They Don’t Know Kirsty MacColl

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Despite widespread critical acclaim, Kirsty MacColl never achieved commercial success commensurate with her incomparable voice and consummate songwriting skills.

Some assume that she drew musical inspiration from her father Ewan MacColl, the Scots folk singer best known for writing “Dirty Old Town” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

In fact, he played no meaningful role in his daughter’s early life, having abandoned the family soon after her birth yesterday in 1959.

“Everyone assumes that we lived like the Waltons, sitting around a campfire and playing acoustic guitars all day,” Kirsty said. “But I grew up alone with my mother, and I spent all my time alone in my bedroom listening to records.”

It started at age four, when she first heard the Beach Boys. Transfixed and transported, she wore out every single, deciphering the harmonies and teaching herself to sing every part.

Her first recitals took place in front of the television. During his variety show, when Andy Williams would sing, “Kirsty would take her violin out of the case and accompany him,” her mother remembers. “I would have a quiet laugh to myself, but she took it very seriously. Then she’d put the violin away until Andy Williams came out for another song, and out would come the violin.”

She grew up in Croydon, a brutal borough in South London. “I felt like an alien all the time,” Kirsty recalled. “I was quite scared at school, because it was a rough one and I’d insisted on going there. I kept thinking, ‘Boy, if I can only survive school. If I can only survive ‘til I’ve left home, everything will be all right.’ And it was.”

In 1978, she cut an EP as a backing vocalist with a punk band called the Drug Addix. Stiff Records rejected the band, but signed Kirsty because her voice blew them away.

Despite her prodigious talents and this early apparent break, she had a consistently star-crossed career.

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For her debut single, Kirsty crafted “They Don’t Know,” a perfect distillation of defiant love in the style of ‘60s girl groups. It rose to #2 on British radio charts, but made no money for the label because a 1979 distributors’ strike prevented the record from reaching store shelves until stations had long since ceased to play the song. Stiff Records summarily dumped Kirsty.

She caught on with Polydor and recorded her first LP, Desperate Character. When “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis” became a minor UK hit, the label let Kirsty record another album. Shortly after she finished it, Polydor perished in bankruptcy, so her work was wasted.

With her career sputtering, she married producer Steve Lillywhite and raised two boys while recording sporadically and contributing backing vocals for some of the artists her husband produced.

As her children grew, Kirsty honed her songwriting, perfected her voice and developed her signature sound. “She would sing like a keyboard,” her husband remembers. “She sang without vibrato and when you don’t have vibrato you have this wonderful glassy sound, which is how you can get that Beach Boys thing.”

“She knew how to use her voice,” said Billy Bragg. “She’d tell the engineer where to put the mics, and she’d tell the producer what she was going to do next. She did this amazing thing where she’d do a take, then go round into a different position and do another take to layer up this amazing sound, then: ‘That’s all. Let’s go to the pub.’”

Finally, her career began to gain some traction.

In 1984, comedienne Tracey Ullman’s cover of “They Don’t Know” — featuring Kirsty on backing vocals — hit the top ten in the UK & the US. They also collaborated on “You Broke My Heart in 17 Places.”

The next year, Kirsty’s Beach Boys-inflected cover of Bragg’s “A New England” reached #7 in Britain.

Her duet with Shane MacGowan of the Pogues — the transcendent Christmas classic, “Fairytale of New York” — peaked at #2 in 1987 and remains a perennial favorite in the British Isles. Kirsty’s fiery tirades provide the perfect counterpoint to the male character’s drunken self-pity.

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In 1989, she released her magnum opus, Kite, which includes outstanding collaborations with guitar greats Johnny Marr and David Gilmour. The album definitively displays Kirsty’s lyrical and vocal versatility across genres and languages, from blistering folk-rock eviscerations of capitalist excess (“Free World”), the music business (“Fifteen Minutes”) and no-good men (“No Victims”), to the countrified twang of “Innocence” and “Don’t Come the Cowboy with Me, Sonny Jim!”, to the sweetest ballad ever (“You and Me, Baby”; featuring some of Gilmour’s best and subtlest guitar work), plus two great songs in French: “Complainte pour Ste. Catherine,” (a world music-inspired cover of a McGarrigle Sisters song) and “La Forêt de Mimosas,” penned by Kirsty.

Unfortunately, Kite did not sell well, scoring only a minor UK hit with her transcendent rendition of “Days,” a Kinks song. Despite her great gifts as a recording artist, Kirsty struggled to shed baby weight and consequently did not fit the industry’s concept of a pop star. This made her self-conscious, contributing to camera shyness and stage fright that made music videos and touring terrifying for her.

Kirsty’s next album, Electric Landlady (1991), nearly matched Kite for quality, but sold even more poorly. Standout tracks include “Halloween” and “My Affair” — the latter representing her first flirtation with Spanish lyrics and Latin American musical styles.

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Then Kirsty’s world collapsed almost completely. Dumped both by her husband and her record label, she recorded Titanic Days (1993) in the throes of a deep depression. The album — another commercial failure — nevertheless contained flashes of brilliance, like the heartfelt, hopeful “Soho Square” and the wicked wit of “Bad,” with knife-sharpening auxiliary percussion in homage to Lorena Bobbitt.

Stymied by writer’s block, she took conventional measures to arrest her commercial free fall: compilations, covers, a live album.

In 1995, Kirsty released a career retrospective including liner note accolades from Bono, Bragg, the Smiths & the Talking Heads. Galore included two new songs: “Caroline” — a nuanced response to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” from the perspective of the other woman — and “Perfect Day,” a beautiful duet with Evan Dando that exceeds Lou Reed’s original by infinite orders of magnitude. Neither Galore nor two compilations of her earlier work generated much airplay or sales.

What Do Pretty Girls Do? (1998) — a shoestring live set — did even worse, but contained delightful renditions of “El Paso” and “Walk Right Back” (first made famous by Marty Robbins and the Everly Brothers, respectively). More important, it showed that she had conquered her stage fright.

In 2000, Kirsty mounted a comeback with Tropical Brainstorm (2000), an album of original songs inspired by frequent visits to Latin America. The record contains some of her best writing, but limited funds made it less polished — marred in many places, for example, by the use of soulless programmed percussion in lieu of live drummers. Its best cuts include the womanizer-bashing “England Two, Colombia Nil” and the impossibly sweet Brazilian-flavored “Golden Heart,” featuring her new boyfriend James Knight channeling Stan Getz on the saxophone.

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As Tropical Brainstorm began to generate modest airplay, Kirsty took her two teen sons scuba diving in Cozumel, Mexico. As they surfaced in a zone reserved for swimmers, she saw a speeding powerboat bearing down on them. Kirsty pushed one boy out of the boat’s path and grabbed the other to shield him, taking the full force of the impact herself. She died instantly — sliced in half by the propeller — but Kirsty saved her sons’ lives.

Witnesses saw the boat driven by its owner, Mexican supermarket magnate Carlos González Nova, but the businessman bribed an employee to take responsibility for him. Convicted of culpable homicide, the fall guy avoided a 3-year sentence by paying penalties based on his modest wages: a $90 fine, plus $2,150 in restitution to Kirsty’s family.

Her last song, “Sun on the Water,” provides an aptly poignant epitaph:

Sun on the water
Making it hard to see
Sun on the water
Lapping around my feet

A farmer’s daughter
Living a long time ago
She had a notion
To go where the rivers flow

Farmer’s daughter
Walked for a year and a day
When she reached the ocean
Grew a tail and swam away

It was the place where she felt free
And Heaven lies under the sea
Hell is just dry land to me
When I’m dreaming

Written by

History, politics, education, music, culture. Award-winning high school teacher, former principal. College instructor. Seahawks Diehard. Twitter: @brian_mrbmkz

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