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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


It won't take me to point out that 2020 has been the strangest of years and it will doubtless be topped off by one of the strangest of Christmases. Yet, wherever we are and whatever the situation we find ourselves in, we are all trying to make our respective celebrations as reminiscent of our Christmases past.

And whilst there are those who will complain of the commercialisation of Christmas and the consequent obscuring of its more spiritual essence, I feel the true meaning of Christmas lies in its sense of fixedness. There will still be trees and lights and presents and puddings and every attempt to reunite with our friends and our families and our loved ones (have I made a rather strange distinction here?). Whether its the Rea-esque trudge up the motorway or a mulled wine now shared over Zoom, We shall all be doing everything we can to make this year of all years feel as familiar as we can.

And that, for me is the true joy of Christmas - the opportunity to feel the glow of reconnection and bask in the warmth of its familiarity.

For the muso, there is a real sense of this too.

Because this is the one time of year, we can all be guaranteed to reflect on just how great Kirsty MacColl truly was. One would hope it's because it has drawn us to re-introduce "Kite" "Electric Landlady" or the effervescent "Tropical Brainstorm" into our current playlists but, you know and I know, that really we are dusting off our copies (or even, heaven forfend, your demonic downloads) of "Fairytale Of New York".

A record that has been voted the UK's favourite Christmas record and has entered the top 20 every year for the last fifteen years.

It may be because whilst it is an extreme - Elvis Costello, their original producer suggested they should actually call it "Christmas Eve In The Drunk Tank" which may well have jettisoned any chance of radio play - depiction of the festive season, it is entirely human. Few of us have ever taken a sleigh ride or roasted chestnuts on an open fire but we've all had arguments, drunk a little too much and made up in the hope that things can only get better. That again is the familiarity of Christmas for so many of us.

"Fairytale Of New York" is a record that had a very long gestation period taking over three years to see the light and underwent several rewrites and reconfigurations both lyrically and musically. It had originally been sung by the Pogues' bassist, Kait O'Riordan but this had never quite worked and so the song kept going on to the back burner. Shane MacGowan even tried performing both parts.

It was only when producer, Steve Lillywhite, suggested that his then wife, Kirsty MacColl, have a crack. So at their home studio she recorded her part and her husband then took it to the band. This seemed to ignite MacGowan who re-recorded his vocal and his original vision of an operatic duet took shape - though interestingly they never recorded any of it together.

So this is all leading into the latest Fab Five because we are going to look at ("Fairytale" aside which you hardly need me to remind you about) five memorable and enjoyable collaborations Kirsty MacColl was involved in during her tragically short but varied career.

Kirsty's own solo career was a little erratic, partly self-created and partly through sheer bad luck. She changed labels fairly regularly during the 80s and 90s in an attempt to develop a career but lack of sales or company bankruptcies or the stereotypical musical differences meant that she, as I said, comes to the mind of most at Christmas and her talent certainly deserved far more than that.

In one of the tributes that was put together after her sad passing, one of her producers talked about her incredible vocal ability which provided a blend of harmonics that was really difficult to emulate that gave a texture to her voice that became such a hallmark. She also possessed a truly dynamic singing range and a vehemently disciplined work ethic. As a result of these factors, whilst she was not necessarily recording her own material, she was much in demand as a session singer and guest vocalist.

Her sensibility brought her into contact with many musical figures but many of her best performances seemed to come with artists whose classification would tend to be independent or alternative (though she did once join a group backing the Stones and another for Agnetha from Abba).

Perhaps it is unsurprising that her career really began with one of the first UK indie labels and still one of the most influential - Stiff Records. However despite her first single achieving huge levels of airplay, a distribution problem meant that there were no records for anyone to buy. She would leave before they were finally pressed.

Now this isn't really a proper entry but she appeared on 'Top Of The Pops' backing her label mate, Jona Lewie, on "You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties". However, though it was originally thought that she performed on the record itself, she was just helping out for the TV appearance.

Her first hit was "There A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis" which has to be the best country and western song ever written in the UK. She was once more blighted with a lack of label support (Polydor this time) and she moved back to Stiff.

There, Kirsty became very influential in the launch of Tracey Ullman as a solo artist with both exhibiting their love for the slightly kitsch sixties girl-group sound and so gave her what had been her original single "They Don't Know" creating an almost identical remake. Ullman however, struggled to hit the high note of the "Baaaaby" vocal and so it is Kirsty's voice that is subbed in.

Around this time, Kirsty had married legendary producer, Steve Lillywhite who would work with many of the big British rock bands of the 80s. Thanks to Kirsty's championing of her then favourite band, Simple Minds, she was able to persuade her husband to produce the clattering "Sparkle In The Rain".

Their second single from the album "Speed Your Love To Me" was proving to be something of a struggle in the studio and when Kirsty was brought in, she apparently was able to reorganise the entire arrangement and create a much clearer dynamic.

This would not be the only time she helped out one of her husband's employers. According to Bono, she apparently chose the running order of U2's "The Joshua Tree" - the science apparently being the order in which she preferred the songs from most to least liked...

While at Stiff for the second occasion, she had another bona fide hit when she gave us her wonderful cover of Billy Bragg's "A New England". This had, of course, been one of the Bard of Barking's original sparse recordings and yet she was able to give it a shimmer that you would never have initially realised in the original recording. She also co-wrote two new verses with Bragg, himself once more showing her excellent pop sensibilities.

And then Stiff ran into financial trouble and she was once more back to guesting.

As I wrote earlier, Kirsty's choice of collaborations have also added to the lustre around her musical reputation, as she was particularly fond of working with bands a little out of the mainstream (or at least they were when she worked with them) and so it is no surprise that she worked on backing vocals for the darlings of the British indie scene, The Smiths, adding her backing to the "Ask" single, which was an effort (ironically enough) by the band to lighten the atmosphere on their records.

Here she became particularly friendly with Johnny Marr who would be come a fairly regular collaborator with her - especially on her next three albums, one of which "Electric Landlady" was a title that he had suggested.

She would also help out Morrissey with "Interesting Drug".

As if this didn't give her enough indie credibility, in 1989 she sang as a guest vocalist on the Happy Mondays "Hallelujah" - the lead single from their Manchester Rave On EP. This record was remixed by Paul Oakenfold and Andy Weatherall and became an underground and then very much over ground hit - they even created what was known as the "Kirsty Mix".

Hence, she was to appear on one of the most celebrated episodes of "Top Of The Pops" when the UK was introduced unwittingly to the Manchester Sound with the first appearances on national TV for the Mondays and their fellow Mancunians, The Stone Roses who performed the seminal "Fool's Gold".

The Roses' performance has probably stood up better but there brazening it out with the shambolic Mondays was Kirsty holding their performance together, looking like a long-suffering youth worker.

When the baggy scene faded away in a blizzard of cocaine and recriminations, the next albeit brief (but much more significant if you were an ardent reader of the music press) indie movement was what was known as the Stourbridge Sound - at least in certain DY5 postcodes. At the head of Ned's Atomic Dustbin and Pop Will Eat Itself, came the likeable but now rather over-looked Wonder Stuff.

To complete this eulogy to Kirsty's inimitable skills, she reprised her folky counterpoint that we had so enjoyed with the Pogues, in the Stuffies 1992 top 10 hit "Welcome To The Cheap Seats" from the EP of the same name. Again her input, elevated the song into something more magical and with the fiddle backing, the essential authenticity of her phrasing manages to keep pace with the machine-gun delivery of Miles Hunt.

For a performer who had such a relatively short career, Kirsty MacColl had a stellar CV of work with some of the more interesting (at least they were at the time) artists of the 80s and 90s. She went from the original post-punk movement through indie, baggy and new wave - not forgetting her ability to produce great pop records.

Of course, her connections helped all of this but quite simply everyone wanted to work with her because, put simply, she made records better.

She may have often been a guest but her discipline and desire to deliver excellence - which sometimes frustrated her less dedicated collaborators - always managed to bring something more magical out of a song's production.

The Pogues certainly never had a hit as big as "Fairytale Of New York" again . Simple Minds would never have found their follow-up. The Smiths never sounded so bright, The Wonder Stuff so accomplished nor a Billy Bragg song so catchy

So if over this festive period you find yourself looking for a little me-time, then you could do worse than exploring a little more into Kirsty's back-catalogue. She was far too distinctive too just be a backing vocalist and too knowing and to be a popstar so sadly, her skills in commercialising so many others never met the same level as most of her own work so thoroughly merited.

And with that, I hope that "this year's for me and you". Happy Christmas.

P.S. The NYPD doesn't actually have a. choir.

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Dec 20, 2020

Another proper goodie. I have pretty much all of Ms McColl's work but haven't listened to much of it for too long. Off now to put that right.

In the meantime, have a Merry a Christmas as is possible, my friend. Love from Penny, too.

PS Don't know about you but at this time of the year I often fondly recall the Not 'Arf days....


Dec 20, 2020

Thanks for bringing us more wonderful stuff Tony. I never realised just how influential she was.

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