The Very Guest Of… Kirsty MacColl

Written by Music, The Very Guest Of...

The patron saints of Popdose are an unconventional bunch, to be sure. The big joke among the staff at the annual board meeting, held in Matt Wardlaw’s palatial estate, is that when we finally launch our own music festival, we will reunite Sugarbomb, and our headlining act will be the System. (This after a heated debate, spearheaded by Jason Hare, over the manner in which we honor Michael McDonald. We settled on the honorary title of Chairman of the Beard.) Another artist for whom the staffers share a near-universal love is the late, great Kirsty MacColl, who was tragically killed in late 2000 in a suspicious boating accident shortly after she released one of her best albums, the Cuban-influenced Tropical Brainstorm. (The belief is that a high-ranking Mexican government official was driving the boat that struck her, but a low-level assistant was paid to take the fall in exchange for a reduced sentence.) We pour out a 40 in her honor every December 18.

What makes this all the more tragic is that there were years during MacColl’s prime where she was forbidden from making records, thanks to legal hassles surrounding the dissolution of her label, Stiff Records. (Making this even more irritating was her previous label, Polydor, shelving her second album Real due to lack of interest.) This was good news, though, for anyone working with her then-husband, producer Steve Lillywhite, because MacColl was saying ‘yes’ to every session gig she could find just to get the hell out of the house. Eventually, MacColl was allowed to record on her own again, but thankfully, she continued to help out her mates on the side. Here is a collection of songs that feature the unmistakable vocal stylings of one of England’s finest.

(Special thanks to Kirsty’s fan page for providing me with a comprehensive list of her session work, and to Popdose colleague Will Harris for contributing some of the more off-the-radar songs.)

Jona Lewie, “You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties” (from On the Other Hand, There’s a First, 1978)
You have to think that Ian Dury was a fan of this one. Unapologetically British, with bizarre flashes of whimsy, Kirsty delivers a deadpan vocal in the chorus that is alleged to be her first studio session recording.

Matchbox, “I Want Out” (from the album Crossed Line, 1983)
This didn’t appear on CD until 2005, on the three-disc From Croydon to Cuba anthology, though it originally appeared on Matchbox’s 1982 Crossed Line album. It’s a killer single, though, a rockabilly-ish rave-up with MacColl splitting lead vocals with singer Graham Fenton.

Robert Plant, “White, Clean and Neat” (from Now and Zen, 1987)
This song came out roughly a year before MacColl appeared on my radar (thanks to her cover of “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” for the soundtrack to She’s Having a Baby), so it was a shock to read the Kirsty fan page and discover that she had already been floating in my subconscious, and had been since 1983 if you consider the fact that she originally wrote and recorded Tracey Ullman’s big hit “They Don’t Know.” Going back and listening to the song now, which is an odd little machine-driven track, MacColl’s voice practically jumps out of the speakers.

Happy Mondays, “Hallelujah” (from Hallelujah, 1989)
Is it wrong to call the Happy Mondays a better idea than a band? Hell, listen to Kirsty’s first vocal, which lends itself well to trippy dance music, and then listen to Shaun Ryder stumble around the same melody. It’s amazing these guys were ever capable of putting a record together, and in retrospect, it does not surprise me one bit that their Yes, Please! album is oft blamed for the demise of Factory Records.

Morrissey, “Interesting Drug” (from Bona Drag, 1990)
Morrissey spent the last year of the ’80s doing what many bands are exploring today, and was the norm in the ’60s – releasing non-album singles. Moz issued four of them, in fact, and they were later compiled along with some other odds and ends for 1990’s Bona Drag. MacColl had crossed paths with the Smiths on a number of occasions, providing backing vocals on “Ask” and “Golden Lights” (there is also speculation that she got at least one note on “Bigmouth Strikes Again”), but it’s her work on “Interesting Drug” that I love the most, mainly because it’s the one Smiths/Moz song where her voice is most prominent. Or is that cromulent?

John Wesley Harding, “Affairs of the Heart” (from Here Comes the Groom, 1990)
We’re surprised Elvis Costello and Aimee Mann didn’t lobby for a songwriting credit on this one, as it’s a dead ringer for dear old Declan’s song “The Other End (of the Telescope).” Kirsty doesn’t add much more than some ‘ahhhhh’ lines, but does she really have to do anything more than that?

The Wonder Stuff, “Welcome to the Cheap Seats” (from Never Loved Elvis, 1991)
I bet Kirsty loved singing the line, “Oh, in another world / Yeah, he could wear a dress.”

Anthony Thistlethwaite, “Red Jeans” (from Cartwheels, 1994)
This one is all Will Harris, as I had never heard of the artist or song. Pity, too, because it’s a gem. Part soul, part Celtic, and after one listen, you’ll spend the rest of the day thinking of Kirsty MacColl in red jeans. That’s what they call a win-win.

The Very Guest of Kirsty: White Label Bonus Edition
Ahhhhhh, I love those old Steve Lillywhite remixes.

Simple Minds, “Speed Your Love to Me (Extended Version)” (original version on Sparkle in the Rain, 1984)
This got its own White Label column two years ago, but it’s too good to not run again. Kirsty’s contributions are small, but memorable. For those wondering what that strange, slow bit at the end is, it’s a riff of Sparkle in the Rain‘s closing track “Shake Off the Ghosts.”

Rolling Stones, “One Hit (To the Body) (London Mix)” (original version on Dirty Work, 1986)
The Kirsty fan page has a quote from her saying that they threw anyone who could sing into the booth and had them throw down. That would explain why she’s all but inaudible here. Cool mix, though.