Record Review: Billy MacKenzie – Wild Is The Wind EP

Rhythm Of Life | UK | CDEP | 2001 | ROL 006

Billy MacKenzie: Wild Is The Wind UK CD5 [2001]

  1. Wild Is the Wind 3:56
  2. Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth 3:07
  3. Baltimore 7:40
  4. Give Me Time [version] 9:00

It was only after being a rabid Billy MacKenzie fan for a scant seven years that he shocked us all when he committed suicide in 1997. I had gotten to buy only two contemporary MacKenzie albums during that period as the mercurial singer had by that time, a prickly reputation that precluded his label signing. MacKenzie was well known to never do anything he didn’t want to [apart from his experiment in acquiescence; the mediocre “Wild + Lonely” album where he seemingly lost interest in digging in his heels]. In the aftermath of his death, there were only a scant handful of his projects in print on CD format. The vast majority of his back catalogue was on OOP vinyl. Of course, with his untimely death, his commercial profile rose as he had many, often influential, fans. So the flow of reissues began along with his last album recorded while alive for Nude Records, “Beyond The Sun.”

Some Associates albums soon followed and posthumous releases of material recorded but not released began to filter out shortly afterward. Ex-JosefK singer Paul Haig was a friend of MacKenzie with whom the recorded various songs during the wilderness years for MacKenzie. Haig first released a Haig/Mackenzie album, “Memory Palace” on his own Rhythm Of Life label in 1999. In 2001 another album’s worth of material written and recorded with Steve Aungle got a release by Haig. “Eurocentric” was a vibrant and eclectic release touching many genres beloved by MacKenzie. It had heart-wrenchign piano ballads rubbing shoulder [pads] with furious technopop dancefloor fillers like “Falling Out With The Future.” To herald the album’s release, an EP with two tracks from “Eurocentric” got a limited edition release of 500 copies. I wasted no time in ordering a few copies [chasinvictoria wanted one, too] and have gratefully had this in the Record Cell ever since.

The EP is in many ways, a cover project, touching upon the threads of artistic influence that had fallen upon the operatic MacKenzie. The first track was a cover of Dimitri Tiomkin’s widescreen ballad, “Wild Is The Wind.” The 1957 opus was first sung by Johnny Mathis, but for those of a certain generation, it’s best known as a David Bowie song, from his far-reaching “stationtostation” album. It’s no secret that Bowie was a big influence on MacKenzie, with his first recording with The Associates being a rogue cover of “Boys Keep Swinging” released just weeks after Bowie’s own. While Bowie’s version is pained melodrama at its finest, I have felt that it doesn’t hold a candle to MacKenzie’s interpretation. MacKenzie seemingly lacked the effort that Bowie was putting into the “feeling” of the song.

Aungle provided a sensitive and modest backdrop of piano and acoustic guitar that allowed MacKenzie a neutral canvas with which to brush his technicolor vocals across. Make no mistake about it. While Bowie was known to give a Scott Walker croon to complete with the best of them, MacKenzie’s range was even wider. He was the quintessential Male Diva capable of occupying almost any vocal space, whether masculine or feminine. Here he not only commanded the Bowiespace due to the song, but also managed to compete with Nina Simone’s 1966 version, recorded a full decade before Bowie recorded his version. Of course, Bowie was also in deference to the artistry of Simone. Given the influence of both Simone and Bowie on MacKenzie, it’s a wonder that he waited until the 1990s to have recorded his take on this pivotal number for that long.

The next number was a cover of Sparks “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth.” If Bowie and Simone were two vocal titans that MacKenzie looked to , their it was a triumvirate of influences that were paramount in his art, and Russell Mael of Sparks was the third leg in that particular tripod. The version here was a slightly more sedate and unaffected music bed with Aungle’s piano maintaining an organic foundation for MacKenzie’s vocal, which was somewhat less fruity than Mael’s trilling delivery. The violin solo at the middle eight was courtesy of Kenny Brady [ex-Fall] and gave the song a delightful “victorian drawing room” patina. The best thing about this version of the song was that it could have been a performance done at any time during the last 150 years. There is nothing in it that begins to date the performance.

The first of two non-LP B-sides take up the remainder of the CD. “Baltimore” was another Nina Simone cover version wherein the moody thrush sang the previous year’s tune from Randy Newman’s “Little Criminals” album of 1977 on her album for Creed Taylor the following year. MacKenzie’s take, in contrast to the first two songe on this EP, was actually very au courant. Producer;s Denis Wheatley and Tony Newland strove for a trip hop vibe pregnant with dread well-suited to the despairing lyrics. This was the first song on this EP with a rhythm track, but it was very laid back and subdued. The melodrama of the music bed was aided by slow motion strings and surgical application of wah-wah guitar that tantalizingly referred to the Simone version. The mood really builds on this one! It’s not a million miles away from the Simone version, but the vibe was less funky and more foreboding.

Finally, “Give Me Time [version]” was a radical trip hop/hip hop restructuring of the song “Give Me Time” from the “Memory Palace” album by Haig/MacKenzie. The vocal spotlight here was on MC Buzz B who rapped over the first few minutes of the song, building a mood of his own before MacKenzie appeared several minutes into the humber, and then the titular song finally began to manifest. It’s a great remix, for doing something radical with the song, but MacKenzie did seem like a guest on his own recording here. That being my only caveat with it. Your mileage may vary.

Since this EP was pressed in low numbers [or what was low numbers for 2001], copies today trade hands for significantly more than its initial cost. The first two songs were beck in print in 2004 when One Little Indian obtained rights to the material that made up the final sessions of MacKenzie’s life at the behest of MacKenzie’s family, who deleted compiled new CDs in 2004 with the first two songs here appearing on the “Transmission Impossible” album of ballads. A shorter remix of the then retitled “Give Me Time [Denis Wheatley Mix]” appeared on the second version of “Memory Palace” that One Little Indian released, also in 2004. Sadly, the odd song out here was the also stunning “Baltimore,” which to date is OOP, and the reason why this EP changes hands for almost three figures.

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12 Responses to Record Review: Billy MacKenzie – Wild Is The Wind EP

  1. JT says:

    Is “Mother Earth” the surprising contender for most-covered Sparks tune? I’ve got a version of Neko Case singing it, and I know that Martin Gore of Depeche Mode sang it on an EP of cover versions that he released years ago. It was never a standout Sparks track for me, but somehow it seems to have had quite the impact.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – Since it is perhaps the least idiosyncratic Sparks song, I imagine that’s the allure for all of the other singers. It lacks the vivid P.O.V. that is the raison d’être of 99% of Sparks’ oeuvre. I never got “Counterfeit” [if you can believe that] and I still haven’t heard Neko Case [I might as well leave it at that]. When I looked, I only saw Nicola [Indochine] Sirkis, Johan Johansson, and one Louis Guidone covers apart from MacKenzie’s. Also, Depeche Mode’s 1987 xmas fan club flexi shows that they released a version two years before Martin Gore did. The question is: are the recordings one and the same?!?

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      • JT says:

        Y’know there was once a period of time when I owned every scrap that DM ever commercially released. Basically everything through Violator. But even given that, I never bothered with Counterfeit either. But DM did a version of Mother Earth for an fan-flexi in 1987? Thirty years later, and twenty-some years after mostly ceasing to care, I can still be surprised by new DM rarities. Hm…. gonna have to track that flexi down.

        Oh, and for my money, Neko Case is the best female vocalist working today. Even if “alt-country” isn’t your bailiwick, you’d be well-served to give her a shot. Middle Cyclone (2009) might be a good place to start.

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  2. Echorich says:

    This EP is imperfectly perfect…exactly what a true MacKenzie fan should want. The best parts of BM are the ones that show his humanity, the cracks in the diva’s porcelain. Baltimore is gorgeous and, along with his reading of The Crying Game, two of the most emotionally touching moments in the BM canon for me.
    I agree that his version of Wild Is The Wind is the most successful of all those I have ever heard. Billy tempers the emotion with a realistic detachment only he could conjure. I can’t listen to Bowie’s version without wanting to immediately listen to Billy’s before Bowie has even finished the song. The same is true of the collaboration with B.E.F. on Secret Life Of Arabia. While Bowie’s is a highlight of Heroes, Billy’s version is untouchable for me.
    As for his turn on the Sparks tune, I have to agree that here we have a Sparks song that anyone has a chance of doing justice to because it is not as “Sparksian” or “Maelesque” as many others.

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  3. Gavin says:

    I’m ashamed to say that I have never seen this EP,though I have heard a couple of the tracks.
    There are still a few holes in my Billy/Associates collection and the various reissues etc make this somewhat of a headache when one has such limited means as I do currently.
    I remember being the only person I knew at the time who bought “Outernational” upon release and the cd singles from it.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Gavin – This CD was very scarce. I ordered it from the Rhythm Of Life website at the time. I was on the Affectionate Bunch mailing list at that time, so I was well informed! Like you, I special ordered “Outernational” and the CD single of “Colours Will Come” on release. I never saw or heard of “Baby” so I got that about 8 years later. Still looking for “Pastime Paradise!” I have not been on the Affectionate Bunch mailing list since moving in 2001. Is it still around?

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      • Gavin says:

        I am not aware of the mailing list,though there was another fan site I think that organised a gig or club night in memory of Billy some years ago.

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