Yesterday, I touched on a topic I’ve always wanted to write about. David Bowie and Billy MacKenzie are two of my favorite singers and there have always been “connections” between them. Billy ended up singing many songs that were associated [sorry!] with Bowie throughout his career. It goes without saying that Bowie was an influence on the mercurial singer of The Associates. It goes right back to the band’s first, self-released record, which was a grey market cover of Bowie’s own “Boy’s Keep Swinging.” First, the Bowie record.
David Bowie: Boys Keep Swinging UK 7″
- Boys Keep Swinging
- Fantastic Voyage
- Boys Keep Swinging
- Mona Property Girl
The Associates were languishing in Dundee. A plan was hatched to cover [without obtaining publishing permission] Bowie’s newest single just weeks after its release in the hopes of getting noticed. They did. By Bowie’s people. Who then showed interest in the self-penned B-side and offered the group a publishing deal! Mission accomplished! The recording sounds tentative, as does the singer, for possibly the only time in his career. The subdued backing is all Alan Rankine; the other two members [Michael Dempsey, John Murphy] were not part of the group nexus just yet. MacKenzie doesn’t quite nail the lyrics down with complete accuracy and the arrangement is a far cry from the boldness of the Bowie original. This is possibly the only time in their career where The Associates sound like shrinking violets, but remember that this was their first recording.
Round 1: Bowie in a TKO. The fledgeling Associates were no match for Bowie near the top of his form.
In 1982, the British Electrical Foundation released their compilation album, “Music Of Quality And Distinction – Vol. 1” which featured Martin Ware and Ian Craig Marsh of Heaven 17 playing covers of their favorite songs with a plethora of guest artists vocalizing. Billy MacKenzie set his sights on Bowie again. They covered “The Secret Life Of Arabia,” one of my very favorite Bowie songs. It’s the cut that closes out my favorite Bowie album, 1977’s “Heroes.” First the Bowie version.
David Bowie: Heroes UK LP
- Beauty + The Beast
- Joe The Lion
- Sons of the Silent Age
- V-2 Schneider
- Moss Garden
- The Secret Life Of Arabia
“Heroes” is my favorite Bowie album. Robert Fripp on lead guitar has a lot to do with that feeling. I got the album in 1980 as a mid-price record in RCA’s “Best Buy” program and fell in love with the very au courant synth-funk of “The Secret Life Of Arabia.” In the zeitgeist of 1980 it sounded utterly contemporary. Bowie’s vocals are juxtaposed against a panoramic high-tech funk cinemascape. Tony Visconti has treated the drums with the Eventide Harmonizer to ascribe to them a slurred metallic sheen anticipating the sound of drum machines yet to come. The stomping beat is thrilling and peerless for its time. The end result is one hell of a record that should have been a hip dance club staple for a decade or so.
B.E.F.: Music Of Quality + Distinction vol. 1 UK LP
- Tina Turner: Ball Of Confusion
- Billy MacKenzie: The Secret Live Of Arabia
- Paul Jones: There’s A Ghost In My House
- Paula Yeats: These Boots Are Made For Walking
- Gary Glitter: Suspicious Minds
- Bernie Nolan: You Keep Me Hanging On
- Glenn Gregory: Wichita Lineman
- Sandie Shaw: Anyone Who Had A Heart
- Glenn Gregory: Perfect Day
- Billy MacKenzie: It’s Over
The advances in technology between 1977 and 1981 had a profound effect on recording. The revolutionary Linn Drum Computer gives the version an enormous heft that leaves even the mighty drums of the original in the shade. Heaven 17’s resident genius of bass, John Wilson, goes nuts here to give this version even more rhythmic emphasis. I don’t even remember George Murray’s bass lines from the original. Finally, MacKenzie is no longer the callow young singer in a studio for the first time. He is an impressive force of nature with a range that makes grown men [and women] cower. His vocal performance effortlessly captures Bowie’s baritone range yet extends just as effortlessly to a near hysteric pitch for devastating effect!
Round 2: A knockout for MacKenzie! When Billy recorded “Boys Keep Swinging” he was but a learner. He is the master now! B.E.F. and Billy MacKenzie utterly smokeDavid Bowie on his best dance track!!
David Bowie: Station To Station UK LP
- Station To Station
- Golden Years
- Word On A Wing
- Wild Is The Wind
Billy MacKenzie: Wild Is The Wind UK EP
- Wild Is The Wind
- Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth
- Give Me Time [version]
Billy MacKenzie committed suicide in 1997. For several years afterward, many of his unreleased recordings filtered upward to release status. A recording of “Wild Is The Wind” from the posthumous album “Eurocentric” was issued as a CD EP in an edition of 500, along with two B-sides. The music is similarly intimate as on the Bowie version. Nothing garish. Billy’s performance of “Wild Is the Wind” on this recording is such that he makes David Bowie sound like a street person in comparison. No, really. Bowie ends up sounding like a punch drunk stumblebum compared to the vocal MacKenzie cuts loose with here. Billy MacKenzie is the proverbial man who could sing the phone book and make us all weep. He holds the final “saaaaaaaaaaad” for as long as it takes to break your heart.
Round 3: And it’s another KO for the Dundee Dynamo! I would imagine that Billy may have been somewhat embarrassed at his tepid first stab at the David Bowie songbook. Maybe that’s why he returned to that particular thread two more times and with such devastating results. David Bowie is one of rock’s finest polymaths; an intelligent man with a wide variety of interests and an admirable ability to synthesize new sounds from existing materials. His taste in sidemen [barring Stevie Ray Vaughan] is impeccable. Not to be outdone, MacKenzie comes close to matching Bowie for the ability to generate exciting new forms of music; though his partners deserve much kudos for interpreting his naive direction and giving his vision form. Where he clearly aces Bowie is just with those heaven-sent pipes. If Billy MacKenzie were the only singer on the planet, you really wouldn’t have anything to complain about.
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