Kirsty MacColl’s ‘Kite’ turns 30 on 8 May 2019. The resurgent singer and songwriter corralled a career-peaking Johnny Marr, David Gilmour and a coterie of stellar collaborators to create a perfect set of songs plotting a way through early adulthood. Here’s what it’s meant to me.
“Baby on the way.”
My best friend Paul used to quiz me on these lyrics as we – at fourteen, too big for the swings we sat on – eked out the second summer of the Second Summer of Love. I didn’t really know where he was getting the words from. Some Scottish-sounding thing about clans rising. Some quite fruity bits –
“Get it up and shag it.”
Believe me, I used to quieten my voice as I recited those lines. Innocent days.
The words belonged, I would later find, to songs from Kirsty MacColl’s album ‘Kite’. And there is, it turns out, no better introduction: words first, unhampered by troublesome style or genre. Her lyrics are warm and witty, and once they get going, there is no stopping songs like ‘Innocence’ and ‘Free World’ and ‘Fifteen Minutes’; they are packed with verbiage. Words with several syllables – “mediocrity”, “pornographic”, “degeneration” – as well as fantastic ideas – “those vicious boys and their boring girls, you know it makes me sick, but it’s a bozo’s world.”
Words were, though, shortly to be edged out. The previous week ‘The Stone Roses’ had been released, and Paul and I would soon don our bucket hats and flares to hamper ourselves with style and genre. Era-defining lyric “You’re twisting my melon, man” was on the horizon.
But MacColl’s lyrics stayed, thanks to Paul, etched into my consciousness. Revisiting them now, after all this time, I notice MacColl brings what we might now call a ‘high status’ to her lyrics. It’s not that she doesn’t take any crap — she does, and don’t we all — but she emerges with her head held high. “You won’t be seeing me again, but you’ll always wonder why…”
Morrissey with a sense of perspective.
Alongside this strength, she shows a great generosity of heart. Rather than surrendering to self-laceration, her narrative nurtures; she has high hopes for others: “Don’t come the cowboy with me,” she advises one hopeful. “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 at once a vulnerable and an optimistic message, and for this fourteen-year-old Sonny Jim, it was an enduring one. It does not escape my notice the terms of incredible affection she is remembered with by so many men (and they are almost all men) who knew her or worked with her. Love, these lines tell us, should not be a battle but a collaboration. Creative love, romantic love, sororal, fraternal, filial love. It’s you and me, baby. Women and men, united in the struggle.
(This theme of wry encouragement survived right through to ‘Us Amazonians’ on her fantastic final album ‘Tropical Brainstorm’, with its memorable lyric: “Here’s my boyfriend, he’s small, he is blue/He is cold, he is rough, he’s appalling that’s true/But he’s got the power, he’s got the fire/To be just like us is his only desire.”)
So. Lyrics thus memorised, I decamped to Paul’s house, and to his slim shelf of five CDs. CDs were an odd commodity in the late 1980s. The cool bands were not guaranteed to release on the format, because the cool kids couldn’t afford them. That meant those early CD collections were inevitably a bit dadsy. ‘Graceland’. ‘Brothers In Arms’. ‘But Seriously…’. Paul delicately fingertipsed one of his five CDs from its case and tattled it into the futuristic self-opening drawer and pressed swallow. Lasery sounds came from within, and incomprehensible blue-green digits lit up the front. Paul pressed play.
It’s an unusual and pleasing feeling, hearing something you already know well for the first time.
“It wouldn’t take a long time to explain what lies between us
And it wouldn’t take a genius to work out what the scene is;
It might just take a pilot to give you a natural high
But you’re sending off those bottle tops for your free peace of mind.”
All the little synaptical and rhythmical adjustments around the words you’ve already fixed in your mind, lolloping through “between us/genius/scene is” before launching off the height of her natural ‘high!’ and landing in the middle of that unsolvable “piece of mind/peace of mind” problem.
The melody is playful, the band is tight and energetic; it feels united and all of a piece, leavening the pop sensibilities of MacColl’s celebrated earlier singles with a focused, more mature feel. The sound itself, so tight and vital, contains the story of the how the album came to be: of how it reached out around it tapped into the relationships MacColl herself had nurtured, and which now wanted to nurture her.
Leading up to Kite, MacColl had experienced somewhat of a career hiatus. A change of management, a change of record label and the arrival of two children all meant that MacColl had worked mostly as a session singer since her last singles ‘A New England’ and ‘He’s on the Beach’. These had seen her first collaborations with sought-after producer (and by then her husband) Steve Lillywhite, throwing pop’s kitchen sink at the songs to create two memorable three-minute wonders.
Over this period the pair refined the formula for MacColl’s voice in their Ealing home studio, culminating in arguably the most profitable day’s maternity leave in history. One evening in August, Lillywhite brought home the tapes of a duet The Pogues’s Shane MacGowan was singing with himself in the absence of anyone to respond. MacColl recorded over them and the next day, accordionist James Fearnley recalls the Pogues sitting “in awed silence” as they listened to the playback of ‘Fairytale of New York’. After two years of trying, the Pogues had their “old slut on junk”, MacColl injecting, according to MacGowan, “exactly the right measure of viciousness and femininity and romance”.
MacColl’s involvement with The Smiths during this hiatus also came to be key in informing Kite’s rich sound. Ahead of becoming Johnny Marr’s formidable landlady (“She was not someone you wanted to cross – unless, that is, you wanted ten minutes of colourful and creative expletives fired at you,” he recalled), she became the only voice ever to back Morrissey on the single ‘Ask’, which Lillywhite was asked to mix. Lillywhite, taking a break from his reduced-pay work with The Pogues, also gave Marr a break from the subsequent implosion of The Smiths to record with Talking Heads on their ‘Naked’ album.
At this time, Marr began writing songs for MacColl, including ‘You and Me Baby’ and ‘End of a Perfect Day’, and his signature ‘guitarchestral’ sound can be heard all over Kite, complimenting perfectly MacColl and Lillywhite’s refined vocal formula. Marr came to recall his relationship with MacColl as “one of the great friendships of my life”.
MacColl it was who surprised Marr by summoning him round to hers to “kick around old rock ‘n’ roll songs like we’d been doing it for years” with none other than Marr’s hero Keith Richards. And MacColl’s album too it was that brought together – at the instigation of bassist Guy Pratt – Marr with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on ‘No Victims’.
In the midst of all these egos, it was MacColl, bon viveur, worthy foil for Marr, Richards and MacGowan, who commanded enough respect to kick them all into shape. She was the perfectionist in the room. Marr recalls after a gruelling 10-hour session laying down a cover of The Kinks’s ‘Days’ (“my favourite ever session with her”), MacColl was heard through the headphones to say “about bloody time!”.
It’s this image of her that I treasure most, and which I think has been lost rather in the wake of her death in 2000. Check out the video for post-Kite single ‘All I Ever Wanted’. It features MacColl engaging in some gold-standard arsing about with Rowland Rivron and the team she encountered in her residency on French & Saunders’s prime-time BBC sketch show. It’s this level of fun and indulgence that I most associate with Kirsty MacColl.
I’m fourteen no more. I’m older, in fact, than Kirsty MacColl ever was. She would have been sixty this coming October, and sometimes I wonder what she’d be singing about now. Ha, of course nothing, because we don’t allow women to sing past forty. Or maybe she’d have taken a leaf out of Marianne Faithful’s book, and joined up with a new generation of adoring producers and had another career resurgence. Another Kite. Another Tropical Brainstorm. Another time. Another day.
Not, alas, to be. But the words she gave me, after the bucket hat and baggy jeans had been folded laboriously away, remained. And in an area so scant with examples – of women talking to as equals to men – these are the words I take with me, the ones that have formed my idea of the world and of myself.
Happy birthday, Kite. And happy birthday Kirsty MacColl. Cheers.
Kite is available on:
- Kirsty MacColl – vocals, guitar, acoustic bass, steel guitar, autoharp, percussion
- Mark Berrow – violin
- Stuart Brooks – trumpet
- Paul Crowder – percussion, tambourine
- Ben Cruft – violin
- James Eller – bass
- Mel Gaynor – drums
- Wilfred Gibson – violin
- Roy Gillard – violin
- David Gilmour – guitar on “No Victims” & “You and Me Baby”
- Pete Glenister – guitar
- Malcolm Griffiths – trombone
- Steve Lillywhite – bass on “Fifteen Minutes”
- Robbie McIntosh – guitar on “Mother’s Ruin”, “Free World” & “Fifteen Minutes”
- Johnny Marr – guitar, harmonica
- Yves N’Djock – guitar, vocals
- Pino Palladino – bass
- Guy Pratt – bass
- Jamie Talbot – tenor saxophone on “Fifteen Minutes”
- Philip Todd – clarinet on “Fifteen Minutes”
- Fiachra Trench – string & brass arrangements
- Steve Turner – harmonica, guitar, effects on “Don’t Come the Cowboy”
- Dave Woodcock – violin
- Gavyn Wright – violin
- Guy Barker – trumpet
- Colin Stuart – guitar
- David Palmer – drums, percussion