18 November 2009

"It's wrong to wish on space hardware..."

A New England by Kirsty MacColl. A glorious, joyous cover of one of Billy Bragg's more interpretable tunes that I rushed out and bought as soon as I heard it (and as soon as I'd saved enough money).

I had little knowledge of Kirsty MacColl before this song. Upon later hearing There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis I realised who it was, but the song itself passed me by when it was in the charts. The only time I'd read or heard her name before this 1985 release was in the songwriting credit for They Don't Know by Tracey Ullman in the sleevenotes for the original Now! album. Her backing vocals on that huge version of her song suddenly went from anonymous to obvious.

MacColl always struck me as someone who probably wrote and recorded loads of stuff but probably only released a quarter of it, given that she was notoriously uncomfortable with fame and especially of singing live, despite being evidently very good at it. Maybe this was why she did so many co-vocal or secondary vocals on people's material, as it gave her the security of knowing she wasn't on her own if she ended up onstage with the band. I don't know, and I can't recall her ever being asked about it, but it's a theory...

The video of A New England sees our heroine wandering around a snowy scene in various millinery items while mouthing the song to camera, amidst sideways shots of big wheels and helicopters and children at play. Timing was everything here, as demonstrated by MacColl's word-by-word revelation of her expanding stomach as she approached the line "you put me on the Pill" - and made it obvious that she was very pregnant indeed. In fact, upon introducing the video on Top Of The Pops, Gary Davies even offered a message through the camera to the lady herself ("Good luck with the baby, Kirsty!") thereby ruining the gag. Mind you, I was 11 years old and only vaguely knew what the Pill was...

The lyric had to be re-gendered from its original male-to-female theme, so while Bragg was an active persuader of contraceptive use in his version, MacColl had to be the passive recipient in hers. In the chorus, Bragg was looking for another girl, whereas MacColl was asking the man of mystery if that was his intention. Etc. It was clever stuff, aided by the kitchen sink simplicity of the lyrics. Re-gendered songs don't always scan so well, though the re-doers of Cher's version of Walking In Memphis did a top job when rebranding Muriel the pianist as a man called Gabriel.

Smash Hits caused a stink and some confusion upon the printing of the lyrics, as there were errors everywhere. "You put me on the Pill" was actually typoed as "You puy mr on the Pill", in perhaps the most memorable of the anomalies. One person wrote to Black Type next issue and asked if the magazine had "started employing dyslexics". Such a caring generation of pop fans in the 1980s, we were...

And my mum, who can raise eyebrows of ire as well as any protective woman of her generation, did not approve at all when she heard MacColl singing "But that was bloody yesterday". Tame now, but "bloody" was a taboo word for children in front of their parents during this period, as were words like "crap" and "fart", as well as the more obvious ones. To have such a word in a song lyric was tantamount to pop stars encouraging kids to stab their eyes until they bleed, but I was allowed to keep the record, on the reasonable understanding that it would be heard on the radio before long anyway. I should point out that a few weeks earlier my parents had bought Bachelor Boys, the spin-off book by the Young Ones, for my brother and I to share at Christmas, only to then return it to the shop after reading it and deciding in mild disgust that it wasn't for their delicate sons. I've still never read it to this day. Bah.

After an unusual appearance by a pubescent gospel choir in sunglasses, we get the third verse of A New England. This was written for MacColl's version by Bragg in order to prolong the song to a reasonable length for a single release. I absolutely love, to this day, the line "When at last it didn't ring I knew it wasn't you", summing up the desperation the wronged half feels after a break-up and the slight hope they maintain that some reconciliation is possible. The image of MacColl sitting on the stairs waiting for the phone to ring (everyone's phone was at the bottom of the stairs back then) was immediately in my mind when I heard the lyric back then and still appears today. Naturally, like all performers in the 1980s, the word "telephone" in song is illustrated by the singer extending thumb and little finger next to ear. By the closing chorus fade, she seems happy in her tartan trousers and trilby, doing aeroplane impressions with a smile on her face.

A New England was produced by MacColl's husband Steve Lillywhite and entered the Top 40 at the end of January 1985 and peaked at No.7 a month later, with no album to follow. MacColl concentrated on the family stuff for the rest of the decade, not emerging as a solo chart star again until her version of Days four years later. However, she did the backing on Ask by the Smiths and a certain co-vocal with the Pogues in that time, and then helped tune up Shaun Ryder when the Happy Mondays churned out Hallelujah at the end of the 1980s.

Electric Landlady was fantastic, with My Affair still a regular player on my iPod and Walking Down Madison probably coming close to the record for the most people ever to appear on one Top Of The Pops stage. She did her usual harmonising shtick the same year on hits for Bragg and the Wonderstuff. Her love of Cuban music then took hold of the rest of her career.

Kate Nash and Katie Melua have taken her place on performances of her most famous recordings, including A New England, in recent years following MacColl's death. Although it's almost exclusively her collaboration with the Pogues that keeps her name alive with the wider public, it's A New England that I best remember her for. I've never quite understood what sort of strange ideas one can get in one's jeans, though...


Steve said...

I too love this song, though for years I misheard the lyrics (probably because I wasn't familiar with Bragg's peculiar turn of phrase). I'm still not comfortable with reference to satellites ("sunlight") and space hardware ("out there") in songs.

And you're right about phones at the bottom of the stairs. Why don't people do that any more? (We had two phones in our house, one at the bottom of the stairs and one in my mum and dad's bedroom... damn them!)

Chris A Tye said...

'Bachelor Boys', the Young Ones book. My dad had it. I suspected he kept it in his bedside cabinet, and decided to have a look one day. It wasn't there, although some of his other 'reading' material led to much embarrassment at a later date. I won't go into much detail, but it certainly changed my view of the world. And, I still haven't read the Young Ones book.

Jon Peake said...

I love her, but I've heard this song so many times it's lost its appeal. I've got her anthology and I saw once at the Fleadh the year she died, and I'm glad I did.

My fave: Don't Come The Cowboy With Me, Roman Gardens, Angel, and, oh everything really.

JM said...

Oh my word, where to being.

First, Kirsty. Love her to bits, every last moment of her recorded career. For some reason her Greatest Hits album 'Galore' from 1995 is my favourite Sunday lunchtime soundtrack. Whenever a quiet Sunday looms, the dusting is done and the roast er, roasting then nothing else will do than to fill the living room with her dulcet tones. It bothers me that Fairytale... is now the defining moment of her career thanks to its seasonal ubiquity. She was capable of so very much more, leaping with record to record from style to style. She did rockabilly, cod-country, jangly indie pop, hip-hop and latin. Could care less about the cuban stuff she did at the tail end of her life, but her work as a mainstream recording artist was just immaculate.

Unlike FC above, I could listen to A New England forever. It is one of those records that means different things to me at different times of life. I was 11 years old when it first came out, and back then it was just this rather pretty, catchy pop song that you could sing along to on the radio.

Growing older, the poetry of Billy Bragg's lyrics start to hit home to you, and it helps that Kirsty imbues them with a so very real sense of post-adolescent longing. The girl singing the song is heartbroken, having rejected the "settle down with your school boyfriend and make babies quickly" culture that she grew up in so she could wait to be with the man of her dreams, only to watch that dream turn to tatters and see him walk away again. Despite it all she can view the situation with a wry smile and a fleeting sense of humour, the tragedy of her situation only offset by the reminder - as crucially established in the very first line of the song - that she's actually only 22 and she's hardly destined to wind up an old spinster.

I can take or leave Billy Bragg's polemical stuff as I loathe all politicised pop music, but his more romantic and reflective work such as Greetings To The New Brunette ("here we are in our summer years/living on ice cream and chocolate kisses") is what elevates him as a truly great songwriter.

Oh yes, and the phone at the bottom of the stairs? It is because the closet UNDER the stairs in Edwardian terraces was traditionally the utility cupboard where things like the electricity meters were, so it was the natural place for the phone termination to be subsequently installed as well. Simple really.

Charles Nove said...

She was marvellous!

"One day I'll be waiting there. No empty bench in Soho Square." reads the plaque on the KM memorial bench in the square just up the road from my Soho office. The wording alludes to the lyric of her song Soho Square, set in that space "where the pigeons shiver in the naked trees". The huge array of flowers left on the bench on the anniversary of Kirsty's birth, last month, is testament to the warmth with which she is remembered.

One day you'll be waiting there, no empty bench in Soho Square.
No I don't know the reason why I'll love you till the day I die.
But one day you'll be waiting there
Come summertime in Soho Square
And I'll be painting stars up in the sky
Before I get too old to cry before my birthday
I hope I see those pigeons fly before my birthday
In Soho Square on my birthday

Bright Ambassador said...

I saw her twice, on one ocassion from the side of the stage. She was brilliant and is much missed.

She met Steve Lillywhite while recording backing vocals for Simple Minds' Sparkle in the Rain album, by the way.

My parents must have been incredibly liberal as we were given the Young Ones' book and they bought me Adrian Edmondson's How to be a Complete Bastard the next Christmas. And there was a copy of the Not the Nine O'Clock News book always hanging around, which was incredibly exciting as one of the spoof letters was written by one 'Richard Goodall'.