If there’s one thing more tragic than the obscenely early death of Kirsty MacColl, who died in December 2000 aged 41, it’s the fact that she’s still best known as “that woman who sang with The Pogues“. Fairytale Of New York may be a classic, indeed it’s possibly the greatest Christmas song ever recorded, but there was far more to Kirsty than that song. She was one of the greatest songwriters this country has ever produced and it’s a crying shame that this isn’t more widely recognised.
That may soon change though, thanks to this long overdue retrospective. From Croydon To Cuba is a three CD anthology which covers all aspects of Kirsty’s career, from the early recordings on the seminal punk label Stiff, through to the wonderfully crafted songs from the Kite, Electric Landlady and Titanic Days albums, right up to her last, and best, collection, the fully fledged Cuban rhythms of Tropical Brainstorm. It’s all that a Kirsty obsessive has ever wanted in fact.
Everything here is in chronological order, which shows just how far her music progressed. The early days have, to be frank, dated somewhat now with only the ’60s pastiche of They Don’t Know (later taken into the charts by Tracy Ullman) and her cover of Billy Bragg‘s classic A New England (re-written by Bragg especially for Kirsty) really standing the test of time. Yet even back then she was showing her talent for a funny, perfectly written song about a lover’s infidelity and gets away with calling it There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis.
It’s towards the end of the first disc that MacColl’s talent starts to shine through. Kite was actually her second album, which she recorded after a long sabbatical due to motherhood. Even today, 15 years after it was first released, it still sounds as fresh as it did back then. Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim (she knew the secret to an eye catching title!) was a beautiful country ballad railing against the coldness of men who use women for sex (“they’ll never remember and they’ll never mind if you’re counting the cracks in the wall”).
The second disc contains more highlights from Kite, including the scathing anti-Thatcherite Free World (“I thought of you when they tore down the schools and the hospitals too” runs the opening line) and her version of the Kinks‘ Days, a song which became her biggest chart hit. There’s also tracks from the follow up to Kite, the marvellously titled Electric Landlady including the first hint of her South American interest in the samba-flavoured My Affair. The disc ends with the achingly sad Dear John, co-written by Mark E Nevin, formerly of Fairground Attraction, one of Kirsty’s favourite collaborators.
The final disc covers the Titanic Days album, including the wonderful Soho Square (where MacColl used to sit sometimes – there’s now a memorial bench in the square commemorating her memory) before finishing off with the material from Tropical Brainstorm. It was here that Kirsty really came into her own, being one of the few artists who remain quintessentially English while managing to incorporate Cuban and Brazilian rhythms into her music.
Although the music was rather different to the Kite era, her lyrics remained as witty and literate as ever. In These Shoes was brilliantly funny – “he said let’s make love on a mountain top, under the stars on a big hard rock, I said ‘in these shoes? I don’t think so’…” – and should have been a huge hit. Even better was one of Kirsty’s best songs, England 2 Columbia O, her tale of a fling with a married man during the ’98 World Cup (“you never mentioned your three children or the fact you had a wife…now it’s England 2 Columbia 0, and I know just how those Columbians feel”).
As well as Kirsty’s own material, there’s a whole host of cover versions – Days obviously, as well as songs by The Smiths (You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby), and The Beach Boys (You Still Believe In Me), together with songs that she guested on such as Miss Otis Regrets by The Pogues, and the immortal Fairytale Of New York. There’s also a whole host of unreleased material and B-sides, meaning that even the most hardcore of Kirsty MacColl fans will find something to treasure.
Listening to From Croydon To Cuba is a bittersweet experience. Even now, five years after her tragic death, it’s hard to come to terms with the fact that we’ll never hear that wonderfully warm, deadpan voice again or enjoy such witty, touching lyrics again.
Yet this is the perfect souvenir of a truly great British songwriter. Although there are some omissions (such as Wrong Again or the brilliant analysis of celebrity culture, Fifteen Minutes), this anthology is still a compulsory purchase for anyone who wants to know more about one of the more cruelly over-looked figures of British music.