Forgotten Albums: Kirsty MacColl, Kite

On December 18, 2000, a 41-year-old mother of two boys was killed after being struck by a speeding motorboat as she pushed her older son out of the way of the oncoming craft. The boat shouldn’t have been there, and certainly not at that speed; the family was participating in a recreational diving expedition off the shores of Cozumel, Mexico. It turned out that the boat was owned by the founder of a large Mexican supermarket chain. Ultimately a boathand confessed to being at the helm when the accident occurred, though it’s not clear that was actually the case.

It took about ten days for news of Kirsty MacColl’s tragic death to reach a 36-year-old new father in Kentucky. He put disk after disk into the CD player on top of the refrigerator; more than once that day he rocked his eight-week-old son in the kitchen, in an attempt to console (for entirely different reasons) both the boy and himself.

MacColl is best-known for her collaboration with Shane MacGowan and the Pogues on “Fairytale of New York,” one of the UK’s most popular holiday tunes (it makes an annual pilgrimage to the British pop charts these days, and is currently sitting at #4). It’s a great song, though I sure wish it didn’t include a certain word they rhyme with “maggot.” ‘Tis the season for playing it, I suppose, but that’s not what’s on my mind today.

I’d proclaimed MacColl’s Kite in real time as my favorite album of 1990–it was almost certainly the disk I’d listened to most that year. Though it’d been released in the UK in May of 1989, it would take over a year for it to land in my hands, a purchase likely spurred by a positive Rolling Stone review.

Today, on the twentieth anniversary of her passing, I’ll attempt to honor MacColl’s life and work by playing some of Kite‘s top tracks.

I’ll bet I played “Innocence,” the first song on Kite, at least ten times the day I first slipped the CD into my player. The single mix we hear in the video is different from what I’m used to hearing, but I suppose it’s close enough.

“Free World” was the lead single and reached #43 on the British charts. (Note that they dub in “wag” for “shag” in the clip below.) It’s also the name of the fan site

Steve Lillywhite, MacColl’s husband at the time, produced Kite. “Days,” a Kinks cover and the biggest hit in Britain from Kite, shows off Lillywhite’s skill in multi-tracking her voice.

“Don’t Come the Cowboy with Me, Sonny Jim!” is a plaintive cry from a woman too often on the bad end of romantic encounters to a man she sees as a little different from the rest. We’ve now hit on all four UK singles from Kite.

While there are multiple tracks on Kite I love to belt out alongside Kirsty, my fave for doing that (and fave song overall) is the driving “Tread Lightly.” Best line: “I curse the day I met you but I won’t forget you/Not in my lifetime.”

MacColl had done background vocals on the Smiths’ “Ask” in the mid 80s. She maintained contact with Johnny Marr, and the two co-wrote a couple of songs for Kite. “The End of a Perfect Day” might be the best Smiths tune that Morrisey didn’t sing. (A cover of “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” is one of three bonus tracks on the CD).

Another bonus is a rousing cover of Anna and Kate McGarrigle’s “Complaint Pour Ste Catherine.” Her French sounds pretty good to me (it’s one of two songs she sings en français).

I lapped up MacColl’s next two albums, though I didn’t find them nearly as magical. Her last disk, Tropical Brainstorm, was released just a few months before her death.

Rest in peace, Kirsty–you’re certainly not forgotten.

About a year after buying Kite, I found this on the Usenet newsgroup

I don’t remember now if I noted at the time the reviewer was a mathematician, but several years after this, I found myself in his home. I was attending a conference in Atlanta; it turns out that Mulcahy’s wife, who teaches at Emory, is an occasional collaborator with my dissertation advisor, and I’d scored an invite to a reception they were hosting. I may or may not have chatted with Mulcahy, who’s Irish, about Kirsty that evening…

I know that MacColl will appear in this space at least a couple of times in 2021; look for another cut from Kite in February.

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