I’ve been meaning to start doing these for a while now as a less ‘image intensive’ option for when I’m feeling lazy.
I know a lot about music, but I know an especially large amount about a selection of 12 or so artists (maybe even more) – I have their whole discography, books on them and so on, they’re mostly British acts you mostly haven’t heard of that you mostly wouldn’t think I’d listen to if you saw me on the street (except The Clash, and the Manic Street Preachers – you’d defiantly think I listen to the Manics if you met me) but they usually had one or two hits most people in Britain have heard, even if it’s just on an advert with the words changed to advertise microwave food or credit cards or whatever. Case in point: Kirsty MacColl who’s known for jangly guitars, Cuban influences and singing on a song by a bunch of Irishmen, not the sort of act one would expect a big Metalhead looking fellow to obsess over, but obsess I do. So I’ve decided to write these posts, where I eschew the one or two hits the act has to tell you about 10 other great songs they recorded.
Kirsty MacColl is sadly mostly known via other people’s work – she’s the female voice on The Pogues’ Christmas hit ‘Fairytale of New York’1 (the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day etc etc) and the writer of They Don’t Know which was a hit for Tracy Ulman (she also sung back-up on that) while two of her three biggest chart successes in the UK were cover versions – of The Kink’s Days and Billy Bragg’s A New England. To make matters worse her biggest hit was the brilliant ‘There’s A Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ which got her lumped in categories like ‘novelty song’ and ‘one-hit wonder’ (she wasn’t, she had several Top 10 hits). I say ‘sadly’ and ‘it only makes matters worse’ not just because it ruins one’s credibility to be considered a covers act, a novelty act or a one-hit wonder but of those the only song that showed off her talents as a snappy lyricist is the one that everyone ignores as a joke and MacColl was capable of being a fantastic lyricist with a very English sense of humour (so swearing, sarcasm and smut then) who could do both word play and simple but effective as good as those who’ve actually become known for their lyrical prowess like Elvis Costello. She was also a very hot ginger woman, and I’m easily swayed by hot ginger women. So are you sitting comfortably? Then BAY-AY-BEEE I’ll begin:
Free World (Kite, 1989)
I can’t decide if this or Soho Square is my favourite Kirst MacColl song, I like them both and both for their emotion but while Soho Square stays squarely in the realm of simple but effective relying on delivery, Free World throws words at you like you’ve offended their mother as our girl Kirsty gives a verbal smacking down to a Thatcherite wanker who’s sold out his principals, his class and driven off his friends, family and our heroine for the materialistic 80’s lifestyle. Kirsty did this sort of lyric really well (so does her mate Billy Bragg); using a love song as a protest song, drawing attention to some kind of other injustice while also singing about some prick who clearly didn’t know he had it so good and this is the best example of it from her, she fills the song with jabs at Margaret Thatcher’s Britain from the very first line, which may well be one of my favourites “I thought of you when they closed down the school / and the hospital too / did they think that you were better / they were wrong” she could be just as easily giving shit to the late great handbag herself. I guess the song works better if you know a bit about the 1980s and how shit it was in the UK because of the conservative government and the people who bought into their ‘pull the ladder up Jack and sod the rest’ mentality but a whole chunk of it still works, I especially like the enduring line ‘the ghettos are full of Mercedes Benz’ which in a world still flooded with commercial rap is still horribly useful.
Can’t Stop Killing You (Titanic Days, 1994)
Kirsty MacColl tackles abuse towards women, though she does it via a crime film filter which maybe takes some of the impact out of things rather than if she put it in a domestic setting like say, Alice Cooper’s Only Women Bleed or even Nickleback’s Never Again (shhh, I like that song). It is however a very good little singalong (well, long singalong, it’s four minutes long) allowing you to get really worked up at the abusive bastard and his pathetic ‘I can’t help it, you deserve it, it gives me no pleasure’ bullshit and it gets weirdly metaphorical in the middle (when you’re swimming in the water / I’m the hadn that drags you under / I’m the lighting that strikes you just before you hear the thunder’) that’s a bit odd. Actually as much as I get out of this song I don’t think it may not be on the same level as the ‘Soho Square’ or ‘England 2 Columbia 0’ it is however something that needs to be sung about and it is good to sing it, thus raising awareness without people knowing it’s doing that and thus it’s a good song, I think that makes sense.
Queen of the High Teas (B-side w/ You Still Believe Me, 1981)
From abuse to neglect, and one of MacColl’s overtly county and western arrangements (she had a few of them, ‘Chip Shop was one, they were mostly very good, don’t be scared off by the nasty C&W) here we have a couple who’ve settled down too quick, as things grow more routine, more loveless and more unfulfilling the girl leaves, so kind of imagine a Bruce Springsteen song but set in Croydon and way more snappily written, also no one is called Mary (that I know of). The song takes us down all the steps that lead to the woman leaving (anyhow) without really out-and-out stating ‘this is why she’s leaving’ it’s just the situation growing steadily more unfulfilling (I like that word) until it’s ‘too-ooooo late to talk it over’. It’s not a long song and it’s jaunty despite being about something rotten so it never outstays it’s welcome and its surprising effectiveness makes up for it’s fairly unoriginal subject matter, my favourite line:‘ They spend the night in silence watching rubbish on TV’ – no Bruce Springsteen song could ever evoke boring domestic misery as well as that line.
Tread Lightly (Kite, 1989)
Essentially the song is a long way of saying ‘be careful what you wish for because it might just come true’ or rather ‘tread lightly in your dreams, they might come true for you tomorrow’ focussing mostly on disappointment in what I shall call a ‘driving shuffle’ musically. I like songs about disappointment because my life seems to be an endless stream of them (I know, I know, get the violins out) but the reason it reaches this here list is its first verse with deals with the…complex disappointment that comes with only inevitably achieving a boring domestic life that despite being what we’re told to strive for and brings only boredom and a feeling of underachievement, to wit “you’re happy with your 2.2 / what else is there for you to do? / I turn and wet the baby’s head / and pray he will happier than you or me”, oh and the great line ‘I try to stretch my mind / but I just get my body wrecked’, I want that on a fucking car sticker.
Obligatory Cover Version:
Miss Otis Regrets (Galore, 1995, Kirsty MacColl with the Pogues)2
I think a lot of people would have chosen her version of The Smiths’ ‘You Just Haven’t Earned it Yet, Baby’ and the perverse part of me wants to recommend her… fascinating version of Marty Robbins’ El Paso but fuck both of those – Miss Otis Regrets. Written by Cole Porter and first performed by Douglas Byng in the revue ‘Hi Diddle Diddle’ (Google is a wonderful thing) I…honestly don’t have much to say about it, it’s a great performance of a song and Kirsty and London’s finest Irishmen absolutely ‘make it their own’ (I hate that phrase but it’s utterly true here) so thus it’s a great cover version. The song is has someone receiving a series of messages as to why the obviously well-to-do woman Miss Otis cannot lunch with them and each time it becomes more severe as we learn that Miss Otis had an affair, shot the bastard when he dumped her and then got hung for the crime, it’s paced brilliantly and Kirsty sounds genuinely sad as she tells Miss Otis’ tale.
England 2 Columbia 0 (Tropical Brainstorm, 2000)
This is the sort of song that convinces people someone’s a good lyricist, sadly it’s also from her ‘Cuban’ phase (she just fucking loved the place, Brazil too, lots of those sort of places) so it has something of a world music feel to it and I understand that can put someone off, one rarely listens to a heartbreak song and wants to imagine castanets but by god give this one a chance, it’s so funny and so well written and has been arranged so the vocals fit the rhumba perfectly, and there’s something rather nice about the contrast of such an English song and story and such an un-English soundtrack. So what’s it about? Well it’s about that time Kirsty went on a date to watch a football match (between England and Columbia) only to find out – from her date’s friend – that he was married with three kids. What a cunt. So Kirsty deals with it in a very English way – by being pissed off but very funny at the same time; reaching its pinnacle with the outburst “ok so I didn’t mention my kids / I thought I’d wait a bit / but I am free and single / and he’s a lying git!”. That makes me smile every time, I can just picture her standing and pointing, shouting that and then cracking up despite her tears with her friend (in Sal Palo). It’s so relatable (well not if you’re American, but you’re all imaginary so for this paragraph you’re all from Croydon) and a nice change in that it’s very much a song about an adult woman with kids rather than a mythical trendy 20-something like most songs seem to be about so they can appeal to as many lowest common denominators as possible but Kirsty’s use of everyday language and a natural speech pattern does more than that sort of wish-washy-jack-of-all-trades-actually-says-nothing-and-defeats-its-own-purpose-horseshit ever could.
Soho Square (Titanic Days, 1994)
I love this song so much but I think it’s a song you have to listen to, lyrically it could be considered quite simple (though not, y’know, Ramone simple) it is, in summary, about being stood up in the cold on a bench in Soho Square (a real location just off of Oxford Street) but still wanting the person anyway and is just her thoughts on the matter as she waits there, and then after the fact where she dreams that one day the person’ll be waiting there, in fact it ‘reads’ just like a person’s thought process, not disjointed or stream of thought, just like what you think to yourself as you’re waiting or doing something. Musically it keeps this same sense of feeling exactly like something, somehow sounding cold and sad and then cold and wistful (there’s some tinkling somewhere) I wonder how people do that? Make something sound like something that has no sound, a feeling, a temperature, a ginger bird sitting between Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street? It’s very clever and very much on show here. It also has a good selection of cutting lines seemingly thrown in just to make you feel something (it’s very inconvenient when you’re on the bus) things like ‘I know I’m not too old to cry’ and ‘I don’t mind loneliness that much’ and ‘do we always have to be sorry / why can’t we just be happy baby?’- it’s all the sort of defeated lines you think to yourself after you’ve been blown out – and the happy fantasy as the end just finishes me off, this song has been known to make cry (which is very inconvenient on the bus). Again though I think it only works when listened too. Also after MacColl’s very untimely death they put a bench in Soho Square for her because of this song and yes I have sat on it and played Soho Square3.
Don’t Come the Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim! (Kite, 1989)
This kind of has the same issue as England 2 Columbia 0 in that it’s a shining example of what a fantastic lyricist MacColl was but musically it seems designed to put the cool kids off – this time it’s the dreaded Country and Western rearing its head again, still at least it’s thematic here. As well as being greatly amusing it’s also very touching, you see the problem I have with people and There’s A Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis is that they focus on the silly title and miss the point of the song, which is the lines that come after it – ‘he’s a liar and I’m not sure about you’ it’s just one of the many instances of Kirsty putting a creative spin on a love song and so is 'Cowboy, but again the few people who remember this song (it was a single) remember it’s amusing hook (it’s a slightly archaic way of saying ‘don’t pretend to be a player, pal’) and miss that the song is being sung to someone who isn’t a cowboy, who isn’t the funny stories in the verses, again the important line is the one that comes after the tittersome title – ‘I know lots of those and you’re not one of them / there’s a light in your eyes tells me somebody’s in’, it’s someone saying ‘I know you’re a good person’, that’s pretty sweet and by doing it in a funny way, pretty realistic too, as touching as I’m sure Words Don’t Come Easily or something is it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever have someone burst into poetic verse like that at you4, Kirsty’s way’s a lot more likely. Anyway, the humour, the verses include descriptions of some of the sort of cowboys the person the song is for is most certainly not, sized up with ball-shrivelling accuracy and wit by the One and Only here and each featuring a funny line of which ‘the boots just go back on the socks that have stayed on’ is still the king. On the ‘I want that on a car sticker’ this one also features the line ‘I fell out of favour with heaven somewhere and I’m here for the hell of it now’, ooh, speaking of which…
Closer to God (B-side w/ Free World, 1989)
Ok I don’t have a problem with religion or someone holding religious beliefs that I do not and I don’t have an issue with the big G-O-D, I have an issue with how some people use religion to justify and excuse their poor behaviour (and those people who invade my personal space to shout at me on the high street about the word of god, though that could well be the same thing), it seems Ma’am MacColl feels the same way, or at least she did on this song, I’m also quite annoyed at myself that so many of these picks are from the Kite era. This song is about a hypocrite who uses his religion to allow him to feel superior, he has been a complete bastard to our Kirsty but still has the cheek to say he adheres to a religion that is all about being kind to you fellow man and it is deliciously nasty ‘are you closer to God than the folks you despise’ and ‘when you get to those gates will your ‘friend’ come as well’ are just in the chorus! But the winner is ‘does the lord keep you warm in her bed every night? / are your prayers in the morning just squeals of delight’. I tell you what; do you listen to Alanis Morissette? No? You probably hate her and want to make a joke about Ironic? Well Ironic is a shit song, but you should listen to some of her other stuff even if it’s just You Oughta Know so you can titter at the blowjob reference because if it has the same effect on you as it does on me it will fucking shame you into not being a dick to women, Kirsty MacColl has a bit of that going on sometimes and 'Cowboy and Closer to God are two of those times, it’s a good thing, it shows you what you don’t want to see so you can learn it’s wrong.
Halloween (Electric Landlady, 1991)
This was going to be ‘In These Shoes?’ a fun song along the lines of ‘Chip Shop and Cowboy’ but then I realised I hadn’t included a song from Electric Landlady and that’s a fucking great album. Halloween’s another ‘simple (but not as simple as The Ramones) but effective’ lyric but it has such a great feel to it you should give it a go, it’s not really about Halloween it’s just using it as a metaphor for how spookily right for her some bloke is and it’s music evokes more magic and wonder than ghosts ‘n’ goblins but, well, it’s just really a nice song to listen to, it’s catchy without being irritating and it’s actually the song I sing the most during the Halloween season, it just gets stuck in me head, there’s this bit that goes ‘ hal-oh, hal-oh, HAAA-loween’ and every time I see the words ‘Halloween’ for about the first week of the season I sing that, it’s quite annoying really, but it is from a good song, take my word for it.
Caroline (Galore, 1995) about the complexities and conflicting emotions of being called on to comfort your best friend when it was secretly you he left her for (oops); In These Shoes? (Tropical Brainstorm, 2000) which is a nice(?) way of saying ’let’s not be silly’ to chat up lines; Bad (Titanic Days, 1994) – I’ve been the token woman all my life / the token daughter and the token wife / now I collected tokens one by one / ‘til I’ve saved enough to buy a gun; What do Pretty Girls Do? (Kite, 1989) – they get old like everyone else and We’ll Never Pass This Way Again (Electric Landlady, 1991) which is about cutting your losses and not ruining what you have/had and didn’t make the list because it fucking bums me out.
And that’s your lot, I’m not putting youtube links up for these articles because those sort of videos tend to get taken down quickly and I hate finding a blog post with broken links. Sadly Kirsty MacColl was killed in 2000 while diving off the coast of Mexico at the Chankanaab reef, which is part of a national park and a designated diving area where boats are restricted from entering, but if you’re multimillionaire president of a Mexican supermarket chain such bullshit is for other people and she was killed by his boat while saving her teenage son because Kirty MacCooll is AWESOME. The prick (Guillermo González Nova) paid one of his manservants – allegedly - to take the fall and say he was driving and said manservant paid £61 to stay out of jail, and a couple of thousand dollars to Kirsty MacColl’s family, two grand being the going rate for a mother at the time I guess. I (and many others) remained sore about this as you can tell. Her last album of original material was Tropical Brainstorm (it’s very good) and her last single was a new version of Sun on the Water, released to promote her box set (which is even better). I’m not saying she didn’t release a few stinkers but overall her body of work is very strong and you should all check it out my fictional chums, and now you can go to hell – I’m going to Brazil.
1 The Pogues originally featured a female member, Cait O’Riordan, but she left to shag Elvis Costello so Kirsty ended up getting the job because her then-husband was producing the recording session, The Pogues and Kirsty ended up being very good friends and they were a big part of the Justice for Kirsty campaign.
2 The song was originally released as a Single (A-Side) in 1990 to promote the Red Hot & Blue AIDS benefit compilation (which it featured on) but on all other releases it was part of a medley with Just One of Those Things (another Cole Porter song), however it was edited for the Galore compilation to be a standalone track, as I loathe medleys and love this song and this version of this song I thus included that version on this list.
3 not to be childish (ha!) but it also really does sound like she says ‘the pigeons shit in the naked trees’ rather than ‘shiver in the naked trees’ it’s often only that piece of silliness that keeps me from bawling on the bus.
4 the excellent book Crap Lyrics (Johnny Sharp, 2009, buy it now) also makes the point that many of these big love songs actually wouldn’t get a very good response in real life, my favourite is still ‘If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me’ which is just asking to get you slapped but that book uses the example of ‘whatever I said / whatever I did / I didn’t mean it’ from Want You Back For Good which it correctly points out would get you in more shit for not even knowing what you did (and for quoting Take That).