September 29, 2021

Remembering Kirsty MacColl


I first heard Kirsty MacColl in the mid-1980s. She had recorded a very synthpop version of Billy Bragg’s “New England” and it was making the rounds of metro New York City clubs as well as the local new music station WLIR. Kirsty’s version was different enough that it was hard to tell if it was the same song. She had a voice that was as, at times, sultry as Alison Moyet though considerable higher. Whereas Moyet’s mid-80s music was soulful (basically a 1980’s version of Adele), MacColl’s was bright and breezy pop. That’s what made the choice of “New England” so interesting. It’s not a happy song. Instead, it’s about a broken relationship and, in Bragg’s original version, feels harsh and almost menacing with lines “I don’t feel bad about letting you go/I just feel sad about letting you know”. Yet, Kirsty made it work. The 80s synths, sweeping arrangements, and cheery tone made the song sound even more psychotic, as if the narrator was enjoying the pain they were imposing on their former lover.

Kirsty MacColl was still, in the U.S. at least, something of a cult figure and known mostly for “New England”. That changed in 1988 when she recorded the duet “Fairytale of New York” with Shane MacGowen for The Pogues’ breakthrough album If I Should Fall from Grace with God. Ostensibly a Christmas song, it’s a warped tale of two lovers who come to America, expecting the streets to be paved with gold, only to discover poverty and addiction. It sounds light and cheery with the chorus “The boys of the NYPD choir/Still singing Galway Bay/And the bells are ringing out/For Christmas day”.

The rest of the lyrics, however, are much darker. A back-and-forth between MacColl and MacGowen in the middle of the song goes like this:

You’re a bum
You’re a punk
You’re an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

That’s pretty harsh. Yet MacColl and MacGowen sing them sweetly, just as she did in “New England”. So, sweetly that radio stations throughout the U.S. unknowingly play this song about domestic horror in heavy rotation around the Christmas Holiday. Makes me wonder if the radio programmers even bother to listen to the lyrics of the songs they play. Probably not…

After “Fairytale of New York”, Kirsty was well known on MTV and college radio. Whereas 1981’s Desperate Character had been mostly ignored in the U.S., 1989’s Kite was at least a critical hit. 1991’s Electric Landlady was a bonified popular hit on alternative and college radio, especially the opening track “Walking Down Madison”, co-written by Johnny Marr of The Smiths. The second song on the album, “All I Ever Wanted” co-written with Marshall Crenshaw, was new wave enough to be almost retro by 1991. The album, overall, has a sexy but quiet feel, very urban in its tone, similar to Dido who emerged later in the 90s and early 2000s. The follow up album, Titanic Days (1993), shows Kirsty maturing as a pop singer and composer.

The story ends tragically, however, in 2000. In December of that year, Kirsty was killed in a boating accident in Mexico under mysterious circumstances. She was past her prime as far as the music charts were concerned – Titanic Days and the posthumously released Tropical Brainstorm never achieved anywhere near the popularity of Electric Landlady – but was still recording and her musical direction was in line with more adult-oriented electro-pop that singers like Dido and, later, Adele, were successful with in the 2000s. If not for her untimely death, it is likely I would be reviewing new Kirsty MacColl albums today.

Kirsty had a way of taking the harshest material and making it palatable but not trite. Her voice and music were becoming sexier, more urban and less light. She continued to add depth to her music until she died.

If you are interested in learning about Kirsty MacColl’s music, I suggest the singles “New England”, which was never released on a regular (i.e. not compilation) album, and “Fairytale of New York”, to start. Follow up with albums Kite and, especially, Electric Landlady.