Billy MacKenzie’s “Satellite Life” Box With Steve Aungle, Stands As His Definitive Late Statement [part 3]

billy mackenzie ©1996 mark guthrie
Billy MacKenzie © 1996 Mark Guthrie

[…continued from last post]

DISC 3: Liberty Lounge

Liberty Lounge was for the numbers which were not straight electronica nor piano ballads. A catch-all for more conventional Pop/Rock/Soul derived music. The disc kicked off with three songs slotted in as part of the White Label b[r]and that Steve Aungle carried as one of his own creative projects. All previously unheard. The White Label core group was Aungle on keys, Anth Brown on guitars, and Tom Doyle on drums and synth bass.

“Tomorrow People” was a loping, late 60s, backbeat heavy Pop/Rock track crossbred with synth technology from a generation or two later in time. The tempo, in particular, had that Motown factor that James Jamerson brought to his rhythm work. The vibe here was straight from “Can’t Help Myself” with heavier touches borrowed from “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida” gene spliced with Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side,” when the Billy’s go…”doot…doot…doot.” Fans of Billy’s excellent covers of late 60s/early 70s’ pop on the B-sides from the “Wild + Lonely” album period [raises hand] will find much to love here.

“The Mountains That You Climb” combined vibraphone and string patches with Billy’s winsome whistling to ultimately come alight on some early 70s Soul music driven by the Fender Rhodes piano of Aungle and the gentle tremolo guitar of Anth. The rim hits of Doyle’s drums insured that the easy going vibe wasn’t going anywhere. “MacArthur’s Son” was the song that the Soul Boys who ran Nude Records couldn’t pass up to ultimately sign Billy in 1996. Even though they thought that his ballad material was the commercial draw at the time. The left field decision to run Billy’s vocal through a filter for a distancing effect was an odd one when aiming for such a 1971 Stax sound as White Label did here. The glockenspiel only served to underscore that goal. But the song was strong enough to withstand it, with the great buildup in the coda to take up the energy levels on a suitable high. The drop where Billy was a cappella for the last 20 seconds or so was breathtakingly great.

The scene then switched to “Liberty Lounge.” It featured a minimal vibe that sounded like a jaded band cranking out backing for a stripper. Bump-and-grind riffs and fills made for a dramatic contrast with Billy’s vampish vocal. The melody was down to organ and a guitar that unfortunately chased after Brian May’s tone; not my favorite sound. Between the organ and guitar yowling like cats in heat, this one didn’t need to cross the six minute mark.

Fortunately, for my ears, the “jewel” in the crown of Late MacKenzie showed why it figured on the first of Billy’s posthumous albums even though it stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the piano ballads. Quite frankly, “Sour Jewel” was the best Roxy Music song not actually by that band! Not that Billy could ever join the Ferry Clone Brigade†, but in terms of sonic approach and energy levels, this was a song to sit on a shelf with the likes of “Virginia Plain.”

† – Not that there’s any shame in that at all!

It began with the soundbite of “are you aware that we had to meet…ok.” Then, blammo, the driving beat and minor key chords in the buildup gave unease for a brief moment before Billy gave forth a climactic “aaaaaah!” of refreshment. Then the hyperkinetic song exploded in a fit of ecstasy. The real drums and guitar anchored it while the synths took it downstream for some flights of fancy. The oboe-like synths making MacKey-like counterpoint to the melody were a nod to the Ghost of Roxy Music. The Eno-like synth solo accompanying Billy’s ecstatic wail in the middle eight was another. “Sour Jewel” was undoubtedly a firm MacKenzie classic, as produced by Pascal Gabriel, who first crossed paths with Billy when he sang BVs for his own Peach/Peach Union, “Audiopeach” album earlier on. There was a final tip of the hat to Roxy Music in the song’s fade; so redolent of that on the song “Street Life.”

Surprisingly, one song appeared twice on this disc. “14 Mirrors” was here in its previously known form, as heard on “Beyond The Sun” in its Anth Brown production. There, it had a watery, 70s sound; heavy on the electric piano and tremolo guitar. The manipulated vocal samples of some unknown woman immediately stuck out. Were these also the voice of Garbo? With heavy reverb added? This was one of only a handful of songs here with bass in the rhythm section. But a few songs later, there it was again in a second version; dramatically stripped back from the rococo stylings of the known version. I preferred the melodrama and direct approach of this alternate version. The chorus and refrain were very “sticky” for me, and the simplicity of version two was strongly in its favor for me. Its only indulgence was in having Billy double track his vocal at key moments in the arrangement.

Paul Haig’s spy guitar sounded stranded in outer space as “Give Me Time” commenced. This was the other track produced by Pascal Gabriel, with Billy’s vocal being recorded surprisingly dry; giving it incredible presence. The cello patches delightfully formed a call-and-response with the synth squelches. MacKenzie’s voice vacillated between intimate and aggressive; with his BVs delivering restrained counterpoint throughout. The dreamy intro for “At The Edge Of The World” featured Billy duetting with delicate synth harmonics before the deliberate beat kicked that one off the starting block. Deep bass by producer Simon [Cocteau Twins] Raymonde and his eerie wah-wah guitar were excellent counterpoint to Aungle’s otherworldly ambient synths. The song managed to be another of the MacKenzie canon which invoked pure John Barry. Billy’s ad libs in the closing coda touching on Shirley Bassey territory only strengthened that association.

The title track to this collection was a Gilles Hall production that was voice and piano, but the arrangement was more spirited and lively than the poised ballads on disc one, hence its appearance here. Aungle leavened the track with the occasional synth flourish hook, and the climax with a chorus of heavenly Billy voices was certainly stirring stuff. “Velvet” was another serving of John Barry melodrama built on an urgent [and groovy] synth melody contrasting with a languid cocktail piano. MacKenzie’s delivery was that of a teasing minx here. Hewing to the icy cool of the music for a sleekly elegant piece of music.

“Your Own Fire” was an unknown track that surprisingly surfaced here which Billy had written and recorded with Stiv [Balcony] Lestar cowriting and playing everything. Giving us a quirky blend of Techno and Roxy Music with a frantic and bouncy melody over nervous, Techno rhythm loops. The mastering quality here pointed to a lower-fi source; possibly a MP3 from the telltale artifacts it sported. But the urgency of the sound meant that it was better for its inclusion in spite of it being several steps below the [high] caliber of the other recordings here. It was well worth it to hear Billy cut loose and bite into a less mannered performance than most of the other material. And the title could easily be interchanged with “You’re On Fire” as if the performance didn’t more than suggest that.

Then this program ended with the elegant “Von Hamburg.” It was a piano/violin instrumental of placid beauty; making of it an ideal coda to this rich collection. Steve Aungle played the piano with every ounce of poise and melodrama at his disposal to invest this with as much fortissimo in its stirring coda as Billy gave on many of the other songs. Only for it to return to the energy of the introduction to end on a poised note once more.

Next: …Wrap It Up, I’ll Take It

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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6 Responses to Billy MacKenzie’s “Satellite Life” Box With Steve Aungle, Stands As His Definitive Late Statement [part 3]

  1. Loads of amazing stuff across a pleasingly diverse river of styles and influences? SOLD, American (er, Scotsman)! This is really deepening my appreciation of MacKenzie in some very pleasurable ways I hadn’t expected. I first fell for him thanks to the 1-2 punch of Music of Quality & Distinction Vol 1 (via Methods of Dance Vol 2) with its audacious Bowie cover and Sulk’s astonishing original “Party Fears Two.”

    I think prior to listening to this collection I had only ever heard the echo-chamber version of “Give Me Time” which I have to admit I didn’t care for. I concur with your earlier comment that these discs are exquisitely well-sequenced and truly paint a widescreen picture of the Late MacKenzie period. An essential purchase, methinks, for any even casual MacKenzie fan, not to mention a treasure trove for the recent/new enthusiast.


  2. Echorich says:

    This cd is just a collection gifts, glorious gifts…


  3. James says:

    I can remember being in seagate recording studio in Dundee and Billy and Stuart the sound engineer playing Hornophobic and it knocked me off my feet I was like you have to release this, Billy just laughed and grinning they then played a different version of 14th Century Nightlife which was really dark, mad and manic the violins were high and fast and it was a longer version than other releases of this track sadly I have never heard that version again 😢

    To top it all off I had the pleasure of hearing a amazing cover of back street luv by curved air which I am gobsmacked is not on this release somebody must have this on tape somewhere.

    R.I.P Billy Mackenzie A Wizard, a True Star


    • postpunkmonk says:

      James – Welcome to the comments! Any friend of Billy MacKenzie is more than welcome here. I’m aware of the scant few tracks that others have listed as not being here. The one I’m familar with was “Outerpol,” and no great loss there, but I’ve also heard mention of “Back Street Luv.” I’ve not heard any Curved Air so I’m unfamiliar with their canon, though I once had a Daryl Way With Opus 20 album of modern classical, which was enjoyable. I suppose that Mr. Aungle had his reasons for the sequencing for inclusion of “Satellite Life.” Personally, I couldn’t see “Outerpol” fitting anywhere in there, so I’ll defer to his judgement.


  4. John says:

    Please listen to the original demo version of MacArthur’s Son that’s up on Youtube if you haven’t. THAT’s what got Billy a deal with Nude Records. The remix and needless vocal-filtering Steve Aungle did for the boxset version tarnished the simple beauty of the song.


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