The Associates – Breakfast
In Forest of the Dead, one of Steven Moffat‘s finest episodes of Doctor Who, there is a line that made me shiver when I heard it: “I have the two qualities you require to see absolute truth. I am brilliant, and unloved.” In the show it was spoken by Miss Evangelista, whose IQ had shifted a decimal point when her consciousness was saved to a super-computer’s hard drive, but in the world of music it could equally apply to Billy Mackenzie of The Associates. Never was there a pop star so burdened by talent yet so under-appreciated by the masses. His songwriting revealed any number of truths about love, lust and loneliness – but perhaps above all about being an outsider.
I remember Party Fears Two coming on the radio when I was about ten years old, and being fascinated by the histrionics on display (histrionics was a word I’d learned a couple of years earlier when my mother passed judgement on Kate Bush, and which I used whenever possible to demonstrate that I was now a Big and Clever boy). With all that howling and haste it was quite different from anything I’d liked before, but I didn’t make the effort to find out more about The Associates until much, much later, when I bought a cheap American import of Wild and Lonely (one of those ones that came in the tall cardboard box that you never knew whether to keep or throw away). It ended up being my second favourite album of the year (after Behaviour by Pet Shop Boys) and prompted me to investigate what I’d been missing since I last checked in. And that’s how I came to find Breakfast.
I think we’ve already established that I have a bit of a thing for music that sounds like it was made to soundtrack spies going about their shadowy business, and Breakfast is a classic of this particular sub-genre. Something about those beautifully arranged, brooding strings, that tense piano, and Billy’s plaintive vocal which stays on just the right side of hysterical, makes me want to don a beret and sit in a café in Prague awaiting instructions from a beautiful Russian double-agent. Just me? Ok then.
The lyrics are just a little bit impenetrable – something about taxidermy – but there’s one line that floored me with its devastating sadness: “Exchanging worlds, arranging days / To suit a lover / Who’ll never want to stay” – as absolute truths go, that’s one that will speak to a lot of people.
Billy Mackenzie certainly wasn’t your average pop star, and perhaps that’s why the kind of success he might have liked always seemed to elude him. There was always an easier alternative for consumers of pop, and more willing participants for record companies to promote. But for those that loved him and his music it was a passionate, long lasting affair – and it’s to be hoped Billy knew that before he passed away in 1997.
Entered chart: 19/01/1985
Chart peak: 49
Weeks on chart: 6
Who could sing this today and have a hit? Adele is probably one of the very, very few singers who could pull this off. And it would be gut-wrenchingly brilliant.
Perhaps – in its entirety – is magnificent.
Could anybody cover a song that MacKenzie had sung? It would be a quixotic endeavour.
His original version of Yello’s The Rhythm Divine blows Shirley Bassey’s version out the window, not many singers male or female could do that!
I would also recommend Yello’s She’s Got A Gun for a moody, cinema type feel.
Also track down Breakfast live at Ronnie’s Scott’s as it is a brilliant version.
I always liked that the B-side instrumental version was titled “Breakfast Alone”…
It would be nice to think that had Billy not taken his own life, he’d now be a rediscovered legend, but after the Associates’ heyday he couldn’t really get arrested, and his final clutch of albums were barely released or marketed, which is desperately sad considering how admired he is nowadays…
Ok, being Dutch 😉 just throwing in a bone here, as in who could sing this today: Mick Hucknall ?