Kirsty MacColl was a one-woman Beach Boys. The singer-songwriter who wrote Tracey Ullman’s girl group-flavored smash “They Don’t Know” and traded barbs with Shane McGowan on the Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York” could also multi-track her crystal-clear voice into gorgeous cushions of pop perfection (check out the harmonies on her own “He’s On The Beach”).
Over the course of her diverse career, MacColl unhesitatingly ventured into other musical realms, drawing on country, rap and Latin influences for her own music, while providing backup vocals for David Byrne, the Rolling Stones, Alison Moyet, John Wesley Harding, and Happy Mondays, to name just a few. MacColl’s unique voice was silenced December 18, when she was killed by a speedboat while swimming off the coast of Mexico. She was 41.
Born and raised in England, MacColl was the daughter of folk legend Ewan MacColl. She began her own music career in the late ’70s in the punk outfit Drug Addix, then signed a solo deal with Stiff Records, which released her original version of “They Don’t Know” in 1979. A subsequent single, “There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis”, was issued from her 1981 Polydor debut Desperate Character (and was revived many years later by Seattle country-rock band the Picketts).
Mainstream success eluded MacColl, but minor hits such as “Fairytale” and her cover of Billy Bragg’s “A New England” kept her in the public eye during the ’80s. She married producer Steve Lillywhite in 1984 and had two sons; the couple separated a decade later. MacColl’s subsequent solo albums, Kite (1989), Electric Landlady (1991) and Titanic Days (1993), saw her collaborating with ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, and ex-Fairground Attraction guitarist Mark E. Nevin, mixing together tales of failed relationships with cutting social commentary (“Children of the revolution coming out to play/Someone sells a gun and someone blows them all away,” sounds even more chilling today than when it first appeared on Landlady).
Last year’s Tropical Brainstorm highlighted her interest in Cuban music; one of her last projects was narrating the radio series “Kirsty MacColl’s Cuba” for BBC Radio Two. MacColl’s deft touch with a lyric, keen ear for pop melodicism, and consummate vocal style will be much missed.