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Titanic Days: Kirsty MacColl Reissues Reviewed
The Quietus , November 8th, 2012 02:47

Sophie Coletta celebrates the aspirational poetry in the quotidian observations of Kirsty MacColl, who has her back catalogue reissued this month by Salvo

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Ask any young, impressionable teenage girl who her musical idol is. Ask who she aspires to be like when she reaches womanhood, and these days, you’ll probably struggle to find a satisfactory answer. Contemporary female empowerment of the young tends to be found within women who wear strips of leather over their genitalia, any former beauty lost in a sea of wank-fodder, wigs and weight loss, an impenetrable façade that relies on exhibitionism and the eroticising of the self as the formula for success. Take Rihanna for example. Yes, her image is based on sexual empowerment, and I guess it’s quite nice to be able to go out in nipple tassels just because you can, but is she really in control of her own sexuality? Isn’t it just a marketing tool?

Where have all the real women gone? Slain by endlessly Photoshopped magazine covers, harangued by the press for nipping to the corner shop in jogging bottoms, or for not losing that little bit of post-pregnancy weight. If your teenage quarry is still listening, mention Kirsty MacColl. You might get a frown, perhaps before a glazed look of recollection: "Oh the woman that did the Pogues song? She was a right miserable cow, wasn’t she?"

"I don’t know any women who are as wimpy as some of these songwriters make out," MacColl once said of male writers of female characters in pop. Indeed "wimpy" is not the kind of adjective you would use to describe MacColl, certainly not whilst watching monochrome images of her grappling with Shane MacGowan and calling him a scumbag anyway. Christmas anthems aside, it’s a pity that the most discussed part of MacColl’s life these days, is in fact, her death. Twelve years ago, in a valiant act of motherhood, she was killed by a speeding boat off the coast of Mexico as she pushed her two young sons out of its path. Sadly her family still wait to receive justice.

Her initial foray into music was as Mandy Doubt, backing singer in R&B outfit The Drug Addix. They pretended to be punks to get gigs, ("It was 1978, we had to be punks") instead turning up and playing songs like ‘Gay Boys in Bondage’ a finger-pointing, Lou Reed parody. At 19, she went solo, and within a year was already sneaking interviewers into the Croydon offices of her day job at Industrial Exchange and Mart, telling journalists she didn’t want to be manipulated with a sure steadfastness that wholly surpassed her youthfulness.

The real allure to MacColl was her universal appeal; here was someone that lived a life that wasn’t entirely unattainable. Her songs gave a voice to women of all ages – whether they told the tale of a lustful tequila-drinking teenager, or that of an illicit affair set against the backdrop of a football match. Her debut album, Desperate Character, released for the first time on CD as part of the Salvo’s 2012 reissues, give us an introduction to the dry witticisms within her lyrics, her engaging song-writing and her droll take on relationships, all with an acerbically scathing teenage tone. ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’, the track that initially kick started her solo career, is a distinctive example of her intelligent craft, a pop song that is catchy without the need to repeat stock phrases in the absence of having anything else to say.

MacColl embodied something of an everywoman figure; unlike other contemporary female icons: Courtney Love, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, she embraced conventionality, whilst simultaneously making headway for female independence in the music industry. Occasionally the target of sexist remarks - "the Ed would give her a job in here any day", one journalist quipped in 1981, another referred to her as "a tarty looking redhead" – her femininity was never something she wasn’t in control of. She switched between labels to avoid misogynist dictation, and objected to being singled out specifically as a 'female' singer-songwriter.

Whilst MacColl’s cover of The Kinks’ ‘Days’ is probably the most well known track from Kite, the real treasure of her second album is found in the staccato strumming of ‘Fifteen Minutes’. It is a contemptuous take on the shortcomings of fame, with lyrics still relevant today: "How you got so holy/ And became so thin/ In the Sunday papers every week/ The silly words you love to speak/ The tacky photos and the phoney smiles/ Well it’s a bozo’s world and you’re a bozo’s child." It’s set amongst a cornucopia of pronounced pop tunes, catchy choruses tumbling out one after the other, flawlessly swtitching from meditative solo acoustic guitar to alluring violins and sinuous rock melodies, with just a splash of country thrown in for good measure.

It is the fate of many female pop singers to fall under the wheels of peer comparison, pitted and evaluated against each other until they become extensions of an inescapable stereotype. "Why should record buyers pay any more attention to her than to Heidi Berry, say, or Jane Siberry?" one critic asked in 1993. MacColl perhaps, surpassed this notion of a commercial model, becoming more the real woman’s woman than a marketable object of femininity. Her penultimate album, Titanic Days, was named after a painting by Rene Magritte that depicts the distorted figure of a naked woman, hounded by suited males. The cover art was an image of MacColl, wearing a dark suit, back turned away from the camera, identifiable only by her distinctive red hair. The image was acknowledged as a "terrible marketing ploy" by collaborator Dave Ruffy, but used regardless because, of course, that was what MacColl wanted.

The album is perhaps the most haunting of her long players, one that later became known as a ‘divorce’ album, contextualized against the backdrop of the dissolution of her marriage to Steve Lillywhite. Its darker take on loss and breakups is corroded gently by sharp wit and a charming facetiousness. "I want a brief encounter in a stolen car/ A hand on my buttock in a Spanish bar," she sings on ‘Bad’, yearning for a freedom beyond domestic conventionality.

The bonus CD features six ‘Angel’ remixes, including one by also-ran British electronica group Apollo 440. Perhaps an attempt to engage with a wider audience, to modernise MacColl’s music alongside the then fashion for house and trip hop cross over music, but the reality is grim. Whilst Todd Terry’s 1995 remix of Everything but the Girl’s ‘Missing’ became arguably their best and most well-known song, frankly, this remix sounds like someone sat on and dragged their arse across a sound desk for three and a half minutes before MacColl’s reverbed vocals are awkwardly faded in.

Although her brash and bold nature preceded her, MacColl must also be remembered for her vulnerability. She suffered terrible stage fright that made her live appearances infrequent and her subsequent music career intermittent. The reissue of Titanic Days includes several tracks of MacColl playing live at Fleadh Festival in 1995, including a live rendition of ‘A New England’, the Billy Bragg cover that she took to number seven in the UK charts in 1985.

Most anecdotes on the making of Electric Landlady seem to involve something along the lines of MacColl telling some sound engineer to fuck off and leave her to it. The album marks her first formal venture into making Latin music, an influence that would continue with her final album Tropical Brainstorm in 2000. This album is something of a collaborative record. MacColl invited musicians featured on David Byrne’s Rei Momo album, namely Angel Fernandez, Robby Ameen, Milton Cardona, Lewis Khan and Marc Quiñones to help her in making an album that was to allow her to break away from her pop image and create her most successful album in chart terms.

They don’t sound new now, but these reissues embrace a nostalgia for a woman who was vivid in her imaginings, with a personality that transcended her songs, but still survives and lives on through these albums. Her wry tones sound as real now as they did originally. She stares out from the coloured sleeves of these reissues and is a brooding presence in the collection of previously unseen photos, amongst friends, perhaps the slight hint of a wry grin in some, but then not in others, embedded in a sea of liner notes celebrating her very existence. Will these reissues make any difference to the way young girls glorify over-sexualised female pop singers? Probably not, but if it means one teenage girl wanders into HMV and buys one of these albums instead of the latest collection of dry humping pop anthems, then perhaps, just perhaps, the world might become a marginally better place.

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Nov 8, 2012 9:52am

Nice piece - well done

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Nov 9, 2012 5:07pm

Good to be reminded of the singular talent that was Kirsty MacColl.

Her songs combined memorable melodies with lyrics that could be scathing, laugh-out-loud funny, touching and heartbreaking. She wasn't afraid to be political either. Listen to "Free World" from Kite - it could have been written yesterday, it is scary how relevant that song is! Pure pop with bite - not much of that about in the X-factor universe, is there?

The really sad thing is that "Tropical Brainstorm" seemed to signify that Kirsty had come through a dark period in her life with renewed vigour and a rediscovered joy. Who knows what could have been?

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