It’s been 20 years since we lost Kirsty MacColl. The most talented singer songwriter that most people have never heard of. It’s ironic that the song of hers that gets played the most on the radio is her cover of Billy Bragg’s “A New England”.
Any list of my favourite songs would have to include at least one Kirsty song, as she’s been there at all kinds of major events in my life.
Kirsty only produced a handful of albums as her recording life was constantly scuppered by issues with record companies and recording contracts. I think I’ve got multiple copies of most of her albums (like any crazy devoted fan would) except the very early (and very rates) Desperate Character. Some albums I have were re-issues after her death, possibly with extra tracks added. These ones I’ve kept wrapped in plastic and unopened because I’ve found it harder to listen to her music since she died. I think because she was a part of my life for so long, it’s hard to imagine that there are no new songs coming that will a soundtrack to future events of my life.
I bought the three widely available albums (on cassette!) when I arrived in the UK and was living in Blackpool. Kite and Electric Landlady and Titanic Days were the soundtrack to my after work walks around the town and on the beach. They brought me comfort at a lonely time in my life.
I bought the greatest hits album Galore on CD, despite not having a CD player, but was able to record it on cassette so I could listen to it until I reached the point in my life where I could afford a CD player, some years later.
When her last album, Tropical Brainstorm, was released in 2000, the same year she died, I went to see her play at the Jazz Café in Camden. I was hearing the songs for the first time, and the prospect of a new album was exciting because Kirsty was not the most prolific of song writers so each new album was an event to be celebrated. I remember hearing the song “England 2 Columbia 0” for the first time, and thinking “Oh my God, did she date the Irishman too?” (I remember seeing an interview with one of her band members, talking about this song. “How did that date go last night Kirsty?” “I’ve written a song about it, do you want to hear it?“)
I tried to count how many times I’ve seen Kirsty in concert. I think it was as many as four, which again is pretty good going because she also suffered from stage fright and didn’t perform often. I remember the first time I saw her in concert was just after I moved to London and I was broke and I had to wait until I got paid so I could afford to buy a ticket, and of course by that stage all the tickets were sold out, but I went along to the venue anyway, hoping that there might be something for sale on the door.
Getting to this concert was one of those times where I practiced the art of “Zen navigation” as espoused by Douglas Adams in the Dirk Gently novels. Zen navigation is the art of looking for someone who looks like they know where they’re going and following them. When I got off the tube station at Willesden Green, I looked around at the people getting out of the train to see who looked like they might be going to the Kirsty concert. At first I was going to follow the girl in the sparkly dress, but then I made a reality check – it was more likely to be those two men of a certain age who looked like serious music fans. My hunch was correct and the serious music guys took me directly to the venue. I joined the queue of unticketed and had one of those OMG! moments when Kirsty and members of her band actually walked past me, into the venue. Not many minutes later, us unticketed people were allowed in, paying the ticket price at the door.
Having been a fan for many years, and living in a country where Kirsty is even less known than she is in her homeland, to be in London amongst other fans, seeing her play live, felt so good. I felt like I’d found my people.
And for a while after her death I did join the Kirsty memorial get-togethers, where fans would gather by the bench in Soho Square on her birthday to sing some songs and then retire to a nearby pub to sit and chat. And here you could release your inner Kirsty nerd because we were all Kirsty nerds. We would sing and chat, and in between get togethers we would pass messages on a chat group. Eventually I drifted away, but I remember those gatherings fondly.
I find it hard to listen to her songs now knowing that there won’t be any more especially as so many of these songs are soundtracks to many moments of my life like standing on a cross-channel ferry leaving Hamburg harbour listening to “The Hardest Word.” Or waking up with a terrible hangover in a youth hostel in Budapest and reaching for my walkman to listen to Galore until the headache went away. Or the birthday trek across London at lunchtime so I could sit on the bench in Soho Square on my birthday. Or looking out the window of a pension in Madrid and seeing a giant poster for the movie Titanic across the square and thinking of the lyric “We should rejoice in these Titanic Days.” Or the excitement of being in a second hand record shop in Australia and finding the single “See That Girl” which I’d never heard of. Or being with a friend listening to “A New England” and realising both of us were singing different melody lines. (“I always thought ‘New England’ would be great with loads of harmonies” Kirsty said.)
In fact those multi-layered harmonies were a feature of her earlier recordings, giving every song the feeling of being sung by an angelic choir. The video for “A New England” even has a kind of angelic choir appearing in it.
At this time of year, her voice is all over the radio as The Pogues’ greatest hit gets its annual Christmas hammering. I like this song, but I can’t listen to it too much.
Kirsty died on December 18, 2000 while on holiday in Mexico with her sons. She was struck by a speedboat that entered the area where she was diving and she was struck by the boat’s propellers as she pushed her boys out of the way.
We are lucky to have her golden gems of songs to remember her by. And for me, I have a series of memories attached to those songs which means they will always be special to me.
For those unfamiliar with Kirsty’s work, I’ve included some links to videos below.
Kirsty’s own song, “They Don’t Know”, was actually released in 1979, but due to a distributors’ strike it failed to chart. However it was covered by and a huge hit for Tracey Ullman, but using Kirsty’s voice for the high notes because Tracey couldn’t hit that ~Bay-bee!~ Tracey Ullman covered quite a few other Kirsty songs.
For a short introductory song, Free World is great. I think it’s Husband’s favourite of her songs and it should get more radio play – but it doesn’t. (Whenever they play A New England on the radio he shouts “Play the one that she wrote!”)
“All I ever wanted was a little more respect from you.” Who hasn’t thought this at some stage of their life?
I like this one, cynical and clever lyrics hidden behind a jolly little melody.
Her last album, Tropical Brainstorm, drew heavily on Latin influences. After Titanic Days (her “sad, divorce album”), this album is upbeat and happy.
Not content with writing and singing the best songs you’ve never heard of, Kirsty also appears in several pop classics. For instance, she sings in the background here (although not appearing in the video).
During her time of being between recording contracts, she sang with Talking Heads and featured in their video.
And she met the Wonder Stuff while they were both working in the same recording studio. She ended up singing with them and appearing in the video for “Welcome to the Cheap Seats”.
Not to forget singing and appearing in the video with her good mate Billy Bragg for his song “Sexuality”. (After all he wrote an extra verse for her version of “A New England” so it would be long enough for radio play.)