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Obituary: Alastair “Ali” Donaldson, musician

Architect and musician known as 'William Mysterious' in the punk band The Rezillos

Architect and musician known as 'William Mysterious' in the punk band The Rezillos

  • by DAVID POLLOCK
 

Born: 27 April, 1955, in Edinburgh. Died: 18 June, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 58.

Alastair Gilfillan Donaldson, best known as Ali to those to whom he was closest and as William Mysterious to the public at large, was a naturally talented multi-instrumentalist whose most famous role was as the bassist of the short-lived but influential Edinburgh new wave punk group The Rezillos between 1976 and 1978.

He also played with seminal Scots folk group Silly Wizard and Mike Scott’s Waterboys, and in later years worked as an architect while remaining active on the Edinburgh open mic circuit, regularly playing and promoting in bars like the Royal Oak and Sandy Bell’s.

Born in Edinburgh in 1955, Donaldson was the youngest of three children born to John, an accountant, and Gladys, a college lecturer who preferred to go by her middle name Beth. Raised in Currie, he had two older sisters: Jean, who now lives in Canada, and Margaret, who passed away in childhood.

He was schooled at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, and his most successful subjects included English and art, while he excelled at music. A family story has it that his music tutor regarded him as the best flautist they had taught in the school, and his old school report cards tell of a pupil who was considered by his teachers to be something of a dreamer.

While his parents held conservative ambitions for his future career, he felt stifled by small-town life in Currie and would grab the opportunity to leave school for university a year early at the age of 17.

Although he was enrolled as a student of Heriot-Watt University between 1972 and 1975, the architecture department of which he was a part was based at Edinburgh College of Art’s campus on Lauriston Place.

It was here that the musical associations which would shape his life were formed, first playing bass, flute and organ on 1976’s eponymous Silly Wizard debut album on Transatlantic’s Xtra label (playing alongside Johnny Cunningham, although Donaldson would leave just as Cunningham’s younger brother Phil joined the band).

Donaldson’s friendship with Alasdair “Angel” Paterson would see him introduced to the rest of the band with which he would make his name, and with whom Paterson was already the drummer.

Initially he would join the Rezillos in 1976 as a sometime saxophone player before being invited to join permanently as a replacement for their departed bassist Dr DK Smythe, and in keeping with the band’s preference for outlandish B-movie iconography and sci-fi pseudonyms he would take on the alias William Mysterious.

One former bandmate recalls this as being an appropriate alias, for Donaldson would cut an enigmatic figure during his time in the band.

The Rezillos were a short-lived but vivid success, and Donaldson would travel with them to New York to play on the entirety of their 1978 debut and only album, Can’t Stand the Rezillos, on which he would be credited simply as “Mysterious”.

Although he had already 
embraced the life of an alternative pop star to the extent that he had left his architecture degree without finishing in 1975, the new-found pressures placed upon the band would prove at least as onerous for him as the others.

Amidst the culture shock of 1970s New York and all-night recording sessions in the dangerous Hell’s Kitchen district of Manhattan, and the corporate demands which were now being placed upon a group which started out as a bit of fun, Donaldson chose to leave suddenly during a rehearsal session in 1978.

Although the pressures on him would force the rest of the band to split a matter of months later, the decision was believed to have caused him a degree of regret when Can’t Stand the Rezillos would later chart in the UK top 20 and many of the songs on which he had played became chart hits.

By the time the group appeared on Top of the Pops with the song of the same name in July 1978 he was no longer among their number.

“His bass playing turned out be quite unique,” recalls former bandmate Eugene Reynolds of Donaldson’s contribution to the group, “which gave a certain signature to the music which a lot of people identified with and picked up on. He helped to establish the Rezillos’ sound.”

He also recalls a man who would prefer “loose associations” in his musical life: as quickly as he had left the Rezillos, he would float back into Reynolds and singer Fay Fife’s revived incarnation of the band the Revillos in 1980, playing on their “debut” album Rev Up before leaving once more.

In the early to mid-1980s Donaldson returned to his original career choice, leaving Edinburgh to complete his architecture studies at Hull University, where he would also perform live around the town and establish his own record label Mezzanine.

The imprint’s only known release was his 1982 solo single Security of Noise / Alright, the record being credited to William Mysterious and Alastair Donaldson and featuring Fife on backing vocals.

Following his time in Hull Donaldson returned to Edinburgh and worked from the late 1980s until the mid-1990s in various firms as an architect, his most memorable experience coming at Broad & Hughes on South College Street, where he felt best able to express his belief that architecture is an art and not a science.

Being most inspired by the process of drawing at his 
architect’s board, he slipped out of this career in the late 1990s after a brief period of freelancing, feeling dismay at the 
technological modernisation of the business. During the 1980s he also worked as a studio 
musician with the Waterboys, among others.

While he worked at Broad & Hughes Donaldson met his first wife Janice at an all-night disco at Edinburgh’s Playhouse, and the pair would marry in 1991 and separate in 1993.

Their daughter Ailsa was born in 1990. He met his second wife Dr Ksenija Horvat in his then-local bar the Southsider while she wrote up Edinburgh Festival reviews in August 2002, and the couple were married in 2004 in Leith. Their son, Johnny, was born in 2006.

Throughout his later years Donaldson made his living entirely from music, and would play at and run open mic nights at Edinburgh bars including the Royal Oak, Sandy Bell’s, Bannermans and the Three Tuns, as well as busking and recording the unreleased solo albums Proto in 2003 and Bingo in 2004.

He would regularly attend Edinburgh concerts by the Rezillos following their 2001 reformation, and the band would dedicate It Gets Me from Can’t Stand the Rezillos – which he wrote – to him.

Ali Donaldson died at home on Tuesday, 18 June, 2013 and is survived by his wife Ksenija Horvat, their seven-year-old son Johnny and his daughter by his first marriage, Ailsa, 23, as well as his older sister Jean.

 
 
 

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