Goodbye Mr Mackenzie

The note in his hand simply said “I’m sorry”. He was found, in the garden shed at his father’s house, wrapped in a blanket with a family photograph album in his arms. That year, Billy Mackenzie was just one of 655 men to kill themselves in Scotland.

Today would have been his birthday. But it’s not the abrupt ending that makes his memory worth celebrating. “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” said the poet Thoreau, “And go to the grave with the song still in them.”  For Billy Mackenzie, that would not be true, at all.

Tragically, you don’t have to be one in a million to commit suicide in Scotland. Currently, if you’re a man aged 35-44, you only have to be about 1 in 2,500 to kill yourself. (Compared to about 1 in 15,000 women.)  Yet 15 years ago, Mackenzie’s death made front page news – only because, 15 years before that, you’d have seen him on Top of the Pops.

For the weekending 27th March 1982, ‘Party Fears Two’ by the Associates hit its highest spot in the Top Ten. With its sparkling keyboard run and octave-soaring vocal, the song might be about a couple of tough Dundee girls gatecrashing a local soireé. But, as Mackenzie’s surrealist lyrics suggest, “it’s hard to tell.”

The equally surreal story of how Billy Mackenzie became briefly, hellishly famous is captured in Tom Doyle’s fabulous biography “The Glamour Chase”. The book was recently re-published in Edinburgh by Birlinn, and it’s possibly the greatest rock ‘n’ roll story ever told. Except that it’s not really about rock ‘n’ roll. It’s got very little to do with sex or drugs or throwing TVs out of hotel windows. It’s a hugely funny, strangely innocent, ultimately tragic family story.

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The Glamour Chase

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With the voice of an angel and the cheek of the devil, Mackenzie was the handsome, charismatic, mischievous frontman for Associates – a band that originally consisted only of himself and multi-instrumentalist Alan Rankine. He came from a tough market trader background in Dundee, and had been an athlete at school. So he could handle himself in a business deal or, indeed, a punch-up. But with a voice that could scale four octaves and still burst a microphone with its power, the music industry were sure this small-town working class Scot would become a global mega-star.

And Billy did love music – but only, he admitted, with ‘a cracked element’. Most of all though, he loved his family. He loved his whippets, perhaps beyond reason. And he loved a laugh. So, when the band moved up from an indie label to an industry major, Billy explained that he only signed for Warners “Because I like Bugs Bunny”.

It should have been a warning. But, rather than pair the maverick singer with a left-field producer like Eno, the record firm bosses brought in the likes of Martin Rushent who’d guided The Human League from avant-garde synth act to multi-million-selling mainstream with ‘Don’t You Want Me’.

But bland success was not what Mackenzie wanted. Back then, there wasn’t really a model for a music career that was both challenging and commercial in the way that Bjork and Radiohead can be today. Never square, Mackenzie toiled to fit his tangential talents into Warner’s conventional ‘round holes’ of black vinyl.

He produced some sparkling pop tracks and sold records in quantities that would make today’s music executives drool. But neither side was satisfied.

That’s almost certainly why – although he never admitted stealing them – the master tapes to one of his Warners’ albums went missing. Legend suggests the reels may still be secreted in a lock-up in Lochee.

It was the most outrageous stunt in a long line of laugh-out-loud japes, gags and scams he’d pulled on the long-suffering record company. But, even when Warners had finally had enough, they still liked him. So they took him to lunch to tell him the bad news: he was being ‘dropped’. As they were leaving the restaurant, Billy said to Max Hole, their A&R man: ‘Don’t look so sad, Max.” And Max asked, “Will you be alright?” Mackenzie replied “Yeah. But, do you think I could get a cab home on the company account?” Max agreed. So, Billy took the company cab home… to Dundee – 600 miles away.

He continued to make records but the synthetic sound of the 80s was perhaps crueller to his music than any record company. He also struggled with stage fright, and was so shy he couldn’t even be in the studio when Shirley Bassey recorded one of his songs. There’s a rare film of Billy performing at Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz club in London: a camera flashes and he shields his eyes, as if he finds fame painful.

In the midst of making a comeback album, Mackenzie learned that his mother had died suddenly. While grief washed all around him, he seemed a tower of strength. But inside he was crumbling. Outwardly ebullient, he started to have real trouble sleeping – a classic symptom of distress. On 22nd January 1997, his will to live eroded by insomnia and prescription pills, Billy Mackenzie took his own life.

His musical legacy was perhaps best summed up a few years ago by internationally-acclaimed composer Craig Armstrong. Running his fingers over the grand piano keyboard in his studio, he played from memory the melody to Mackenzie’s song ‘Breakfast’. “Now that’s genius,” said Armstrong.

Of course, to today’s pap-fed X-Factor fan, Mackenzie’s voice may be an acquired taste, but it always was. He was a cult figure, who just happened to look like a pop star.

You’ll find a few Mackenzie-esque gems on Youtube. My favourite is from French TV, a re-interpretation of the 60s kitsch classic ‘Kites’ as if it were a serious song. The voice is unmistakable but the picture quality is awful: blurring and fading like Scotland’s memory of the man himself.

As a nation, we’re not known for looking after our cultural heroes. Most of us would have trouble naming a historical Scottish icon whose surname doesn’t begin with B. In modern terms, young folk could probably tell you more easily how a dreary rapper like Biggie Smalls was killed in L.A. than how a charismatic figure like Billy Mackenzie died close to home.

Truth is, to be a celebrity in Scotland, you have to be famous outside Scotland. It’s partly to do with the weakness of our TV and media scene. But there’s still something of the ‘Ah kent your faither’ in the grudging nod to success that got Billy Mackenzie glassed in his home town.

But it’s not just local heroes we don’t talk about in Scotland. We also shun those for whom success is as distant and faint as a fading star.

The terrible secret in our society is the deep sadness in our society. Masked by bravura and alcohol, there’s an iceberg of suffering below the surface of Scottish manhood. Each year, about 160 men die on our roads in car accidents: about four times as many die by their own hands. A recent study by Professor Stephen Platt from Edinburgh University suggests our suicide rate is now 80% higher than in our near neighbours, England.

So here’s an idea. Perhaps we should declare 27th of March as a day of national remembrance – not just for Billy Mackenzie’s strangely glimmering, unusually Scottish story. We could also remind ourselves of those other associates who haunt the hearts of so many ordinary Scottish men – stress and distress, despair and suicide. We could learn to be kinder to ourselves, more forgiving, to share our troubles even as we celebrate life. Because, as Billy himself might have noted, is there any party that doesn’t have fears too?

Download free Billy Mackenzie track here – courtesy of Billy’s family and record label One Little Indian

A version of this article appeared in The Scotsman, Scotland’s national newspaper.