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...

16 November 2009

"I feel I've let Ian down... *blub blub blub*"

Here's a foolproof way for Chris Hollins, my favourite competitor on Strictly Come Dancing, to get to the final.

Feign an ankle injury. You'll get a bye to the next phase, then the next, then the ... etc until the final itself. After Jade Johnson's injury at the weekend, it appears that it is now possible to survive a further week without actually doing any dancing.

That really doesn't wash, does it? Her injury was genuine, of course, but injury usually means game over. Had she been taking part in a long jump competition and suddenly done her knee in, she wouldn't have expected a bye to the next round while an able (ie, abler) competitor was eliminated.

More baffling was the public's decision to save Laila Bouass, who only managed half a dance with a bad ankle and ended up being dragged and carried around the floor by her partner Anton du Beke while she bawled her eyes out. Inevitably she was in the bottom two after the judges had scored "on what we saw", and with some heart-sinking predictability, the GBP fell for for the "plucky trier" card and made her stay. Phil Tufnell, who danced really well, ended up exiting despite being a) able to dance; and b) not bursting into tears and saying it was all so unfair. I reckon a decent lawyer could make a "loss of earnings" case for him, given that he left while dancing, while someone else stayed without dancing.

The two injured women should both now be out of the competition; moreover, they should have offered to exit the competition. It would have ruled out a phone vote and robbed the BBC of plenty of wonga of course, but that shouldn't have been an issue.

Chris is my favourite and either he or Natalie Cassidy will win if the personality issue comes through strongest; otherwise, it's the skilful but charisma-free Hollyoaks bloke.

Oh, and I love Ronnie Corbett, but please don't ask him to do anything like that ever again. The poor chap was embarrassing. However, Claudia Winkleman was and is completely loopy, and so brilliant for it. The show only actually missed Bruce Forsyth and his gigantic ego because they didn't adequately replace him, not because he was absent per se. Sort out a decent stand-in for his next bout of lurgy and maybe the time will arrive to ask him to step down.