The Missing Music: Kirsty MacColl   Leave a comment

September 25, 2011

Part 8: Kirsty MacColl: Barbara and Kirsty

This is the eighth of ten posts about ten important women in the recording industry, each of whom died long before their time. If you haven’t already read through the introduction to this series, please follow this link to the “introduction“, and then go on to any of the individual posts.

Kirsty MacColl  (1959-2000)

Some of my favorite moments in the record business are those times when a friend at the label I’m with or from another label places a record, cassette, or CD in my hand and quietly says, “we’re releasing this in a couple of months. You have got to hear this!” That advance heads-up is usually followed by some phrase with superlatives like “It’s amazing!”, or “One of a kind”, or “You won’t believe this”. (On occasion the reality of the music, of course, is the polar opposite, but that’s for another blog.) Such a friend is Barbara Bolan, one of my longest friendships going back to the days in 1979 or 1980 when she was with Warner Brothers Records and I was with A&M. Some years later, standing in front of the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, while Barbara was working for IRS Records, she placed a copy of the Fine Young Cannibals’ recording “She Drives Me Crazy” in my hand, and said something to the effect, “you’re not going to believe how good this record is.” She was right. I loved the record and as she predicted, it became not just a hit, but an anthem. But it’s not that record I want to address here. It was another recording, artist, and this time the CD she placed in my hand was an EP by Kirsty MacColl. I became a believer.

The CD Barbara handed me was a special 5-track EP with two versions of “Titanic Days”, two versions of “Walking Down Madison”, and the track “Angel”. Talk about hitting one out of the park; that CD has been a desert-island disc since she handed it to me more than 15 years ago. These weren’t throwaway tracks. They weren’t slick, overly-crafted productions; but well-produced they were. The three original tracks (plus the two extended versions) were thematically and rhythmically different and yet perfectly matched for the same playback. This is all a little surprising since  “Titanic Days” and “Walking Down Madison” were parts of separate recording sessions, created almost three years apart. “Titanic Days” was the title track from MacColl’s 1993 album, and “Walking Down Madison” was included on Electric Landlady. “Walking Down Madison” was all social consciousness—

“from an uptown apartment to a knife on the ‘A’ Train, it’s not that far,

from the sharks in the penthouse, to the rats in the basement, it’s not that far”

—reminding us, with a driving rhythm section to boot, that we are all much closer to a different outcome than we’d ever like to admit. Life is about one good choice or one bad choice; one right or one wrong turn. Walk through one door and there’s a mentor to help guide you and develop your talents; walk through the other door and you’re flipping burgers, or much worse. The imagery from the lyrics was vivid, and even more so with the later reference to “. . . the bag lady frozen asleep in the park. . . .”  None of it, as MacColl sings, is that far, and the listener can easily infer, she is talking about any of us. And then there’s “Titanic Days”. MacColl moved from social consciousness to romance and eroticism. Titanic appears to reflect some of the real or imagined aspects of at least one of her personal relationships:

“I can’t resist. His rope, my wrists,

I never knew there might be days like this”.

There is no terror in her voice, and it doesn’t sound like a “He Said, She Said”.  MacColl’s character is clearly an equal participant in the tryst. As the song continues, MacColl moves effortlessly beyond that erotic opening, through to a conclusion:

“so hot so hungry, so fair thee well goodbye,

I got so angry, now I sit here and sigh.

My Love, Always,

We should rejoice in These Titanic Days.”

Moving beyond the lyrical significance of these songs, it’s obvious that humor, dry or otherwise, was not lost on MacColl. Consider the title of the album Electric Landlady; an obvious tongue-in-cheek reference to Jimi Hendrix’s 1968 album Electric Ladyland.  Almost three years after Electric Landlady, with the release of Titanic Days, MacColl had recorded an album where the music was emotionally reflective of her up, and down, and up again life, and yet offered a lighter touch as well. For example, the use of “Titanic” in the lyric provides the adjective, double-entendre, and a bit of humor. Some of this is less obvious as a description here, but it is crystal clear when listening to MacColl’s vocal performance as she extracts the multiple meanings throughout the recording. And then there is the double-entendre woven through the song, as in “it’s sink or swim in these Titanic Days”, or “Do you ever get that sinking feeling”. The lyrical cleverness doesn’t diminish the song; it adds an unexpected dimension and the song is better for it.

Once hearing these tracks I was compelled to begin going through much of the Kirsty MacColl catalog—on her own and with others—but I always came back to “Titanic Days” and “Walking Down Madison”. I won’t suggest that her playful sense of Titanic Days included any prescient thoughts. But her senseless death in a boating accident eleven years ago left two sons without a mother, and leaves me, once again, wondering what might have been had her life not ended that day in 2000 at the age of 41. One more thought. Whenever I’m in New York and riding the subway I often think of the lyrics from “Walking Down Madison”. Don’t misunderstand: that’s not to say I’m afraid of riding New York’s subways. I love them and they’re the best way to get around Manhattan and the other boroughs. Rather, it’s a reminder of how I can sit on any of the trains in the city, and while observing my fellow riders, think of “Walking Down Madison” and smile as I fondly remember the talent and the music of Kirsty MacColl.

Prior: Laura Branigan

Next: Eva Cassidy

David Steffen

© David Steffen 2011


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