Kirsty MacColl’s name has lived on since her tragic death in 2000 as a bit of a party piece. Every time Fairytale of New York rolls around on the Top of the Pops Christmas special, someone will pipe up with ‘she was killed in a boating accident in 2000 you know.’ What this pleasantry forgets is that Kirsty was, and is, a widely respected vocalist, linguist, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter with a genre transcending career and a lasting influence on alternative music to this day.
Kirsty was born October 1959 in Croydon, London, though her father and grandfather had been militant trade unionists of Scottish descent. Her Celtic roots are evident throughout her career through her strong friendship and frequent collaboration with bands like the Pogues. As a child, she and her brother Hamish shared a record collection containing the likes of the Beach Boys, the Kinks and Neil Young. The knack for faultless vocal harmony clearly clicked with her; Johnny Marr stated in an interview after her death that she could pick out the least obvious, most effective line of harmonies for a vocal and sing it without a second thought.
The start of Kirsty’s music career came in 1978, at a Stiff Records demo for the short-lived punk band Drug Addix. Whilst they managed to release one EP on a small label called Chiswick Records, larger labels found their music derivative and weren’t impressed. Kirsty herself was only marginally involved as a backing singer – however, Stiff clearly saw potential in her, and offered her a solo deal in 1979. The song that secured her place was ‘They Don’t Know.’ Even if it is a little schmaltzy, it’s a stellar and well constructed start to a musical career. It contains a glimpse of the vocal mastery she would go on to develop and a cover recorded by British-American actress Tracey Ullman was massively successful in the charts. Despite the success of the cover, Ullman had to include MacColl on her version, as certain parts of Kirsty’s range were impossible for her to achieve.
By no more than accident of birth, Kirsty’s career started just as the record industry was being thrown into tumult. Strikes prevented Kirsty’s version of ‘They Don’t Know’ from getting into record shops, which damaged its chart performance. It has also been suggested that MacColl didn’t care for the domineering approach that Stiff Records’ head had towards the artists, which further prevented more copies from being pressed. This would also explain why MacColl’s next single ‘You Caught Me Out,’ recorded and produced with the support of Bob Geldof’s Boomtown Rats, was rejected by Stiff and forced Kirsty to move to Polydor in 1981.
Her Polydor stint was similarly troubled. Though her initial single, ‘There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ charted as high as #14 in the UK, the album ‘Desperate Character’ (also 1981) failed to do well. Critics derided it for relying too heavily on cover versions, and that the few solo compositions did not realise the potential of the songs written for Tracey Ullman. The poor sales combined with the traction other acts such as The Smiths were gaining in the charts led Polydor to drop Kirsty just after the completion of a planned second album, which never materialised in its full form. Instead, Kirsty released a few singles from the album on her former label, Stiff (living up to their humourous tag line ‘the world’s most flexible record label.’
These singles included ‘Terry’ and ‘He’s On The Beach,’ which began to shy away from her ‘country rock’ early stylings and evidenced more new wave and synth sounds. Despite the success of a cover of Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’ spawning a partnership that would continue throughout Kirsty’s life, the two singles struggled commercially and Stiff filed for bankruptcy in 1986. Her most significant release of the period was probably her eponymous album in 1985, although this was little more than a lightly reworked version of Desperate Character. The time off was made a little sweeter by Kirsty having met husband Steve Lillywhite in 1983, producer to many famous acts of the 80s.
Her time between labels was spent guesting on records Steve was producing. The most well known collaborations are probably her backing vocals (“the bomb, the bomb, the bomb…”) on the Smiths’ Ask. However, Kirsty has also appeared on records with the Happy Mondays, Robert Plant and Talking Heads among others. She even set the track listing for U2’s The Joshua Tree. Her return to the fore finally came with the opportunity to appear on the Pogues’ 1987 duet Fairytale Of New York. This single was, and is, an enduring success. It tells the story of a working class Irish immigrant couple in New York. Controversy has consistently brewed around the use of the word ‘faggot’ in the song by Kirsty, with proponents of the original recording citing the fact that the word refers to a lazy person in Irish slang. However, both Kirsty and the Pogues have acknowledged the difficulty the continued use of the slur poses to the LGBTQ+ community, and have no problem with censorship of the word. The Pogues also recently released an alternate recording where the word is replaced with ‘haggard’ by Kirsty.
On a more positive note, Kirsty received a massive career boost from the success of the Pogues track. She credited her subsequent embarkment on a world tour with them in 1987/88 as having helped her overcome her stage fright – a phenomena she battled with to become a prolific performer. Her back catalogue is littered with BBC sessions and festival recordings, and she even had a successful TV career with frequent appearances on sketch shows such as French & Saunders and several times on Jools Holland‘s Hootenanny. In 1989, with legal issues stemming from a dispute with her former record labels finally resolved, Kirsty was able to finally release a solo effort representative of her true capabilities. Kite was the first of her albums to be released on Virgin Records.
1989’s Kite is widely regarded to be the peak of Kirsty’s career. It represents the culmination of her fantastic natural gifts for melody and harmony and the influence of some of the greatest musical minds of the 1960s and 80s. The first single from the album, Free World, was a moderate chart success that followed in her father’s and grandfather’s footsteps with a scathing indictment of Thatcher’s Britain. Critics praised its ability to be at once effective politically as it was melodic and an exercise in songcraft. It further demonstrated that neither money or fame were her motivation in music; her motivation was the music itself and she did not shy away from exposing hypocrisy in society. The album featured such titans of the industry as Johnny Marr and David Gilmour; a testament to the quality of Kirsty’s songwriting. Kite dealt with themes of the emptiness of fame, the role of women in society, and conversely the behaviour of men in society. Kite is, in my opinion, one of the most accomplished albums of all time. There is not one note wasted. A cover of the Kinks’ Days also enjoyed chart success, and a version of You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby by the Smiths was also available on the album’s extended version. My personal highlight is You and Me Baby written in collaboration with Johnny Marr. The album was also produced by Steve Lillywhite, and featured her first foray into foreign language songs, with the inclusion of the French La Foret De Mimosas and Complainte Pour Ste Catherine.
Although Kite had bolstered Kirsty’s status as an all time great songwriter, what followed was a severe period of writer’s block. Kirsty was growing disillusioned with a music industry that, despite her clear talent and connections, kept trying to throw her on the scrap heap. Her only recording in 1990 was Miss Otis Regrets/Just One Of Those Things, again with the Pogues for an AIDS benefit album.
The start of her next album came with her receipt of a demo tape from Johnny Marr; intended for one of his solo efforts following the breakup of the Smiths. However, at the time he had little interest in writing lyrics, and would bounce around several bands before settling into a solo career. The hip-hop influenced track Walking Down Madison was received positively by critics for its use of rap stylings and departure from both MacColl and Marr’s 80s styles. The album itself was released in 1991, titled Electric Landlady, inspired by a misprint that Johnny Marr had seen of the Hendrix album Electric Ladyland.
The album was, again, positively reviewed. It perhaps didn’t quite reach the heights of Kite with slightly weaker songs, but tracks like All I Ever Wanted and We’ll Never Pass This Way Again demonstrated her Machiavellian ability to make awkward chord sequences marry to the least obvious melodies. The Cuban-inspired My Affair, a tongue in cheek reminder to the listener to mind their own business, was a hint of things to come later in her career and became a staple of her live set throughout her TV appearances in the late 90s. Chart success was inexplicably elusive however, contributing to Virgin Records’ dissatisfaction.
Unfortunately, My Affair was apparently not only addressed to the listener, but evidenced Kirsty’s growing unhappiness in her relationship with Steve Lillywhite. The couple had 2 children, but struggled to resolve their personal issues, prompting Kirsty to label her 1993 release Titanic Days as her “sad divorce album.” Cruelly, this was yet another album to suffer from label issues. Kirsty had continued to record tracks for the album for Virgin Records, however, the label had been sold to EMI in 1992, with her being dropped in the process. This meant much of the material had to be recorded at home, and musicians had to agree to wait for a record deal to receive payment. Kirsty later admitted she was depressed when the album was recorded, calling it the hardest she had done. Having Steve engineering on some tracks is a testament to their mutual mental strength – the album is a clear representation of emotional turmoil.
Kirsty was unable to release Titanic Days until a deal was struck with ZTT Records, who only agreed to release the album in the UK as a one-time favour. IRS Records, who signed Kirsty to release the album in the US, would fold in 1996 despite having released records by many famous bands like REM, The Police, Dead Kennedys and the Buzzcocks, amongst others. As such, the album itself is still unavailable on some streaming sites (a travesty!).
Whilst the stomping, twangy Can’t Stop Killing You (another joint venture with Marr) and soaring, morose ballad Titanic Days both pay tribute to failing relationships and the associated emotional trauma, perhaps the most honest song was left off the official release. Dear John appears only on the bonus CD of the album and a 2005 retrospective compilation, and even then, only in demo form. The single itself was given to Eddi Reeder, who broke down when she first heard Kirsty’s demo, both of them realising the song was essentially a note to Steve Lillywhite admitting that their marriage was over. Listening to the version today, it’s evident that there was a lot of emotion on the recording. The lyrics are direct and the instrumentation uncomplicated. A career highlight.
Soho Square is another of the album’s most famous tracks – it has found something of a resurgence since her death as the song whose lyrics were chosen for a memorial bench in its namesake location. It can be difficult to listen to the song, a strangely upbeat moment in the overall album, longing for the day when her personal issues are resolved and life returns to the carefree existence one has at 17. To hear it today, knowing she will never realise that dream, is understandably difficult for fans, friends and family alike, though it is a regular addition to tribute set lists. The other big, ethereal moment is the lead single Angel, which has taken on a similar connotation since Kirsty’s death. It is a quiet, almost euphoric song with almost ghostly harmonies that easily won the affections of critics at the time. Yet all this critical success, all this talent, was not enough to sway ZTT Records and the period following the album looked as bleak as Kirsty and Steve felt.
A brief return to Virgin in 1995 heralded the release of two singles: Caroline and Perfect Day, a cover of the Lou Reed original with Evan Dando providing vocals too. These were little more than recordings from the cutting room floor, they weren’t bad by any stretch, but Kirsty’s continual rejection by record companies had left her disillusioned. Indeed it seemed that by 1995 she had little interest in continuing her music career, remarking that she’d prefer to travel the world than keep offering up recordings to be rejected by record companies. She did release a compilation in 1995 entitled Galore, which charted well, but was not enough to relieve her writer’s block.
The period between 1995-1998 was spent travelling Latin America, a culture she had always harboured an interest in and fell in love with almost instantly. My Affair had flirted with Latin styles in terms of strings, horns and Flamenco guitars; her South American vacation would go all Spinal Tap and turn this dial up to 11. The various Cuban and Brazilian records she collected were the answer to her block, and paved the way for a massively eclectic effort for 2000 which would prove the second peak of her career.
Tropical Brainstorm was made by a much happier, hopeful person than had made Titanic Days. Both are equally fantastic, but the former was fantastically effective in its ability to portray Kirsty’s fascination with Latin America, her lyrical and melodic mastery, and the hopes she felt with her children growing up and having found new love in 1999. Critics received it even better than Kite – they were wowed by the seamless integration of world music stylings into her trademark witty lyrics and instantly memorable melodies.
England 2 Colombia 0 dealt with untrustworthy lovers in a sultry A minor dance, whilst the bop In These Shoes trashed fashion obsession. The latter was picked up by both Sex and The City and The Catherine Tate Show to serve as a theme tune, bolstering Kirsty’s popularity and recognisability once again, rather than allowing people to just think of her as the girl from Fairytale of New York. Many of the songs included Spanish language lyrics, evidencing her desire to appreciate rather than appropriate the culture she was presenting to a European audience. It was the first of her albums to be certified silver in the UK, yet V2 Records (a spiritual successor to Virgin Records, also started by Richard Branson) dropped Kirsty just after its release. It’s almost as if prioritising business over music isn’t good for music. Who’d have thought?
Despite these setbacks, by 2000, Kirsty had already started work on a planned follow up album. Progress was encouraging, however, having just completed almost 3 years of non stop work on Tropical Brainstorm, she elected to take a break with her sons and go scuba diving off the coast of Mexico.
On the 18th of December, 2000, Kirsty and her sons were diving in an area explicitly demarcated for diving in a national park in Cozumel, Mexico. Watercraft was not allowed to enter this area. When they surfaced from a dive, a speedboat had entered the area and was not travelling slowly. The last act of Kirsty MacColl was to push her son out of the way of the boat – he survived with minor head and rib injuries; the impact of the boat killed her instantly.
Claims of eyewitnesses and the owner of the boat, Mexican supermarket mogul Guillermo Gonzalez Nova, are contradictory. According to witnesses, he was at the controls. According to him, it was his employee – a boathand named Jose Cen Yam. Whilst Cen Yam was found guilty of homicide, the only punitive measure he faced was a £61 fine which he was allowed to pay to avoid a prison sentence. Nobody has faced real justice for the death of Kirsty MacColl.
Her influence on the music industry has been palpable – not only did she write a menagerie of, as titans like Marr, Morrissey, Bono and Bragg attune to in the liner notes to Galore, the greatest songs of all time – she frequently gave them away to other singes who she thought could do them justice. The world lost a shining light in December 2000 – she is so much more than the girl killed in a speedboat accident.