Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Billy Mackenzie - Beyond the Sun

Billy Mackenzie
Beyond the Sun

Released 1997 on Nude
Reviewed by Jasonaparkes, 25/03/2007ce

1. Give Me Time (4:47)
2. Winter Academy (4:13)
3. Blue It Is (5:06)
4. 14 Mirrors (4:49)
5. At the Edge of the World (6:21)
6. Beyond the Sun (3:41)
7. And This She Knows (3:40)
8. Sour Jewel (3:25)
9. 3 Gypsies in a Restaurant (3:30)
10. Nocturne VII (4:33)

Produced/Pre-Produced by Simon Raymonde, Alan Rankine, Pascal Gabriel, Stuart Firm, Anthony Brown, Steve Aungle, & John Vick. All songs by Mackenzie/Aungle, except 1. Mackenzie/Paul Haig & 6. Mackenzie/Aungle/Fisher.

FICTION. Like many, I was confounded by Billy Mackenzie when I first saw him. This would have been 1982 and 'Partyfearstwo' on TOTP - Mackenzie dressed like an airplane pilot, while co-Associate Rankine was going for an Oriental vibe - chopsticks and Mishima maybe? I saw it again on a retrospective TOTP in 1990 and still was confused, still hadn't caught up - it would be later that year I'd really listen to Associates and 'get' Billy Mackenzie. The original Fiction version of 'The Affectionate Punch' made more sense, probably due to the Cure-associations (Robert Smith provides backing vocals) & the fact I'd got into Bowie's material from 1976 to 1979 (Station to Lodger) and discovered the joys of early Roxy Music. I picked up a tape in the Our Price I worked at in Maidenhead, 4-odd pounds and containing both the original UK LP and the remixed/tweaked US version. It was not much later that the lovely 'Popera'-compilation surfaced (a builder appears to have offed with a copy left in a box at my parents' home!) , though the bland 'Wild and Lonely' was released later. 'Sulk', a blend of New Pop, Psychedelia, Krautrock, Post Punk and New Romantic (...if we're looking for labels) was a very strange record. It took a few years to get into, making more sense after I'd heard AR Kane, My Bloody Valentine and 'A Kiss in the Dreamhouse' - all layers and vision.

THE WRONG PEOPLE. I was having another Sulk-period after I picked up a lovely cheap vinyl LP of it and loving the Mackenzie-track on Barry Adamson's 'Oedipus Schmoedipus' and Mike Hedges-production on Geneva's 'Further.' Depression, a lack of direction and hedonism had got the worse of me the previous year, so it made sense...This was in January of 2007, so strangely enough, I was listening to it not that long before the tragic suicide of Billy Mackenzie was announced. Two articles from the era, 'Those Last Impressions' by Lucy O'Brien (Q#127, April 1997) and 'Goodbye Mr Mackenzie' by Paul Lester (Uncut #1, June 1997) surmised the career, tales of madness and lost opportunities and whippets and drugs and depression and shaggy-dog stories and sadness...all of which would get extended on in the book 'The Glamour Chase' by Tom Doyle. To be fair, Mackenzie's work following his split with Rankine was frequently let down by production or a tendency towards blandness - he was probably working with the wrong people, though there is some great material to be found from 1985's 'Perhaps' to 1993's 'Outernational' - it's not surprising that people focus on the early work of Associates (though Rankine's output since saw two lost solo albums, production of Cocteau Twins' early single 'Peppermint Pig', the creation of Belle & Sebastian at the university which he works, and songwriting for boy-band 911!).

BEYOND THE SUN. 'Beyond the Sun' was the first posthumous release for Billy Mackenzie, released on Nude records (home of Geneva and Suede) and based on recordings that would later surface on the 'Auchtermatic' and 'Transmission Impossible' releases in 2005. These recordings were reworked, mostly by former Cocteau Twin' Simon Raymonde, who produced seven of the tracks here, bringing the talents gained from his work with This Mortal Coil to the fore. There are rumours that some people were unhappy with 'Beyond the Sun' and the related 'Eurocentric' (2001), which resulted in the 2005 collections on One Little Indian. 'Eurocentric' is probably mastered poorly, but I'd stil stick by 'Beyond the Sun' - the only album Mackenzie worked on that was close to 'Sulk.'

GIVE ME TIME. The album opens with a version of 'Give Me Time', a song co-written with former Josef K member Paul Haig from an unreleased series of recordings from the early to mid 90s they'd worked on. This version, like 'Sour Jewel', was remixed by Gabriel - making it fit in perfectly with stuff like Portishead & Tricky at the time (this is what Depeche Mode's 'Ultra' should have sounded like!). The lyrics, like any posthumous release, point towards the tragic suicide - or is that just the way we read them after? "Something that I've got to say/Can't Wait 'til tomorrow..." does fit the tragedy, like Dennis Wilson's "If I could live my life again" on Bamboo's 'All Alone.' 'Give Me Time' shows those wild vocals were there and that Mackenzie could still offer a version of pop, easily the best pop-song he'd worked on since Yello's 'The Rhythm Divine.'

WINTER ACADEMY. As was apparent in Mackenzie's mythic performance at Ronnie Scott's in 1984 (...the complete opposite of a TOTP where he deliberately sang 'Those First Impressions' in the wrong key!...), Mackenzie was a torch singer. The cover of 'God Bless the Child' and songs like 'Breakfast' and 'This Flame' made it apparent that this was the direction he should pursue - so I'm not sure why he ended up making bland 80s-synth pop, epitomised by the lame cover of 'Heart of Glass' - I blame the record companies and a lack of imagination (though maybe Mackenzie let his whippets shit in the executives' beds?). Mackenzie was really Billie Mackenzie, and probably should have recorded a 'Wee Small Hours' at some point in the 80s-90s. Mackenzie apparently hit on the idea of recording different types of music under different names, pseudonyms (some of which turned out to be unreleased songs) like Loom, Case, Outerpol, Eclectatronic and Winter Academy (...see the sleevenotes to 'Eurocentric' - though I'm not sure accuracy can really be achieved when dealing with Mr Mackenzie?).

ANOTHER BLUE WORLD. The material that would have been tagged 'Winter Academy' dominates here, songs that are generally piano and vocals - though for that pure experience see 'Transmission Impossible.' 'Winter Academy' itself is a relative of 1984's 'Breakfast', kind of given away in the lyrics - Raymonde keeps things sparse for this and following track 'Blue It Is', letting the songs speak for themselves. The strings on 'Winter...' are subtle, while the third track is Billy's 'Blue Afternoon.' It should be noted that former Josef K/Orange Juice/Aztec Camera-guitarist Malcolm Ross contributes to these tracks, as well as a solo on 'At the Edge of the World' and the sole guitar on 'And This She Knows' (...both stunning...). 'Winter Academy' has a refrain of 'Night and Day', an obvious reference to Sinatra, tying in with the allusions to Tim Buckley and The Doors on the title track - 'Beyond the Sun' also having the feel of The Smiths' b-side/ode to suicide, 'Asleep.' There is another world. There is a better world. There must be..."There must be..."

ANACOSTIA BAY. A change of tone occurs with '14 Mirrors', which may or may not have been what people intended - a comparison with the version on 'Transmission...' might help - I still think it sounds fantastic. The kind of record McAlmont & Butler failed to make. The kind of thing that Radiohead should have tried to fake. Jeff Buckley? Anthony and the Johnstons? Rufus-fucking-Wainwright? Pah...'At the Edge of the World' (a.ka. 'Edge of the World'/'Anacostia Bay') was a song that appears to have been developed around the failed Associates-reunion in the early 90s (the fruits of which surfaced on 'Double Hipness', notably the hilarious Smiths-riposte 'Stephen, You're Still Really Something'). The lyrics feel related to the Yello-collaboration 'Moon on Ice', as well as 'Moonlight Drive' - Raymonde contributes wah-wah guitar, this track the most keyboard heavy, sounding like the Associates would have if surfacing after Warp-style ambient.

WINTER ACADEMY (2). The Winter Academy-sound returns with the title track and the gorgeous 'And This She Knows', which is the best rip-off of 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' you're likely to hear. Maybe it's like the good things that Woody Allen lists in 'Manhattan', the things that make life bearable? The sea, the sea...Ross's guitar solo works really well here, tapping into that John Barry vibe the Associates had.

FALLING OUT WITH THE FUTURE. "Were you aware that we had to meet?", whispers Billy as a severe mood change occurs. 'Sour Jewel' is a glam-stomper with that drumbeat from 'Dance to the Music-The Light Pours Out of Me-I am the Resurrection-Rocks'. It's the kind of pop song that in the right hands could save careers, it still sounds desperate ("give me just one perfect day...") and the manic guitar towards the end. Next up is '3 Gypsies in a Restuarant', which jars somewhat on the LP - Nude reportedly less enamoured with Mackenzie's more electronic material ('Falling Out with the Future' would have been a better choice). Still, it's very odd lyrics fit well with those Situation Two singles and it's not far from Yello, having that Eurostyle Mackenzie adopted throughout. Klaxons could do it now and make NME journalists come...

NOCTURNE VII. The album closes with a final 'Winter'-style track, 'Nocturne VII', which I've always found perfect to listen to after playing the epic Apollo 440-collaboration 'Pain In Any Language' (which was Mackenzie's final vocal). It's a subtle song, probably the best Satie-inspired song since Japan's 'Nightporter' - just Aungle's piano and Mackenzie's vocals until Raymonde brings in the string section, at first building slowly before the second verse, and then finally the strings of Absolute Zero come in and together with Mackenzie's voice, those otherworldly groans and moans. Not easily put into words, one of those great moments in art which should ideally stretch on forever...and then it's over.

POSTHUMOUS. There would be many more posthumous Associates-Mackenzie releases: 1997's reissue of the 1982 remixed version of 'The Affectionate Punch'; 'Memory Palace' with Paul Haig (1999, reissued in expanded version in 2005); a series of V-2 releases overseen by Michael Dempsey, 'Fourth Drawer Down', 'Sulk' and 'Double Hipness' (2000); Eurocentric' (2001); a two disc reissue of 'Perhaps' coupled with the unreleased 'The Glamour Chase' (2002); an expanded two volume take on Associates 'Radio Sessions' (2003); a reissue of 'Beyond the Sun' on One Little Indian (2003); an expanded take on 'Popera', 'Singles' (2003); the 'Auchtermatic' and 'Transmission Impossible' collections (2005); the reissue of the original version of 'The Affectionate Punch' (2005); and last year's budget price/expanded takes on 'Wild and Lonely' and 'Outernational.' It's kind of ironic that someone who had to release record company sponsored crap and someone who had very little in print upon his death has had so much reissued post-death. Maybe I'm too cynical and it's just the reissue nature of things now?

THE INTERNATIONAL LONER. I hadn't listened to 'Beyond the Sun' for a few years, not sure why...these things happen. But it sounds as great as ever, probably not as adventerous as 'Sulk', an LP that has defeated many with its richness. If I think of one definitive Mackenzie LP, this is probably it. It's the greatest, and obviously saddest, record he released. It has lovely sleevenotes by Paul Morley and an off painting by Bono on the inside of the CD tray. It got great reviews, yet sold little in the year of Princess Di expiring, 'OK Computer' and 'Urban Hymns.' I think it's still forgotten, despite having been issued twice - will people catch up with records like this, as they had with Nick Drake, Judee Sill and Laura Nyro? It is quite possible, especially since many have been nodding his way, from Benefit shows, to Bono's painting ('Wake Up Dead Man' & 'Stuck in a Moment' could be about Mackenzie as much as Michael Hutchence), Heaven 17's live version of 'Being Boiled' dedicated to him, The Cure's 'Cut Here', The Creatures' 'Say', to Manic Street Preachers' 'Empty Souls' (modelled on Associates apparently), to Luke Haines' 'Christ' (from 'The Oliver Twist Manifesto'), to Bjork's apparent re-working of 'No' from the original master-tapes. The box-set and biopic must be only a decade or so away; or maybe we'll never catch up with the International Loner?

NOTE - All profits from 'Beyond the Sun' on Nude went to The Samaritans and MacMillan Cancer Relief.

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