What’s the best Christmas song ever written? No, not Do They Know It’s Christmas. No, not Mary’s Boy Child. Yes, Last Christmas is a cheesy classic, but it’s not that one either. Definitely not Merry Christmas Everybody by Slade, and whilst Happy Christmas (War is Over) by John Lennon and Yoko Ono is lovely, it’s not the best one. Look, it’s not White Christmas, Stop the Cavalry or ANYTHING by Cliff Richard. The best Christmas song ever to have been recorded is obviously Fairytale of New York by The Pogues featuring Kirsty MacColl. Partly because it’s just a brilliant song, with lyrics that demand to be half sung, half tunelessly hollered across a crowded pub with your best friends (‘And the boys of the NYPD choir still singing Galway Bay, and the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day’) and partly because of the fantastic contrast between Shane McGowan’s grizzled voice and Kirsty MacColl’s unique and beautiful one.
Sadly, most people reading this will know the tragic way that MacColl’s life was to play out; dying far too early at only 41, in a boating accident in Mexico. In her short time on earth she was known and loved as a talented singer-songwriter.
Kirsty was brought up around music. Her father was a political folk singer (the celebrated Ewan MacColl) who left her mum when Kirsty was young, and went on to marry Peggy Seeger, the sister of Pete Seeger who was closely associated with legendary American folk musician Woody Guthrie.
Stiff Records were listening to a record released by Croydon punk rock band Drug Addix when, just before dismissing it, they noticed an interesting voice coming through on backing vocals. Searching her out they signed MacColl to their label. In 1979 they released her debut They Don’t Know but a strike by distributors going on at the time meant that physical copies couldn’t get to the shops, and therefore a lack of sales stopped it getting to the UK Singles Chart. It did do well in terms of airplay however, and later on would be re-recorded by English comedian and actress (plus a ton of other attributes) Tracey Ullman, where it would reach number eight in America, and number two in the UK and featured Kirsty herself on backing vocals.
Kirsty’s follow-up You Caught Me Out was ready to be released by Stiff Fingers, but Kirsty wasn’t happy with the label’s support, and walked away from them before that could happen. The single was never put out.
In 1981 MacColl signed to Polydor Records. Her first song hit number 14; There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ was a track from her lauded debut album Desperate Characters. Even though the single and album had been successful, and her potential was obvious, Polydor dropped her in 1983. This was also despite the fact that she had already finished the tracks for a second album, Real, which was moving more towards an 80s pop synth sound. Reuniting with Stiff Records, songs Terry and He’s On the Beach didn’t ignite the charts, but A New England did. This was originally a Billy Bragg song, and for this new version and he wrote two extra verses for MacColl to sing. It reached number 7 in the UK charts in 1985, and the name Kirsty MacColl began to pick up speed.
Unfortunately Stiff Records’ bankruptcy in 1986 then left Kirsty stranded; her contract was held by the Official Receiver and, as no other record label bought it from them, she couldn’t record anything in her own right. Until the contract difficulties were solved in in the late eighties her husband, the record producer Steve Lillywhite, hired her regularly as a backing vocalist for many big artists including Simple Minds, The Smiths, Talking Heads, The Wonder Stuff and Robert Plant.
Then came that Christmas song; Fairytale of New York got to number two in December 1987, leaving the almighty legacy of legions of sloshed people everywhere happily slurring the chorus throughout the festive season for many years to come. Kirsty then joined The Pogues on tour in 1988, travelling round Britain and Europe. In March of the next year the Happy Monday’s EP Hallelujah featured Kirsty on backing vocals.
Finally freed from her old contract and signed to Virgin Records, her 1989 solo album Kite had Kirsty collaborating with Johnny Marr of The Smiths as well as Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour. It received massive adoration from critics, and spawned her hit Days, a cover of The Kinks' 1986 single. Changing tack slightly MacColl also collaborated with comedy duos French and Saunders (singing her songs on their show) and Raw Sex (covering the Sinatras’ Something Stupid with them).
Two albums followed; the first, in 1991, with the Jimi Hendrix - inspired title of Electric Landlady (which featured Kirsty’s U.S. single success Walking Down Madison, co-written with Johnny Marr) and the second, 1993’s Titanic Days with the label ZTT Records. Electric Landlady did well in the US charts, but obviously not well enough; EMI bought Virgin in 1992, and dropped MacColl. ZTT didn’t want to tie themselves into a contract with her, but decided to release Titanic Days (written whilst Kirsty’s relationship with her husband was deteriorating) as a special instead. Galore was the name given to her compilation album in 1995, and this entered the Top Ten in the UK, but singles Caroline and Perfect Day (with Evan Dando), and a re-release of Days failed to get into the Top 40 singles chart.
Frustration and writer’s block prevented Kirsty from producing any further recordings for a few years, until What Do Pretty Girls Do? in 1998. This was an album of her live BBC Radio 1 recordings, including a couple of duets with Billy Bragg. Visits to South America then helped her re-find her mojo; Tropical Brainstorm was an album of world music which was well-received on its release in 2000. MacColl continued her television career as well, with more French and Saunders, and regular slots with Jools Holland.
After Kirsty’s death in December of 2000 the music world mourned. A memorial concert took place at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002 featuring musicians that she’d worked with over her recording career, with a second one a decade later in 2010 at the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire. This one raised money for The Music Fund for Cuba, a charity supported by MacColl. A bench was placed in Soho Square, with a plaque featuring lyrics from her single of the same name (One day I’ll be waiting there, no empty bench in Soho Square). Every year, close to her birthday on October 10th, her fans gather there to celebrate her sadly brief, but immensely talented life.