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Monday, May 7, 2012

Still Life: Remembering Kirsty MacColl

Everybody kind of knows Kirsty MacColl. You might remember her 80's hits, There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis and New England. If not you know her as the woman singing on The Pogues' Christmas classic, Fairytale Of New York or her hit cover of The Kinks' Days. You might also recall that she met a tragic and premature end. If that's the limit of your knowledge of Kirsty, then you clearly need me to educate you on why you should, like me, revere her as one of the greatest musical talents England has ever produced.

Kirsty MacColl had a gift, much like Victoria Wood, to observe ordinary British life and create from it a sharply perceived vignette in song. Like Victoria she had great comic instincts and her lyrics are often hilariously funny. Like the best comedy though, the next minute she could tug at your heartstrings and convey everyday heartbreak and sadness in a voice that sounded like your best friend's. I see Kirsty as a type of modern folk singer; her father was folk legend Ewan MacColl, and she clearly took those influences and fused them with a pop sensibility that is unrivalled in British music. In many ways she was out of her time, she would have been completely at home in the songwriting hit factories of the fifties and sixties, when the three-minute story pop song was at its apex.

That her life was ended so abruptly in 2000 is one of the great tragedies of popular culture, as well as a deeply personal one for her family. Kirsty left us a timeless legacy of music and songwriting and I would like to encourage you to explore this rich heritage by sharing a journey through my own magnificent seven favourite Kirsty songs.



They Don't Know (1979)

In many ways Kirsty was not a lucky woman. Her promising career as a pop star hit a number of roadblocks that would have ended the ambitions of lesser beings. Kirsty signed to Stiff Records in 1978 and the following year released her first single, the girly pop song They Don't Know. It was a huge radio hit, but a distributors' strike meant that copies never made it to stores, so it didn't chart. Proof that this was a calamity came when Tracey Ullman took her cover of the song to number 2 in 1983. This song is solid gold pop, with a retro 60's girl group feel shared by many of Kirsty's early recordings. It also has a terrific melody and a perfectly structured lyric.

That it wasn't a massive debut hit for Kirsty set the tone for a rocky first decade in the music business. She left Stiff early after this fiasco and signed to Polydor in 1980. She had a hit with Chip Shop, but her debut album Desperate Character and her other singles failed to ignite. Work was completed on her second album Real when Polydor unceremoniously dropped her and the album was never released, a great heartache for Kirsty. She returned to Stiff and started work on an album of teen ballads, creating a number of great songs. She also recorded a Billy Bragg composition, the clever and characterful A New England, which became her biggest solo hit. Then Stiff Records collapsed in 1985 and Kirsty's contract became an "asset" for the receivers to offload. For three years Kirsty could do nothing but session work, and subsequently she can be heard in the background on many records from the late 80's. Thankfully the legal issues were finally resolved and in 1989 Kirsty signed to Virgin Records and began work on her next album.



Free World (1989)

The first fruit of her new labours was the single Free World, a blistering 2:37 demolition of Thatcher's Britain. It perfectly captures that moment in time when the Thatcher era was beginning to disintegrate, but it isn't leftist whining, it is brilliant social observation. It is also remarkably current, dealing with recession and financial collapse ("with a pocket full of plastic, like a dollar on elastic") and public unrest ("I'll see you baby when the clans rise again, women and men united by the struggle") that it could easily be adopted as an anthem by the Occupy Wall Street movement.

What is most remarkable though is its energy, it storms along and you can almost imagine Kirsty unleashing the frustration of being silenced for so long, as she sings it with real purpose and meaning. I played this song to death on release, but it stalled just outside the top 40, perhaps being a little too political to gain much radio support. It still sounds fresh and relevant and it is one of those songs that you cannot just sit passively and listen to, if you're not moving by the end of the song, then see a doctor and get your vital signs checked.

Don't Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim! (1989)

The album Kite was released shortly after and it was full of superb songs. On the back of the hit single Days it did respectable business, but inexplicably the excellent follow-up singles flopped. Innocence is a brilliant dissection of a failed relationship, with some of the sharpest lyrics ever written. For me though the greatest gem on the album was the fourth single, the only truly English country and western song ever written, Don't Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim! The title alone should surely raise a smile and demand the song is heard? The backing is authentically country and the lyrics would be warmly welcomed in Nashville, yet they are also peculiarly English.

Cowboy tells the tale of a woman who has kissed her share of frogs and may have found her prince, but can she convince him he's one of the good guys? The lyrics are golden, with perhaps my favourite rhyming couplet of all time, "the boots just go back on, the socks that had stayed on", to describe her previous romantic liaisons. Shakespeare would surely have stolen that. I have to sing along when I play it; it is that infectious. It is also beautifully bittersweet, you sense that Kirsty knows deep down that all men are cowboys at heart.



Still Life (1989)

If you need further proof that Kirsty was the folk poet of her generation, then listen to this quiet, haunting, yet hopeful depiction of a decaying Britain. Still Life was tucked away as the b-side of Days, yet it has become a fan favourite. Backed by a gentle guitar, Kirsty explores the landscape of a country ravaged by recession and industrial abuse and captures that peculiarly British sense of loss for the past, perhaps as it never really was. More lyrical genius abounds, including the classic line, "where are all the human beings, have they been sent to Milton Keynes?". It is an elegy for the working class.

Walking Down Madison (1991)

Kirsty's second album for Virgin, the punny Electric Landlady, was another strong set of songs. The lead-off single was Walking Down Madison, with Kirsty transplanting her biting social commentary to the streets of New York City. The song deals with the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty that can be shocking to a foreigner visiting the US, the world's richest country. It's not a Brit preaching socialism to America though; it cleverly taps into the secret guilt we all feel every time we pass by the outstretched hand and reminds us that the line separating us all is paper thin.

The original acoustic song was given a pop makeover, with synths and electric guitars giving it an urban feel. You can also easily spot the excellent and instantly recognisable riffs of Kirsty's co-writer and friend, Johnny Marr. The song also has a rare example of a guest rap that actually adds to the texture of the track and doesn't rely on profanity or self-love. The single was a UK chart hit and also her first US hit, reaching number 4 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. Again the lyrics are central to the song's success: "from an uptown apartment to a knife on the A-Train, it's not that far". The song manages to make you think about its tough subject without feeling preached at; Phil Collins and George Michael should take note.




Titanic Days (1993)

When EMI acquired Virgin in 1992 they considered Kirsty disposable, so another label change beckoned for her next album, with ZTT offering a one shot deal for the ominously titled Titanic Days. The album was a painful one for Kirsty, as it coincided with divorce from her husband and producer, Steve Lillywhite. This experience undoubtedly coloured many of the songs on the album, but Kirsty's sense of humour remained, with the title track borrowing the image of the world's greatest maritime disaster to help describe her sense of loss.

I cannot stress enough how brilliant this song is; lyrics, melody and delivery are all sublime. The verses build the tension until it is unleashed in a gorgeous, wash of a chorus. The Titanic imagery is not overplayed and helps to inform the depth of feeling present. Sadly it was never released as a single in the UK and was ignored on release in the US, despite being one of her more radio-friendly songs. The album struggled in to the top 50 in the UK and Kirsty and her fans were again left scratching their heads as to the reasons behind her bewildering lack of commercial success.



In These Shoes (2000)

Kirsty finally had a big hit album with the compilation Galore released by Virgin in 1995, which includes a pitch-perfect reading of Perfect Day with Evan Dando. However, she still struggled to find a deal in the late 90's. She used the time productively, writing new songs and exploring her love of Latin sounds and rhythms. When she finally was able to record a new album, it would turn out to be her best, but also sadly her last. Tropical Brainstorm was released in 2000 on Richard Branson's post-Virgin label, V2. The album used her Latin influences to great effect, with gorgeous brass breaks and funky rhythms. She incorporates Spanish and Portuguese lyrics, yet the whole still somehow sounds reassuringly English. There are a number of hilarious comedic songs on the album, including the football themed England 2 Columbia 0. Undoubtedly the highlight of the album though is the exquisite In These Shoes?

Apparently Kirsty had quite the shoe fetish and the song was born out of an excruciating night at a party when she chose to wear a divine, yet impractical pair of high heels. The song recounts a woman who is met with adventurous propositions from a number of men, to which her response is, "in these shoes?". If you've never heard it you should rectify that at once; it is total perfection in songwriting, production and performance. Although the great Bette Midler covered it, Kirsty's version is the real deal; this is a song that can only authentically be sung by an English woman, Americans are just not that repressed. Her comic timing is amazing and her aloof delivery is spot on. It's impossible to listen to this song sitting down, you'll be forming a one-person conga line by the second verse.


Tropical Brainstorm garnered the best reviews of Kirsty's career and it is undoubtedly a high point in her creativity. She would be probably stunned to have seen the outpouring of grief that followed her death and the glowing tributes paid her from her fellow musicians. Kirsty had no airs and graces, she learned early on to take the rough with the smooth and it was this realness that allowed her to connect with her listeners in such a personal way. Her music has given me countless hours of pleasure and I regularly find myself returning to her records when I want a reality check combined with a smile. I'm grateful she persevered through all the career ups and downs, but then what else was she going to do: music was her life.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. For more information on Kirsty, visit the fantastic fan-run website, Free World www.kirstymaccoll.com. All the tracks mentioned in this blog are available on the anthology, From Croydon To Cuba... or The Best of Kirsty MacColl, both available from EMI Records.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent piece. I slightly disagree about her dad, with whom she had a troubled relationship. I always had the feeling her music was a reaction against his. But whatever the influences, she left a tremendous body of work and you write about it (and your other subjects) with insight.

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