Obituary: Kirsty MacColl – Singer/songwriter (41) – (18 December 2000)

Christmas would not be the same without Ms MacColl and The Pogues and their Fairytale of New York.

Photo: Kirsty MacColl. Photograph: Charles Dickins/EMI Music

20 December 2020 | Adam Sweeting | The Guardian | With additional photos and videos

Last March, Kirsty MacColl released Tropical Brainstorm, a witty, wise and acerbic work widely hailed as the best album of her career. A

t the time, she said that “whenever I go into a studio, I operate on the principle that I might get hit by a bus tomorrow. And I’d hate the obituaries to have to read: ‘And her last album was her not-very-good album.’”

She avoided that fate, but her death, at the age of 41, must prompt speculation about the albums she might have made. Tropical Brainstorm bore all the hallmarks of her recent infatuation with South America – even though it was recorded in drizzly old Britain with non-Latin musicians – but throughout her career she proved herself adept at writing or performing in diverse idioms.

MacColl’s first Top 20 hit from 1981, There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis, was a novelty effort, which suggested she might be a kind of female Chas & Dave.

But her collaboration with the Pogues, on the whisky-sodden 1987 Christmas hit, Fairytale Of New York, revealed new musical and dramatic gifts, while later releases found her tripping nonchalantly through country & western, rock and electronic dance music.

Even though she never entirely overcame the stage fright which probably kept her from achieving the success that should have been her due, MacColl was steeped in music and the performing arts.

Her father was the folk musician Ewan MacColl, and her mother was the dancer and choreographer Jean Newlove, although, by the time Kirsty was born, her father had married Peggy Seeger.

She grew up in Croydon, south London, with her mother, her older brother Hamish and three younger half-siblings. Ewan used to visit them on Sundays.

Her first adventures in the music business found her tiptoeing round the edges of punk rock. In 1978, she sang with a band called the Drug Addix; she dubbed herself Mandy Doubt. The group made an EP called The Drug Addix Make A Record, which came to the attention of Stiff Records.

However, Stiff were only interested in Kirsty, and invited her to record a debut solo single, They Don’t Know; it was released in June 1979, after she had dropped out of art college. The disc flopped, but the song became a substantial hit for Tracey Ullman four years later.

Despite the success of A Guy Works, MacColl still could not establish herself, not least because of her fear of live perfor mance.

On a tour of Ireland, she once rushed through her material at such a pace that she ran out of songs and had to sing them all again.

None- theless, she was back at Stiff Records in 1985, and returned to the UK charts with a version of Billy Bragg’s song, A New England. “She has possession of one of the most distinctive voices in pop,” he said.

By now MacColl was married to the record producer Steve Lillywhite, who was quick to make full use of her talents, which included perfect pitch and a knack for recording harmony vocals on the first take.

She appeared regularly as a backing singer on production efforts by Lillywhite and others, and featured on discs by Simple Minds, Happy Mondays, The Smiths, Talking Heads and Robert Plant.

I t was her solo album, Kite (1989), that finally saw MacColl realising some of her potential. The songs were, by turns, funny, tender and furiously political, one of her recurring themes being the treatment of women in the music business. “The music industry packages women,” she said. “You’re either a dolly-bird bimbo or a soapbox sociologist.”

Subsequent releases included Electric Landlady, Titanic Days and the compi lation Galore, but despite the manifest quality of her songwriting – and showers of critical plaudits – sales were disappointing, and MacColl grew accustomed to the chore of shopping for new record labels. She remained visible via regular television appearances with French and Saunders, while her music has been used in several movies and in the TV comedy, Moving Story.

She was never able to reconcile herself fully to working in a music industry she often despised – “It gets slightly less to do with music every year,” she complained. This, perhaps, contributed to the breakup of her marriage in the mid-90s. “She’s brilliant,” Lillywhite once said, “and sometimes she’s not very happy.”

MacColl’s discovery of the delights of South America and the Caribbean had even prompted her to consider giving up music for travelling. “It was like a sudden liberation of my brain,” she recalled. “I had spent so long being unhappy in a very British way, and suddenly there was all this new stuff.”

She leaves two sons, Jamie and Louis.

Kirsty MacColl, singer, born October 10 1959; died December 18 2000

High on spiky teeth and Cuba

I met Kirsty, with her long red hair and smashing smile, on November 11 in Havana, making Kirsty MacColl’s Cuba, eight music programmes due for transmission on Radio 2. She worked at record pace.

Decisive, with strong opinions, she had been in Cuba several times in the last 10 years. She regaled us with tales of driving, with her sons and a Cuban doctor friend, the length of the island to Santiago in the early 1990s, of giving hitchhikers lifts and avoiding potholes and goats on the road. She was proud that her picture had, just the week before, been on the front page of Granma, Cuba’s main newspaper, for handing in a petition in London supporting the island’s struggle against the US embargo.

Returning from a heavy day recording in Santa Clara, at the new mausoleum for Che Guevara, then down at the Bay of Pigs, she insisted on us buying a bottle of nine-year-old Havana Club rum, which we consumed, while telling all the jokes we knew: Kirsty had more than anyone – and they were the most wicked. We sang her finest piece, an a cappella music-hall ditty learnt from Ewan when she was young: “It’s a great one if the sound goes wrong on stage and you’ve got to keep the audience pacified, it stops them in their tracks.”

She talked gardens; she was passionate about her own, with its two ponds, naming every tree and plant she had. We went to visit Ibrahim Ferrer, of Buena Vista Social Club, then to interview José Luis Cortés, of NG La Banda, Cuba’s most controversial street cred group.

Kirsty was half-hearted about Cortés until she met him. By the time we left, they were talking of writing and recording a song together. She left Havana, enthusing over her extra bag, packed with beautiful etchings of armour fish discovered in the market, and “more papier-maché fish, but these ones have got real spiky teeth”.

Jan Fairley

Born: October 10, 1959
Died: December 18, 2000
Biography | Discography (Studio Albums):

Desperate Character (1981)
Kite (1989)
Electric Landlady (1991)
Titanic Days (1993) | Read More
Tropical Brainstorm (2000)


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