’ in his absence. When he heard it he said ‘Do I get to sing over that then?’ ‘Billy, why do you think I wrote it?’ I knew exactly how to press Billy’s buttons and it was no accident that I had written something which emulated early Roxy Music. Even then, he wanted to tamper with the bass-line which he said was ‘a bit dark’. I put my foot down. ‘The bass-line stays.’ I knew he was just trying it on and he backed off without any complaint.
We went into our last recording session together at Red Bus studios in London with four complete songs plus the unfinished song ‘When The World Was Young’ which we had only just come up with days previous. This was to be the last song we ever wrote. By this point, I had no need to resort to trickery if I required Billy’s absence and bluntly told him to leave the studio and come back in an hour. I wrote a middle 8 which took the final chorus and outro to a higher key- an old trick that sometimes works if the top lines are strong enough to prevent it sounding corny. In this instance they were.
When it came to higher keys, you never had to worry about whether Billy could cope with it vocally. He had a range of four and a half octaves- higher than most female singers. I realize now that I was thoroughly spoiled in getting to work with a singer of such quality. It wasn’t just range with Billy but also harmonic richness. Most voices become thin and nasal above a certain pitch but his always remained thick as syrup.
23. Work Ethic
Left to my own devices, I have a tendency to be lazy- a slob even, if you like. Part of me would like nothing more than to have a pile of cash, live on some island somewhere in the lap of luxury, and pretty much do nothing. It’s just as well that this has never happened and probably never will. But I do react well to pressure. And with Billy, the pressure was relentless- in the most positive sense. I certainly wouldn’t call it ‘stress’. During that initial phase of songwriting in our flat in Edinburgh, I became used to working 12/14 hour days and often sleeping ten hours plus, in order to regenerate my batteries. Billy would spend a lot of time in his bed too, with his two dogs, Drummond and Sophie but I believe he only slept some of the time. This is where he perfected his lyrics and sometimes he would spend several weeks (or more) on just one song. I often think that lyric-writing is the hardest part of songwriting if you want to write something of true quality- and if Billy were here, I think he would agree with that statement. There are those occasions when lyrics strangely seem to ‘write themselves’ as if someone else is present. But most of time this is not the case- especially if your output is as high as Billy’s was. I’ve heard that he spent two years perfecting the lyrics for ‘Party Fears 2’ to his satisfaction and this doesn’t surprise me one bit.
He applied this same work ethic to all other areas of his writing. It is very common amongst writers of any kind, to bin material if it doesn’t come up to scratch. Billy rarely did this and would often re-work a track several times until a result was achieved. The version of the song ‘Falling out with the Future’ on the album ‘Eurocentric’ was the sixth version and, in my opinion, Billy’s insistence (and persistence) was well worth the effort. If it had been left up to me, I would have said after, say, the third version: ‘let’s just bin it- it obviously doesn’t work’. His belief in his own material was quite astonishing. Most of us experience self-doubt on occasions but I never once saw the slightest sign of it with Billy. I sometimes had to take a reality check and think to myself ‘it’s good, Billy but not that good’. He believed that everything he did was of the highest quality, even though often, it was just good, not brilliant.
But it was precisely this self-belief, along with his remarkable musical talents, which enabled him to get recognized. When you consider an album like ‘Sulk’, it’s hard to believe it was a top ten album. It is strange, left-field, daring, off-the-wall, and in terms of mainstream pop-music tastes, surely unpalatable. But the quality of the writing shone through and, thanks to a certain amount of Zeitgeist, its excellence got the recognition it deserved. When I listen to it now, nearly 30 years after its conception, it still sounds like something from another planet.
I soon got used to Billy’s intensity (and he to mine to be fair), and consequently, was able to enjoy, and be entertained by the effects of his intensity on other people- particularly during recording sessions in the studio. If I was a sound engineer, probably the last person I would want to see walking through the door would be Billy Mackenzie.
24. In the Studio
I am not the easiest person to be in a recording studio with. I get tense and even demanding in this situation. I can’t help it. When it comes to sound engineers in general, they have a tendency to spend excessive lengths of time on all kinds of things: setting up mikes, setting up mixes, adjusting compressors and all kinds of technical stuff which always involves hanging around for an eternity until they are ‘ready’ to get started. Obviously the more time spent the more money they earn, as does the studio itself, so there is always that nagging feeling that it is all being done deliberately to waste time and run up the bill as high as possible. Every hour wasted could be anything from £20 to £100 down the drain.
There were other sources of potential stress- one being certain musicians we worked with who, on occasion, failed to deliver (but who still had to be paid nevertheless). I have every sympathy for any musician who is a bit nervous and needs some time to warm up- but turning up hung-over or on a drug comedown is inexcusably unprofessional. A slap-dash attitude doesn’t go down well either. I was always the one who ended up dishing out the necessary tongue-lashing and Billy was more than happy to observe the melodrama and even be entertained by it. He told me once it was a relief for him to be working with someone willing to take on this role.
The other potential source of stress was, of course, Billy himself. I always got the impression that Billy, as a matter of routine, always put the sound engineer to a test of sorts. He would make absurd, time-consuming requests, like: ‘could you put that synth through a flanger then back through that guitar amp then through that distortion pedal so it’s feeding back on itself?’ These ‘experiments’ rarely produced a result other than to exasperate the engineer and make me twitch with irritation.
Then there was Billy’s vocal to deal with- endless takes and overdubs, often for no apparent reason. I managed, over a period of time, to bludgeon him into cutting down on this practice considerably but the process was long and tortuous. I can remember Billy recording an entire song line by line and when I objected, his indignant response was: ‘but that’s how Dusty recorded all her vocals’. On the positive side, Billy had a remarkably instinctive talent for harmonies and could come up with them on the spur of the moment, usually with quite startling results. If one examines Billy’s extensive discography, his guest appearances as backing vocalist on other people’s recordings are numerous. And in terms of style, he could adapt his voice to pretty much anything. He could croon like Nat King Cole, rock out like Mick Jagger, wail like a banshee or sing like an angel. His falsetto was one of the richest I’ve heard- the track ‘Opel Krusch’ off the Outernational album being one prime example.
25. Fame the Crying Game
The story goes that The Associates split because Billy just couldn’t face the prospect of a world tour and everything that goes with it- in other words taking his career to a new level. There is another side to this- his side. And it’s always healthy in the interests of balance and fair play to hear all sides to a story. I am going to recount his side exactly as I heard it- and it might surprise some people, particularly those in the music press at that time. During the entire time that I knew Billy he was extremely abstemious towards alcohol and drugs in general. He occasionally had a ‘Brandy American’ in the pub but never more than one.
It wasn’t always so and during the period leading up to the split of The Associates, he and Alan Rankine indulged in large amounts of alcohol and drugs- the latter being mostly speed and cocaine. On one occasion the two of them took so much speed that they both ended up in hospital with pulse-rates over 200. It was after this experience that they made an agreement to stop taking drugs altogether and it was the breaking of this agreement which caused Billy to walk out and split the band. They were due to rehearse the night before the first date of the tour which was a sell-out at the Dominion Theatre in London. When Rankine appeared it was immediately obvious to Billy that he had taken cocaine- two white tram-lines between nose and mouth clearly indicated this to be so. Billy’s reaction was instantaneous- he abandoned the tour and returned to Dundee.
The fact of the matter is that Billy loved to perform. I’ve lost count of the number of times when a visitor to our house would be given an impromptu rendition of a new song. I was perfectly happy to be bullied into accompanying him on the piano. There were many other occasions when he sang a capella for people. All of this seems to be at odds with the idea that he shied away from the spotlight and was in any way afraid of the attention which fame brings. It is true that he wasn’t comfortable with being on camera- but he wouldn’t be the first performer to feel this way. This alone isn’t sufficient to support the idea that he had no desire for fame and success. If he didn’t, then why on earth did he work so hard to get recognized in the first place?
I have assessed it as follows: Billy’s priorities music-wise were songwriting and recording. Any performing would have to be done on his terms alone- which invariably meant an intimate atmosphere with a close communication with his audience. The one-off performance at Ronnie Scott’s in London in 1984 was a perfect example of this. A small band of hand-picked musicians with the excellent Howard Hughes on piano- and Billy was in his element. He mentioned this concert several times during the time I knew him. It was close to perfection- and Billy was always perfectionist-almost-to-a-fault. Afraid of success? Like most of us he was only afraid of failure and was intelligent enough to know that anything half-baked simply wouldn’t cut it.
Carcassette: 1. Milk and Anti-Music
After finishing Billy Mackenzie’s post-humous album ‘Beyond the Sun’ I wasn’t sure where to go next with music direction-wise. Billy once got the opening lines for a song from a dream and the same happened with me- although in this case, it was just a title: ‘Milk from the Garage’. I’ve no idea what the dream was about but I woke up one morning saying this phrase out aloud. I repeated it several times and thought: what is that? Can I do anything with that?
I made myself some coffee and went to my recording set-up in the spare room. Quite deliberately, I set about writing a track which would be the antithesis of everything I had done with Billy. There would be no fancy chord structures, no key changes or middle 8s. And if possible, no melody whatsoever. Instead: noise and groove- nothing else. I decided to have one chord and one bass note for the entire track. I would create something which would be ‘anti-music’ or as close to that as I could get.
A lyrical theme for ‘Milk from the Garage’ presented itself. When I was in my early 20s, I went through a phase of smoking large amounts of marijuana. I would go to my friend’s house with a bag of weed and we would smoke all night, listening to dub reggae and drinking tea. We would always run out of milk at some point and one of us would have to go to the 24 hour garage to get some- it was the only place open in the early hours. At the garage itself, it wasn’t uncommon to see other stoners wandering around aimlessly, goggling at the shelves, red-eyed and open-mouthed, spending an eternity deciding what to buy. I don’t know if this sub-culture still exists but I’d be surprised if it didn’t.
After completing a rough demo of the ‘song’ I realized I had found a new direction. The anti-music principle demanded that I speak all the lyrics- which suited me just fine since I can’t really sing. I then went on to write ‘After Hours’ with Lefty, a Dundonian guitarist who Billy and I had worked with. I decided to be adventurous and used 2 chords for this track. But still stuck to the priniciple of using noise and general electronic mayhem combined with a spoken vocal. And so Carcassette was born.
The style, by its very nature is flexible and that suits me well. Each track is a combination of electronics and something else. It could be electro-rock, electro-funk, electro-soul, electro-anything. The aim is to create something fresh and different. When you look around the music scene, it’s sometimes easy to think: there’s nothing new- it’s all just recycled. But I believe there are always new styles to be found. Because there’s so much music around nowadays, you have to look hard to find it, but it’s there. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I would suggest that Carcassette is one such example!
2. The Mullet of Seaford
It’s strange sometimes how tracks come about. I wrote ‘The Mullet of Seaford’ with guitarist Anth Brown as a result of my purchasing an old-school analogue synthesiser from a guy in Seaford, which is a village on the south coast of England not far from Brighton, where I was living at the time back in 2002.
I saw an ad which advertised a ‘Sequential Circuits synthesiser’ and answered it, since these old synths are hard to find. I drove along the coast to Seaford to check out the synth, with the intention of buying it if it was in good working order. The seller’s home studio was like a 70s time-warp and the inhabitant was along similar lines. He had the classic ‘mullet’ hair-style which most of us are familiar with: one of the worst hair-styles ever invented but, for whatever reason, some men persist with this insane look.
I ended up buying the synthesiser and eventually got around to plugging it in at Anth’s studio in London. It must have been set to the sequencer because as soon as I touched it, this riff started playing. The riff sounded interesting so I put the synth through a distortion pedal with some echo and suddenly there was this fantastic sound. I looked at Anth and he was thinking the same as me. Within a couple of hours we had written an electronic instrumental based upon the riff. It only seemed fair to call it ‘The Mullet of Seaford’.
About 2 years later, I was attending a PRS songwriters’ get-together at a pub in Brighton. I had been bullied into going by my girlfriend who had said, quite rightly, that it was an opportunity to network and maybe find new contacts. But I quickly got bored and found myself a corner where I could sit and drink my pint. At the next table, there was an older-looking, hippy-type guy and we soon got chatting- he seemed friendly enough. I eventually asked him where he was from. ‘Seaford’ he replied. I then related to him the whole story about ‘The Mullet of Seaford’ and while I was talking, I noticed that he was looking at me strangely. Then suddenly it dawned on me: it was him, the Mullet of Seaford, himself.
I hadn’t been especially complimentary about his studio, describing it as ‘prehistoric’- and had made several derogatory remarks about the mullet hair-style. I felt embarrassed and started to back-pedal. But to my surprise, he wasn’t offended at all. On the contrary, he was clearly delighted that someone had named a track after him, even if it was ‘The Mullet of Seaford’. He made me promise to send him a copy and gave me his address. I did. I’ve no idea what he made of it. He was a die-hard Deep Purple fan and the track is a type of electronic, unmusical mayhem. But our chance meeting had rounded things off nicely, I thought.