When Kirsty MacColl was killed in a speedboat accident off the Mexican coast in December 2000 it was a tragedy not just for the family and friends she left behind but for the wider world as well. At a stroke, we’d lost one of the most original voices in British music of the last thirty years, one who has still not received her due recognition.
She was born in Croydon, South London, in 1959. Croydon is the kind of place you want to get out of – I should know, I went to school there – and Kirsty had the talent to transcend her origins. Interested in everything but subject to severe asthma as a child, she found refuge in music. As the third child of revered but doctrinaire folk singer Ewan MacColl, music was in her blood. However, the relationship with her father was not easy: he left her mother, dance teacher Jean Newlove, when Kirsty was very small to set up home with fellow folkie Peggy Seeger and she only saw him at weekends. MacColl père was famously hostile to pop music, which he dismissed as commercially driven and politically apathetic. For the young Kirsty, pop was an act of rebellion against what she called the “beard-and-sandals brigade”; it was the music of her own generation. But, more than that, for someone blessed with wide musical knowledge, who as a teenager had been captivated by Bach, it was an act of choice. As she told journalist Karen O’Brien, “there are things about pop music that are good… it’s not preaching, it’s uplifting”. Uplift is what she found as a youngster in Neil Young, in 60s girl-groups like The Shangri-Las, in the observational songwriting of Ray Davies and in the multilayered harmonies of Brian Wilson.
Her early career in music was stop-go. Signed to Stiff Records, she released a single, ‘They Don’t Know’, a precocious teen ballad of misunderstood love that only impacted when re-recorded by Tracey Ullman a few years later. She moved to Polydor, where another single, ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’, set the template for the humorous rockabilly that she’s still best remembered for. A cover of Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’ brought Top Ten success, and her 1987 duet with Shane MacGowan on the Pogues’ ‘Fairytale Of New York’ has been on Christmas playlists ever since. Yet, despite these highs, record companies would not invest in her for the long term. They didn’t know where to place her or how to package her. She was too damned original. Later she signed to Virgin, only to be dumped once again when they were bought out by EMI. Between contracts she worked extensively as a backing vocalist for, amongst others, Talking Heads and The Smiths, but it was live touring with The Pogues in the late 80s which finally conquered her stage fright and seems to have given her the confidence to raise her game. By now she had perfected a sound. Multitracking her own vocals, Beach Boys-style, she found she could create a whole girl-group in the studio, a chorus of Kirstys who hadn’t been cloned by some Svengali but were emanations of herself; luscious harmonies, poured over the “jangly guitars” that she also loved, would combine with catchy vocal lines to produce infectious pop, raised above the norm by the sharp, intelligent lyrics that she toiled over so hard and delivered in a deadpan, recognisably English voice.
Although her early work, with its blend of pub rock, synths and R’n’B, was hugely enjoyable, it didn’t fully prepare us for that leap forward she took in the late 80s. Frequently a victim of ‘writer’s block’, she had found a way out through joint authorship. Although she insisted on a 50-50 split on royalties, the typical Kirsty collaboration, it seems, was for her co-writer to suggest a chord progression or send her a backing track, over which she then wrote melody and lyrics. On a series of albums beginning with Kite (1989) she widened and deepened her craft and distanced herself from digital sampling in favour of real instruments: “I never want to do anything else with a Fairlight ever again,” she announced. “It drives me mad, you can’t talk to it – it’s got no brain.” As before, the music was life-affirming and melodic, the lyrics witty and down-to-earth, but the stylistic range was broader, the targets more diverse. Thatcherism came in for a drubbing in ‘Free World’. Celebrity culture was in her sights in ‘Fifteen Minutes’. On the successor album, Electric Landlady (1991), the plight of New York’s homeless inspired a collaboration with Johnny Marr, ‘Walking Down Madison’, which also proved a breakthrough single for her in the States. Yet, alongside the uptempo rap of ‘Madison’, the same album contained ‘We’ll Never Pass This Way Again’, as tender and nostalgic a love song as anyone has written in a generation.
Titanic Days (1994), made at a time when her ten-year marriage to producer Steve Lillywhite was on the rocks, is always referred to as her “divorce record”. Certainly it introduces a level of verbal menace (notably on ‘Can’t Stop Killing You’) without precedent in her work. Yet, ever again, the mood is varied – with the gentle lyricism of ‘Soho Square’ (a song that has inspired her fans to dedicate a bench in London’s Soho Square to her memory) rubbing up against the knockabout farce of ‘Big Boy On A Saturday Night’.
As a girl in Croydon she’d already come to the conclusion that “anybody who spoke Spanish was having a better time than I was.” In the late 90s, increasingly fascinated by Latin America, the people and the music, she made numerous trips to Cuba and Brazil, resulting in what proved to be her final album, Tropical Brainstorm (2000). Seen by many as her finest achievement, it was, in her words, an “Anglo-Latin hybrid pop record”. Her life was back on track and she celebrated with a joyous album combining all her best qualities: feistiness (‘Us Amazonians’), off-the-wall humour (‘In These Shoes?’), resilience in the face of man trouble (‘England 2 Colombia 0’) and a wistfulness that seemed to be the flip side of her exuberance (‘Wrong Again’).
I value her songs for many things, not least for their surging, anthemic choruses. You’d have to be cloth-eared not to want to join in when she lets rip in numbers like ‘Innocence’ or ‘My Affair’. It’s the ultimate in drive-time music. As James Knight, the musician with whom she found contentment in her final months, recalled, “to Kirsty driving was really just singing with a steering wheel in front of you”. Always suggested by experience or rooted in observation – she was a champion people-watcher – the songs unfold like short stories, or films. In the best of them she imagines other lives or other personae for herself – characters like ‘Celestine’, the saucy alter ego who steals up on her in a delicious bossa nova: ‘She’s just a wild and wicked slut / And she lives inside my head and stops me sleeping’.
Friends remember her as liking the company of men more than women, a “man’s woman”, not a “girly girl”. Certainly the songwriters she was known to admire, and the writers she worked with, were all men. Speaking to Tracey MacLeod in 1994, she confessed: “I’m not a big fan of the more introspective – or impressionistic, I should say – female singer-songwriter, with grand piano and lots of trailing veils.” But in other interviews, when probed on what had first motivated her to write, she revealed her need to take possession of the female voice. Listening to the radio as she grew up, she’d hear women singing songs which were obviously written by a man who was putting his words into the woman’s mouth – ‘Oooh baby, I can’t live without you!’ was the gist. “So where are all these pathetic women who can’t live without their man?” Kirsty demanded to know. “I don’t know any!” Her songs constantly prick the balloon of male pomposity, whether in the form of the guy in the chip shop whose claim to be Elvis is an early lesson in mendacious bragging, or the ‘serial liar’ of ‘England 2 Colombia 0’ who conceals his marital status from the newly divorced Kirsty: ‘OK I didn’t mention my kids, I thought I’d wait a bit,’ she sings, ‘But I am free and single and he’s a lying git.’
First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel) November/December 2010