For a generation of young Dundonians, Billy Mackenzie was the talisman. He was the exception.
The one who got away and showed there was a way to escape the early 1980s Dundee that was ailing, failing, and grey.
He was the bewitching, grinning, choony-chewing individual who we would see on TV, performing pop music that sounded as if he’d plucked it from a passing UFO.
The next time we saw him he would be walking up Albert Street.
A beautiful tangle of contradictions, he was the one who could have got away, but decided there was no place like home.
It’s arguable that Billy Mackenzie helped that generation to regain some pride in their city, and put it on road to change.
This is a year of significant anniversaries.
Billy left us 25 years ago, at the painfully early age of 39; this March would have been his 65th birthday; and The Associates’ most successful album release, Sulk, is 40 years old.
If we wore bracelets saying, “What would Billy do?” we would give anniversaries a nod but then look forward.
We still have the music and if that is preserved, it will inspire generations to come.
This April we’ll have even more of Billy’s music to look forward to.
A new three-CD release called Satellite Life brings together the albums Beyond the Sun and Eurocentric, but also offers the tantalising prospect of previously unreleased recordings.
Too many posthumous releases are clumsy, but Satellite Life has one crucial element.
It’s been looked after by the man who was at Billy’s side as co-writer throughout this period, Dundee musician Steve Aungle.
Steve started working with Billy through John Mackenzie, his friend and Billy’s brother.
When the working relationship cemented and Steve worked with Billy as a co-writer, the four years were productive, peripatetic, and had many moments of mayhem, as detailed in Steve’s blog.
Since then Steve has moved to Berlin via Brighton and is still making music.
However, Steve credits long-time Billy fan Craig Burton as the person with the drive and passion to get the project off the ground.
“Craig is the key to this as far as I’m concerned. He has been instrumental in previous reissues and has an incredible collection of memorabilia and recordings.
“From my point of view, the whole thing was put to bed, but he convinced me that this was worthwhile, and suggested contacting Cherry Red Records.
“I’m not joking when I say that within five minutes an email came back saying ‘we would be really up for this’.”
Unreleased tracks and rough demos
There have been reissues of Beyond the Sun and Eurocentric, done without Steve’s input. He realised this new release had the potential to make the most of the albums and give fans something new.
“We needed to look at it in a different way, so across the three CDs there are the 20 tracks from the two albums and another 19 tracks.
“There are at least 12 of those which are completely unreleased. So it’s not really just a reissue. There are also three or four rough demos on there. I wanted to include those just because the songs are so good.
“Fans love to hear that rough demo stage.
“The name Satellite Life comes from one of the unreleased songs. It seemed to suit the whole compilation.”
Four of the tracks have been produced by White Label, a music collective that Steve has been involved with alongside Dundee musicians now resident in London – Tom Doyle and Anth Brown.
“Going through the tapes to see what we could work with was fantastic,” says Steve.
“One of the problems, though, is Billy was always losing tapes. When we would go into the studio and eventually produce the master tape, I would always make a safety copy.
“Billy would take the master away to play to somebody and lose it, probably in a taxi.
“He would come back to me, I would give him the safety master – and he would end up losing that as well.”
He adds that there might be more out there, with tapes of all kinds being kept in Dundee. “Hopefully there will be something on there and we can find some of the lost tracks.”
The Satellite Life artwork features images from the Billy’s final photo session, done in the autumn of 1996 by Mark Guthrie and Steve has also written liner notes, as have other contributors to the album.
He reached out to Billy’s siblings, Helen and Alec, to ask if they wanted to write anything. It’s difficult to write about your brother, however.
“Alec gave us this great sketch of Billy though,” adds Steve. “It really captures the spirit of him.”
Alec is more modest about it.
“I’m glad he likes it. It’s just a wee thing I came up with. For me and my sister Helen, projects like this are all about introducing Billy’s music to the next generation.
“Even after 25 years there’s still so much interest in him.”
Alec and Helen have been listening to some of the unheard tapes and say that some really make them smile.
The Auctherhouse phone box
“There’s one that’s just Billy whistling a melody down the phone from that famous phone box in Auchterhouse. The one that he used to get all his ideas to someone.”
We agree that if Billy had been here in the era of the mobile phone, he would be running out of memory with the number of ideas he would have been recording on it.
“He would be doing amazing stuff with his music now. He would probably be really in demand to work with the new generation of bands and musicians – he always enjoyed that.”
That next generation of bands and artists can be inspired by more than the music.
Billy’s attitude of having the world at his feet, but choosing to kick it into touch in favour of wandering the Sidlaws with his whippets is a fine lesson in being true to yourself.
It’s in the music and it’s in his actions. We’ll not see his like again.
Dundee writer and musician Tom Doyle has found his working life inextricably entwined with that of Billy’s at certain points. He’s more than OK with that.
Now living in London, Tom is incredibly open about Billy being a catalyst in his youthful ambitions – a figure that showed him anything was possible.
“Seeing him on the street one day, then Top of the Pops the next night was life-changing.
“Imagine being young, growing up in a multi in Dundee, totally music obsessed, and feeling that you’re miles away from everything.
“Then you see what Billy’s doing; he’s in the middle of everything. You think, ‘If he can do it, so can I’.”
Working on the new tracks
And he did. Now a highly respected music writer, with books including The Glamour Chase – The Maverick Life of Billy Mackenzie in his canon, Tom is also a musician and was delighted to get the call from Steve Aungle to work on new tracks for Satellite Life.
“Steve, Anth Brown and me have come together under the name White Label. The idea of White Label was essentially a bootleg remix thing, where we would build a track around isolated vocals – how we thought it might have sounded in an imagined past.
“We had already done two tracks with Billy’s vocals. One was on the Stolen Voices record and the other on Borrowed Voices.
“The Mountains That You Climb sounded like it could have been on Dusty in Memphis, so we went that way with it.
“Tallahatchie Pass referenced Bobbie Gentry, so we thought we would go back to that late 1960s studio sound – a Jimmy Webb vibe almost.
“With the two new tracks, McArthur’s Son was the song that got Billy and Steve signed to Nude records. I think Steve has been frustrated because there’s only ever been a two-track mix of it.
“With technology moving on, we’ve been able to extract the vocal. That has become a really big soul track.
“The last one is called Tomorrow People. I don’t think anyone really knows where that vocal was done but it was already isolated, which made a big difference.
“There was a real Sly Stone vibe to it. That really could be a single I think; it could be an absolute dance floor stomper.”
Tom adds that it’s impossible to pinpoint Billy’s original intentions. What they do is try to do the vocals justice and put sympathetic music around it, referencing Billy’s favourite artists and what might have inspired him.
“We’ve used other bits of his vocals down the years, so although it’s quite strange sitting with Billy’s voice in your headphones, it’s also become strangely normal.”
June Barrie, fan
For Billy Mackenzie fans like June Barrie, new releases like Satellite Life are important.
The chance to hear unreleased tracks and music is a proper thrill and keeps his spirit alive.
“There’s obviously a real sadness that Billy’s not here,” says June, “but what’s important now is exposing as many people as possible to his music – beyond just Party Fears Two.”
June moved to Dundee for work in 1986, after graduating from university in Edinburgh and heard The Associates first when she was a student.
“To be honest, at that time The Associates were just one band that I liked, but I did really, really like them.
“I remember particularly seeing the Top of the Pops appearances and being so taken with how much they seemed to be enjoying themselves – and had a completely different approach to everybody else doing the show.”
Original Sulk cassette
Following a few years when she was busy raising young children, June gravitated back to her love of music – and particularly catching up with what Billy had been doing.
“I only really started collecting a few years ago. My original cassette of Sulk was in the garage and now I have a lot of the recordings, but I’m always keeping an eye out on eBay and Discogs to fill the gaps.
“My husband managed to get me a copy of the first, self-released single of Boys Keep Swinging for Christmas.
“He paid quite a bit of money for it, and when it arrived with a strange label he wondered if he’d been conned! It was the real thing though, and a precious thing to have in a collection.”
June also collects books and magazines and now has more than 70 pieces of memorabilia in her collection. “Once you start, it’s difficult to stop.”
A statue of Billy
Her big regret is never seeing Billy perform live, and she’s become involved in the Stobswell Forum’s campaign for a statue of Billy.
“I really only joined social media last February, but it was good to find some like-minded people on there in Facebook groups like The Affection Bunch (named after the album The Affectionate Punch).
“The mural of Billy was great and having a street named after him is a good tribute, but a statue of Billy, particularly somewhere like Baxter Park, is needed.”
June retires from Fife Council this May and is looking forward to looking after her grandchildren.
You can imagine what the soundtrack to their time at Granny June’s will be.