- Children of the Revolution
Kirsty Anna MacColl (10 October 1959 – 18 December 2000) was an English singer and songwriter. She wrote and recorded several pop hits between the early 1980s and the 1990s. In addition, she sang on hit recordings produced by her then-husband Steve Lillywhite, notably on tracks by The Smiths and The Pogues.
At the age of 41, MacColl died after being hit by a boat in Mexico.
Kirsty MacColl was the daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl and dancer Jean Newlove. She and her brother, Hamish MacColl, grew up with their mother in Croydon, where Kirsty attended Park Hill Primary School, Monks Hill High School and John Newnham High School, making appearances in school plays. At the time of her birth, her father had been in a relationship with folk singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Peggy Seeger since 1956 (a relationship that would continue until his death in 1989), and already had a son with her.
She came to notice when Chiswick Records released an EP by local punk rock band the Drug Addix with MacColl on backing vocals under the pseudonym Mandy Doubt (1978). Stiff Records executives were not impressed with the band, but liked her and subsequently signed her to a solo deal.
Her debut solo single “They Don’t Know“, released in 1979, peaked at number two on the Music Week airplay chart. However, a distributors’ strike prevented copies of the single getting into record stores, and the single consequently failed to appear on the UK Singles Chart.
MacColl recorded a follow-up single, “You Caught Me Out”, but felt she lacked Stiff’s full backing, and left the label shortly before the song was to be released. The single was pulled, and only a few “white label” promo copies of the single are known to exist.
MacColl moved to Polydor Records in 1981. She had a UK number 14 hit with “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis“, taken from her critically acclaimed debut album Desperate Character. In 1983, Polydor dropped her just as she had completed recording the songs for a planned second album (to be called Real) which used more synthesizers and had new wave-styled tracks. She returned to Stiff, where pop singles such as “Terry” and “He’s On the Beach” were unsuccessful but a cover of Billy Bragg‘s “A New England” in 1985 got to number 7 in the UK charts. This included two extra verses specially written for her by Bragg. Also around this time, MacColl wrote and performed the theme song “London Girls” for Channel 4’s short-lived sitcom Dream Stuffing (1984).
In the United States, MacColl was probably most recognisable as the writer of “They Don’t Know”. Tracey Ullman‘s version, reached #2 in the UK in 1983 and #8 in the United States in early 1984; Ullman’s video for the song featured a cameo by Paul McCartney near the end.
When Stiff went bankrupt in 1986, MacColl was left unable to record in her own right, as no record company bought her contract from the Official Receiver. However, she had regular session work as a backing vocalist, and she frequently sang on records produced or engineered by her husband, Steve Lillywhite, including tracks for Robert Plant, The Smiths, Alison Moyet, Shriekback, Simple Minds, Talking Heads, Big Country, Anni-Frid Lyngstad (of ABBA), and The Wonder Stuff among others. She appeared in the videos “Welcome to the Cheap Seats” for The Wonder Stuff and “(Nothing But) Flowers” for Talking Heads (along with ex-The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr).
MacColl re-emerged in the British charts in December 1987, reaching Number 2 with The Pogues on “Fairytale of New York“, a duet with Shane MacGowan. This led to her accompanying The Pogues on their British and European tour in 1988, an experience which she said helped her temporarily overcome her stage fright. In March 1989, MacColl sang backing vocals on the Happy Mondays‘ Hallelujah EP.
After the contract issue was resolved, MacColl returned to recording as a solo artist and received critical acclaim upon the release of Kite (LP) in 1989. The album was widely praised by critics, and featured collaborations with David Gilmour and Johnny Marr. MacColl’s lyrics addressed life in Margaret Thatcher‘s Britain on “Free World”, ridiculed the vapidity of fame in “Fifteen Minutes”, and addressed the vagaries of love in “Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!” Although Kite contained many original compositions, MacColl’s biggest chart success from the album was the cover of The Kinks‘ song “Days“, which gave her a UK Top 20 hit in July 1989. A bonus track on the CD version of Kite was a cover of the Smiths song “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”.
During this time, MacColl was also featured on the British sketch comedy French and Saunders, appearing as herself, singing songs including “15 Minutes” and “Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me Sunny Jim!” (from Kite), “Still Life” (the B-side of the “Days” single), “Girls On Bikes” (a reworking of B-side “Am I Right?”) and, with comedy duo Raw Sex, the Frank and Nancy Sinatra hit “Somethin’ Stupid“. She continued to write and record, releasing the album Electric Landlady (coined by Johnny Marr, a play on the Jimi Hendrix album title Electric Ladyland), including her most successful chart hit in North America, “Walking Down Madison” (co-written with Marr and a Top 30 hit in the UK), in 1991. Despite the song’s U.S. chart success, Landlady was not a hit for Virgin Records, and in 1992, when Virgin was sold to EMI, MacColl was dropped from the label.
She released Titanic Days, informed by her failing marriage with Lillywhite, in 1993, but ZTT Records had agreed only to release the album as a “one-off” and declined to sign her to a contract. In 1995, she released two new singles on Virgin, “Caroline” and a cover of Lou Reed‘s “Perfect Day” (a duet with Evan Dando), together with the “best of” compilation Galore.
Galore became MacColl’s only album to reach the top 10 in the UK Albums Chart, but neither of the new singles, nor a re-released “Days”, made the Top 40. MacColl did not record again for several years; her frustration with the music business was exacerbated by a lengthy case of writer’s block. MacColl herself admitted that she was ready to give up her music career and become an English teacher in South America.
In 1998, the album What Do Pretty Girls Do? was released, containing BBC Radio 1 live sessions (featuring Billy Bragg on two songs) that were broadcast between 1989 and 1995.
After several trips to Cuba and Brazil, MacColl recorded the world music-inspired (particularly Cuban and other Latin American forms) Tropical Brainstorm, which was released in 2000 to critical acclaim. It included the song “In These Shoes?”, which garnered airplay in the U.S., was covered by Bette Midler and featured in the HBO show Sex and the City. After MacColl’s death it was adopted by Catherine Tate as the theme tune for her BBC TV show and featured on the soundtrack to British film Kinky Boots.
In 2000, following her participation in the presentation of a radio programme for the BBC in Cuba, MacColl took a holiday in Cozumel, Mexico, with her sons and her partner, musician James Knight. On 18 December 2000, she and her sons went diving at the Chankanaab reef, part of the National Marine Park of Cozumel, in a designated diving area that watercraft were restricted from entering. With the group was a local veteran divemaster, Iván Díaz. As the group were surfacing from a dive, a speeding powerboat entered the restricted area. MacColl saw the boat coming before her sons did; Louis (then 13) was not in the boat’s path, but Jamie (then 15) was. She was able to push him out of the way (he sustained minor head and rib injuries) but in doing so, she was hit by the boat and killed instantly. MacColl’s remains were repatriated to the United Kingdom and she was cremated after a humanist funeral at Mortlake Crematorium in London.
The powerboat involved in the accident was owned by Guillermo González Nova, multimillionaire president of the Comercial Mexicana supermarket chain, who was on board with members of his family. One of his employees, boathand José Cen Yam, stated that he was in control of the boat at the time of the incident. Eyewitnesses said that Cen Yam was not at the controls and that the boat was travelling much faster than the speed of one knot that González Nova said. Cen Yam was found guilty of culpable homicide and was sentenced to 2 years 10 months in prison. He was allowed under Mexican law to pay a punitive fine of 1,034 pesos (about €63, £61 or US$90) in lieu of the prison sentence. He was also ordered to pay approximately US$2,150 in restitution to MacColl’s family, an amount based on his wages. People who said they spoke to Cen Yam after the accident said he received money for taking the blame.
Since MacColl’s death, Billy Bragg has always included her extra verses when performing “A New England“. She was honoured in 2002 with a memorial concert in London at the Royal Festival Hall, featuring a number of musicians who had worked with her or been influenced by her. A similar memorial concert was scheduled for her birthday (10 October 2010) at the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire, to support her favourite charity The Music Fund for Cuba.
In 2001, a bench was placed by the southern entrance to London’s Soho Square as a memorial to her, after a lyric from one of her most poignant songs: “One day I’ll be waiting there / No empty bench in Soho Square”. Every year on the Sunday nearest to MacColl’s birthday, 10 October, fans from all over the world hold a gathering at the bench to pay tribute to her and sing her songs.
MacColl continues to receive media exposure; in 2004, Kirsty MacColl: The One and Only, a biography of MacColl written by Karen O’Brien, was published. A retrospective three-CD set spanning her full career, From Croydon To Cuba, was released in 2005. Titanic Days was re-released in 2005 as a deluxe 2-CD set, and Kite and Electric Landlady were also remastered and rereleased with additional tracks. Her first album, Desperate Character, was given its first CD issue in 2012 on the Salvo label. On 7 August 2005, The Best of Kirsty MacColl, a single-disc compilation that included a “new” single, “Sun on the Water,” made its debut on the UK album charts at number 17, climbing to #12 a week later.
MacColl’s collaboration with the Pogues, “Fairytale of New York,” remains a perennial Christmas favourite. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, it was voted favourite Christmas song in a poll by music video channel VH1. The song was re-released in the UK in December 2005, with proceeds being split between the Justice for Kirsty Campaign and charities for the homeless. The re-release reached number 3 on the UK charts, and spent five weeks in the top 75 over the Christmas and New Year period. It reached the top 10 for the third time in its history in 2006, peaking at number 6, and charted yet again in December 2007, when there was brief controversy over the use of the word ‘faggot‘ in the lyrics, which BBC Radio 1 dubbed out “to avoid offence,” 20 years after it had first passed over the airwaves without comment (or apparent offence, although the rhyme had been changed to “haggard” for a St Patrick’s Day concert in 1998); following criticism from listeners and MacColl’s mother, Radio 1 reversed their decision later in the day. The song has also made the Top 20 in the two subsequent years, and has now charted in ten separate years. With the exception of the 2005 and 2012 re-releases, the seasonal re-charting in the 21st century is due to download sales, and not due to further releases (download sales counting toward the singles chart since 2005). A 7″ single was produced in 2012 to mark the 25th anniversary of its original appearance (Rhino Records WEA400), backed with an instrumental version.