Kirsty MacColl was born on 10 October 1959 as the daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl and dancer Jean Newlove. She and her brother, Hamish MacColl, grew up with their mother in Croydon. She first came to prominence when Chiswick Records released an EP by local punk rock band the Drug Addix with MacColl on backing vocals under the pseudonym Mandy Doubt in 1978. Stiff Records executives were not impressed with the band, but liked her and subsequently signed her to a solo deal.
Her debut solo single They Don’t Know was released in 1979. One follow-up, ‘You Caught Me Out’ was released the same year, and she left the label shortly before the song’s release. MacColl moved to Polydor Records in 1981. She had a UK number 14 hit with ‘There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’, taken from her debut album ‘Desperate Character’. It was during this time that she had a relationship with a member of the band Tenpole Tudor, just like Kim Wilde did. The both of them had some memorable times together.
In 1983, she was dropped by Polydor and returned to Stiff, where pop singles such as ‘Terry’ and ‘He’s on the Beach’ were unsuccessful but a cover of Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’ in 1985 got to number 7 in the UK charts.
When Stiff went bankrupt in 1986, MacColl was left unable to record in her own right. However, she had regular session work as a backing vocalist, and she frequently sang on records produced or engineered by her husband, Steve Lillywhite, including tracks for The Smiths, Talking Heads, Big Country, Crossfire Choir, Anni-Frid Lyngstad (of ABBA), and The Wonder Stuff among others. MacColl re-emerged in the British charts in December 1987, reaching Number 2 with The Pogues on ‘Fairytale of New York’, a duet with Shane MacGowan.
MacColl then returned to recording as a solo artist and received critical acclaim upon the release of Kite in 1989.In the first half of the Nineties she released two albums, ‘Electric Landlady’ (1991) and ‘Titanic Days’ (1993). After several trips to Cuba and Brazil, MacColl recorded the world music-inspired (particularly Cuban and other Latin American forms) ‘Tropical Brainstorm’, which was released in 2000 to critical acclaim.
That same year, following her participation in the presentation of a radio programme she had done for the BBC on Cuba, MacColl took a holiday in Cozumel, Mexico, with her sons Louis and Jamie, and her partner, musician James Knight. On 18 December 2000, she and her sons went diving in Cozumel, in a specific diving area that watercraft were restricted from entering. As the group was surfacing from a dive, a speeding powerboat entered the restricted area. MacColl saw the boat coming before her sons did; Louis was not in the boat’s path, but Jamie was. She was able to push him out of the way (he sustained minor head and rib injuries) but in doing so, she was hit by the boat and killed instantly.
MacColl’s family launched the Justice For Kirsty campaign in response to the events surrounding her death. MacColl’s friends and family were critical of what they perceived as a lack of cooperation from the Mexican authorities. In December 2009, it was announced that the Justice For Kirsty campaign was being wound up since ‘the committee was successful in achieving most of its aims’ and ‘it is unlikely that any more could be achieved’. The campaign’s remaining funds were divided between two charities ‘of which Kirsty would have approved’: Casa Alianza Mexico and the Music Fund for Cuba.
On 10 October 2010, several artists were involved in a special concert to raise funds for the Music Fund for Cuba. One of the artists performing was Kim Wilde, who sang a version of ‘They Don’t Know’. A year later she included a recording of this song on her album Snapshots.
Kim about Kirsty MacColl
Kirsty MacColl was my best friend. We both were in a relationship with a member of Tenpole Tudor. I remember staying in a lot of the same hotels. I felt that the typical rock & roll behaviour of some colleagues was a bit over the top, but I went along with them anyway. (1)
(1) ‘Reborn’ Kim Wilde: ‘My lust for life has returned’ In: [unknown] (Belgium), 1993