Mack, the life: The psychology of Billy Mackenzie and The Associates
Posted by drmarkgriffiths
For the past month, the only music I have listened to on my iPod is all the albums by The Associates (along with the solo albums by their lead singer Billy Mackenzie), and have just finished reading Tom Doyle’s excellent biography of Mackenzie The Glamour Chase – also the title of their 1988 LP but remained unreleased until 2002). Mackenzie committed suicide in 1997, a few months before his 40th birthday. Following the death of his mother in the summer of 1996 (who he was very close to), Mackenzie became clinically depressed and took his on January 22nd, 1997 (following a previous suicide attempt on New Year’s Eve 1996).
I have loved The Associates since the early 1980s and became hooked on their music following the 1981 singles ‘White Car in Germany’ and ‘Message Oblique Speech’ (two of the great six singles they released that year and all available on their second LP, Fourth Drawer Down). Even if people don’t like Mackenzie’s recorded outputs, I doubt many people who have heard him sing would dispute how good his multi-octave voice was.
Most people will know The Associates for their classic 1982 top ten album Sulk and the three British hit singles that year – ‘Party Fears Two’ (No.9), ‘Club Country’ (No.13), and ’18 Carat Love Affair’ (No. 21) but I’ve followed their whole career through thick and thin and have every one of their six albums (seven if you include the partial re-recording/remixing of their first album The Affectionate Punch) as well as the three BBC Radio 1 session LPs, the three compilation ‘greatest hits’ collections (Popera, Singles, and The Very Best of Associates), the rarities LP Double Hipness, and their only live album (Billy Mackenzie and The Associates In Concert).
Hailing from Dundee (Scotland), The Associates (Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine the two lynch-pin members) formed as punk exploded in 1976. Before changing their name to The Associates in 1979 they used the moniker Mental Torture (a name that biographer Doyle described as “biographically embarrassing”) but as a psychologist a choice of name that I find interesting. The ‘classic’ line-up of The Associates ended at the height of their commercial success in 1982 when Rankine left the band. Following that, many view the next three Associates’ LPs as Billy Mackenzie solo albums in all but name and that he never reached such critical acclaim ever again. That’s a viewpoint I share (despite there being many other great songs in his post-1982 catalogue). The creative and artistic chemistry he shared with Rankine was never bettered in the last 15 years of his life, and even the handful of demos he recorded with Rankine in a short-lived reunion in 1993 (available on the Double Hipness album and on the latest The Very Best of Associates compilation) clearly demonstrated Gestalt psychology’s underlying maxim that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
So what was it in Mackenzie’s psyche that killed the goose that laid the golden egg? Rankine didn’t leave the band because of clichéd “creative differences” but left after Mackenzie refused to go on a lucrative US tour (and Rankine knew that touring to promote their music was the only viable option to maintain a successful national and international profile). There appeared to be a combination of factors that led to Mackenzie’s decision including stage fright (i.e., performance anxiety which surfaced throughout his career) and the fact Mackenzie didn’t want to do the usual cycles of making an album, doing the obligatory media circuit, followed by the big tour. In short he didn’t want to play by the accepted rules and conventions – something the underpinned his whole persona. He wanted to be a ‘studio band’ – something that Rankine thought would never work.
My blog had always focused on life’s extremities and much of what Mackenzie did was about living life at the extreme. The liner notes of The Associates most recent CD compilation by Martin Aston neatly sums it up:
“In some ways, The Associates music mirrored their behavioural excess, pioneered by the naughty boy that was Billy Mackenzie, music both lush and visceral, abrasive and ravishing, pure pop and reckless adventurism, devoured and sprayed over an unsuspecting audience”.
(The “sprayed over an unsuspecting audience” was more in reference to the fact that Mackenzie had an unusual ‘gift’ of being able to projective vomit and something he demonstrated on fans in the front row in an early gig where The Associates supported Siouxsie and the Banshees). When it came to music, most of Mackenzie’s collaborators (musicians, singers, producers) describe him as obsessive and a perfectionist. Michael Dempsey, a founding member of The Cure and bass guitarist with The Associates in the early 1980s said: “He was obsessive, always on top of every detail. It was even down to whether you were wearing the right shoes because that was part of the composition and the production to him”. Tom Doyle’s biography is full of stories about Mackenzie taking hours in the studio to get the sound of one right or taking 40 takes to do one song (almost the opposite of David Bowie – one of Mackenzie’s musical heroes – who often recorded songs in one or two takes). Musical collaborators also talk about Mackenzie’s ability to “see” music in his head (which is perhaps not as strange as it sounds as there are countless reports in the psychological and neurological literature of synaesthesia (a “neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway” – for example, some people can see specific colours when they hear a particular piece of music). His obsessiveness was not just restricted to music. His flatmates described his “mildly obsessive hygiene and beauty routines: using an entire tube of toothpaste in one single brushing, spending an eternity rubbing lotions into his skin before he would shave”.
Mackenzie arguably had only three passions in his life – his music, his family, and his love of dogs (and more specifically whippets). He never had any significant romantic relationship in his life (although had a very brief marriage in his teens to American Chloe Dummar when he briefly lived in California). Like Morrissey, Mackenzie was fiercely private about his sexuality and rarely talked about his personal life to the press. It was only in a 1994 interview in Time Out magazine that he first spoke publicly of his bisexuality. I mention Morrissey because it was rumoured that Mackenzie had a brief relationship with him and that Mackenzie was the subject of The Smiths‘ British (No.17) hit single ‘William, It Was Really Nothing’. This appeared to have some legitimacy when during the Associates brief 1993 re-union, Mackenzie wrote a song called ‘Stephen, You’re Really Something’ (Stephen, of course, being Morrissey’s first name).
In both Doyle’s biography (and in a profile piece on The Associates in the latest issue of Mojo magazine by Tom Sheehan), it is noted that Mackenzie had a “particular idea of his own sexuality” and that it was “beyond male and female, beyond sexuality”. Martha Ladly (of one-hit wonders Martha and the Muffins, and backing singer in The Associates in the 1980s) describes him as being “omnisexual…he didn’t see sexuality in people, he saw it in situations and in all things”. The online Urban Dictionary says that omnisexual is “generally interchangeable with pansexual, one whose romantic, emotional, or sexual attractions are geared towards others regardless of sex and/or gender expression” – check out my previous blog on pandrogyny in relation to Throbbing Gristle’s lead ‘singer’ Genesis P. Orridge). In the Mojo article, Rankine said Mackenzie was “very compartmentalised. All the way through [The Associates] it never occurred to me that Bill was having affairs. Everyone he came across he was shagging”. He was arguably a little vain (and overly conscious of his receding hairline in the last decade of his life) and always sought reassuring compliments from those around him about his looks. His obsessive grooming habits appear to provide a good indication of how important his look was to him but I’ve read nothing to suggest that he was narcissistic (although perfectionism is known to be a trait associated with narcissism).
The other personal characteristic that Mackenkie was infamous for was spending money and loved life’s luxuries. One of my research areas is shopping addiction and compulsive buying but on reading Doyle’s biography I don’t think Mackenzie would be classed as a shopaholic or compulsive spender by my own criteria (but did end up bankrupt so was a problematic spender at the very least). Like many people, Mackenzie believed that money was for spending and he spent loads of other people’s money (usually the record company’s) on everything from clothes and daily taxis (including many a black cab ride from London to Dundee), to the best hotel rooms. My view is that he was much more of an impulsive (rather than compulsive) spender.
Many people were surprised (including me) that he was clinically depressed during the last few months of his life because up to the point of his mother’s death, he appeared was always outgoing and extraverted. In his earlier life he was hedonistic and engaged in heavy alcohol drinking and recreational drug use but as he matured the use of psychoactive substances all but disappeared from his life. No-one around him thought he would be the type of person to commit suicide (although it’s worth noting there appears to be an association between perfectionism and depression, and depression is one of the major risk factors for suicide along with stress caused by severe financial difficulties).
One of Mackenzie’s best known songs in The Associates back catalogue is Rezső Seress’ Hungarian suicide song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ (from their 1982 masterpiece Sulk). The Wikipedia entry about the song has a dedicated sub-section on urban legends connected to the song and Doyle’s biography also discussed it:
“While Mackenzie had first encountered ‘Gloomy Sunday’ through the version recorded by Billie Holiday in 1941 that – along with ‘Strange Fruit‘ – remained one of the dark show-stoppers forming a significant element of her repertoire, the song has a morbid history that stretches back to pre-war Hungary. Rezro [sic] Seress composed the mournful song in 1933, the lyric expressing a feeling of futility and helplessness following the death of a loved one, unusual in that it is directed at the person, the narrator detailing numberless shadows and conveying thoughts of suicide”.
Doyle goes on to tell some of the stories that came to be associated with the song being cursed:
“The first reported death associated with ‘Gloomy Sunday’ was that of Joseph Keller, a Budapest shoemaker whose suicide note in 1936 quoted the lyric. In the Hungarian capital alone, seventeen other similar deaths apparently followed, bearing some connection with the song: a couple were said to have shot themselves while a gypsy band performed ‘Gloomy Sunday’; there was talk that a fourteen-year-old girl had thrown herself into a river clutching the sheet music. The song was eventually banned in Hungary, although even these days the occasional piano rendition is performed in the Kis Papa restaurant in Budapest where Seres first aired the song. The legend of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ grew as its apparent effects became further reaching. In New York in the [1940s], there were reports that a typist gassed herself, leaving instructions for the song to be played at her funeral. In London, a policeman was alerted to the fact that a recorded instrumental of the song was being repeatedly played by an unseen female neighbour who, when her flat was entered, was discovered to have overdosed on barbiturates while an automatic phonograph played the song over and over again. Doubtful these tales have been embellished over the years in an effort to emphasize the myth surrounding ‘Gloomy Sunday’, but certain facts remain: the BBC ban imposed on the song in the [1940s] has not been lifted to this day: Holiday suffered a tragic premature death at forty-three form heroin-related liver cirrhosis in 1959; Seress, the song’s composer, himself committed suicide in 1968”.
The Wikipedia entry on ‘Gloomy Sunday’ covers similar ground but is a bit more sceptical. It also references an article on the myth-busting website Snopes.com and notes the BBC ban on the song was lifted in 2002:
“Press reports in the 1930s associated at least nineteen suicides, both in Hungary and the United States, with ‘Gloomy Sunday’, but most of the deaths supposedly linked to it are difficult to verify. The urban legend appears to be, for the most part, simply an embellishment of the high number of Hungarian suicides that occurred in the decade when the song was composed due to other factors such as famine and poverty. No studies have drawn a clear link between the song and suicide. In January 1968, some thirty-five years after writing the song, its composer did commit suicide. The BBC banned Billie Holiday’s version of the song from being broadcast, as being detrimental to wartime morale, but allowed performances of instrumental versions. However, there is little evidence of any other radio bans; the BBC’s ban was lifted by 2002”.
Here is Doyle’s take in relation to Mackenzie in the months after Mackenzie’s mother had died where Mackenzie was having a ‘house leaving’ party:
“The personal grief at the time imbues the song’s lyrics an uneasy resonance that could not have escaped [Mackenzie]. As he lay there singing in the early hours of the Sunday morning following the party, Billy alternated the line ‘Let them not weep, let them know that I’m glad to go’ with his own lamenting alternative: ‘Let them not weep, let them know that I’m sad to go’”.
Arguably his life was a paradox personified. It took him years to get noticed but when he finally made the limelight, he appeared to shun the fame. He lived life his own way on his own terms. Thankfully, while Mackenzie is no longer with us, his music – and his legacy – lives on.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Dalton, S. (2016). 18-carat love affair. Electronic Sound, 2.0, 70-75.
Doyle, T. (2011). The Glamour Chase: The Maverick Life of Billy Mackenzie (Revised Edition). Edinburgh: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Mikkelson, D. (2007). Gloomy Sunday: Was the song ‘Gloomy Sunday’ banned because it led to too many suicides? Snopes.com, May 23. Located at: http://www.snopes.com/music/songs/gloomy.asp
Reynolds, S. (2006). Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk, 1978–1984. New York: Penguin.
Sheehan, T. (2016). Beautiful dreamer. Mojo, 272, 50-55.
Vive Le Rock (2016). A rough guide to…The Associates, Vive Le Rock, 35, 84-85.
Wikipedia (2016). Alan Rankine. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Rankine
Wikipedia (2016). Billy Mackenzie. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Mackenzie
Wikipedia (2016). Gloomy Sunday. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gloomy_Sunday
Wikipedia (2016). Martha Ladly. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martha_Ladly
Wikipedia (2016). Michael Dempsey. Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Dempsey
Wikipedia (2016). The Associates (band). Located at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Associates_(band)
About drmarkgriffithsProfessor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.
Posted on June 6, 2016, in Addiction, Alcohol, Case Studies, Compulsion, Drug use, Fame, Mania, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Popular Culture, Psychology, Sex, Unusual deaths and tagged 'Gloomy Sunday' (song), 18 Carat Love Affair (song), Alan Rankine, Billie Holiday, Billy Mackenzie, Clinical depression, Club Country (song), Compulsive Buying, David Bowie, Double Hipness (LP), Fourth Drawer Down (LP), Genesis P-Orridge, Gestalt psychology, Impulsive spending, Martha and the Muffins, Martha Ladly, Mental Torture (band), Michael Dempsey, Morrissey, Narcissism, Obsessive, Omnisexual, Pandrogyny, Pansexual, Party Fears Two (song), Perfectionism, Performance anxiety, Popera (LP), Rezső Seress, Shopping addiction, Singles (LP), Siouxsie and the Banshees, Stage fright, Stephen You're Really Something (song), Strange Fruit (song), Suicide, Sulk (LP), Synaesthesia, The Associates, The Best Of Associates (LP), The Cure (band), The Glamour Chase (book), The Glamour Chase (LP), The Smiths, Throbbing Gris, Tom Doyle (journalist), William It Was Really Nothing (song). Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.