Kirsty MacColl killed in boating accident
KIRSTY MACCOLL, the singer and songwriter who has died aged 41 in a boating accident in
Mexico, was one of the most refreshing and versatile voices in British pop music.
The daughter of the folk singer Ewan MacColl, she first came to prominence in 1981 with
a novelty song entitled There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop (Swears He's Elvis), a
track that demonstrated the sharp wit for which she became known.
Her biggest hit, Fairytale of New York, which she recorded with the Pogues and which
reached Number 2 in 1987, combined a celebration of Christmas spirit with the drunken
ranting of two Irish emigrants in America.
Yet neither of these singles did real justice to the consistency of her musicality, and
she always remained on the fringes of stardom.
Moreover, she never enjoyed performing in public; during a disastrous tour of Ireland
in the mid-1980s she suffered badly from stage fright, singing her songs so fast that she
ran out of material and had to repeat her performance.
It was in the recording studio that she gave of her best. "When I go into a
studio," she said, "I operate on the principle that I might get hit by a bus
tomorrow. I'd hate the obituaries to have to read: 'And her last album was not very good.'
In fact, her most recent release, Tropical Brainstorm (2000), inspired by recent
travels in Cuba and Brazil, was considered by many critics to be her best.
Kirsty MacColl was born in Croydon, south London, on October 10 1959. Her mother was
the dancer and choreographer Jean Newlove, whom her father left for Peggy Seeger before
Kirsty was born.
As a child she seldom saw Ewan MacColl, and though she inherited his ear for music and
his perfectionism, she claimed not to have been influenced by his songs. Instead she took
her inspiration from the pop music that she heard on her mother's radio, and by her teens
was investigating her elder brother's collection of Frank Zappa records.
She attended Croydon Comprehensive and by the time she went on to art college had
already begun her musical career under the pseudonym Mandy Doubt, singing backing vocals
in The Drug Addix, an R&B group masquerading as a punk band.
In 1978, the Addix released an EP, The Drug Addix Make a Record, on the strength of
which the Stiff label invited them to a studio for a day. Kirsty MacColl was asked back by
Stiff; the Drug Addix were not.
A few weeks later she recorded They Don't Know, her own composition and her first solo
release. It failed to reach the charts but in 1983 it became a hit for Tracey Ullman.
Kirsty MacColl remained with Stiff throughout the mid-1980s, and in 1985 charted with
her version of Billy Bragg's A New England, for which Bragg wrote an extra verse. The
follow up, He's On the Beach, flopped and for a time she became a backing singer for other
groups, including Talking Heads, The Smiths and the Happy Mondays (on Hallelujah).
By now the mother of two children, in the late 1980s she moved to Virgin, where in 1989
she enjoyed another hit with a cover version, this time of the Kinks' Days, taken from the
album Kite, which demonstrated both the range and humour of her songwriting.
Two years later, former Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr accompanied her on another
single, Walking Down Madison (1991), which took her uneasily into dance territory.
But the album from which this was taken, Electric Landlady (a play on Jimi Hendrix's
Electric Ladyland), did not sell well, and she again parted company with her record
She moved to ZTT, with whom she released the album Titanic Days (1993) and a
compilation, Galore, in 1995. But she felt increasingly estranged from the music scene,
dominated as it was by techno and Britpop, and in 1992 she headed for South America.
During the next seven years, she travelled extensively in Brazil and Cuba, where she
became involved in the Cuban Solidarity Movement, a government-inspired campaign to secure
an end to the economic sanctions imposed by the United States.
It was while she was travelling around Latin America that she began to write her last
Radio 2 was due this evening to start broadcasting a documentary series that she had
made about Cuban music. She had recorded it in Havana, interviewing musicians from the
Buena Vista Social Club project.
She married, in 1984 (dissolved 1997), the record producer Steve Lillywhite. They had