Remembering the Captain of Gay Pop and His Loveboat
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this camp sass has substance.
By Armond White
Perhaps was Billy Mackenzie’s solo debut — although still using the name the Associates (his former British synth-pop duo with keyboardist Alan Rankine) — applying his four-and-a-half-octave voice to launch an unusually flamboyant expression of longing. This voyage is depicted in the music video for “Waiting for the Loveboat.” In the 1980s only Michael Jackson was comparably bold. Perhaps was a landmark in gay male pop music auteurship.
I first picked up on Perhaps in that long-gone institution, the import record store. The album cover caught my eye. In the center of a mauve geometric pattern and soigné drapery, Mackenzie posed in a plaid suit jacket with color-coordinated tie, looking off-camera — to the future, I imagined. In 1985, the futuristic point of Perhaps was to secure gay desire — its all-out boldness — within the pantheon of pop romance. Self-produced, its sparkling sound and postmodern compositions amount to a modern love manifesto — imagine taking David Bowie (Mackenzie’s avant-pop muse) to the American Songbook style of emoting.
Tempted to call Mackenzie the most daring singer of all time, I’m reminded of 1950s Johnnie Ray, 1970s Sylvester; Perhap’s traditional skill and rock-era flamboyance does honor to both. Whenever Mackenzie evokes the classics (his high-wire “chee-eee-eek to chee-eee-eek”), it involves a note or a jump up the scale that shocks you yet is also amazingly original.
Imagine taking David Bowie (Mackenzie’s avant-pop muse) to the American Songbook style of emoting.
In a startling moment on the Associates’ “Party Fears Two,” Mackenzie screams, “Awake me!” He pleads for self-acceptance. To feel Mackenzie’s voice is to have one’s heart opened up. “Party Fears Two” is the best “brother” song since Elton John’s “Daniel.” The difference between them is a metric of gay consciousness and self-acceptance. Scintillating, idiosyncratic and just plain lovely, there’s still nothing quite like Perhaps, which is why millennials need to know about it. Imagine either Sam Smith or Adele daring this:
“You said to me what a noise I make! / I said, ‘Well, I am a singer!’ ”
It’s camp sass but with the power to back it up.
Because you should know this record, I’ll use Side Two’s mysterious “Thirteen Feelings” to count down the eccentric brilliance — the 13 feelings — that makes Perhaps a work of genius.
Determination: Romantic Mackenzie sings about “giving all” on “Thirteen Feelings.” Promising to feel and to feel again defies any suggestion of being unlucky in love. Howard Hughes’ proud-stepping grand piano buoys the emotional bravery. Dangerous? Certainly willful, virtuosic and always superbly controlled.
Hope: “The Stranger in Your Voice,” a pioneering queer masterpiece, promises “songs you never heard before.” Mackenzie the auteur scales pop music heights, so high up he’s joined by seagulls the same as the Pet Shop Boys summoned when redefining the Village People’s anthem “Go West.”
Regret: As spectacularly elegant as a James Bond theme, “Breakfast” is a most dramatic morning-after ballad. Mackenzie begs for more in a beseeching wail: “Walk with me / Someone is waiting in light.”
Lust: From the deep cello intro to horn squawks of “Helicopter Helicopter,” lovemaking was never so amusingly noisy, and neither was jealousy. Mackenzie throws shade at a rambunctious neighbor or ex-lover (“Is that you!”) whose romping keeps him up late at night.
Trust: Singing, “We can walk this tightrope / It’s best that we don’t look,” Mackenzie only looked up. Perhaps doesn’t look back. It’s a rapturous guide for any listener, artist, lover daring to be themselves.
Inspiration: Divine influence and pure driven-ego power, “Don’t Give Me That ‘I Told You So’ Look.” “Singing till I’m hoarse” justifies Mackenzie’s deepest beliefs. A more technically accomplished vocalist than Bowie, Mackenzie is able to go where that revolutionary pointed but could never himself reach. The most arch and extreme notes convey anticipation, as on “Waiting for the Loveboat.” Good times arriving at last.
Abandon: Mackenzie’s own backing vocals on “Loveboat” sound like pop’s ubiquitous three black girls. But it’s all Mackenzie, letting his inner diva cut loose. The track’s Hi-NRG stomp tells you he is trampling down every inhibition he’s ever faced, and through the idiom of queer dance music, he lets you triumph too.
Nerves: “Perhaps / I might see the day / Perhaps / I’ll have to nerve to say …” From beginning to end, the album is almost unrelentingly high-pitched. Maybe too much so for those who lack a taste for dance music euphoria. Would timid souls really appreciate Mackenzie’s …
Solitude: On two respite tracks (“Those First Impressions,” “Breakfast”), Mackenzie settles into introspection and a lifetime’s reflection. Opera singers know this depth of contemplation, it’s what gives their saddest, most tragic emotions gravitas.
Worry: Hughes’ frantic keyboard arpeggios lend manic intensity to Perhaps, its frenzy urging Mackenzie to excitement and panic.
Ardor: Claiming popular music — and the popular audience — Mackenzie’s “So convinced of my fall / That I fell for feeling small” is a lovelorn confession, romantic but defiant. Only Morrissey’s “I haven’t got a stitch to wear” on the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” matches this bold, fey irony.
Grandeur: “Schampout” is where Mackenzie makes his provocation “You said to me What a noise I make! / I said, ‘Well, I am a singer!’ ” His puns are outright funny aperçus. He communicates with Sarah Vaughan on some heavenly disco floor.
From the moment the needle hit my Perhaps import vinyl, I was thrilled — and still am. Mackenzie’s remarkably pitched, theatrical vocals, blending Brit synthesizer pop to gay disco, makes the force of his desiring one’s own. Perhaps is a cheeky, courageous personal statement.
- Armond White, Armond White, a film critic, received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.Contact Armond White