MacColl was the daughter of left-wing folkie Ewan MacColl, though he had left her mother for Pete Seeger’s sister when she was still a young child. Growing up in Croydon, in suburban south London, MacColl’s first venture into the music business was via the punk revolution of the late 70’s, but she soon left that behind in favour of of self-written and finely crafted pop songs. My first awareness of her came via her witty,country-inflected single, ‘There’s a guy works down the chip shop swears he’s Elvis’ (1981), revealing her as a chronicler of the byways of British culture in the same fashion as Ray Davies or Andy Partridge.
I remember being a tad disappointed with her first album, ‘Desperate Character’ (also from 1981), mainly because the synth-driven ‘new wave’ arrangements just didn’t seem to be an ideal framework for her acutely-observed songs or her excellent harmony singing, but her version of Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’ (1984) revealed her as having a sharp eye for a good cover version and also seemed to provide her with a much more sympathetic musical backdrop. By now Kirsty was married to U2 and Simple Minds producer Steve Lillywhite and much of the late 80’s was taken up with raising their two kids and wrestling with contract problems caused by the collapse of Stiff Records in 1986. She became a bit of a hired gun for a while, providing memorable harmonies to David Byrne’s ‘Rei Momo’ album and also sang vocals with or for Tracy Ullman, The Smiths and Talking Heads, to name but a few.
Kirsty’s frustrations with the record business had hindered her career considerably, but the wheel began to turn again when she duetted with Shane McGowan on The Pogues’ huge Christmas hit ‘A Fairytale of New York’ in 1987 and by 1989, she was finally able to release a second solo album (‘Kite’), produced by her husband and with stellar sidemen including David Gilmour, Johnny Marr and Guy Barker. ‘Kite’ seemed to be the point at which all the cogs clicked into gear for MacColl; great songs, sympathetic backing and excellent production. It’s probably my favourite of her albums with marvellous songs like ‘Innocence’, Free World’ and ‘Don’t come the cowboy with me, Sonny Jim!’ Her cover of Ray Davies’ ‘Days’ was also a big hit for her
Having taken 8 years to produce a second album, the third one arrived just 2 years later. It was entitled ‘Electric Landlady’ , a play on famous album titles allegedly coined by Johnny Marr, as he was by this time living in MacColl’s old London apartment. Marr played guitar for her again and there was a new writing companion, Mark Nevin, formerly of Fairground Attraction. The album offers a more fragmented view of MacColl’s talents and finds her experimenting with other forms such as urban rap and the Latin-tinged pop that was to dominate the later stages of her career. Her first ventures into Latin music – notably the hilarious ‘My Affair’ – were probably fuelled by her work with David Byrne. However, the album also features songs that were recognisably within MacColl’s existing stylistic boundaries, notably ‘Children of the Revolution’, a diatribe against middle-class lefties written with Marr, ‘Hallowe’en’ , written with Nevin and the grimly cynical ‘He never mentioned love’.
Kirsty MacColl & Mark Nevin on stage at London’s Mean Fiddler
By now, MacColl had fetched up in the wide-open spaces of a major label – Virgin. They seemed largely incapable of deciding how to promote her and this uncertainty coincided with the collapse of her marriage to Lillywhite. She was dropped by Virgin with little ceremony. Yet again, it was back to the drawing board, but Kirsty returned in 1994 with her ‘divorce’ album, entitled ‘Titanic Days’. Mark Nevin was also embroiled in marital strife at this time,so it’s hardly surprising that much of the album was co-written with him. Again, there are some marvellous songs – ‘Angel’, ‘Can’t stop killing you’ and ‘Soho Square’ but the album, released as a one-off by ZTT, had little impact and soon dropped off everyone’s radar, which is a pity as it contains some excellent material.
Things went quiet after that, though a ‘Best of’ collection (‘Galore’ – 1995) performed well in the charts, but there was to be little new Kirsty material for nearly 5 years. In fact, she had almost decided to quit the music business entirely and take up a career as an English teacher in South America, but the release of some BBC sessions (‘What do Pretty Girls do?) recorded between 1989 and 1995, sparked some interest and a new love interest – allegedly provided by her son’s saxophone teacher, James Knight – led to a renewal of songwriting and recording activity in 1998-9.
Ultimately, this led to the release of the Latin -dominated ‘Tropical Brainstorm’ in 2000. The album gained great reviews and featured some of Kirsty’s wittiest lyrics in ‘England 2 Colombia 0’, ‘In these shoes?’ and Here comes that man again’ as well as some more tender offerings, such as ‘Autumngirlsoup’ and ‘Head’. The lyrics suggested that the winsome girl of ‘A New England’ had finally been supplanted by a knowing and mature singer/songwriter who was once again at the top of her game.
Gaining a foothold in the record business was something that had always been a struggle for Kirsty MacColl – women singers, she memorably observed, were typecast as either ‘dollybird bimbos or soapbox sociologists’. However, with ‘Brainstorm’ gaining good reviews and selling respectably, MacColl completed a BBC radio series on Cuba before heading off to Cozumel in Mexico on holiday with her new partner and children. It was here that she was to die in a senseless and murkily sinister accident, run over by a large speedboat whilst diving with her kids – her last act was probably to push her son out of the boat’s path only to be decapitated by its propellors. In a cynical manipulation of justice that would not have surprised Kirsty at all, the alleged driver of the boat was able to escape a prison sentence by paying a fine of about £60. Kirsty was 41.
What we’re left with is a body of work that is more substantial than Jeff Buckley’s but less so than…pick your own candidate here. Had ‘Tropical Brainstorm’ failed to revive her career, it is conceivable (though unlikely) that she might have quit music entirely, maybe to have another child or to teach. This is, of course, speculative. It would be nice to think that she would in time have been seen (as Ray Davies is and Ian Dury might have been) as an English treasure. Sadly, we’ll never know. She also leaves behind a dedicated fanbase who assemble in Soho Square on the anniversary of her death each year by the bench that was placed there and which features a plaque with relevant sections of the ‘Soho Square’ lyric quoted on it.
Detail of the Kirsty MacColl bench in Soho Square