Kirsty MacColl: They (Still) Don’t Know

It’s been 30 years since she released one of the best albums of 1991 with Electric Landlady; her flowers are long overdue

Kirsty MacColl (Art: Ron Hart)

Kirsty MacColl, daughter of folksinger Ewan MacColl, had a star-crossed career.

Her first single, “They Don’t Know,” released on Stiff Records, was a radio hit, but a distributor’s strike kept the physical release from reaching shops. After that, she bounced from label to label. Her first album, 1981’s Desperate Character, came out on Polydor and yielded the hit “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis.” Nonetheless Polydor dropped her. She returned to Stiff, had another hit with Billy Bragg’s “A New England,” but couldn’t build on it after Stiff went bankrupt in 1986 but held onto her contract in hopes of selling it to another label – with no takers, leaving her in legal limbo. When that was finally cleared up, she ended up on Virgin and made two albums, 1989’s Kite and 1991’s Electric Landlady, before Virgin was acquired by EMI and MacColl was dropped in the transition. 

Kirsty MacColl Electric Landlady, Virgin 1991

MacColl’s marriage to producer Steve Lillywhite fell apart and she documented that on 1993’s Titanic Days, released as a one-off by ZZT. After which, she talked about giving up music; she didn’t release another new studio album until 2000. Yet once Tropical Brainstorm came out on V2, they dropped her. Then in a tragic accident, while diving with her children on vacation in Mexico, a multimillionaire piloted his speedboat into the non-boat diving area, and MacColl, pushing one of her sons out of its path, was struck and killed. In a twenty-two-year career, despite critical acclaim and a string of successful singles, she had only five studio albums released. Considering her knack for brilliant turns of phrase in her lyrics, her superb singing, and remarkable stylistic flexibility, it is shocking that she had to bounce from label to label and was granted so limited a discography.



Even on her first album, 1981’s Desperate Character, MacColl had showed a fondness for excursions into a variety of musical genres. Electric Landlady, released thirty years ago in June 1991, is all over the map, and that diversity proved crucial as the opening track, the hip-hop-flavored “Walking Down Madison,” became her biggest hit in the USA. She co-wrote it with Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who also contributed the album title by telling her that test pressings of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland had been misidentified as Electric Landlady. “Walking Down Madison” is a multi-layered picture of New York City, refuting the ’90s image of the metropolis as a violent battleground but also acknowledging the contrast of the wealthy, or even the merely comfortable, with the poor and homeless, “from an uptown apartment to a night on the A train.” Guest rapper Aniff Cousins (member of seminal Manchester hip-hoppers Chapter and the Verse and the more successful acts Backyard Dog and Box Bottom) offers a corresponding sonic contrast. Released as a single, it reached #4 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart.


VIDEO: Kirsty MacColl performs “Walking Down Madison” on Top of the Pops, June 1991

From there, the album takes us on a tour of divergent genres. “All I Ever Wanted,” co-written with Marshall Crenshaw, mixes his power pop hookiness with a harmonica solo and subtle Latin rhythm touches. “Children of the Revolution,” another Marr co-write, has a bit of a Brazilian side along with Marr’s distinctive guitar tone. “Halloween,” one of five tracks by MacColl and Mark E. Nevin, sounds like a mellower Haircut 100, complete with horns. “My Affair” (with Nevin), so classic it could almost be a Cole Porter lyric, combines samba rhythm with salsa horns. Guitarist Pete Glenister (The Hitmen) co-wrote the edgier “Lying Down.” Jem Finer (Pogues) co-wrote the wryly sardonic “He Never Mentioned Love.” A spooky synthesizer intro gives way to lilting samba on “We’ll Never Pass This Way Again” (Nevin), lightly bittersweet (“we had the night and we had our day”). The rhythmically tricky, slightly Celtic “The Hardest Word” is a fully MacColl-penned song, as Kirsty’s brother Hamish is the other writer. “Maybe It’s Imaginary” (Nevin) is a country waltz that covers a broad range of topics with skepticism. Glenister returns for “My Way Home” and its uptempo but smoothed-off African rhythm and soul horns under MacColl’s wistful vocal. “The One and Only” (Nevin) goes full-on Celtic folk with two Pogues, Spider Stacy (tin whistle) and James Fearnley (accordion).


VIDEO: Kirsty MacColl Live in London 1991

Despite the many styles in the mix, the album mostly coheres after “Walking Down Madison,” a sort of late-’80s British new wave/New Romantic gumbo. And the lyric viewpoint of MacColl’s clear-eyed analysis laced with wit and gentle resignation is always endearing, but also intense if the listener gives enough attention to the filtered pain below the glittering surfaces.

While it’s a tragic injustice that we were gifted fewer MacColl albums than her talents deserved, that just makes what we do have all the more cherishable.



Steve Holtje
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Steve Holtje

Steve Holtje is a composer (classical and soundtrack) and improviser (keyboardist in the Caterpillar Quartet and This Humidity). His classical compositions have recently been performed by pianist Tania Stavreva and the Cheah-Chan Duo; one of his soundtracks can be found on Bandcamp. His day job since 2013 has been running ESP-Disk, first under founder Bernard Stollman and, since Mr. Stollman's passing, doing his best to perpetuate and publicize the indiest indie label's unique legacy. He has produced albums by Matthew Shipp, Amina Baraka & The Red Microphone, Fay Victor, etc. Previously he worked at Black Saint Records, where he was present at the last studio session of Sun Ra. Other jobs have included editorial positions at Creem, The Big Takeover, and The New York Review of Records; inevitably, he also worked at a record store in Williamsburg (Sound Fix), where one night after closing, while drinking across the street at Mugs Ale House, he preached to some tourists about the greatness of jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley, which led to him reopening the store and selling them a copy of Harley's Re-Creation of the Gods. This is widely considered the most Holtje-esque occurrence ever. (Photo by Dale Mincey)

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