The belief that she was one of the backing vocalists on Jona Lewie’s 1980 hit You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties probably derives from her appearances with him on shows like ‘Top Of The Pops’ during the single’s promotion, and because both she and he were on the same label, Stiff, when it was recorded. She’s not on that record though; the one single she did feature on that year was Squire’s My Mind Goes Round In Circles (Stage One STAGE2, 11 July 1980) where she receives a credit for “Harmony Vocals (Courtesy Of Herself)”, the part in parenthesis a reference to her being ‘between recording contracts’ at the time. By the end of the year, she was signed with Polydor.
Tot Taylor And His Orchestra The Girl With Everything (GTO GT287, 23 January 1981): quirky Tot Taylor had a pop-punk group called Advertising in the late 70s which survived on EMI for a couple of years before he moved to GTO for this and a couple of other singles. When he and label mate Mari Wilson were dropped, he set up his own company The Compact Organization to release his work and hers; his album, Playtime, had been recorded for GTO but he made a deal to take the masters with him when he left. MacColl may or may not also have also appeared on another Tot Taylor single taken from this album called The Chocolate Song; the identity of the tracks she sang on are not known.
Shriekback Lined Up (Y Y102, 11 February 1983): the connection here is probably the record company, Y, which Kirsty’s manager was considering signing her to at the time. In the end, she went back to Stiff, one of whose artists was actress and comedian Tracey Ullman. Tracey covered Kirsty’s 1979 single They Don’t Know (Stiff BUY180, 9 September 1983), the first of a number of Ullman/MacColl collaborations. The interjection ‘Baby!’ in Ullman’s version is lifted straight off the master tape of MacColl’s original recording of the song. Kirsty appears on various tracks on Ullman’s debut album You Broke My Heart In 17 Places, including the title track, which she co-wrote.
Tracey Ullman Terry (Stiff BUY217, 14 January 1985): another cover of a MacColl original (in fact, Ullman sang to the same backing track that MacColl had used for her own release of the song the previous year) taken from another Ullman album named after a Kirsty composition, this time You Caught Me Out. (You Caught Me Out was intended to be MacColl’s second single for Stiff in 1979 but the release was cancelled owing to ‘contractual matters’.)
Simple Minds Speed Your Love To Me (release details in listing for article of 16 January): it was at the sessions for this track that she first met Lillywhite, who was producing: “Kirsty was one of the biggest Simple Minds fans in the world. There was a lot of talk about [her] coming down to the studio to do some backing vocals; she was bugging them to come and do it. She came round and she did fantastic backing vocals. I remember looking through the door in the studio and seeing her dancing while she was singing and she was absolutely gorgeous. I got her phone number. She thought it was to do with production…”
Jake Burns And The Big Wheel She Grew Up (Survival SRD3, 1 April 1986): the first product of a busy year for MacColl as a guest on other people’s records, largely because Stiff was in trouble and the receivers had been called in. Of the time, she recalled: “I was left sitting around the house waiting for the receiver to sell my contract before I could record again. The only thing I could do legally was session work so every time the phone rang, I’d say ‘Yes!’ just to get out of the house … if I got a call from someone I respected as an artist, saying, ‘We’re making a record and we’d like you to come and sing on a track,’ then I’d be glad to do it because it felt like I was still alive.”
The Rolling Stones One Hit (To The Body) (Rolling Stones A7160, 19 May 1986): Lillywhite producing again.
The Smiths Ask (release details in listing for article of 20 October): it’s untrue that the backing vocals pseudonymously credited to ‘Ann Coates’ (a nod to the Manchester district Ancoats) on another The Smiths hit, Bigmouth Strikes Again, are Kirsty’s. ‘Ann’ is actually Morrissey, his voice speeded up.
Robert Plant Tall Cool One (Es Paranza A9348, 18 April 1988): who knows how this came about? Producer Phil Johnstone co-wrote tracks for Kirsty’s Polydor era album Desperate Character though.
Talking Heads (Nothing But) Flowers (EMI EM53, 3 October 1988): Kirsty appeared in the promotional clip for this along with Johnny Marr, the two of them last having collaborated together on the 1986 single Greetings to the New Brunette with Billy Bragg. “I got asked to work with a lot of interesting people around that time, a lot of people I really admired, like The Smiths and Talking Heads,” MacColl said. “Those became very productive relationships; they weren’t just like doing a backing vocal gig. They asked me because they wanted my vocal arrangements. I do a kind of one-woman Beach Boys thing.” Marr explained more about this technique, saying it “could only have been done with one person. She knew how to stack her voice; it was a very clever thing that she’d worked out. It was very deliberate, the way her voice sounded. If you got a bunch of people singing those harmonies as she’d mapped them out, it wouldn’t be nearly as cool.”
Lillywhite remembered early sessions where MacColl first practised her technique. “I would be recording the harmonies. She would get halfway through and I’d say, ‘that’s the wrong note’, and she’d say, ‘just let me do what I’m doing, I’ve got this plan’. So I’d just carry on and then she’d do one other piece of the jigsaw that connected the whole thing. A lot of people, when they sing a harmony to a lead vocal, will just do a third above or a third below, and keep it very modular. What she would do is dance around the melody with her harmonies. It was an amazing talent. A lot of the time, she would want to put too many harmonies on. She hated the sound of her voice when it was just one voice. She loved it when it was Brian Wilson-esque.”
Morrissey Interesting Drug (release details in listing for article of 17 April): Kirsty said of this single, “It’s a very funny song, he’s a very humorous writer, very articulate. Wit is essential because if it ceases to have any fun value – and you can be fun and intelligent at the same time – then people think, ’Oh sod it, give me Kylie instead’!”
The Happy Mondays Hallelujah (The MacColl Remix) (Factory FAC242R/7, 27 November 1989): the clue to her involvement was in the subtitle of this ’89 issue of The Happy Monday’s song, another version of which appeared on the Madchester Rave On EP released two weeks earlier.
Comments quoted in this article are taken from the following book:
O’Brien, Karen. Kirsty MacColl The One And Only, Andre Deutsch, Carlton Publishing Group, 1 September 2004.
NEW SINGLES on sale from May. 9
ROXY MUSIC (Bryan Ferry) Over You (Polydor POSP93)
THOMPSON TWINS Squares And Triangles (Dirty Discs RANK1)
YAZOO Nobody’s Diary (Mute YAZOO3)
CLIMIE FISHER This Is Me [Re-Issue] (EMI EM58)
Samantha FOX Naughty Girls (Need Love Too) (Jive FOXY9)
SOUL II SOUL (Jazzie B) Fairplay (10 Records TEN228)