She’s the voice you hear on the Smiths’ “Ask” and Morrissey’s “Interesting Drug.” She’s the salty dame calling Shane McGowan a “cheap, lousy faggot” on the Pogues’ “Fairtytale of New York.” And she’s one of the most underrated songwriters of the ’90s and one of our biggest losses.
I will go to my grave never understanding why Kirsty MacColl never became a multiplatinum superstar. Everyone I’ve ever shared her records with has instantly fallen in love with her voice, a smoky mixture of romance, defeat, and irony, with a dollop of sugary-sweet syrup on top. Her songs were incredibly catchy, the type you hear the first 30 seconds or so and you can already sing along. And her lyrics … ah, the lyrics. World-weary, tired yet optimistic, witty, and uniformly brilliant. Take, for example, “Autumngirlsoup,” where Kirsty equates sex with, well, cooking:
Get me on the boil and reduce me
To a simmering wreck with a slow kiss
To the back of my neck
Carve up my heart on a very low flame
Separate my feelings then pour them down the drain
Close my eyes and sweeten me with lies
Pierce my skin with a few well-chosen words
Now you can stuff me with whatever you’ve got handy
And on a cold grey day a cold grey man will do
When people ask me, “Where have I heard her before?” all I have to mention is that immortal Pogues Christmas song and eyes light up. She also wrote and sang background on “They Don’t Know,” a top-ten hit for Tracey Ullman back in 1984. That’s also Kirsty in the videos for Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers” and the Wonder Stuff’s “Welcome to the Cheap Seats.” She got around a bit.
As the ’90s rolled around, Kirsty released her third solo album, Electric Landlady (1991). A more varied affair than her previous album, Kite (1989), Landlady featured salsa, waltzes, quiet folk ballads, and its lead single, the hip-hop- and baggy-influenced “Walking Down Madison” (download), which became MacColl’s highest-charting single in the U.S. Featuring Jimmy Chambers and George Chandler from Londonbeat (“I’ve Been Thinking About You”) on backing vocals, “Madison” was an attempt to bring Kirsty into the clubs, complete with various remixes. It’s no surprise the song was cowritten by Johnny Marr, then in the midst of his own club mindset as half of Electronic.
While “Walking Down Madison” got some play on alternative radio, it wasn’t enough to prop Electric Landlady up in the charts. Add in the fact that Kirsty’s label, Charisma Records, soon collapsed and things weren’t looking too good for the project. She bounced back a few years later, however, with a new contract on ZTT (IRS Records in the States) and a brilliant album, Titanic Days (1993). Kirsty continued to record, mostly with Cuban musicians, which colored her songwriting, resulting in a bit of a comeback in the UK with “In These Shoes?” (2000).
Sadly, Kirsty was killed on December 18, 2000, while vacationing in Cozumel, Mexico. She was diving with her sons in an area reserved for swimmers when she was struck by a speedboat. I, like many others, felt like I lost a friend.
As a nice treat, here are the various remixes of “Walking Down Madison” featured on the 1991 CD single:
“Walking Down Madison (Extended Urban Mix)” (download)
“Walking Down Madison (Ye Olde Originale Mix)” (download)
“Walking Down Madison (Club Mix)” (download)
“Walking Down Madison (6 A.M. Ambient Mix)” (download)
“Walking Down Madison” peaked at #4 on the Billboard Modern Rock Chart and at #18 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play Chart in 1991.
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