Dundee's alive and kicking to the magic of pop hero Billy

DURING his short life he astonished millions with his jaw-dropping appearances on Top Of The Pops, inspiring a host of musicians including The Smiths, Bjork and The Cure.

But now, more than a decade after his death, Billy MacKenzie is to be remembered in a major new play in his home city.

This summer Dundee Rep will premiere Balgay Hill, an ambitious new work which hopes to capture the spirit of The Associates frontman.

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MacKenzie grew up in a working-class housing estate in Scotland's fourth city, but his extraordinary multi-octave voice took him to critical and chart success in the 1980s.

Despite this, the vocalist was dogged by bouts of depression, and shortly before he was due to celebrate his 40th birthday he was found dead in the garden shed at his father's house after taking an overdose.

Now theatre bosses are hopeful the tribute to the troubled genius will help to cement his status as one of Dundee's greatest sons.

Alan Rankine, who made up The Associates with Mackenzie, has given his approval to the project by passing on the words and music to a never-recorded track which the pair wrote 30 years ago.

James Brining, the artistic director of Dundee Rep, said the late singer's story was one that deserved to be told.

He said: "Billy MacKenzie was such an extraordinary character and a brilliant musician. He was very much a product of Dundee but also seemed like an alien in the middle of the city.

"To me Billy sums up Dundee, which also has its share of contradictions."

Brining felt the play, written by Simon McCallum, would be radically different to previous attempts to dramatise the Tayside capital and its people.

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"I am not disputing that the jute industry and DC Thomson are important to Dundee, but there are other stories in the city. I feel passionately that they should be told.

"We have not cast a Billy in the play, although he makes an appearance in terms of his music and videos. We wanted to avoid having a sort of Stars In Their Eyes version of him onstage. You could never imitate Billy and any attempt to do so would be bound to fail."

Instead the play will focus on four characters whose lives have been touched by the musician.

Brining added: "Like Billy's life it is fractured, but hopefully it will capture the sense of what Dundee was like in the 1980s.

"There are no attempts to whitewash him or sentimentalise him.

"It is simply trying to get a sense of him through the people he affected.

"The play is also about living in a small city and what happens when someone local appears on Top Of The Pops and is on the brink of being a megastar."

Brining said the play, named after the Dundee landmark where the singer is buried, was very different to the Proclaimers musical Sunshine On Leith , which also originated at the theatre.

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"People shouldn't come expecting to see Sunshine On Billy MacKenzie, because it ain't going to be that.

"But we are confident that it will be just as brilliant in its own way and in its own right."

Rankine, MacKenzie's close friend and musical collaborator, is looking forward to seeing the work.

He said: "If they are going to do a play about one of Dundee's greatest sons I am glad it will be about Bill rather than that awful poet William McGonagall.

"It is great he is finally getting the recognition he deserves in the city.

"There is a song that Billy and I wrote back in 1977 which has never been recorded, never been published and no one has ever heard it apart from a handful of people at a drunken party.

"I have the lyrics and music and have passed them on. It would be great if it was in the play in some way, but ultimately it is the director's call."

Rankine, now a music business lecturer at Glasgow's Stow College, admitted his visit to the theatre will be a poignant one.

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He said: "I have only been back to Dundee twice since Bill's funeral in 1997.

"I went back to look at his house and grave, but I haven't returned since 2000. When Bill and I were doing our stuff we had to leave Dundee because there were no studios.

"Now people can make albums in their bedrooms, which is great."

In 1982 The Associates crashed into the top 10 with their single 'Party Fears Two'. Their fame was fuelled by their extraordinarily flamboyant performances on Top Of The Pops where MacKenzie shimmied through dry ice in a black beret and trenchcoat, while Rankine sported a fencing suit and strummed on custom-made chocolate guitars from Harrods.

But a few weeks after appearing on the front cover of teen bible Smash Hits, MacKenzie torpedoed their rise by abandoning a UK tour 24 hours before the first date, then rejecting a 300,000 offer from a US record label.

However, his influence continued and he inspired Morrissey to pen The Smiths song 'William, It Was Really Nothing'. The Cure wrote the track 'Cut Here' about MacKenzie's suicide, while Bjork considered recording a posthumous duet with the singer.

Balgay Hill will premiere at Dundee Rep on June 9.

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