The only category that singer-songwriter Kirsty MacColl’s music can be put in is “impossible to define” – it’s part pop, part torch, part folk, part social commentary, with a dash of country and western thrown in here and there for flavour. She’s often described as being a folk singer, possibly because that’s just what her father Ewan MacColl was, and because her voice has a certain folky feel to it – it’s good, but not smooth and polished like an Alison Moyet, or a Whitney Houston. However, Kirsty herself always thought her music was too electronic to be folk.
Kite, released on the Virgin label in 1989, was her first hit album – 19 years after her first single (They Don’t Know, which was later covered with huge success by comedienne Tracy Ullman).
There had been albums, of course, but they’d sunk, the only trace of their existence being a couple of hit singles – There’s a Guy Works Down the Chipshop Swears He’s Elvis, and a cover of Billy Bragg’s New England. Other than that she did a lot of session work, wrote a lot of songs and sang with The Pogues on the absolutely glorious Fairytale of New York, the best Christmas song ever.
The single which launched the album was a wistful cover of Ray Davies’ Days. I fell in love with it the minute I heard it – a break up song full of quiet regret but without bitterness, delightfully sweet and sour. I bought the album (and tickets for her 1990 tour date at The Junction in Cambridge – a great gig) and was delighted to find that every song on it was wonderful, in its own way, each telling a short story of its own – there are no silly love songs on this album. I bought it on vinyl, and that’s what I’ll comment on; the CD version has three additional tracks.
One thing you need to be aware of if considering listening to Kirsty MacColl – you won’t be given sentimentality, and though there is some sweetness it’s rare and hardly ever untouched by the bitter side. What you will get is some exquisitely crafted vitriol, wit, humour and realism. Even at her darkest, Kirsty isn’t depressing – she often couples her saddest lyrics with perky tunes – most of her tracks that leave you with a small smile, however twisted the smile might be.
Innocence, written by MacColl with Pete Glenister, her guitarist, opens the album and is a fast, driving number, with some truly hilarious lyrics – my favourite line has to be Just give me fifty thousand lire for my thoughts,
It’s about a guy who has lost touch with where he’s come from, as told by a girl from home who doesn’t mince her words. It’s very catchy, especially the hook-line Are you waving or drowning? It’s hard to tell when you’re so far away.
Free World is a bitter indictment of Thatcherite Britain and the “me” culture that clearly reveals Kirsty’s socialist beliefs, the lyrics having the same kind of bite that characterises other politically disaffected performers of the era such as Elvis Costello or Billy Bragg:
And I'll see you baby when the clans rise again
Women and children united in the struggle
In this free world baby
Got to take it got to grab it
Got to get it up and shag it
In this free world
Mother's Ruin, again written with Pete Glenister, is a touching exploration of loneliness and what you might do to keep it at bay for a while. It has the same kind of country feel as Squeeze’s Labelled with Love, and a not dissimilar perspective.
Days, as mentioned above, is a cover of an old Kinks number, penned by Ray Davies, delivered in a soft wistful tone that’s almost hypnotic, though it don’t let that give you the impression that it’s a slow number, because it isn’t. Davies liked this version so much that he invited Kirsty to sing it at one of their final tour dates, rather than having the band do it themselves. It remains one of the most enduring of Kirsty’s singles, still getting a lot of airplay.
Like many MacColl songs, No Victims is about a break-up, this time the woman leaving a man who evidently doesn’t care for her – it’s slow but slightly lilting, with lyrics full of bravado: I'm no victim to pity and cry for/ Or some sad lonely encounter the night before. Obviously the narrator is everything she denies – but she’d never admit it in a million years, and so she demands you respect her. It’s a song that to me is simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful.
Fifteen Minutes may be my favourite track on the album, although I’m torn between it and a couple of others. It’s another biting little number which pillories the kind of celebrities who get their fame – or notoriety – from being the friend, lover or one night fling of somebody famous, using scandal for self promotion:
Then there's always the cash!
Selling yourself for some trash
Smiling at people that you cannot stand
You're in demand
Your fifteen minutes start now
This song pokes less than gentle fun at those who’ll do anything for a little attention. The tune swings, and is beautifully easy to sing – and to get caught in your head for days on end, which can be embarrassing, since you might find yourself breaking into There’s Suzy-Ann with her tits and curls as you sit on the bus.
Don't Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim! returns to a firmly country and western feel, which at first seems appropriate to the title, until you give it a second thought and realise that “coming the cowboy” is most decidedly not an American phrase, but a north-country English one which mocks someone who’s putting on an over-macho act. This one is a song about a woman who’s trying to find a better, more understanding lover, sung to the man she thinks might be him -- There’s a light in your eyes tells me somebody’s in/And you won’t come the cowboy with me.
What I particularly like about this track is the vivid word pictures MacColl paints in such a minimalist way – in the first verse she talks about casual sex - The boots just go back on/the socks that had stayed on and instantly you get a feeling of the desperate seediness of the whole episode, and the lack of any real feeling in the man involved.
Tread Lightly, another MacColl/Glenister composition, is poppy in feel and deeply bitter in content, as it examines the way dreams can turn to nightmares and life can strip away illusions – the title is based on a line from W.B Yeats’ He wishes for the cloths of heaven :Tread lightly, for you tread on my dreams but twists it a little to make it a piece of advice of the ‘be careful what you wish for” type: Tread lightly in your dreams – they might come true for you tomorrow
What Do Pretty Girls Do? Looks at the fate of the type of person she mocks in Fifteen Minutes once their fifteen minutes are past – the pretty girls who got old and embarrassing and everyone wants to forget. There’s a certain amount of sympathy in this one, though not much – it’s mostly reportage. Again, the upbeat bounciness of the tune can fool you that it’s a happy song, until you listen to it properly. Pete Glenister shares the credits on this one, too.
Dancing In Limbo fights it out with Fifteen Minutes and Days to be my favourite. The tune is a kind of dreamy staccato, the words again about disappointment, but it’s gentler than most MacColl lyrics and curiously beautiful. The swaying chorus: Time goes/ Summertime slow/ And the world stops turning/ And they're dancing in limbo, limbo, limbo strongly evokes a close-your-eyes-and-drift feeling that’s really very pleasant.
Johnny Marr from The Smiths co-wrote The End Of A Perfect Day which has as its central message, “All good things come to an end. Deal.” The final couplet is, for me, the most important and thought provoking part of the song I really couldn't tell, it just depends what you remember/ At the end of a perfect day. which leaves me with the question “Do you feel good about the perfection, or mourn its loss?”
You and Me Baby is another Johnny Marr co-write and it’s the closest thing on the album to a true love song. It’s filled with a mixture of uncertainly and hope the relationship in this song is current but not always easy, with doubts constantly stalking the delights - it’s real. What’s more, in a show don’t tell way, the song tackles the difficulty of talking about love – the narrator is a little incoherent, not quite able to find the words, but always, always sincere:
You and me baby, well we got no friends
Except for you and me baby
This is journey's end
And I try to hang on to all those precious words
But they don't come easy
No I know they hurt
You and me baby, well we help each other
And I'll be your sister if you'll be my brother and
We won't be parted
And we will be friends
'Cause it's you and me baby and
It's journey's end
On the CD version there are three more tracks You Just Haven't Earned It Yet Baby (A remake of a Smiths song, this version is used on the soundtrack of She’s Having A Baby), La Forêt De Mimosas and Complainte Pour Ste Catherine. I haven’t heard any of these, though I have heard that the French accent on the last two is distinctly dodgy.
Even so, on the strength of the twelve tracks I do know, I’d recommend the album to anyone with a taste for good music, intelligence and humour who can cope with a woman being a bitch every now and then.