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Music

The life and times of Kirsty MacColl: The tragic story of an artist, a mother and a hero

@SamWKemp

My main memories of childhood are tinged with the sound of Kirsty MacColl. As we trundled through another unrelentingly drizzly village in Northern France for our summer holiday, MacColl’s 2000 album Tropical Brainstorm would provide an ill-matched soundtrack, painting a picture of azure waters and middle-aged sexual liberation while I – a slightly fat child gnawing chunks of nougat out of his jumper – dreamt of adulthood and what it might feel like.

For Kirsty MacColl – who that year had turned 41, managed to bag herself a new lover, and release a widely successful comeback album – it must have felt pretty damn good. As she noted in an interview in 2000, she’d embraced what she’d come to regard as “the second part of my life”. That same year, however, she was killed attempting to rescue children from the path of an out-of-control speedboat in Mexico. In death, she left behind an immense legacy. Here, we take a look through a collection of snapshots of a life, a life interrupted.

In 1966, a seven-year-old Kirsty MacColl was asked to appear on a BBC program about gifted children. Suffering from severe asthma, she spent much of her early childhood being home-schooled by her mother, the dancer and choreographer Jean Newlove. But despite not attending school, it quickly transpired that the young MacColl had an unusually high IQ. As her mother once recalled in 2004: “I would read something to her, you know, before I thought she could read, and I would leave it at the most exciting part, hoping that she would want me to teach her to read, you see. I remember one day coming back and saying: ‘well now, if you like, we’ll finish that story’. And she looked at me and said: ‘well I’ve read it haven’t I?’ And, of course, I didn’t know she could read.” But the following year, MacColl was forced to receive formal schooling, something she didn’t take too kindly to. “There was a huge pressure to be like everyone else,” she later recalled, “And I wasn’t likely everybody else, I was a bit of a rank outsider really.”

That sense of being on the fringes stayed with her as she stepped into adolescence and embraced the world of music. At 17, infatuated with the burgeoning UK punk scene, she joined the Drug Addix. While Stiff Records’ A&R team hated the band, they had a soft spot for Kirsty and agreed to sign her. Ranking alongside Ian Dury and Elvis Costello, MacColl gained a reputation for her unique voice and accessible yet highly original blend of bubblegum punk. Despite not being able to buy her first single ‘They Don’t Know’ (1977) in record stores, it received a huge amount of radio play and was later covered by comedian and actress Tracey Ullman, turning it into a top ten hit stateside.

MacColl herself had to make do with supplying backing vocals for the likes of Simple Minds until 1981 when she landed a hit with her cover of Billy Bragg’s New England. A few years later, she was invited to perform on The Pogues ‘Fairytale Of New York’, a song that was wildly successful at the time and continually ranks as one of the UK’s favourite Christmas songs today. Over the next two years, having landed a deal with Virgin Records, she toured the world, going on to release collaborations with the likes of Johnny Marr and David Byrne.

Then, MacColl fell in love. After a slump in record sales, she decided to take some time out of the music industry and was only coaxed back in 1999 after developing an affection for two important things: a man called James Knight and the danceable grooves of Latin music. She fell in love with the genre after working with David Byrne, whose influence completely reinvigorated her creativity. She quickly set to work on a selection of new songs from her holiday home in Brazil, at which point she declared herself “a Latin soul in an English body”. She found a place for these lyrically dexterous and densely polyrhythmic new tracks in Tropical Brainstorm, which introduced a whole new generation to the strident sound of Kirsty MacColl.

MacColl was working on the follow up to Tropical Brainstorm when she decided to take a Christmas holiday with her family in Mexico. On December 18th, she was diving in a coral reef with her two sons when a speedboat entered the ‘swimmers only’ area and came hurtling towards them at a ferocious speed. At the same moment she spotted the speedboat, MacColl also realised that her 15-year-old son Jamie was in its path. She swam, managing to push him aside, but was herself hit and killed on impact.

In the aftermath of MacColl’s death, musicians united to hold a concert in her honour. She’d always been revered by her musical contemporaries, but only now was the scale of the public’s affection for her coming clear. Today, she lives on as one of the greatest lyricists of the post-punk era; an incredibly dexterous performer who managed to reinvent herself countless times, while staying true to the sardonic wit that has made her earliest singles so enduring.

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