“The voice of an angel from a mind and heart inflamed by Thatcher’s England.” – David Byrne
Remembering Kirsty MacColl on the eve of what would have been her 60th birthday.
Some would say that Kirsty MacColl owes the bulk of her career to Tracey Ullman. Others would suggest that a sizeable chunk of the thanks should go to Billy Bragg.
Putting his vociferous protest songs on brief hold, The star-crossed love song A New England was written and recorded by Bragg on his 1983 album Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy. Kirsty MacColl went to see one of his live shows later that year and immediately identified as the song having commercial potential, later telling Gilbert Blecken: “I knew the song was fantastic, but his version was just the skeleton of the song, so I wanted to dress it up.”
By the time the track was recorded in 1984 (produced by her then husband, Steve Lillywhite), MacColl was a latter-day signee to Stiff Records. While there, she’d output a smattering of 45s. But it would be this one that would make the most impact during her tenure at the label, with a tale of a young person suddenly confronting the end of a relationship, corresponding with the end of innocence, too. It also talks about love and its complexities, and its power to create as much disappointment as it does to create joy. MacColl told Smash Hits magazine:
“I always thought New England would be great with loads of harmonies, it’s such a good melody. Billy does it in a very rough way, and it’s like a busker doing a really good Beatles song.”
Besides filling out the song in an arrangement full of jangly guitar (very Johnny Marr) and spacious production, it’s MacColl’s ability to carry the material off which separated it from its original context, and created a new one in its place. And the song’s author would help with that process.
Kirsty considered the track a bit on the short side, and so Bragg wrote a further two verses (the last two) just for her. Those verses help to bring out this deep sense of disappointment even further into the forefront more so than it is on the original. Besides that, the key reason that those new verses work so well is for the same reasons that the original ones do on this version; they’re being sung by Kirsty MacColl.
Even from this early stage, it was understood that MacColl had a gift that not all singers have, which was an ability to know precisely what her own voice could do to serve the given source material. This version works because even in its original form, this is a song about people we’ve all met. In MacColl’s hands, it’s a song specifically about a girl we grew up with who isn’t an immortal pop star diva, but rather one of us. Like ourselves, she finds herself confronted by a need to find out who she really is as she grows from one stage of her life to the next.
When Kirsty sings this character who talks about “looking for another girl” in this song, that other girl is the girl herself. This changes the meaning of the original song, and makes it a statement about seeking to be the best version of oneself, and not trying to define that identity in relation to someone else. That’s a powerful thing to say, and one using the original material as a means of saying it. This is what every cover version worth anyone’s time should do.
With the gender perspective also changed, and imbued with sparkling pop value, it was the perfect song for the fabulous maverick and very much missed Kirsty MacColl, becoming her biggest hit in the UK, reaching No.7 in February 1985 and ending the four year commercial drought since her chart debut, 1981’s There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis.
As an aside, in November 1992 I found myself helping a friend (Dean Balaam, whose Zi Duang Provence Bowie fanzine I’d take over and revamp as Crankin’ Out the following year) who was trying to sell off vast swathes of his record collection at a record fair at London’s Congress Centre, just off Tottenham Court Road. Dean spied Billy Bragg browsing the racks nearby and whipped out his seven-inch single of a New England. Then, bold as brass, he then asked me if I wouldn’t mind asking Billy to sign it, so he could bump up its asking price. And like the
stupid good stupid friend that I was, I did!
“I’ve just scribbled all over her face. Just don’t tell Kirsty, will you?”
And with a jerk and a smirk he was gone.
Mum was the word, even when I saw Kirsty open for Morrissey at Alexandra Palace a month later, finishing with a certain Pogues song (’twas the week before Christmas after all) so beloved of Pet Shop Boys fans everywhere. Sadly, it turned out to be the only time I witnessed Kirsty live.
After her time with Stiff Records was over and her career as a mother began, Kirsty MacColl’s recording career would be characterized with her session work with other artists, from The Smiths to Talking Heads to Simple Minds. But she’d record five studio albums as a solo artist before she was tragically killed when a powerboat ran her over while scuba diving in Mexico in December 2000.
In addition to being a talented interpreter, these albums would show that Kirsty MacColl was also a songwriter of tremendous depth, and with a wide range of musical curiosity. If you’re new to Kirsty, I’d recommend starting with From Croydon To Cuba then Electric Landlady. Failing that, 1995’s Galore is your go to compilation, containing a sampling of her most beloved/commercial songs, including They Don’t Know (later, a 1983 hit for Tracey Ullman) and her swoonsome covers of the Kinks’ Days and Lou Reed’s Perfect Day.
Drinking sangria in the great park in the sky? Undoubtedly.