A buyers’ guide to Kirsty MacColl

Has any songwriter ever been more perfectly human than Kirsty MacColl? Intelligent, witty, wilful, vulnerable, contrary, mind-bogglingly talented, possessing a steely resolve and yet still coming across as approachable and utterly vulnerable, was there any wonder that I was besotted with her back when I was a teenager? Hell, I guess I still am. However, that doesn’t mean her musical output was flawless. Far from it in fact. However, that has just meant that in some ways, it’s never less than interesting

While she started out as the backing singer for punk no-hopers The Drug Addix under the pseudonym Mandy Doubt, the immensity of Kirsty MacColl’s talent was tangible from the very beginning. This ensured that she was the only member of her band to sign to Stiff Records, where she kicked off a career which saw her establish herself as one of the most relentlessly talented songwriters, not only of her own generation, but in the long and varied history of popular song.

Kirsty was the daughter of finger-poking folk-revivalist Ewan MacColl, who abandoned his wife and kids to shack up with Peggy Seeger shortly after Kirsty was born. Perhaps it was a reaction to this caused her to seek out the popular music that her father was so dismissive of. A huge fan of girl groups, the stacked sound of Phil Spector and The Beach Boys, these influences would continually bubble up throughout MacColl’s career, as would her unparalleled understanding of what made for great pop music.

The early years of her career were not all plain sailing. MacColl’s dismissal of celebrity and refusal to play the fame game meant that the various record companies that she was signed to throughout her career were continually frustrated that she continually refused to allow them to manipulate her and market her as a pure pop act. This, combined with commercial success that can only be described as sporadic, meant that MacColl was signed and dropped by multiple record labels down the decades. While MacColl’s contemporary, Kate Bush, received an immense amount of support and blind faith from EMI from the very beginning of her career, the equally strongly opinionated MacColl would spend her career struggleing to find a label she could call home.

Although MacColl’s debut single for Stiff, “They Don’t Know” received rave reviews, there was a distribution snafu, which meant that it was not available in record shops despite the generous amount of airplay it received. A follow up single with Stiff failed to chart, prompting MacColl to search for an alternative record deal, which lead her ultimately to Polydor, with whom she recorded her debut album.

Released in 1981, Desperate Character is a diverse pop album on which MacColl explores her influences, and offers no little amount of promise and giving her enough room to display an already well developed sense of humour and a grasp of great pop dynamics. The humour is most obviously on display on “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chipshop Swears He’s Elvis”, MacColl’s first legitimate hit single. Listening to it now, it’s still an undeniably great pop song, despite it having the distinct feeling of a novelty number, which may have limited MacColl’s chances of enjoying a follow up hit.

As an album Desperate Character offers a diverse range of pop tunes, many of which luxuriate in a 60s girl group feel, though in retrospect MacColl’s songwriting had yet to hit full maturity. Much of this could be put down to her age (she was barely 22 at the time of recording), but that’s underselling the pop brilliance of tunes like “Clock Goes Round”, “Teenager in Love” and “He Thinks I Still Care”. Also of note is “Mexican Sofa”, MacColl’s first public flirting with latin rhythms that she would return to repeatedly throughout her career.

While Desperate Character may not be the most vital Kirsty MacColl album, it showcased her unique talent and pointed to plenty of promise for the future. It wasn’t a hit though, and combined with her resistance to being groomed as a cookie-cutter pop star, resulted in Polydor dropping MacColl as she concluded her sessions for Real, a follow up album that would have utilised more contemporary synth pop sounds.

Retreating back to Stiff to nurse her bruises, MacColl would strengthen her resolve to achieve success on no one’s terms but her own. Both “Terry” and “He’s on the Beach” should have been great comeback singles, however both failed to reach a receptive audience, and neither charted. More successful was her cover of “A New England” by her friend and creative soul mate Billy Bragg. Bragg wrote a pair of new verses for MacColl’s version of the song, and for her part, MacColl retooled what was already a brilliant song into a pop masterpiece. Further complications were only around the corner though, as Stiff would go into receivership, leaving MacColl once again without a record deal, as unbelievably no one opted to pick up the option on her recording contract.

Simultaneous to all this drama that was stalling her own recording career, MacColl had found herself on a lot of other acts’ recordings. Years of listening to Phil Spector and 60s girl groups had led Kirsty MacColl to develop a singing style which allowed her to harmonise with herself via studio overdubs, creating an utterly unique backing vocal style that allowed her carve a niche as a much in demand backing singer and vocal arranger. It was while recording backing vocals for Simple Minds that MacColl met her future husband and producer, Steve Lillywhite.

It was as a guest on another act’s single that Kirsty MacColl would enjoy her biggest hit. Although it has been played to death since, when it was released, The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York” was a revelation after a decade of sub-par festive pop singles. It is undeniably a great pop song, however it is now distinctly overplayed and unfairly eclipses the rest of MacColl’s career in the eyes of the general public, to the point where many would struggle to name any other song she recorded.

A double edged sword “Fairytale of New York” might have been, but it effectively relaunched MacColl’s own solo career. Signing to Virgin, she would head to the recording studio to record what would become her much-delayed second album. Kite was released in 1989 to significant critical praise and featured a mix of covers and originals, with her cover of The Kinks’ “Days” being another medium-sized hit single, despite a generous selection of self-penned material on the album. This perhaps contributed to MacColl’s increasing reputation for being a great interpreter of other people’s songs, but not being able to pen a great song herself. This reputation was demolished as soon as anyone listened to any of her self-penned songs on Kite, with “Don’t Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim” being her latest example of brilliantly withering songwriting that saw MacColl dismantle the male ego. This ability to cut men down to size while still alluding to her own personal emotional failings is a skill that no other songwriter has ever managed to do with the same brilliance as MacColl.

If Kite does have a failing, it’s the fact that it leaned too heavily on Lillywhite’s processes, resulting in some songs which would have benefitted from sparse arrangements and production being a little over-worked. Nevertheless, in retrospect it’s undoubtedly one of Kirsty MacColl’s best albums, as the her songwriting reached its maturity, her parallel career appearing on other’s recordings was paying off, and she was slightly more comfortable with making public appearances after battling stage fright throughout her career to date. Add on top of this her frequent appearances on the French and Saunders TV series, collaborating with the show’s house band Raw Sex (The lack of an EP, or mini album, of Kirsty MacColl fronting Raw Sex is one of the more obvious gaps in her discography), and Kirsty MacColl was at something of a peak in terms of her visibility, and song-stealing appearances on hit singles by the likes of the Happy Mondays and The Wonder Stuff only increased her profile.

While Kite didn’t prove to be the enormous commercial success that it deserved to be, it was fully expected that MacColl would consolidate her success with her second album for Virgin, 1991’s Electric Landlady. Despite starting promisingly with the baggy-ish “Walking Down Madison” (MacColl’s biggest hit in the USA), and featuring the feverish latin rhythms and songwriting pop perfection of “My Affair”, Electric Landlady compounded the production problems that were already there on Kite. Songs like “All I Ever Wanted”, which only required modest instrumentation and minimal production to make the most of them, were smothered in a thick lacquer of production, as if MacColl was uncertain of her abilities of a songwriter and vocalist. There was also a dip in quality control too, with much of the second half of the album being uncharacteristically forgettable. Electric Landlady was not the success it should have been, and Kirsty MacColl found herself being dropped by yet another record label.

MacColl was understandably dismayed at this turn of events and experiencing difficulties in her relationship with Lillywhite, her fans couldn’t have blamed her for wanting to step away from the limelight for a while, however she channelled both her positive and negative energies into a new album, Titanic Days, which was released by ZTT in 1994 as a one-and-done deal. Much of the material on Titanic Days was written in collaboration with former Fairground Attraction, Mark E Nevin, and even for such an accomplished songwriter as Kirsty MacColl, Titanic Days was a refreshingly honest assessment of their individual failed relationships. “Angel” and the title track were once again phenomenal pop songs, and “Soho Square” and “Bad” are the very definition of career defining, however it is a song which was not included on the finished album which may be the best from this period of MacColl’s. A demo version of “Dear John” has subsequently seen official release, and that musically pared-back version of the song accentuates the emotional devastation of the lyrics. “Dear John” is a breathtaking piece of writing with an emotionally overwhelming vocal performance, though perhaps MacColl felt it was too on the nose, so baulked at recording a fully realised version or vetoed the inclusion of it on the album. Nevertheless, Titanic Days is one of MacColl’s key releases, probably her most sympathetically produced albums (Lillywhite was no longer producing for obvious reasons) and proof of what she could achieve even with a reduced recording budget.

Despite having dropped her following Electric Landlady, in 1995 Virgin released Galore, which served as a handy single disc summation of her career to date, and is arguably still the best showcase of her career and the place to start for a newcomer. It also featured a new track, which also happened be one of her best songs of her career. “Caroline” is yet another Kirsty MacColl single which deserved to be massive, but barely charted. Regardless of its lack of commercial success, “Caroline” is an utterly brilliant slice of pop music, described by MacColl herself as ‘Jolene’s response’. I’m not aware of Dolly Parton ever having covered “Caroline”, but surely it is only a matter of time>

While Galore did solid business for both Virgin and MacColl, it is notable that she decided to self-fund the recording sessions for what would prove to be her final album. Tropical Brainstorm was released on V2 in 1999, and, taking inspiration from her numerous trips to Cuba, it was absolutely infused with the latin rhythms that MacColl had been toying with as early as her Desperate Character era. In terms of songwriting, Kirsty MacColl was still knocking it out of the park, though admittedly your enjoyment of Tropical Brainstorm will depend on how much you appreciate latin rhythms. “Us Amazonians” and “England 2 Colombia 0” is certainly a late career highlight, though I have to admit the over-use of “In These Shoes” on all manner of awful television programmes and films that MacColl herself would never have authorised, has spoilt that particular song for me. Nevertheless, Tropical Brainstorm was a huge creative success for Kirsty MacColl, and she once again seemed to be on the verge of huge success at the time of her shockingly brutal death in late 2000.

MacColl’s death prompted the inevitable mass reassessment of her career, and the plentiful obituaries for her painted her either as an unfulfilled talent, or an uncelebrated genius. The tragedy of it is that sold her legacy short, yet it’s what has stuck in the mind of the wider public. Kirsty MacColl was intelligent, witty, cutting, an utterly phenomenal songwriter and had one of the most unique voices in popular music, however she also fully admitted to her own flaws and failings, her songwriting could focus as easily on how women were shit at relationships, as well as men. What perhaps cements her as a flawed genius is the fact that, despite her best efforts, she was frustrated in her attempts to record that one truly satisfying album that her talent always deserved. True, both Kite and Titanic Days are great albums, but you can’t help but feel that they fall just short of reflecting her true brilliance.

Since 2000, there has been a substantial reissue campaign of all of MacColl’s albums, which meant that Desperate Character was finally released on CD after being unavailable for years, and Titanic Days was much easier to find. In 2005, From Croydon to Cuba: The Anthology was released, a three disc compilation which massively expanded the scope of Galore by including demo versions, some of the material from the sessions for Real, semi-obscure cover versions and a substantial accompanying booklet which breaks the compilation down song by song. For the Kirsty MacColl completist, it’s at least as vital as any of her studio albums. Also of interest is 1998’s collection of radio sessions “What Do Pretty Girls Do?”.

Since 2005, there have been a multitude of compilations of varying quality, none of which have matched the vitality of Galore, putting too much emphasis on over-familiar material like “In These Shoes” and “Fairytale of New York”, as if she never released anything else of much worth.

These days, all five of Kirsty MacColl’s studio albums are relatively easy to find, while Galore and from Croydon to Cuba are the compilations to seek out and somewhere between those seven albums lay a reassuringly grounded, phenomenally talented, and utterly beguiling songwriter that we will probably never see the like of again.

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