If there was any justice in the world, Kirsty MacColl’s debut single They Don’t Know, a perfect distillation of defiant love in the style of ‘60s girl groups (and rather perfectly described by The Guardian as “as if the Byrds had been writing for the Shangri-Las”) would have been a huge hit in 1979.
As it was, an ill-timed distributor’s strike meant, despite heavy radio play, the single didn’t make it into the shops and instead it barely made the UK charts. It took a ‘zany‘ comedienne off the telly with a fancy video featuring Lord Thumbs-Aloft Macca himself to turn it a Top 10 hit (No. 2 in the UK and, amazingly, No. 8 in the US) four years later.
1983 was one of those gloriously shambolic years when it seemed like anyone could have a hit – you’d have Bananarama arsing about in Oxfam‘s finest on Top Of The Pops one minute, and Dionne Warwick standing stock still like a very expensive sculpture the next – so why Kirsty remained so resolutely hitless is rather peculiar. She made records that in any other hands would have been huge hits, and of course they were – and those other hands belonged to Tracey Ullman.
Kirsty’s labelmate on Stiff Records was a huge fan, and she was able to take They Don’t Know all the way to No. 2 that year. Ullman, of course, had the advantage of being a huge star thanks to Three Of A Kind, her BBC1 comedy show with Lenny Henry and David Copperfield (whom nobody at my school thought was in the slightest bit funny), so getting her a hit single was presumably easier.
And although, to my ears anyway, MacColl’s original remains the superior and definitive version, let’s be totally honest – Tracey’s version is fabulous. So to discover only recently that the peak moment, the “bay-ay-be-ee” at 1:51, is actually sung by Kirsty kinda blew my mind.
With the benefit of that hindsight thing, if it feels a bit like Tracey ended up being a pop proxy for Kirsty, that’s because she sort of did. Both of her albums (You Broke My Heart In Seventeen Places and You Caught Me Out) took their titles from MacColl songs, and just over a year after Kirsty’s original made No. 82, a version of the swoonsome Terry marked the end of Tracey Ullman’s pop career.
Though, every cloud and all that, it turned out to be the precursor to Kirsty MacColl’s glory-ish days, as her next 45, a rejig of Billy Bragg‘s A New England sailed into the Top 10 early in 1985. And how.
The daughter of legendary folk singer Ewan MacColl would later have a topsy turvy ride after that in the charts, but the pop? Stupendous, even if her most notable hit was that one where she called The Pogues‘ Shane MacGowan a “scumbag, you maggot” in maybe the most over-rated Christmas song of all, 1987‘s Fairytale Of New York.
Kirsty MacColl was tragically killed by a speeding motorboat while on holiday in Mexico back in 2000. All these years on she remains one of Britain’s most underrated songwriters.
Her brief but brilliant career though is celebrated with a park bench plaque in London bearing the lyrics to one of her most famous songs, Soho Square — “One day I’ll be waiting there, no empty bench in Soho Square” — by which fans still gather every year on her birthday proving how much she is still missed two decades on.