This is an album I love so much that you’d expect I’d have some clear story about how it came into my life, and that I’d spend the next few paragraphs tying it to significant events. Well, so would I. But I don’t. I know that I had a cassette of it, and by the early 1990s, it was a fixture in my series of company cars, but where it came from I have no idea. I don’t even remember if the cassette was an original copy or one I’d taped from someone else’s copy. The whole thing is a blank, and yet I just looked at the track listing, and every song popped into my head as clearly as if I’d last listened to it yesterday.
I do know when I was first aware of Kirsty MacColl, though. There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears he’s Elvis was one of those bright, quirky early eighties pop singles which no-one makes any more, and while it may have marked MacColl out as only just this side of a novelty act, I firmly expected to hear much more from her.
Then, a couple of years later there was Tracey Ullman’s cover of They Don’t Know, which suggested there was much more to come, and then – nothing.
The story of Kirsty MacColl’s stop-start music career is remarkable. No two of her albums were released on the same label, and even at the point at the end of the century, when she appeared to have finally carved out a niche of her own, she was dropped yet again by her record label.
And then, of course, she died, suddenly and shockingly, and a musician who would likely have succeeded in the modern world of home-created and self-distributed music was never able to explore the technology which might, at last, have given her the freedom to do what she wanted on her own terms.
I was going to suggest that she is overlooked somewhat these days, but of course, that reckons without the perennial Christmas favourite, Fairytale of New York. I can only hope that as each new generation is exposed to her uniquely perfect reading of the song, they’re moved to explore her back catalogue, and discover for themselves what a talented and joyful songwriter she was, and what a magnificent voice she had.
And, eventually, I hope they land on Kite and discover just how brilliant she was in spite of all the things which life and the music business threw at her. She’s perhaps the perfect example of the underappreciated genius, but she left an almost flawless body of work, every word and every note carefully crafted for maximum impact. Her songs work as singalong background music, but also – and this is vanishingly rare – reward much closer listening. There’s so much going on in every song, even (perhaps especially) the ones which appear to be jovial feasts of wordplay.
So, I don’t remember how Kite came in to my life, but I can’t imagine having ever lived without it. I know that her promotion for this album consisted of a series of appearances on the French and Saunders comedy show, where she seemed to be having as much fun as everyone else, and also was subtly making a point about how it shouldn’t be remarkable to see a show made by women, featuring a female musical guest, and yet it felt radically different at the time, and I’m not convinced it wouldn’t feel the same today.
Incidentally, the whole point about having a musical guest in a comedy sketch show was that it allowed the show to be classified as ‘light entertainment’ rather than ‘comedy’, and there was more budget to be had for the former. It’s also why The Young Ones had Motorhead on the show, among others.
Anyway, Kite. Is it as good as I remember? (spoiler alert: yes. Yes, it is.)
The album kicks off with the infectious guitar lick of Innocence, a perfect example of how MacColl’s songs can be at once lyrically dense and musically effortless and joyful. It’s far from a jolly song; a portrait of a powerful man, oblivious to his misanthropy (hard not to read it as a direct attack on any one of a dozen music business executives). All delivered with an upbeat country-tinged inflection and a lyric which darts from Stevie Smith to The Beatles’ I am the Walrus without looking over its shoulder to see if we’re keeping up.
It’s followed by Free World, two and a half minutes of bitter polemic aimed at the political environment of the late 1980s; sung in an urgent tumble of words, with lines tripping over each other in their need to be heard, all the while backed by a guitar which could have come off the latest U2 album (there’s a reason for that, naturally). It’s elevating and uplifting, right up until the meaning of the words actually register.
It’s pretty much the perfect opening two tracks to any album, and I can’t think of many artists whoul would have been able to sustain the quality over an entire album, but Kirsty made it look easy.
Next up is the much more openly mournful ‘Mother’s Ruin’, a perfect change of pace as Kirsty considers the lives of those women who live in the shadows, the London ‘alleyways’ not so different from the New York ones we met in the last post. This, however, is a woman’s perspective on life – the despair and lack of prospects may be the same, but the feeling is different, the ever-present edge of fear and powerlessness is shot through the whole song. Oh, and I can’t let it go without marvelling at the way the title is worked in twice, once as a noun phrase, once as a verb phrase.
See, that Linguistics degree was useful for something.
I’m going to pretty much skip over Days. It’s not Kirsty’s fault; she clearly loves the song as much as everyone who isn’t me does, but it does nothing for me, I’m afraid – not the original by the Kinks, not the Elvis Costello version, not this one – although this one is less plodding than the others, and her voice elevates what I find a fairly mundane lyric.
Look, I know it’s a classic. It’s just one of my blind spots, and is the only thing to take a slight shine off an otherwise perfect album.
Fortunately for me, No Victims comes along to remind me that it’s perfectly possible to cram more choruses in to a single song than Lou Reed manages in a whole album, and still make a powerful political point. I think the joyful singalong quality of this song is not better known because of the subject matter – men, in particular, don’t like to be reminded of the woman’s viewpoint, especially when it crashes directly into Fifteen Minutes, in which Kirsty, accompanied by a pulsating acoustic guitar and some random castanets, returns to the subject of the opening song, with a smile and an ‘Oh, one more thing…’
It eventually can’t help but explode into a fully fleshed-out musical extravaganza, but the point has already been well made by then, and even the victim of this vitriol is surely singing along to his own evisceration.
This is one of the last albums (I haven’t checked; it might be the last one) on the list which behaves exactly as an old vinyl album used to. Twenty minutes per side, and a definite break in the middle. Here, the break comes just before Don’t Come the Cowboy with me, Sonny Jim! which runs the risk of retreading the Chip Shop themes, especially given its musical style. It manages to avoid this by being a straightforward country song – never does this feel like pastiche or parody; Kirsty performs is absolutely straight, and delivers one of the great lost country songs – how this wasn’t a huge hit in the hands of a Dolly Parton or a Tammy Wynette is surely only down to those same, unflinching, woman’s view of the world lyrics, which would make it uncomfortable listening for about half of its intended audience.
Tread Lightly does that same trick of being an upbeat and bouncy song with a lyric which gives even the casual listener pause. It has a way of running lines on which must have been a nightmare to plan the breathing around; it’s a songwriting trick I’m particularly fond of, this ability to fold lines around each other so that you are forced to re-evaluate what you’re thinking as a seemingly endless sentence develops on its own thoughts. So few attempt it; even fewer can carry it off with seeming casual ease in a song you can cheerfully whistle along to.
Kirsty MacColl would, I imagine, have hated the celebrity-obsessed times we appear to live in now, but it would have given her plenty of material. What Do Pretty Girls Do? might have a different answer in 2022 than it did in 1989, but the sentiment would still be similar; perhaps it’s a little cynical, looking at the fading of shallow beauty, but it’s a perfect portrait of someone we still recognise today.
Dancing in Limbo is a woozy dream of a song which uses the music to tell the story just as well as the words do; it’s an early indication of Kirsty’s interest in Latin American music; although it’s about a stalled life, it’s also a musical invocation of a siesta; the doubled voice lulls you to sleep off your slightly excessive lunch while you regret the choices you made, you don’t seem to have the strength to do anything about any of it.
The End of a Perfect Day is a breakup song, but better than that, it’s a Kirsty MacColl breakup song, so while she breaks your heart (and mentions in passing that she’d rather you didn’t get violent about it), you can’t help singing along. If it sounds a little like a Smiths song, that would be the writing and playing of Johnny Marr. Kirsty never lacked brilliant musical partners, and little gems like this song make me wish she’d spent more time exploring those possibilities as well as working on her own stuff.
Marr’s delicate guitar illuminates and elevates You & Me Baby as well – it’s much less Smiths-like, but it is part of the sound of the time, and is fascinating to me as an exercise in restricting the normal warm, wide palette of a Kirsty MacColl song. This is almost minimalist in its approach, with almost no variation from the same few notes (she can’t help herself towards the end, where ‘intercept’ gets a little more interpretation than I suspect was in the original music); the effect of which is to illustrate the death of a love affair and the seemingly dreary prospects ahead.
It sounds like a flat way to end such a joyful album, but I think it serves its purpose well – Kite isn’t about a life or a time which requires an album to roar off into the sunset; Kirsty always knew exactly what she was doing In ordering songs on an album, and this muted ending reflects the slightly less than optimistic tone of the whole piece; the songs are bright and joyful, the words more realistic.
As I said earlier, Kirsty MacColl’s is a small body of work, and it’s impossible not to wish there had been so much more. It is possible, however, ot take comfort in the knowledge that what we do have includes an uncompromisingly brilliant and clever album like Kite, and a set of songs which stands up today in a way that so few supposedly classic albums do.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
You know what I’m going to say. There are only five of them in total (six if you count the repackaged version of her first), and you should own and love all of them. Oh, go on then, Tropical Brainstorm. It’s not like any of the others, but it’s sly and subversive in entirely new ways, and contains the ridiculously sensual Autumngirlsoup.
Compilations to consider?
Galore came out before Tropical Brainstorm, but is still a terrific summary of her work to that point.
Kirsty famously suffered from terrible stage fright, so, no.
Anything else? There are a couple of British documentaries, one celebrating her life, and the other investigating her death. Both are worthwhile, if you can find them. I’ve read The One and Only by Karen O’Brien, and recommend that, too.