Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


MacCOLL, Kirsty

(b 10 Oct. '59, Croydon, Surrey, UK) Singer, songwriter; an able musical chameleon with an excellent voice who has blended too well into the background. Underrated as a songwriter, her best songs match the sharp insight of Loretta Lynn's best ('I've been the token woman all my life/The token daughter and the token wife/Now I've collected tokens one by one/'Til I've saved enough to buy a gun' from 'Bad' on album Titanic Days). Despite her bloodlines as daughter of Ewan MacColl, one of the architects of the British folk revival, MacColl disavowed any particular folk background; she recalled listening to her father on the radio at home in Croydon, but by this time he was no longer with her mother. She was infl. by '60s pop like the Spencer Davis Group, Beatles, Kinks, Beach Boys and Mothers of Invention; she is most strongly associated in many people's minds with her cover of the Kinks' 'Days', with its Disneyfied promotional video and its use in advertising on British TV (even if we can't remember what it advertised). She gravitated to the Drug Addix, a combo imbued with the spirit of punk in which she sang under the alias of Mandy Doubt; they made EP The Drug Addix Make A Record for Chiswick '78 and supported Graham Parker and the Rumour before fading. Went solo '79, signed to Stiff and recorded the immediately lost 'They Don't Know', rated by Bert Muirhead's Stiff -- The Story Of A Record Label '83 one of the best releases on the important British indie; comedienne and actress Tracey Ullman had a no. 2 hit with the song '83. She made 'You Caught Me Out' with the Boomtown Rats for Stiff but it was not released. She signed to Polydor '80 for a measure of chart success, most notably with her third single, a gimmicky song called 'There's A Guy Works Down The Chipshop Swears He's Elvis' '81, also on Desperate Character on Polydor '81 in two different versions, the second in a pseudo-country style.

A disastrous Irish tour did not help her confidence or stagecraft (she doesn't like to do solo gigs anyway). Big record companies have a tendency to pigeonhole artists and her biggest success had been with a novelty song; she switched to indie North of Watford label '83 and did a session with Simple Minds, then returned to Stiff; a cover of Billy Bragg's 'A New England' '85 (reworked lyrically for her) made her name afresh. Kirsty MacColl on Polydor '85 gathered up a collection of her songs from this period. Worked on tour and in the studio with the Pogues on and off during '86--7 culminating in the misspent-Christmas-past hit 'Fairytale Of New York' '87, a duet with Shane MacGowan whose acerbity was likely to have people choking on their Christmas turkey. She made a solo comeback on Virgin: Kite '89 was especially fruitful, with shafts of humour such as 'Don't Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim'. Single 'Days' '89 appeared in the various formats of the day, one incl. a cover of Marty Robbins's 'El Paso', a long hard ride from punk. She duetted on the tongue-in-cheek 'Darling, Let's Have Another Baby' with Bragg '91, another B-side obscurity. Album Electric Landlady appeared '91, incl. 'Walking Down Madison', 'He Never Mentioned Love' and 'Maybe It's Imaginary'; song collaborations with Fairground Attraction's Mark E. Nevin were a hallmark of this gem. By now a trademark of her career was label-hopping as one company after another failed to invest in her long-term future; she told Caitlin Moran of The Times with a wave, 'Oh, record companies often have a complete inability to get a record in the shop. It's all politics and incompetence.' (Moran described her as the Lauren Bacall of pop music.) Her next album Titanic Days on ZTT/WEA '94 was beautifully more of the same. Galore '95 on Virgin anthologized her best songs ranging from 'They Don't Know' to 'A New England', from 'Fairytale Of New York' to 'Miss Otis Regrets', from 'My Affair' to 'Perfect Day'. Made a cameo appearance on Irish squeeze-box player Sharon Shannon's Each Little Thing on Grapevine '97 singing a cover of Grace Jones's 'Libertango'. MacColl has appeared as guest vocalist with acts as diverse as Rolling Stones, the Smiths, Talking Heads and Happy Mondays ('Hallelujah'); held her head high as a songwriter, remained an acute and witty observer.