December 18, 2000 – Kirsty Anna MacColl was born at Mayday Hospital in Croydon (South London) on 10th October 1959. This did not make her Scottish. Or Irish. Or called Kristy. While living in Croydon, Kirsty drove a huge white BMW with fuzzy dice but no power steering. She called it Bob Marley & the Wailers.
Kirsty’s father was the legendary ‘communist’ folk singer Ewan MacColl, but she grew up seeing him only at weekends, being raised by her dancer/choreographer mother. Ewan of course had by then married Peggy Seeger, sister of Pete Seeger, who was the sidekick of legendary ‘communist’ folk singer Woody Guthrie. Woody also married a dancer/choreographer (Marjorie), and due to his poor health their daughter Nora only saw him at weekends. Nora spent time working with Billy Bragg to recreate Woody’s unfinished songs, on the “Mermaid Avenue” sessions. Billy of course was a great friend of Kirsty’s and wrote songs for her.
Kirsty attended Monks Hill High comprehensive school (in Selsdon) and John Newnham schools (at the latter she played lead in a school production of Oh what a lovely
war!) She played violin and oboe in the orchestra and made quite a reasonable fuzz box! She also took metalwork as an option at school – she was the only girl in a class
of boys and when she showed up on the first day, she was met with a sneering, “you can’t come into this class, you’re a girl.” When asked a month later how she was
getting on with metal work, Kirsty replied breezily, “Oh, they come and ask me for help now.”
Kirsty worked briefly as a tele-sales girl on Exchange and Mart, and also cleaned flats.
Her bother Hamish’s record collection which the young Kirsty commandeered, to immerse herself in the sounds of the Beach Boys and Neil Young, which she later credited with inspiring her love of harmonies and songwriting skills.
In 1978, Kirsty joined a minor league band called (in the spirit of the times) the Drug Addix, masquerading as Mandy Doubt. They released one EP on Chiswick Records, and Kirsty then spent the rest of her life trying to pretend it never happened! The Drug Addix are frequently referred to as a ‘punk rock’ band, but that’s a bit of a stretch, perhaps more ‘pub rock’.
On the back of some demos for Stiff Records, Kirsty was auditioned as a solo singer, and having no songs to sing, had to come up with one pronto – so she wrote They Don’t Know, and it became her first single in June 1979. She got the deal! But even in those early days, Kirsty soon discovered how fickle the record business is and, having recorded another single which was co-written and no less backed by the Boomtown Rats, she found herself off the label and the single binned.
Then Polydor called and, after her rather fine cover of the Gerry Goffin & Carole King hit Keep Your Hands Off My Baby did nothing, in May 1981 she finally hit No. 14 in the UK chart with the highest ranking composition of her entire career – There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis, a witty rocking number pointing the finger at lying scoundrels everywhere, a theme she would return to with relish throughout her songwriting life.
In June 1981 an album, ‘Desperate Character’, was released on Polydor featuring a collection of snappy Kirsty songs along with a few covers of 60s songs. It didn’t trouble the charts, and was in fact unknown to all but her most long serving and devoted fans from the time. Another two singles – the self-penned See That Girl and the Beach Boys cover You Still Believe in Me were unjustly ignored prior to Polydor parting company with Kirsty.
In December 1984 she hit No. 7 with her version of Billy Bragg’s A New England. Her knack for spotting a killer song and her persuasiveness in having the song’s author write an extra verse just for her paid off with what would be the biggest solo chart success of her career.
In August 1984 Kirsty shotgun married top record producer Steve Lillywhite and had two children: Jamie was born on the 20 Feb 1985 and Louis was born on the 3rd of Sept 1987. Even though she largely spent the second half of the Eighties raising her two sons, soon after the birth of her second one, in November 1987, Kirsty got to No. 2 in the chart performing with the Pogues on what has since become a perennial Christmas hit, Fairytale of New York.
Kirsty famously hosted huge boozy parties in her house, with wine flowing like water in the kitchen and everyone dancing round her splendid jukebox, containing many pop gems including Stereotypes by the Specials, Ebeneezer Goode by the Shamen, I’m too sexy by Right Said Fred, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, New Year’s Day by U2, The one I love by R.E.M., Heaven knows I’m miserable now by the Smiths, Sexuality by Billy Bragg and her very own They don’t know, as well as quite a few Beach Boys singles!
Kirsty returned to the studio with Virgin for the 1989 release of what many still consider to be her best album, Kite. Preceded by the minor hit Free World in February, the album came out in April and reached No.34 in the album chart. A second hit, the Ray Davies song Days followed, reaching No. 12. Kite was inspired by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour – asked what present he wanted for playing on the album, he replied “Just send a kite to Armenia”, which she duly did.
Miss Otis Regrets was recorded, again with the Pogues, for the AIDS awareness project ‘Red Hot & Blue’ and with their help, Kirsty returned to live performance having been rather put off by an early experience touring the ballrooms of Ireland.
In 1991 Kirsty teamed up with Smiths guitarist and songwriter Johnny Marr on much of her next album, ‘Electric Landlady’ (she was Johnny Marr’s Landlady) This was heralded by the rap infused dance hit Walking Down Madison; the album also featured Kirsty’s first fully formed attempt at using a Latin approach (kindled by her work in New York on a David Byrne album years earlier) with the ever popular My Affair before being dumped by Virgin and hitting a slump including the breakup of her marriage to Steve Lillywhite in 1994.
In the US, Kirsty never charted on the Hot 100 or The Billboard 200, but the 1991 song Walking Down Madison went to No. 4 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, No. 18 on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play list, and No. 36 on Hot Dance Music/Maxi-Singles Sales chart. In 1993, Can’t Stop Killing You went to No. 20 on the Modern Rock Tracks list, and the following year Angel reached No. 26 on that same chart.
The second part of the 90s found her in a musical slump but with growing interest in Poetry and Latin America, bu the retrospective ‘Galore’ album itself was a highly successful collection, and added two new songs – “Jolene’s revenge” song, Caroline, and a cover of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day with Evan Dando of the Lemonheads. It reached No.6 in the UK chart, and stayed in the chart for 27 weeks. But after that everything went quiet again. She decided to get busy and toured South America and Cuba extensively. An excellent collection of old radio sessions was put out in 1998 by Hux Records to keep her profile somewhat prominent.
In early 1999 Kirsty fell in love again and started to work on a bunch of new material which she’d started out in Brazil and in Cuba, meshing Latin rhythms to the her familiar lyrical dexterity and wit. She proclaimed herself “a Latin soul trapped in an English body” and got to work in Pete Glenister and Dave Ruffy’s studio in Bermondsey. The resulting tracks, featuring samples from Kirsty’s by now extensive collection of Cuban records brought back from her numerous trips, were to become released to much acclaim as the album Tropical Brainstorm. A whole new generation heard Mambo de la Luna and In These Shoes? and became lifelong fans.
Kirsty had already started work on her next album and was working on various side projects when she decided to take a well earned break after a year of promotional work and touring. She flew to Mexico with her partner James, and two sons Louis and Jamie.
On December 18th 2000, following her participation in the presentation of a radio program for the British Broadcasting Corporation in Cuba, her love of diving cost Kirsty her life when a powerful speedboat hit her off the coast of Cozumel island, while she was diving with her sons and a veteran dive instructor in a cordoned ‘swimmers only’ area.
The powerboat involved in the accident was owned by Guillermo González Nova, multimillionaire president of the Comercial Mexicana supermarket chain, who was on board with members of his family. One of his employees, boathand José Cen Yam, stated that he was in control of the boat at the time of the incident. Eyewitnesses said that Cen Yam was not at the controls and that the boat was traveling much faster than the speed of one knot that González Nova said. Cen Yam was found guilty of culpable homicide and was sentenced to 2 years 10 months in prison. He was allowed under Mexican law to pay a punitive fine of 1,034 pesos (about €63, £61 or US$90) in lieu of the prison sentence. He was also ordered to pay approximately US$2,150 in restitution to MacColl’s family, an amount based on his wages. People who said they spoke to Cen Yam after the accident said he received money for taking the blame.
The following days her photo was prominent on almost all the British newspapers and it became apparent how substantial her support amongst the public was, though she had only latterly begun to appreciate it herself. At her public memorial service, major rock stars and television actors mingled freely with the public, everyone united in their grief.
Kirsty’s mother Jean launched the Justice for Kirsty Campaign to pursue those she deemed responsible via the British and Mexican governments. The campaign succeeded in achieving widespread publicity and local safety initiatives, though it failed in its central aim of bringing those in charge of the powerboat to justice.