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Goodbye Mr MacKenzie

Goodbye Mr Mackenzie - Biog

Goodbye Mr Mackenzie

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Goodbye Mr Mackenzie formed in Bathgate in 1984 out of the remnants of local post-punk acts Lipstick and Irrelevant. They relocated to Edinburgh shortly after the release of their debut single ‘Death Of A Salesman’, released on West Lothian College’s Scruples label, after they spotted a newspaper advert looking for demos. The band were led by vocalist/guitarist Martin Metcalfe, alongside keyboard player Rhona Scobie (keyboards and vocals), bass player Chuck Parker and drummer Derek Kelly, alongside backing vocalists Shirley Manson and Hilary McLean. Both Jamie Waterson (bass) and Ewan Drysdale (keyboards) had been members prior to the single. Manson had previously been a member of Autumn 1904 and the Wild Indians, who produced one single and one side of a shared album. She’d met vocalist and guitarist Metcalfe, the band’s principal songwriter, whilst performing with a local youth theatre project. Metcalfe: “She was involved in a play about a medieval Scottish town ruled by the Devil. Shirley was only sixteen but she was an excellent actress”.

A second single, ‘The Rattler’, was recorded for Elliot Davis’s Precious label. A couple of reviewers detected a Bruce Springsteen influence, but though flattered, Metcalfe was never a huge fan of The Boss. Metcalfe: “We were working in the studio with producer Wilf Smarties (most famous as producer of cult Edinburgh band The Fire Engines). He had been producing Wet Wet Wet demos. Elliot was buzzing around the studio and heard some of our stuff, and he wanted a band that was more edgy to work with. So he managed us for a while and issued the single. Our musical taste and background was really punk and post-punk so we clashed with Elliot’s more mainstream tastes. We really loved Echo And The Bunnymen, the Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie and the Banshees, New Order, Joy Division etc. We did share some common ground with Elliot, he loved the Doors and accepted the importance of such bands as the Buzzcocks & the Banshees but increasingly we became weary of his constant reverence of Tamala Mowtown & the Beatles. We liked Phil Spector and the Velvet Underground. To his credit though, Elliot did motivate us to work harder on our songs.”

After acquiring new management they moved on again in 1987 to Clandestine for a limited edition 12-inch, ‘Face To Face’. The proceeds went to the Rape Crisis Centre, in keeping with the song’s theme. Guitars were provided by Jimmy Anderson and bass played by Neil Baldwin. Thereafter they signed to Capitol via A&R man Simon Potts in February 1988. At this stage guitarist Big John Duncan replaced Anderson. As well as powering hardcore punks the Exploited’s early sound, he’d enjoyed a short stay in the excellent but widely ignored Blood Uncles. He was in place in time for a tour supporting Aztec Camera convened by Capitol, while Fin Wilson joined on bass to replace Baldwin.

They were initially subject to substantial backing, both from Capitol and the press, culminating in a session for the Janice Long show and appearances on The Tube and The Chart Show. Three singles, ‘Goodbye Mr Mackenzie’, ‘Open Your Arms’ and a re-recorded ‘The Rattler’, the latter breaking the Top 40, preceded the release of their 1989 debut album, Good Deeds And Dirty Rags. Each of the singles were released with various limited editions including gatefold sleeves, picture discs and bonus tracks. In total, the band would achieve eight Top 100 chart placings for their singles.

The album also made the Top 30, but thereafter the band proved unable to sustain this commercial platform. ‘Goodwill City’, a biting condemnation of the rising AIDS problem affecting Edinburgh, was excellent. But its commercial performance was disappointing after their breakthrough with ‘The Rattler’. The compilation Fish Heads And Tails in 1989 was a disparate selection of live tracks, out-takes and covers. Metcalfe: “We did a Nick Cave cover – we were probably the first band to cover a Nick Cave song, ‘Knocking On Joe’. The original is a really difficult song to listen to if you’re not a Nick Cave fan. We did a more ballady-version. We did the same thing to that song that he’d done to other people’s songs on his own cover version album.” Another unusual choice of cover was ‘Somewhere In China’, a bona fide indie classic by Edinburgh’s Shop Assistants.

The lack of chart success led to them moving sideways within EMI to Parlaphone for follow-up singles ‘Love Child’ and ‘Blacker Than Black’. Metcalfe: “’Love Child’ is very poppy, but I think it’s quite a classic arrangement, it’s two minutes 40 but I don’t think the brevity detracts from it. It’s a classic 60s-styled pop single.” The follow-up ‘Blacker Than Black’ was “just a bit of zydeco punk really! With a nice bit of Ennio Morricone guitar.” The song’s subject was the addiction, and gamble, of going to war.

Second Capitol album Hammer And Tongs was recorded in Berlin at the end of 1989. However, it was only issued in March 1991 when it was picked up by MCA subsidiary Radioactive. Metcalfe: “Gary Kurfurst managed Talking Heads in their heyday, and was managing Debbie Harry and the Ramones at that point. He was one of the most inspiring people we met during our journey in the business, because of the bands he loved. He was getting his own label together, Radiocative, and trying to make it a bit like Sire Records. He was signing bands that were interesting to him. We liked his taste in bands, and he liked us after seeing us supporting Debbie Harry. So he made an offer to buy us out of our EMI contract.”

The band had grown disillusioned with the delays over the album’s release. “We recorded the album at the end of 1989, then it was shelved until 1991. In the interim we did our own tour in Germany supporting Pink Turns Blue and recorded more songs, because the original album didn’t have ‘Now We Are Married’ on it. We got that together and also went to Germany and recorded more tracks for the following record, as well as releasing ‘Love Child’ and ‘Blacker Than Black’ and trying to extricate ourselves from the record deal. When we returned to Berlin it was quite interesting to see the difference from 1989 when the wall came down. We were there when that happened. I actually saw the first person coming through from the east. Our management had phoned up and told us the wall was coming down, and the staff at Hansa Studios, which was where we were working and was right beside the wall, didn’t believe it. Nobody went out, apart from me, because I was hungry and went out for something to eat. I took a wander along to Checkpoint Charlie to see what was going on. It was quite a jubilant experience and then everything went nuts. There were celebrations for days.” Although the recording of Hammer And Tongs was almost complete by the time this happened, the band did include record a cover of ‘Heroes’ as a nod towards the historic events.

When Hammer And Tongs did emerge, the critics were impressed. Nick Terry writing in the debut issue of Select noted “While Marti Pellow of Wet Wet Wet favours sweetness, smiles and Beatles covers, Martin Metcalfe of Goodbye Mr Mackenzie prefers snarls, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and a few bars of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. Terry rightly praised the album’s most effective and captivating moment, ‘Tongue Tied’, Metcalfe’s personal admission of frailty in the sphere of human relationships, alongside his anthem to the unbowed, ‘Down To The Minimum’. Metcalfe: “Hammer And Tongs has quite a few dark tracks on it. Berlin is quite a bohemian sort of place, so we lived at night at that point. Because Berlin was a showcase for the west, all sorts of things were allowed there that weren’t allowed anywhere else. The laws were very relaxed.” That environment is reflected in the album. “We were trying to do a similar thing that David Bowie did in the early 70s, which was take the dark underground into the mainstream. We were trying to subvert the charts and point to people that we loved, like the Pixies and Nick Cave. Our albums are softer or more clinical sounding than I would’ve likd. But that was the sign of the times. In the 1980’s the engineers had taken over the asylum at that point, with digital technology being such an exciting thing for engineers to play with. It wreaked music for quite a few years“

One of the songs all the band liked was ‘Sick Baby’. Metcalfe: “Shirley had a friend who was self-harming, Chris Connelly. Shirley was very friendly with Chris, who used to be in Finitribe but had joined Revolting Cocks. Shirley said, ‘He’s my baby, he’s my sick baby’. She was just saying how lovely he was, but how distorted his life had become. Also There was a fantastic band called The Hook ‘n’ Pull Gang from Edinburgh who sang a lot about the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other dark stuff. They were described as a cross between the Sex Pistols and the Ronettes. ‘Sick Baby’ was also influenced by that band.” ‘The Burning’ was an expression used by American journalists in the 30s and 40s as shorthand for witnessing a death by electric chair. Metcalfe, who was and is passionately opposed to the death penalty, contrasted that with the scapegoats for society’s ills in the 16th & 17th century witchhunts. ‘She’s Strong’, meanwhile, was “my compliment to another outsider – Siouxie Sioux. I always kept this quiet and have never revealed to anyone that this was a tribute to Sioux. I didn’t want to be a sycophant. It was very personal feeling. It’s a very poppy song too I always thought it sounded something Dusty Springfield would sing fantastically. So I kept it quiet. Siouxie & the Banshees inspired generations of women in music & all those fantastic post punk bands.”

‘Now We Are Married’ was the band’s attempt at perfect pop. Metcalfe: “It’s not a song about getting married. Everyone thinks it’s something to walk down the aisle to. But really it was about my opposition to marriage. At that point in my life, I felt marriage wasn’t about making a commitment to each other, it was like making a pact with the devil. Once you were married and had kids, you weren’t a free spirit any more. You had to think about cash. You’re more married to materialism. So it was a song about marriage being a contract with the devil. It annoys me when people don’t read past the cover.” ‘Bold John Barleycorn’ is a line taken directly from Tam O’Shanter. “When Tam O’Shanter is furtively looking over the wall at the witches, he’s so fascinated by one of them that he yells out in appreciation. And it’s because of ‘Bold John Barleycorn’ that he does it. It’s alcohol giving him Dutch courage. It’s a song about the power of alcohol, basically”

But the momentum was lost by the delays surrounding Hammer And Tongs. Rhona Scobie left during the European tour to promote the album and the band were forced to move to their own Blokshok imprint. Further releases, including the 1993 live album On The Day Of Storms (1993) and the studio LP Five failed to revive interest outside of the band’s existing fanbase. Metcalfe: “We turned to a harder sound and radio wasn’t prepared to play it.” By 1995’s Jezebel, a covers project, the band had trimmed down to Metcalfe, Kelly and Finn, alongside guitarist Neil Duncanson. “Round about that time we had to stop, because of drug and alcohol rehabilitation, basically. We had to stop going on the merry -go - round to avoid being in situations where there would be too many temptations. That was part of the shutting up shop. We’d run ourselves into the ground, physically and mentally.” The group bowed out in 1998 with their final studio album The Glory Hole.

In the interim there was a good press buzz around a tentative outreach project by former GMM members, Angelfish. Comprising Manson, Metcalfe, Kelly and Wilson, they released the single ‘Suffocate Me’ and a self-titled album between 1993 and 1994, working alongside Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, via their connection with Gary Kurfurst. In a bizarre twist, they’d been persuaded by their management against their better judgement to leave Radioactive, But after creating the Angelfish demos found that Radioactive were prepared to gamble signing them again as long as their parent company MCA didn’t find out. So MCA Signed Shirley Mansen twice within the space of a year without knowing it. In the event, the tryst never worked out, though they did tour the US in 1994.

In the host band Manson had only taken lead vocals on the duet ‘Normal Boy’, but Angelfish saw her pushed to the forefront. When ‘Suffocate Me’ was shown on MTV she was spotted by her future Garbage collaborators Nirvana producer Butch Vig, Steve Marker and Duke Erikson. Goodbye Mr Mackenzie’s Nirvana connection also stretched to Big John Duncan, who played with the band live during the mid-90s and was at one time rumoured to be joining them permanently.

The principal songwriting team behind Goodbye Mr Mackenzie, Metcalfe and Kelly, are now part of the Isa And The Filthy Tongues project, alongside Portland born singer Stacey Chavis. The project is an attempt to go back to the roots of Goodbye Mr Mackenzie’s sound. “The music on Hammer And Tongs came from a brilliant period because we were still following an attack of trying to subvert the mainstream, using big sounds and pristine production. But following the issues we had with major record companies coupled with Rona’s departure, we just decided to not bother with strings and keyboards and progressed backwards to our roots. We started to make music that was more raw and guitar-driven again like we did before the new technology came in. We’d reached that point with the post-Hammer And Tongs Goodbye Mr Mackenzie albums. Isa And The Filthy Tongues are a continuation from that point. Basic alternative Rock”

As for Big John Duncan? Shirley Manson would later recall: “He's in some sort of performance group, EXTREME performance group. He does kinda weird things. He plays guitar while people pierce their genitals, that kinda thing.” Metcalfe: “John’s whole life was extreme. He’s probably just living his life as he feels it should be lived... on the edge.” He has also appeared in the film American Cousins.

Bonus Tracks

In addition to the original version of Hammer And Tongs, this CD includes bonus tracks ‘Friday’s Child’, ‘Candlestick Park’ and ‘Candy Says’, taken from their ‘Now We Are Married’ single. ‘Friday’s Child’ was recorded after Metcalfe heard the Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra duet ‘Summer Wine’ in a junkie dive in Berlin. Impressed, it led to him discovering ‘Friday’s Child’ on a companion album. “I just thought it was a brilliant song”. The cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Candy Says’ was “just me on an acoustic guitar, basically. I always loved the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. It’s a really sweet song about a transvestite.” ‘Candlestick Park’ was originally released on Good Deeds And Dirty Rags, “but we weren’t very happy with the version. So we did an acoustic version of it.

“Hammer & Tongs was a great period for us in many ways. We had the producer of our choice (Terry Adams) we had the city of our choice (Berlin) and we had major money backing us. Some people said we should have made it to the stars, but fate led us in a different direction.”

Alex Ogg