The Top Ten Songs of Kirsty MacColl
With a selection of her albums currently out on re-release from Salvo, our man Fergal Kinney takes a look at Kirsty MacColl’s finest moments
This month, Union Square Music re-release the first four albums by Kirsty MacColl â the previously rare âDesperate Characterâ, her masterpiece âKiteâ, âElectric Landladyâ and âTitanic Daysâ.
For an artist widely known and remembered for her voice, her festive Pogues duet and successful cover versions (âA New Englandâ, âDaysâ), a strange and misleading lack of prominence is given to her songwriting abilities. Descriptions by Bono as âone in a line of great English songwriters that includes Ray Davies, Paul Weller and Morrisseyâ, and similar praises from former songwriting partner Johnny Marr as âwith all the wit of Ray Davies and the harmonic invention of the Beach Boysâ are strong testament to the verve and skill MacColl exerted through her writing over her sadly short life.
In a different age, MacColl would have been spokne of with the same regard people currently speak of the likes of Adele and Amy Winehouse, and itâs arguable that her voice â both her singing and lyrical voices â eclipses those of the aforementioned.
With a career held back by everything from record label politics to sheer bad luck, a life cut short by mindless disregard for human safety, itâs no surprise to see her sadly and strangely written out of the cast of British pop history. A uniquely gifted songwriter in her own right, here are what we think to be the ten best songs penned by the late, great Kirsty MacColl.
Top ten Kirsty MacColl songs
âThey Donât Knowâ
Amidst the loud death throws of British punk, Stiff records put out âThey Donât Knowâ in 1979 by a young singer songwriter who was incidentally also the daughter of legendary folk singer Ewan MacColl.
In later life, Kirsty would be notably critical of any insinuation that her father stood as an influence, mentor or indeed of much help to her career. Ewan MacColl saw pop music as essentially of no merit, and his views on punk were even more damning. Rebelling against both the ideals of her father and the rigid code of the punk dogma, âThey Donât Knowâ was three minutes of glistening pop perfection; all Beach Boys harmonies and the morbid teenage heartache of the Shangri Laâs. The song received huge airplay but through a cruel cocktail of coincidence and bad luck (an omnipresent theme throughout the career and life of Kirsty MacColl), a distributorsâ strike prevented the record from being pressed and hitting the shops.
Though the song would later provide a top five hit for Tracy Ullman, the writing credits to this blissful masterstroke of pop will always be MacCollâs.
âThereâs a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears Heâs Elvisâ
An exercise in great titles and un-throwaway-able throw-away pop, this rockabilly pastiche would provide the twenty year old MacColl with her first bona fide hit in 1981.
Tongue-in-cheek without veering into novelty, âChip Shopâ is revolves around an Elvis impersonator at the local chippie and how âheâs a liar, but Iâm not sure about youâ.
Sadly, the next few years would see MacColl flit to and from Stiff Records at their whim, failing to provide the proper promotional support to her releases as necessary and even scrapping a recorded album. It would be on Stiff in 1985 that her re-working of the Billy Bragg song âA New Englandâ would propel both her (and consequently Bragg) to greater success.
However, despite the success of âA New Englandâ, Stiff calamitously went bankrupt the next year, leaving MacColl tied up in legal disputes and working as a session vocalist on tracks recorded by her husband at the time (Steve Lilywhite of U2 and Morrissey production fame). These periods of complications and inactivity would prove incredibly low moments for MacColl on a personal level, sinking into bouts of depression from the frustration.
By 1989, Kirstyâs voice had reached a global audience with the huge success of her Christmas duet with the Pogues, âFairytale of New Yorkâ. The unexpected success of âFairytale of New Yorkâ heralded a renewed interest in MacColl matched by a returned confidence and a supreme batch of new songs.
In Steve Lilywhite, Kirsty finally had a producer who not only recognised her vocal vision but had the ability to realise it. Hardened by the years of refusal and rejection in the musical wilderness, and appalled by the daily insults and injustices of the Thatcher years, MacColl found her lyrics doused with more aggression and political angst than before.
âFree Worldâ is a bitter riposte to the contradiction of the rise of the âdollars on elasticâ yuppies whilst hospitals and schools fall into disrepair â and the ruthless, single mindedness of the woman that had brought about this inequality. A brazen yet sophisticated political attack, it is worth noticing that âFree Worldâ, amongst other tracks on âKiteâ, were the first time that her father Ewan MacColl really took her work seriously and enjoyed it.
Kirsty herself described âFree Worldâ as about âThatcherite Britain – you know, grab whatever you can and sod the little guy. That’s a fashionable way of looking at things, and I don’t agree with it.â
Donât Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!
The issue of gender in pop music had always been a bone of contention to her, explaining in an interview that âwomen, especially, would always be singing these songs, when I was a kid; youâd hear them on the radio, and the songs were obviously written by a man and he was actually putting his words into the womanâs mouth and heâs making her out to be how he wants to perceive women, and not how women are. So where are all of these pathetic women who canât live without their man? I donât know any!â.
âDonât Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jimâ is the antidote to decades of misogyny and misrepresentation in pop music, an acerbic critique of those with âwarm beds and cold, cold heartsâ who fulfill their sexual greed then âthe boots just go back on the socks that had stayed onâ and theyâre gone. All this to an infectious acoustic waltz is testament to the genius of Kirsty MacCollâs songwriting when at its best and would be neither the first nor the last time she would tackle the subject of masculine shortcomings.
The b-side to MacCollâs hit cover of âDaysâ, âStill Lifeâ sounds arguably more like Ray Davies than the a-side.
Channeling quintessentially English from William Blake to Alan Bennett, âStill Lifeâ is a lament to a love lost in the way old towns change for the worse with time, the love becoming âa relic of the pastâ as âthe old town that we knew is dead and goneâ amidst imagery of kissing under bridges, âsickly sunshineâ and âmonuments of Englandâs sacred cowâ to a Smithsy acoustic arpeggiation (see âBack to the Old House).
Â A lesser known album track from 1989âs âKiteâ, âFifteen Minutesâ is as close to Ray Davies as MacColl ever achieved. Like the âSomething Elseâ era Ray Davies character songs (âTwo Sistersâ, âDavid Wattsâ, âPlastic Manâ), âFifteen Minutesâ is a short study of the vacuous victims of the union between pop music and tabloid newspapers; the media world where mediocrityÂ and misogyny are the currency for âvicious boys and their boring girlsâ.
Men were a constant source of disappointment for MacColl in her personal life, something reflected regularly in her lyrics. Collaborator and producer Mark Nevin would comment that âit was an underlying thing that colored the way she saw the worldâ, and half joked that her lyrics were âin a nutshellâ that âall blokes are gonna lie, cheat and let you down.”
Walking Down Madison
âWalking Down Madisonâ began life as an instrumental jam by Johnny Marr, and found its way via Kirsty MacColl to #4 on the Billboard Rock Charts in the US.
The two had worked together for a few songs on âKiteâ, though âWalking Down Madisonâ was a notable step up for both of them. Incidentally, MacColl was the only artist to have worked with both Johnny Marr and Morrissey following the split of the Smiths, providing backing vocals on Morrisseyâs âInteresting Drugâ single.
The original Johnny Marr composition was not intended to feature lyrics, let alone those of Kirsty MacColl, though after having lived with it for a week and penned some of her most evocative lyrics – somewhere between Ray Davies and rapping – it was clear that âWalking Down Madisonâ in its new form was its best.
Similar to the contradictions of British inequality documented in âFree Worldâ, âWalking Down Madisonâ is a portrait of New York life and the ease with which a life âin an uptown apartmentâ could become âa knife on the A trainâ. The song proved a huge hit in the US, its observations striking a chord with an American audience as much as the infectious groove became a dancefloor staple, and still gains airplay and recognition across the Atlantic to this day.
Like âWalking Down Madisonâ, âMy Affairâ is from 1991âs hit album âElectric Landladyâ â the title coming from a quip of Johnny Marrâs.
Mark Nevin, of Fairground Attraction fame, penned the exuberant Latino track specifically for MacColl, tapping into her burgeoning love of the music of South America . Lyrically, âMy Affairâ is perhaps Kirstyâs master work â an epic odyssey of sex and independence charted through youth and womanhood.
Pop has never been very good at acknowledging that not everybody is a teenager in love and that very, very many record buyers are married, divorced, intelligent, independent, over thirty or parents. Understanding this is something few acts ever dare to do, and is incidentally why the Beautiful South were so successful. âMy Affairâ is an explosive celebration of post-divorce rediscovery of womanhood; “It’s very fifties Havana, that one”, said MacColl at the time, “Carmen MacColl doing her damndest. The bitch is back…”
By 1994, Kirsty MacColl was in the midst of a tough divorce from Steve Lilywhite, and her friend and co-writer Mark Nevin found himself in a similar situation. Describing the project as their âpaddleâ, MacColl and Nevin set to creating an album together amidst the darkest points of their lives.
âTitanic Daysâ, the ensuing record, certainly reflects this in its emotional charge, and âSoho Squareâ is perhaps the brightest, most hopeful moment on this record. Optimistic yet resigned to loneliness and pain, âSoho Squareâ could well be one of the great British pop hits that never was. Strings rush against a luscious vocal whilst âpigeons shiver in the naked treesâ and the protagonist finds herself alone, âan empty bench in Soho Squareâ waiting for someone who inevitably will never arrive.
England 2, Columbia 0
In the late nineties, Kirsty MacColl found herself yet again without a record deal and relocated to Cuba, motivated by a still burning interest in South American music, a fascination with living in a Communist state and a desire to move on from a difficult few years. âThe fact that âMy Affairâ had been the most fun Iâd ever had in the studio led to me wanting to do more of that,â Kirsty explained at the time âIt just took this long for me to get it together because I wanted to know more of what I was doing before I embarked on that road. I had to learn about that music by listening to an awful lot of stuff and visiting the countries where it came from.â
In many ways, Cuba completely re-invigorated MacCollâs ideas and enthusiasm for her own music, and the lyrical inspiration began to come with this. âEngland 2, Columbia 0â is a sharp and furious account of a date with a man that swiftly culminated in her being told that this man was married with children. Written and recorded within days of the date, the emotion in the vocal is still incredibly raw and dripping with angst. Finally an LP, âTropical Brainstormâ, was released to glowing reviews and moderate chart success in March 2000 , featuring many of her best songs such as âIn These Shoesâ and âAutumngirlsongâ. Â
TheÂ cruelestÂ twist of fate in the life of Kirsty MacColl came just months after the release of âTropical Brainstormâ. In December 2000, MacColl was swimming in the sea in Cozumel, Mexico with her sons in a specific diving area where watercrafts were wholly prohibited. Surfacing from a dive, MacColl saw a speedboat hurtling through the diving area towards her sons.
Pushing her sons out the path of the boat, MacColl was caught by it and killed instantly. Her death caused immense sadness from friends, family, fellow musicians and fans alike, but the circumstances through which she died and the grave injustice that followed added great insult to a profound loss.
The boat belonged to a Mexican supermarket multimillionaire who was fined just the equivalent of Â£61 for ignoring the watercraft ban in the area and needlessly causing death and injury. However, MacColl is survived by her back catalogue; the legacy of a much loved woman, a uniquely gifted songwriter and an iconic and innovative vocalist.
All words by Fergal Kinney.