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Billy Mackenzie: The Associates singer’s forgotten duet with Annie Lennox

It was the musical meeting of minds between two of pop’s greatest vocalists that ultimately ended on the cutting room floor.

Dundee singer Billy Mackenzie and the ethereal vocals of Aberdeen’s flaming orange flat-top Annie Lennox joined forces for the duet back in 1982.

Billy, who died 25 years ago, was cut from a very individual cloth.

Here was a genuine musical phenomenon who strode into the post-punk British scene and owned his very own slice of it.

Early years

In 1976 he met Alan Rankine, a musician from Bridge of Allan, and the two formed a band together that became The Associates in 1979.

The Associates unveiled themselves with their debut album, The Affectionate Punch, in 1980 with Billy’s “neo-operatic” voice stealing the show.

Alan Rankine and Billy MacKenzie in 1983.
Alan Rankine and Billy Mackenzie in 1983.

Sulk in 1982 produced the hits Party Fears Two, Club Country and 18 Carat Love Affair and The Associates were described as “the most modern pop group of the ’80s”.

When fame arrived, Billy was ambivalent.

That was his golden period.

Billy started work on third studio album, Perhaps, and wrote the track The Best Of You as a male-female duet, which he originally recorded with Gina Kikoine.

She was the charismatic lead singer of Gina X, which was described as “a striking German electro-cabaret-disco troupe with a nice line in harsh synth-core masterpieces”.

Tom Doyle’s still-definitive biography of the Dundee singer recalls how the German disco queen delivered her vocal contribution “in a stern Teutonic howl”.

The Gina X version was subsequently scrapped.

Annie Lennox agreed to record the duet and impressed smitten Billy in the studio by “insisting on tweaking the vocal melody to her satisfaction”.

Annie Lennox.
Annie Lennox.

Annie was one half of Eurythmics, which was struggling for early success before second album Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) was released in January 1983.

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) was released as the final single and got to number 2 in the UK Singles Chart and number 1 in the United States.

The combination of the song with its strident electro beat and its iconic video kicked off an extraordinary run of success and everything changed.

RCA Records withdrew its consent to use Annie’s vocals on Billy’s duet.

Were they concerned WEA Records would attempt to cash in on her newfound fame?

Eddi Reader was back on the dole when she was asked to duet with Billy on The Best of You after she finished touring with Eurythmics as backing singer.

Billy was there with his pet whippets in the recording studio and Perhaps was finally released as an album in 1985 but had disappointing sales.

The Associates never really recovered but for Billy it was always about more than record sales and he carried on working and even wrote for Shirley Bassey in 1987.

Wild and Lonely was the fourth studio album released by The Associates in 1990, which included a cover version of Blondie’s Heart of Glass.

The legendary Billy Mackenzie performing on The Tube.

The album was poorly received by critics and the singles Fever, Fire to Ice and Just Can’t Say Goodbye all failed to chart in the UK Top 40.

Billy contented himself breeding his beloved whippets, but there was still the desire to show off the power of that wonderful voice and several comebacks were attempted.

The most successful was in 1992 with the Outernational album and there was a genuine feeling that Billy was on the verge of something big again.

It may have come the following year when he collaborated again with Rankine, but an album full of new material was scrapped and another chance passed.

Triumph and tragedy

Record company hassles, and his own enigmatic personality, perhaps conspired against him for a time, but that all looked to be solved by his signing a potentially lucrative multi-album deal with the London-based Nude Records just before Christmas 1996.

He was working on an album when he took his own life on January 22 1997, silencing one of the great pop voices at a tragically early stage.

Billy himself once said he had “an extreme repertoire of emotions” and the death of his mother Lily from cancer, combined with depression, were assumed to be among the reasons he did what he did — he left a note with an apology but no explanation.

Billy Mackenzie’s rich legacy lives on in his music.

Those around him were just left to grieve and wonder.

He was only 39.

Billy was buried beside his mum at Balgay Cemetery.

But that was not the end of the story and there were still chapters to be heard.

The music that he had been working on in the time before his death was posthumously released in October 1997 on a new album called Beyond The Sun.

For the finished album, Billy’s original demos were embellished and finished off by producers Pascal Gabriel and Cocteau Twin Simon Raymonde.

It was a deeply rich record, that brought forth thoughts of Scott Walker and the great ballad singers, while blasting out excellent pop like Sour Jewel and Give Me Time.

Enduring legacy

Billy remains one of Dundee’s most treasured sons and the music of The Associates still matters 25 years after his death and shall be his enduring legacy.

Billy’s voice was a soaring, operatic, spectacularly powerful instrument with unearthly qualities that could, and frequently did, leave a deep impression on listeners.

He gave what turned out to be one of his final interviews to Record Collector magazine in July 1994 where he spoke about how “Dundee made me what I am”.

Billy influenced U2 singer Bono and Björk among others during his career in music but why did some of those artists eventually go on to be more successful?

“They wanted success more than me,” said Billy.

“I certainly had too much to learn behind the scenes.

“It was like the difference between cinema and theatre.

“They were the film stars, but I was always more involved in theatre.”

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