Title: A Tribute To Billy MacKenzie
Author: Rob Dyer
Publish date: 28 March 2007
A Tribute To Billy MacKenzie: BEF (British Electric Foundation)/Electric Soft Parade/Onetwo/Claudia Brücken+Andrew Poppy/Paul Haig/Subterraneans/Mower/Howard Hughes
Shepherds Bush Empire, London - 28 March 2007
Few bands wait 27 years after forming before playng live but BEF (aka British Electric Foundation) did. So, there we two main reasons for attending tonight: one was to bear witness to the live debut of BEF, and secondly to pay tribute to the unique talent of Billy MacKenzie of The Associates fame. The fact that some of the ticket money was going to a good cause under the auspices of Sound Seekers, a charity helping the deaf in the developing world, only cemented the heart warming inner feeling. The line-up was an eclectic selection of those that were in some manner connected to the late Billy MacKenzie who sadly committed suicide 10 years ago this January.
Pianist Howard Hughes (see photo right), who wasn’t in the original line-up but did play on several records and toured as part of The Associates, was first to take to the stage. It was just him and a grand piano, and the music he created was glorious. His emotive instrumental performance (referencing a few Associates tracks along the way) was an inspired way to begin the proceedings and to set a high standard for the evening to come.
The lads Mower were next up. Can’t say what the connection there was but they did their youthful guitar thing well enough if without setting the pulse racing.
Given their name by Billy MacKenzie, Subterraneans very much came across as a bunch of old friends who hadn’t played together for some years. You know the sort of thing: drummer noticeably not tight, vocalist on the rough side, guitar a bit too loose. Worthy perhaps but for those of us not already familiar them (in all honesty) not that entertaining, until that is that they were joined by female vocalist Christine Beveridge who smartly gave the band another dimension by performing Kites - a song she’d released with Billy under the name of 39 Lyon Street. They were then joined by former Joseph K member Paul Haig who, juding by his rousing reception, still has a lot of hardcore followers out there. He performed two Joseph K numbers, Kinda Funny and Something Good - both of which Billy had a soft spot for.
Claudia Brücken and Andrew Poppy
Despite having both been on Trevor Horn’s ZTT label in the 80s this was a first live paring in the UK of the former Propaganda/Act vocalist Brücken and pianist Poppy. Although based exclusively around a grand piano and Brücken’s vocals, this was definitely electric. They began with an unexpected but thrilling take on Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. An beautiful cover of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams then followed and along with the high contrast red and green lighting helped create a Lynchian atmosphere. This song demonstrated that Claudia Brücken’s forte lies as much in the tradition of the German chanteuse of the 1930s Berlin nightclubs as it does 80s alt. pop. They finished with a cover of Associates track Breakfast.
In between each act, the DJ played exclusively Associates tracks. These were accompanied by some fascinating visuals that must have taken many hours to compile. A never-ending montage of video clips, home movie footage, old black and white photographs, record sleeves, covers of music press featuring the band, etc, etc.
A brief costume change later and Ms Brücken was back treading the boards this time as part of her latest collaboration - Onetwo with OMD’s Paul Humphries. It was only when Onetwo jumped straight into their hi-NRG electronic pop (I think the opening number was Cloud 9 from their debut ablum) that the crowd really dropped their inhibitions and started to move en masse. Humphries then said: “No Claudia Brücken performance would be complete without this…” before launching into a faithful and exhilarating rendition of Duel. Their specific Associates tribute was a cover of Club Country - a track I wasn’t familiar with. As a working partnership Humphries and Brücken radiate positive energy. Every time I see them on stage together they appear to be having the times of their lives, this generating a genuinely good-natured vibe that is very infectious.
Electric Soft Parade
Even though they were not my regular sort of thing and they had the longest set, Brighton’s Electric Soft Parade unquestionably proved they do what they do with conviction and some measure of success. What they do being that tricky thing of managing 60s guitar pop influences with a contemporary vision. But this they achieve with some aplomb. Never entirely my kind of thing, ESP nevertheless demonstrated that not only do they perform with verve and variety but that the 60s derivative likes of Oasis are not worthy to lick their boots. Again, the MacKenzie connection was unclear (Blue It Is was their cover), but their set was varied enough that attention never waned.
BEF (British Electric Foundation)
The headline slot (or so I thought) however could only ever be taken by a band for whom the word cult might have been created. BEF were formed by former Human League members Martyn Ware and Ian Caig Marsh. When lead vocalist Gelnn Gregory joined they morphed into key 80s alternative electro pop/soul act Heaven 17, but were a genuine (if little known) groundbreaking act in their own right; with three albums to their credit (including an original cassette-only release in 1980).
It was somewhat inevitable then that a track or two from their latter incarnation would crop up. This was entirely appropriate though as Billy MacKenzie sang on a handful of Heaven 17 and BEF tracks, and one of Billy’s favourite tracks was Let Me Go from the second Heaven 17 album The Luxury Gap. So BEF duly paid tribute with a cracking performance. Having never seen Heaven 17, I have to say this was a genuine thrill. It also made you reflect on just how good their songwriting is. This was way above almost all the dreck that manages to chart these days and will surely stand the test of time like few others.
This could only be topped by (an almost compulsory) performance of Heaven 17’s Temptation. Before beginning, Gelnn Gregory related a story of how his mum recently unearthed a very early Heaven 17 demo tape containing the first recorded version of this memorable hit. To do something a little different and special, the version played tonight was based upon that original demo arrangement. Evidently more overtly electronic rather than the soulful hit single, with the famous chorus lyrics spoken rather than belted out diva fashion, and for the third time this evening, Claudia Brücken took to the stage once again to provide the vocals.
“It sounds like The Human League!” said a seemingly surprised Gregory a few bars into the bass heavy synth intro. And it did - if you went back far enough. Then, midway through the song, Gregory continued his commentary saying they then wondered what it would be like to then invite back current vocalist Billie Godfrey. Which they did to devastating effect. Her astonishing voice putting even the already impressive original vocals in the shade. If the 1982 single has diva vocals then tonight we heard the uber-diva. Incredibly effective, and virtually guaranteeing that I check out Heaven 17 when they next go on tour.
A cover of Bowie’s Drive-In Saturday (again apparently a song much-loved by MacKenzie) effectively under their belts, and a clearly emotional Gelnn Gregory announced what everyone must have been hoping - that they were going to tackle the archetypal Associates hit Party Fears Two. The expectant audience finally got all they’d hoped for. What followed was at once moving and an honestly inspirational, back-to-its-essence interpretation. Gregory’s voice was not only up to the challenge but soared across a silent venue as the crowd entered rapture perhaps, like myself, slightly astonished at just how heart-rendingly effective this cover proved to be. Martyn Ware’s gentle piano playing beautifully supporting Gregory’s voice. This was an exceptionally rare and moving live experience that ended the night on a wrenchingly emotional point - precariously balancing somewhere between breakdown and bliss. (Apparently Apollo 440 did appear on stage after BEF, but I’d already left before they came on, all the signs (lights up, DJ playing again) that the event was over!)
Despite his remarkable vocal talents, Billy MacKenzie never sought the limelight nor coveted fame. Tonight’s event though would have seen him proud (if slightly embarrassed) of the attention. Congratulations to the Soul Seekers charity for putting on such an impressive evening and to all involved for offering their services free of reward, beyond paying tribute to a lost friend and an exceptional creative talent. 7/10 overall (but 9/10 for the BEF set)