Billy MacKenzie is the great "what-if ?" of the New Pop era. For a moment in 1982, the golden gates were left ajar, and a pair of freaks called The Associates crashed through. MacKenzie and bandmate Alan Rankine's chart tally is not lengthy: one immortal smash hit, another two half-hits and a handful of ghosts. But the impression they made was immense. No one of a certain age will ever forget their debut Top of the Pops appearance with "Party Fears Two".
All we knew was what we saw: a ravishingly handsome man shimmying through the dry ice in a trenchcoat and black beret, meeting the camera with eyes which spoke of secret knowledge, and howling in a deliriously operatic voice. And those lyrics - abstract yet eloquent: "Even a slight remark makes no sense, it turns to shark", or "Refrigeration keeps you young, I'm told...". (The latter from "Club Country", during the TOTP performance of which Rankine strummed a guitar made of chocolate by Harrods for [pound]600, then broke it up and fed it to the crowd. MacKenzie was the early Eighties star in excelsis.)
The only thing that stopped Billy MacKenzie becoming a world- conquering star was Billy MacKenzie.With the same impetuosity that had seen him elope to Las Vegas at the age of 17 and marry a fake heiress, MacKenzie split the original band on the eve of a major American tour because he didn't fancy it. He left it too long between albums, lost the momentum, and The Associates floundered. In 1997, he was found dead by his father after overdosing on prescription drugs, and not yet 40.
His legacy is a precious handful of records which are still out there, still defying you to listen to them. Which is why, on what would have been his 50th birthday, friends and fans are gathered somewhere in W12 for a Billy MacKenzie Tribute. It isn't, to be kind, a star-studded line-up. An overture from Associates pianist Howard Hughes is followed by a band called Mower, then MacKenzie's old Dundee friend Christine Beveridge does a bit of Nico, and Paul Haig (early champion and sometime collaborator) sets older indie heads nodding with a couple of Josef K songs.
The whole thing lifts when the unmistakable, could-smoke-a- cigarette-in-a-rainstorm nose of Claudia Brucken swings into view. The former Propaganda singer, accompanied by Paul Humphreys of OMD (with whom she performs as OneTwo), croons deliciously through Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill", Roy Orbison's "In Dreams", Propaganda's "Duel" and The Associates' "Breakfast". …