What does it sound like?:
Kirsty MacColl is a darling of The Afterword but not particularly well known in the real world. Her biggest hit was guesting on The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York but how many listeners to that song can name the woman who plays the role of curmudgeonly wife? There may well be more U2 fans aware that she sequenced The Joshua Tree than have actually listened to her songs. French And Saunders obsessives probably wouldn’t recognise her despite her frequent appearances in the video skits. Her career is littered with mishaps and near misses. Her first single, They Don’t Know, attracted a good deal of airplay but sales were thwarted by a distributors strike and it failed to chart. She suffered crippling stage fright and went through a long period of writer’s block. She released five studio albums in her lifetime for four different record companies. When Stiff Records went bust, no-one picked up her contract from the receiver and she had to make a living providing backing vocals for others. It helped that her husband was producer Steve Lillywhite. Her last album, Tropical Brainstorm, was certified Gold in the UK but, nevertheless, her label dropped her before her tragic death later the same year.
See That Girl (1979-2000) is a comprehensive career-spanning eight CD set. There are 161 tracks, 47 of which are previously unreleased, including her would-have-been second album, Real. A sixteen LP vinyl set has been deemed to be impractical but you can stream or download. Disc one consists of all her UK singles. Discs two to six are chronological albums, outtakes, demos, extended versions and her live performances. Disc seven collects together her recordings for the BBC and the final disc collaborations and songwriting for others. There was a packed three CD career retrospective released in 2005 and each of her albums were reissued with a second disc of extras but this is in a different league altogether. It’s difficult to imagine there is anything other than a few stragglers missing. Her scene-stealing contribution, with The Pogues, to the Red, Hot & Blue charity LP, her single with Matchbox and the theme tune to the TV series Moving Story being the most notable absentees. In addition, the packaging is a delight. The fabulous Jude Rodgers provides text for a sixty page hardback book that walks us beautifully through Kirsty’s life, highlighting her inspirations and influences along the way, as well as speaking with close family, friends and fellow musicians. The book is worth the very reasonable price of entry alone. The whole box is put together with such care and affection it reflects the enduring love and esteem in which Kirsty MacColl is held.
It’s easiest to track her development over the singles disc. She starts as a sweet, girl next-door, emulating the Girl Groups of the sixties, openhearted and generous of spirit, with a flavour of unassuming, self deprecating Britishness. However, scratch the surface and you find that she is less head-over-heels swoon than The Ronettes or The Supremes and more street-smart nonchalance as in The Shangri-Las. She has a razor wit, can see through the chancer males she encounters and her barbs are sharp. Her covers are exemplary, because she takes the song on face value, meeting it halfway, never over-egging the pudding. Billy Bragg’s New England is stoically down-to-earth, Kinks’ Days gently euphoric and, most impressive of all, You Still Believe In Me from Pet Sounds is extraordinarily tender and vulnerable. After a period of getting down and dirty with boys with jangly guitars (On The Beach), a flirtation with Country and Western (Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim) and a left turn into some Hip Hop (Walking Down Madison), she reaches a state of worldy-wise maturity just as her marriage fell apart (Angel). Finally, she embraces Latin Music (My Affair), going to the trouble of learning Spanish to fully immerse herself in the joy of it (Mambo De La Luna).
The ‘lost’ album, Real, is presented in full. Unfortunately, her songs and vocals are swamped by Dave Jordan’s horrible 1983 production. He throws everything in, bass sticks, synths, echoed trumpet, a harmonium, loud guitars, and the more he does, the worse it gets. Only when he restrains himself for a soft Lullaby For Ezra is Kirsty able to make it work. You can understand why Polydor kept it in the can. It was six years before she released another album. The next three were produced by Steve Lillywhite and it has to be said that he looked after her in the studio really well, even when her songs were bitter and caustic about their marriage breakdown as on Titanic Days. For someone famous for stage fright, she is remarkably calm and controlled on the live tracks, including a set at Glastonbury in 1992, another at The Jazz Café in 1999 plus several performances in BBC studios. She credited touring with The Pogues in 1988 as helping her overcome her fear. That must have been a very special type of therapy.
See That Girl is as perfect an anthology as it is humanly possible to achieve. However, there is an overwhelming sense of bittersweet unfulfillment. It isn’t just that her life was traumatically cut short at the age of forty-one. As this box proves, her triumphs were many and satisfying, yet she never enjoyed the full backing of a record company her talent deserved. The who-knows, what-ifs, buts and maybes must have been incredibly frustrating. Nevertheless, we are left with this box to enjoy. It’s full of warmth, humour and joi de vivre.
What does it all *mean*?
You can never have enough Kirsty MacColl.
Goes well with…
A day that needs brightening
27th October 2023
Might suit people who like…
Smart Pop music with a twist of humour