Kirsty MacColl at the Double Door in Chicago
10 October 1959|
Croydon, England, United Kingdom
|Died||18 December 2000
|Genres||New wave, pop, rock, country, folk, world music, alternative rock|
|Labels||Stiff, Polydor, IRS, ZTT, V2|
Kirsty Anna MacColl (10 October 1959 – 18 December 2000) was an English singer and songwriter. She recorded several pop hits between the early 1980s and the 1990s, including "There's a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis" and cover versions of Billy Bragg's "A New England" and The Kinks' "Days". She also sang on recordings produced by her husband Steve Lillywhite, most notably "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues.
At the age of 41, MacColl died after being hit by a powerboat in Mexico.
Kirsty MacColl was the daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl and dancer Jean Newlove. She and her brother, Hamish MacColl, grew up with their mother in Croydon, where Kirsty attended Park Hill Primary School, Monks Hill High School and John Newnham High School, making appearances in school plays. At the time of her birth, her father had been in a relationship with folk singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Peggy Seeger since 1956 (a relationship that would continue until his death in 1989), and already had a son with her.
She came to notice when Chiswick Records released an EP by local punk rock band the Drug Addix with MacColl on backing vocals under the pseudonym Mandy Doubt (1978). Stiff Records executives were not impressed with the band, but liked her and subsequently signed her to a solo deal.
Her debut solo single "They Don't Know", released in 1979, peaked at number two on the Music Week airplay chart. However, a distributors' strike prevented copies of the single getting into record stores, and the single consequently failed to appear on the UK Singles Chart.
MacColl recorded a follow-up single, "You Caught Me Out", but felt she lacked Stiff's full backing, and left the label shortly before the song was to be released. The single was pulled, and only a few "white label" promo copies of the single are known to exist.
MacColl moved to Polydor Records in 1981. She had a UK number 14 hit with "There's a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis", taken from her critically acclaimed debut album Desperate Character. In 1983, Polydor dropped her just as she had completed recording the songs for a planned second album (to be called Real) which used more synthesizers and had new wave-styled tracks. She returned to Stiff, where pop singles such as "Terry" and "He's On the Beach" were unsuccessful but a cover of Billy Bragg's "A New England" in 1985 got to number 7 in the UK charts. This included two extra verses specially written for her by Bragg. Also around this time, MacColl wrote and performed the theme song "London Girls" for Channel 4's short-lived sitcom Dream Stuffing (1984).
In the United States, MacColl was probably most recognisable as the writer of "They Don't Know". Tracey Ullman's version reached #2 in the UK in 1983 and #8 in the United States in early 1984. MacColl also sang back-up on the track, providing the "Baay-byy" because it was too high a pitch for Ullman. It was played over the closing credits of Ullman's HBO show Tracey Takes On... in 1996. Ullman also recorded three more of MacColl's songs, "You Broke My Heart In 17 Places" and "You Caught Me Out", as the title tracks of her first and second albums respectively, and "Terry" which was released as a single in 1985.
When Stiff went bankrupt in 1986, MacColl was left unable to record in her own right, as no record company bought her contract from the Official Receiver. However, she had regular session work as a backing vocalist, and she frequently sang on records produced or engineered by her husband, Steve Lillywhite, including tracks for Robert Plant, The Smiths, Alison Moyet, Shriekback, Simple Minds, Talking Heads, Big Country, Anni-Frid Lyngstad (of ABBA), and The Wonder Stuff among others. She appeared in the videos "Welcome to the Cheap Seats" for The Wonder Stuff and "(Nothing But) Flowers" for Talking Heads (along with ex-The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr).
MacColl re-emerged in the British charts in December 1987, reaching Number 2 with The Pogues on "Fairytale of New York", a duet with Shane MacGowan. This led to her accompanying The Pogues on their British and European tour in 1988, an experience which she said helped her temporarily overcome her stage fright. In March 1989, MacColl sang backing vocals on the Happy Mondays' Hallelujah EP.
After the contract issue was resolved, MacColl returned to recording as a solo artist and received critical acclaim upon the release of Kite (LP) in 1989. The album was widely praised by critics, and featured collaborations with David Gilmour and Johnny Marr. MacColl's lyrics addressed life in Margaret Thatcher's Britain on "Free World", ridiculed the vapidity of fame in "Fifteen Minutes", and addressed the vagaries of love in "Don't Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!" Although Kite contained many original compositions, MacColl's biggest chart success from the album was the cover of The Kinks' song "Days", which gave her a UK Top 20 hit in July 1989. A bonus track on the CD version of Kite was a cover of the Smiths song "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby".
During this time, MacColl was also featured on the British sketch comedy French and Saunders, appearing as herself, singing songs including "15 Minutes" and "Don't Come The Cowboy With Me Sunny Jim!" (from Kite), "Still Life" (the B-side of the "Days" single), "Girls On Bikes" (a reworking of B-side "Am I Right?") and, with comedy duo Raw Sex, the Frank and Nancy Sinatra hit "Somethin' Stupid". She continued to write and record, releasing the album Electric Landlady (coined by Johnny Marr, a play on the Jimi Hendrix album title Electric Ladyland), including her most successful chart hit in North America, "Walking Down Madison" (co-written with Marr and a Top 30 hit in the UK), in 1991. Despite the song's U.S. chart success, Landlady was not a hit for Virgin Records, and in 1992, when Virgin was sold to EMI, MacColl was dropped from the label.
She released Titanic Days, informed by her failing marriage with Lillywhite, in 1993, but ZTT Records had agreed only to release the album as a "one-off" and declined to sign her to a contract. In 1995, she released two new singles on Virgin, "Caroline" and a cover of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" (a duet with Evan Dando), together with the "best of" compilation Galore.
Galore became MacColl's only album to reach the top 10 in the UK Albums Chart, but neither of the new singles, nor a re-released "Days", made the Top 40. MacColl did not record again for several years; her frustration with the music business was exacerbated by a lengthy case of writer's block. MacColl herself admitted that she was ready to give up her music career and become an English teacher in South America.
In 1998, the album What Do Pretty Girls Do? was released, containing BBC Radio 1 live sessions (featuring Billy Bragg on two songs) that were broadcast between 1989 and 1995.
After several trips to Cuba and Brazil, MacColl recorded the world music-inspired (particularly Cuban and other Latin American forms) Tropical Brainstorm, which was released in 2000 to critical acclaim. It included the song "In These Shoes?", which garnered airplay in the U.S., was covered by Bette Midler and featured in the HBO show Sex and the City. After MacColl's death it was adopted by Catherine Tate as the theme tune for her BBC TV show and featured on the soundtrack to British film Kinky Boots.
MacColl featured regularly in the third series of the French and Saunders Show, a comedy show on the BBC. Unlike other guests on the show, she was not part of any of the sketches but sang her songs whilst performing as in a music video. She also made regular appearances on Jools Holland's TV shows, also on the BBC, singing during the 1995 Hootenanny a rendition of "Miss Otis Regrets" with the Pipes and Drums of the Irish Guards.
MacColl appeared in the 1991 Channel 4 historic musical fantasy The Ghosts of Oxford Street as Kitty Fisher, performing "Fairytale of New York" opposite Shane MacGowan as the Duke of York.
Death and its aftermath
In 2000, following her participation in the presentation of a radio programme for the British Broadcasting Corporation in Cuba, MacColl took a holiday in Cozumel, Mexico, with her sons and her partner; musician James Knight. On 18 December 2000 she and her sons went diving at the Chankanaab reef, part of the National Marine Park of Cozumel, in a designated diving area that watercraft were restricted from entering. With the group was a local veteran divemaster; Iván Díaz. As the group were surfacing from a dive, a powerboat moving at high speed entered the restricted area. MacColl saw the boat coming before her sons did; Louis (then 13) was not in its path, but Jamie (then 15) was. She was able to push him out of the way (he sustained minor head and rib injuries) but in doing so she was struck by the boat and died instantly. MacColl's body was repatriated to the United Kingdom, and was cremated after a humanist funeral at Mortlake Crematorium in South-West London.
The powerboat involved in the accident was owned by Guillermo González Nova, multimillionaire president of the Comercial Mexicana supermarket chain, who was on board with members of his family. One of his employees, boathand José Cen Yam, stated that he was in control of the boat at the time of the incident. Eyewitnesses said that Cen Yam was not at the controls and that the boat was travelling much faster than the speed of one knot that González Nova said.[unreliable source] Cen Yam was found guilty of culpable homicide and was sentenced to 2 years 10 months in prison. He was allowed under Mexican law to pay a punitive fine of 1,034 pesos (about €63, £61 or US$90) in lieu of the prison sentence. He was also ordered to pay approximately US$2,150 in restitution to MacColl's family, an amount based on his wages. People who said they spoke to Cen Yam after the accident said he received money for taking the blame.
Justice for Kirsty campaign
MacColl's family launched the Justice for Kirsty campaign in response to the events surrounding her death. Among the group's efforts:
- Lawyers for MacColl's family and the group campaigned for a judicial review into the events surrounding her death. They were in repeated contact with the Mexican government, and made an application to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
- MacColl's friends and family were critical of what they perceived as a lack of cooperation from the Mexican authorities. In May 2006, Emilio Cortez Ramírez, a federal prosecutor in Cozumel, was found liable for breach of authority in conjunction with his handling of the MacColl case.
- The BBC has featured a documentary by Olivia Lichtenstein, entitled Who Killed Kirsty MacColl?
- U2 frontman Bono, who was a friend of MacColl, spoke about the incident during a concert in Monterrey, Mexico, in February 2006. The Mexican government released a statement after the concert indicating it would take action.
In December 2009, it was announced that the Justice For Kirsty campaign was being ended since "the committee was successful in achieving most of its aims" and "it is unlikely that any more could be achieved." The campaign's remaining funds were to be divided between two charities, Casa Alianza Mexico and Cuba Music Solidarity, of which "Kirsty would have approved."
Since MacColl's death, Billy Bragg has always included her extra verses when performing "A New England". She was honoured in 2002 with a memorial concert in London at the Royal Festival Hall, featuring a number of musicians who had worked with her or been influenced by her. A similar memorial concert was scheduled for her birthday (10 October 2010) at the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire, to support her favourite charity The Music Fund for Cuba.
In 2001, a bench was placed by the southern entrance to London's Soho Square as a memorial to her, after a lyric from one of her most poignant songs: "One day I'll be waiting there / No empty bench in Soho Square". Every year on the Sunday nearest to MacColl's birthday, 10 October, fans from all over the world hold a gathering at the bench to pay tribute to her and sing her songs.
MacColl continues to receive media exposure; in 2004, Kirsty MacColl: The One and Only, a biography of MacColl written by Karen O'Brien, was published. A retrospective three-CD set spanning her full career, From Croydon To Cuba, was released in 2005. Titanic Days was re-released in 2005 as a deluxe 2-CD set, and Kite and Electric Landlady were also remastered and rereleased with additional tracks. Her first album, Desperate Character, was given its first CD issue in 2012 on the Salvo label. On 7 August 2005, The Best of Kirsty MacColl, a single-disc compilation that included a "new" single, "Sun on the Water," made its debut on the UK album charts at number 17, climbing to #12 a week later.
MacColl's collaboration with the Pogues, "Fairytale of New York," remains a perennial Christmas favourite. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, it was voted favourite Christmas song in a poll by music video channel VH1.  The song was re-released in the UK in December 2005, with proceeds being split between the Justice for Kirsty Campaign and charities for the homeless. The re-release reached number 3 on the UK charts, and spent five weeks in the top 75 over the Christmas and New Year period. It reached the top 10 for the third time in its history in 2006, peaking at number 6, and charted yet again in December 2007, when there was brief controversy over the use of the word 'faggot' in the lyrics, which BBC Radio 1 dubbed out "to avoid offence," 20 years after it had first passed over the airwaves without comment (or apparent offence, although the rhyme had been changed to "haggard" for a St Patrick's Day concert in 1998); following criticism from listeners and MacColl's mother, Radio 1 reversed their decision later in the day. The song has also made the Top 20 in subsequent years, and has now spent more time in the top 20 than any other song. With the exception of the 2005 and 2012 re-releases, the seasonal re-charting in the 21st century is due to download sales, and not due to further releases (download sales counting toward the singles chart since 2005). A 7" single was produced in 2012 to mark the 25th anniversary of its original appearance (Rhino Records WEA400), backed with an instrumental version.
|Release Date||Album||UK Albums Chart|
|July 1981||Desperate Character||-|
|June 1991||Electric Landlady||17|
|October 1993||Titanic Days||46|
|March 2000||Tropical Brainstorm||39|
|Release Date||Album||UK Albums Chart||Notes|
|March 1985||Kirsty MacColl||-||A re-worked version of Desperate Character|
|August 1993||The Essential Collection||-||Stiff-era compilation; 16 tracks|
|March 1995||Galore||6||Single-disc greatest hits, with two new items; 18 tracks|
|July 1998||What Do Pretty Girls Do?||-||Live sessions from BBC Radio 1|
|August 2001||The One and Only||-||Stiff-era compilation, plus a few collaborations; 14 tracks|
|May 2005||From Croydon to Cuba: An Anthology||-||Three-disc box set of hits and rarities; 65 tracks|
|June 2005||The Stiff Years||-||Single disc including remixes; 13 tracks|
|July 2005||The Best of Kirsty MacColl||12||Single-disc greatest hits; 21 tracks|
|September 2006||Stiff Singles Collection||-||Single-disc compilation of her five Stiff singles, B-sides, and remixes; 13 tracks|
|September 2008||The Collection||-||Selections from Kite and Electric Landlady, plus three B-sides; remastered; 16 tracks|
|February 2013||A New England: The Very Best of Kirsty MacColl||41||Single-disc greatest hits; 21 tracks; accompanying 10-track DVD available only from Amazon UK|
|April 2014||All I Ever Wanted: The Anthology||-||First appearance of "Over You" on CD; 43 tracks|
|Year||Song||UK Singles Chart||Irish Top 30||Album|
|June 1979||"They Don't Know"||-||-||-|
|February 1981||"Keep Your Hands Off My Baby"||-||-|
|May 1981||"There's a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis"||14||9||Desperate Character|
|September 1981||"See That Girl"||-||-|
|November 1981||"You Still Believe in Me"||-||-||-|
|1983||"I Want Out" (with Matchbox)||-||-|
|December 1984||"A New England"||7||8|
|June 1985||"He's On the Beach"||-||-|
|November 1987||"Fairytale of New York" (with The Pogues)||2||1||If I Should Fall from Grace with God (Pogues album)|
|March 1989||"Free World"||43||-||Kite|
|April 1990||"Don't Come the Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!"||82||-|
|November 1990||"Miss Otis Regrets"/"Just One of Those Things" (with The Pogues)||85||-||Red Hot + Blue (Produced by the Red Hot Organization)|
|May 1991||"Walking Down Madison"||23||12||Electric Landlady|
|July 1991||"My Affair"||56||-|
|September 1991||"All I Ever Wanted"||-||-|
|November 1991||"Fairytale of New York" (with The Pogues) (re-issue)||36||10||-|
|November 1993||"Angel"||-||-||Titanic Days|
|June 1995||"Perfect Day"||75||-|
|July 1995||"Days" (re-issue)||42||-||Kite|
|November 1999||"Mambo de la Luna"||119||-||Tropical Brainstorm|
|February 2000||"In These Shoes?"||98||-|
|July 2005||"Sun On the Water"||-||-||The Best of Kirsty MacColl|
|December 2005||"Fairytale of New York" (with The Pogues) (2nd re-issue)||3||4|
- Gajarsky, Bob (1995-02-27), REVIEW: Kirsty MacColl, Galore (I.R.S.), Consumable on line, retrieved 2011-02-04
- Soave, Daniela (1995). "NME or Melody Maker, 1981". The Kirsty MacColl web site. Retrieved 20 May 2010.
- Buckley, Jonathan (1999). Rock : the rough guide (2. ed., expanded and complety rev. ed.). London: Rough Guides. pp. 622–623. ISBN 978-1-85828-457-6. Retrieved 15 December 2011.
...she toured Ireland and suffered from stage fright...
- Time Entertainment: Elegy for a One-Woman Girl Group
- "Singer Kirsty MacColl dies". news.bbc.co.uk. BBC News. 19 December 2000. Retrieved 2007-12-04.
- Kirsta, Alix (31 July 2004). "The day the music died". alixkirsta.com. Alix Kirsta. Retrieved 2014-02-10.
- Davies, Caroline; Tuckman, Jo. "Kirsty MacColl's mother ends campaign for justice after nine years". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 15 June 2015.
- Allan, Vicky (22 August 2004). "I Believe The Mexican Fined For Killing Kirsty Was A Fall Guy". The Sunday Herald. Highbeam Research. Retrieved 15 June 2015.
- Horowitz, Carl F. (6 November 2006). "Mexican Microcosm: The Unsolved Death Of Kirsty MacColl". VDARE.com. Retrieved 15 June 2015.
- Wynne-Jones, Ros (21 December 2005). "Kirsty MacColl Exclusive: Singer's Mum Fights for Justice". Mirror.co.uk. Retrieved 2007-12-04.
- "Latest News: Federal Prosecutor in Cozumel found liable for breach of Authority". justiceforkirsty.org. Justice For Kirsty Campaign. 6 May 2006. Retrieved 2007-12-04.
- "Documentaries: Who Killed Kirsty MacColl?". bbc.co.uk. BBC. Retrieved 2007-12-04.
- "Justice promised for singer Kirsty MacColl". divemagazine.co.uk. Dive Magazine. 23 February 2006. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-04.
- "Justice For Kirsty Campaign Announcement, 5 December 2009" (PDF). justiceforkirsty.org. "Leni Gillman for the Justice For Kirsty Campaign". Retrieved 2009-12-09.
- Music Week – MacColl memorial gig to benefit Cuban artists
- "Fairytale still the festive pick". BBC News. BBC Corp. 15 December 2005. Retrieved 2007-12-04.
- "Radio 1 backs down in Pogues row". BBC News. BBC Corp. 18 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-18.
- Chart Log UK: M – My Vitriol