As Kirsty MacColl’s voice becomes ubiquitous during the annual Fairytale of New York-a-thon, Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby looks back at the career of one of Britain’s most under appreciated singer-songwriters.
We are currently deep in the throes of December, which means that each and every radio station in the whole entire world play a handful of records on a loop.
We all know these songs, they might as well be hymns, but there is one that is probably the nation’s favourite Christmas song. It stands out amongst Slade, Wizzard and Cliff. The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York isn’t a great Christmas song, it is a great song that happens to be set around Christmas.
Like most people, this is where this writer first heard Kirsty MacColl, who took the female lead, acting the beauty to Shane MacGowan’s beast. Truth be told, I didn’t take much notice of her outside of the song. There certainly wasn’t a pressing desire to go and listen to her own material. Plus, everything else that I did hear from her were mere covers, such as her hit versions of Billy Bragg’s A New England and The Kinks’ Days.
I’ve got a thing for 60s girl groups, and I came across Tracey Ullman’s short, borderline novelty pop career from the 80s, which harks back to that era. She released two albums – 1983’s You Broke My Heart In 17 Places and You Caught Me Out the following year. Looking at the credits, it struck me how many songs had been written by Kirsty MacColl. And, despite the novelty of some of Ullman‘s delivery, they were brilliant songs. One in particular, They Don’t Know, was magnificent.
When subsequently digging through MacColl’s back catalogue, it became apparent what a gifted songwriter she was. Her melodies were beautiful, her lyrics were biting, witty and often hilarious, her tastes were varied – aside from the girl group pop of her early singles, she effortlessly dabbled in rockabilly, Latin pop, new wave, folk, hip hop beats and started out in a punk band. What’s more, she was able to match this with her performances, which were laced with personality. This should have been apparent from Fairytale…, but to hear that conviction and pure, unfiltered Kirsty-ness never falter on any record she ever made enraptures you.
The testimonials in her 1995 compilation Galore are impressive to say the least. Some you would expect. Collaborators like Bragg, who said of her “Unpretentious, inimitable, writes like a playwright, sings like an angel.” She wrote a lot of material with Johnny Marr, who said “Strange stories of people, relationships and life, with all the wit of Ray Davies and the harmonic invention of The Beach Boys. Only cooler.”
She sequenced U2’s album The Joshua Tree (which was produced by her then-husband Steve Lillywhite), and Bono said she was “One in a line of great English songwriters that includes Ray Davies, Paul Weller and Morrissey… the Noelle Coward of her generation!” None other than David Byrne rounded it off by saying she had “The voice of an angel from a mind and heart inflamed by Thatcher‘s England.”
Kirsty’s relationship with the music industry was notorious, and she rarely lasted with any one record label for very long. She was signed to Stiff, who she left because she felt, well, stiffed. She moved to Polydor, who dropped her before the release of her second album with them, which led to her returning to Stiff, and then moving to Virgin, IRS Records, and finally V2. Six label moves and only five albums released in her lifetime. No doubt this stood in the way of her commercial momentum.
She died in Mexico just before Christmas 2000. She had released her final studio album, the glorious Tropical Brainstorm, just a few months earlier. Her death was brutal. She was scuba diving with her two sons in a designated diving area that watercraft were restricted from entering. A powerboat approached them. MacColl, seeing the boat approach, quickly pushed her sons out of the way. In doing so, she was struck and died instantly, meaning she literally died saving her children’s lives. It makes Tropical Brainstorm, an optimistic album infused with South American music that shows MacColl happy with her life at that point, an occasionally difficult listen.
There must be a parallel universe where she is a national treasure. A songwriter and vocalist that people return to in order to sharpen their own craft. As it stands though, she is most known for singing a duet with The Pogues.
So, this Top 10 doesn’t feature that song, or any of the songs she didn’t write. No Days. No A New England. Kirsty MacColl should be remembered as the classic British songwriter she was.
- England 2 Columbia 0 [Tropical Brainstorm, 2000]
As much fun and frolics that is present on Tropical Brainstorm, that isn’t to say that MacColl had gone the whole album without something a little more biting. England 2 Columbia 0 proves that we are often at our funniest when we are pissed off. In her own words, MacColl referred to this, through laughter, as “A tragic date gone horribly wrong”.
It seems she went on a date during the 1998 World Cup, where they went to watch an England match in a pub. When her date went to the bathroom, she was informed that he was married with kids. The lyrics intertwine the game with the situation, with lines such as “It isn’t in my nature to ever pick a winner/I always pick a bastard who will have me for his dinner” and the chorus “Now it’s England 2, Columbia 0/And I know just how those Columbians feel”. Her delivery of the lines is pitched somewhere between anger of the situation and the humour of recalling it.
Musically, like all of Tropical Brainstorm, the song has a Latin feel, and is based on a sample of Tendras Tu Castigo by Conjunto Casino. Kirsty‘s semi-estranged father was the folk singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl, who gave the world Dirty Old Town and First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. He was decidedly against anything other than folk music. Some in Kirsty‘s inner circle have wondered if her engaging so heavily with traditional music from another culture was her way of connecting to her father.
- Fifteen Minutes [Kite, 1989]
Kirsty‘s 1989 album Kite is often seen as her finest, and it is easy to see why. Leaving aside the collaborations with the likes of David Gilmour and Johnny Marr, of all her albums this is the one that feels like it will never fully age. There is an urgency to her writing that pierces through everything standing in its way.
As you may guess from the title, Fifteen Minutes is MacColl’s take down of the fickle world of celebrity in the music industry. She bemoans “Suzy-Anne with her tits and curls”, and declares it “a bozo’s world, and you’re a bozo’s child”. Despite her vitriol, she maintains a sort of vulnerability about it and you can’t help but feel a little bit of sympathy.
- Caroline [Galore, 1995]
Galore was Kirsty’s 1995 greatest hits compilation, and her only album to break the UK Top 10. Like oh so many compilations, there are some new tracks tacked on to the end. One is a cover of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day with The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando, the other is this slice of country-rock.
Lyrically, this is from the point of view of “the other woman”, who falls in love with her best friend’s other half. Kirsty referred to the track as “Jolene’s revenge” and that in writing it, she wanted to see if she could make the character in any way sympathetic. Whether or not she achieves that is up to you, but it is clear that she is full of guilt for what she has done. She is paranoid and ashamed, and despite the fact that she can’t get her out of her head, she maintains “I don’t wanna see Caroline”.
- Walking Down Madison [Electric Landlady, 1991]
Following up 1989’s Kite proved difficult, but although it might not quite be on the same level of its predecessor, Electric Landlady manages to power through MacColl’s writers block with the help of a few friends. A handful of tracks on the album were co-written by Johnny Marr, including this, which was the first the first song he wrote after leaving The Smiths.
The song itself, perhaps surprisingly, has a clear hip hop influence and manages to fuse the pretty disparate stylings of MacColl, Marr and guest rapper Aniff Cousins pretty damn seamlessly. Lyrically, she appears to be attacking the façade of capitalism, with homelessness existing in the shadow of New York’s wealthy business districts. “From the sharks in the penthouse to the rats in the basement/It’s not that far”. The song was the closest she had to an American hit single, hitting number four on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.
- There’s a Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis [Desperate Character, 1981]
Of all the songs written by Kirsty herself, this was undoubtedly the biggest hit. Often unfairly dismissed as a novelty song, it actually has very little to do with Elvis Presley. Despite the references to The King, the real crux of the lyric is the following line, “…but he’s a liar, and I’m not sure about you”. MacColl said of the references that “Elvis” was a state of mind. “I still see a bit of Elvis in various self-deluding men the world over”, she once said.
The rockabilly feel of the song helped capture the mood, and before she knew it, she had a Top 20 hit in the UK and Ireland. However, touring behind the single was disastrous, and MacColl developed crippling stage fright that would plague her for the rest of the decade.
- Soho Square [Titanic Days, 1993]
The wit of many of MacColl’s lyrics often masked the heart and insight that is at the core of her songs. Soho Square, though, is unashamedly heartfelt. In fact, you could say the same about the vast majority of the Titanic Days album, which could easily be dismissed as “the divorce album” had it not been so beautifully constructed.
The loneliness of the lyric is off-set by the sweeping, wistful music. There is as much sadness as there is hope in the longing for company at the “empty bench is Soho Square” where Kirsty is stationed; “One day you’ll be waiting there/No empty bench in Soho Square”. Since Kirsty’s death, this song more than any other has become something of an epitaph. A bench dedicated to MacColl now stands in Soho Square, and every year fans, friends and relatives gather to remember this wonderful, charming lady.
- He’s On The Beach [Single, 1986]
It sometimes seemed like forces beyond our control were stopping Kirsty from reaching her commercial potential. After scoring a massive hit with Billy Bragg’s A New England in 1984, she fell pregnant with her first child (in fact, her condition is clearly visible in the song’s video). She was unable to regain the momentum for this follow-up single after she had given birth.
He’s On The Beach remains one of MacColl’s finest moments. A story of a friend of hers who moved to Australia and how his life turned out based on the postcards he sent back. Apparently “He said it’s brilliant there/There’s something in the air/And sunshine everywhere/He’s on the beach”.
Despite the Beach Boys-esque overdubs on her voice, the whole thing comes across as effortless, and should have been a hit. Stiff Records folded shortly after its release, and up until Fairytale of New York she spent her time doing session work for the likes of The Smiths, Happy Mondays and Talking Heads (that’s her in the video for (Nothing But) Flowers).
- Terry [Single, 1983]
Kirsty had a love of 60s girl groups, but being a strong independent woman, found their lyrics troublesome. As most of those songs were written by men, their lyrics were written with the male gaze, despite being sung by women. On many of her earlier singles, it felt like Kirsty was trying to capture a similar teen dramatic pop sound, but to write the lyrics from a very feminist perspective, and to have fun with it. In that sense, she was a very feminist writer.
Terry could very easily have been performed by The Shangri-Las in the 60s. MacColl unapologetically dumps her boyfriend for Terry, a guy who is “as tough as Marlon Brando”. As much of an earworm as the chorus is, it’s the verses where the fun is to be had. MacColl’s lyrics and delivery can’t help but raise a smile as she deadpans phrases like “You thought you were such a smarty/But Terry knows about ka-rar-tee” and “You can see the door is open, so if you don’t want your nose broken/You had better go away cos Terry’s comin’ round today” that would make Ronnie Spector proud. In fact, it harks a little back to The Angels‘ My Boyfriend’s Back (“He knows I ain’t been cheatin’/Now you’re gonna get a beatin‘”).
The single’s video featured Ade Edmonson as the boyfriend Kirsty tries to leave for the titular Terry, but the clip we have included is from a German TV show. If you look beyond Kirsty at the bas ass gentleman in the background, it’s none other than Lemmy.
- In These Shoes? [Tropical Brainstorm, 2000]
Following the overall sadness and loneliness of Titanic Days, MacColl vowed not to make another album until she felt she could make a happy one. Tropical Brainstorm, tragically her final release, finds her at the happiest point her life had been at in the longest time.
Based on a sample of Willie Bobo’s Spanish Grease, there is a definite playfulness in both her lyrics and delivery that it utterly irresistible. In it, men try to pick up MacColl by promising her increasingly outlandish erotic experiences, before she offers her cheeky response with exaggerated sass. “He said ‘Let’s make love on a mountain top, under the stars on a big, hard rock’/I said ‘In these shoes? I don’t think so/Honey, let’s do it here’”. You can practically hear the smile on her face and the twinkle in her eye.
Despite not being a hit, the song is actually fairly well known, having been used as the theme for The Catherine Tate Show, the Irish sitcom Any Time Now, appeared in the Sex & the City movie and was covered by Bette Midler.
- They Don’t Know [Single, 1979]
Like so many pop stars of the 80s, MacColl started her career in a (not very good) punk band. The Drug Addix released an EP on Chiswick Records and later auditioned for Stiff, who didn’t like the band but felt MacColl had something about her. They called her and asked if she had any songs and, lying through her teeth, said she did and that she would return and play some. She quickly wrote They Don’t Know and took it to Stiff, who loved it and signed her immediately.
Creating a bad omen that would plague MacColl for the rest of her career, They Don’t Know was a massive hit on radio, where it was the second most requested song on the week of release. Unfortunately a distribution strike prevented the single from reaching the shops. Some semblance of justice was served four years later when Tracey Ullman took the song to number two in the UK and number eight in America (and a video featuring Paul McCartney).
Sometimes it is the simple songs that are the most effective. Like a lot of MacColl’s early work, this easily could have been written by Phil Spector or Shadow Morton, and performed by The Ronettes or The Shirelles, but it perhaps would miss the down to Earth quality of MacColl’s delivery. It isn’t merely the then-teenage Kirsty’s finest three minutes, it is one of (if not the) finest singles Stiff ever released.