REVIEW: Kirsty MacColl – ‘See That Girl’ 1979-2000 – Box Set

4.5 rating
Kirsty MacColl – See That Girl 1979 – 2000

We are coming up to that time of year when the beautiful and distinctive voice of Kirsty MacColl will be blasting out in bars and shops and being played regularly on radio and TV music channels. Scores of people will sing along to this festive favourite as it is still considered by many as the best Christmas song of all time.

As a fan of The Pogues, I adore the track. However, it is far from Kirsty MacColl’s best work. It is based on record sales (and now downloads), but if that is the only metric applied to music, we should give up now. What it does allude to, however, is the number of people who wanted to work with MacColl. More about that later.

A recording career spanning 21 years before her untimely death in 2000, MacColl released five studio albums, but there has been more than double that amount of compilation albums. Proof, if needed, of the enduring nature of MacColl’s work and the desire of record labels to make a few quid. As Mr. Morrissey once sang, “Reissue, Repackage, repackage”. So, is this what is happening with See That Girl 1979-2000? Is it just a cash-in?

The short answer is no. See That Girl 1979-2000 is an eight-CD box set containing 161 tracks, packaged in two folio/slipcases along with a 60-page hardcover book with new and extensive sleeve notes from Jude Rogers, who adds contributions garnered from close family, friends and fellow musicians. This is not a cash-in but a celebration of a career tragically cut short. And it is a career that deserves to be celebrated.

I was fortunate enough to see Kirsty MacColl on her first solo tour at Riverside, Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1991. This was twelve years since her first single, “They Don’t Know.” She suffered from stage fright and preferred to be in the studio. Thankfully, she found her confidence and allowed people to see just how good a performer she was on stage. This is encapsulated on the fourth CD with nine tracks recorded from her performance at Glastonbury in 1992. ‘Train in Vain/Walking Down Madison’ is my highlight. From stage fright to Glastonbury in under 12 months is an impressive achievement.

There is also a selection of tracks recorded live at The Jazz Café in London in October 1999. You hear the change from a slightly nervous singer at a massive festival to someone who owned the intimate space at the Jazz Café. The latter seemed a better fit for MacColl. Her voice is pure and emotive with a few jagged edges for when she wants to hit you with a barbed lyric or a sassy turn of phrase. Being up close and personal allowed her to draw in the audience.

The collection also contains many tracks from MacColl’s five studio albums. These hit home just how flexible she was regarding the genres she could inhabit. She could comfortably occupy all of these, from rock’n’roll to pop ballad to folk to hip-hop, Latin to indie to country. These also demonstrate MacColl’s writing as you can view the world through her eyes with healthy doses of love, loss, humour and ire. “Then there’s always the cash/Selling yourself for some trash/Smiling at people that you cannot stand/You’re in demand/Your fifteen minutes start now”, sings MacColl about the world of celebrity and the desire to do or say anything for a glimpse of fame. Although part of her 1989 album Kite, it is arguably even more relevant today. Love Island, anyone?

From her final album, Tropical Brainstorm, we are treated to a classic bit of MacColl live at the Jazz Café. “You lied about your status/You lied about your life/You forgot you have three children/You forgot you have a wife/Now it’s England 2 Colombia 0/And I know just how those Colombians feel”, MacColl delivers with angst and despair. The track takes you through disappointment to a triumphant Latin finale where MacColl seems to celebrate dodging a very dangerous bullet.

Electric Landlady, MacColl’s third studio album, gives us the fabulous “He Never Mentioned Love”, where humour meets despair at wasting time on someone who will not share his feelings of l’amour. “He looked into my eyes/Just as an aeroplane roared above/Said something about football/But he never mentioned love”, MacColl sings disappointedly whilst giving you the feeling this is déjà vu for her.

Whilst it is great to have these tracks included, one of the highlights of this collection is the inclusion of the never-released 1983 Polydor album Real, presented here complete and sequenced for the first time. MacColl was dropped by the label just as the recording was concluded. The album saw her bringing in synths and injecting a new wave feel to her music. It somehow has a fresh yet clearly 80s feel to it. Standout tracks are “Berlin”, “Lullaby for Ezra”, “Camel Crossing”, and “Man With No Name.” It gives you an insight into MacColl’s direction of travel, both musically and lyrically.

Interesting fact: Kirsty MacColl did the track sequencing for The Joshua Tree by U2.

This collection has a decent smattering of demo tracks and various extended remixes. Some remixes stand up better than others – something commonplace in the 80s and 90s. However, they helped to clarify the music scene at that time and where MacColl was situated within it. The demos are all good quality, not ropey recordings off an old cassette they’ve found under a wardrobe. I’ve witnessed a few collections that have used such poor-quality recordings purely as a filler. Not here, thankfully.

It is the last two discs I found most interesting. Disc seven is jam-packed with recordings MacColl made at the BBC. These cover a 20-year period with a mix of TV and radio appearances, starting with Something Else in 1980 (an early example of the BBC’s attempt at Yoof TV) and ending with Later… with Jools Holland in 2000. These tracks also span MacColl’s career, bringing a mix of the most well-known songs such as “A New England”, “Angel”, and “Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me, Sonny Jim!” with lesser heard tracks like “Don’t Run Away From Me Now” and “I Don’t Wanna Play House.”

The final disc is an array of tracks demonstrating the quality and depth of the artists MacColl worked with during her varied career. With so many artists to choose from, you could probably create a box set of tracks where MacColl performed or collaborated. Whilst most people will immediately think of The Pogues here (Fairytale of New York is included on disc one), the artists included are from various genres and eras. From Mary Coughlan and Sharon Shannon through Billy Bragg and David Byrne to Happy Mondays and The Wonderstuff, you appreciate just how in demand MacColl was, how highly regarded and how adaptable she was. Selfishly, I would like to have seen “Ask” by The Smiths included.

So, is there anything missing from this collection that could make it better? Yes, there is. However, it may have been something that was not possible. A DVD of promo videos would have been nice, but I would have loved to see the video recordings of MacColl on the BBC show, French and Saunders included. These were shot mainly as promo-style videos but with Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders appearing and behaving as you would expect them to, whilst MacColl kept a straight face and acted professionally. The best featured MacColl singing with Raw Sex (Simon Brint as Ken and Rowland Rivron as his son, Duane). She stared into the eyes of Brint, bedecked with a dodgy wig and hearing aid, singing beautifully as Rivron sat at the back wearing a satin shirt with oversized multi-coloured frills, thumping at his bongos (not a euphemism), looking like a parrot having a seizure. It was superb TV and perfectly showed MacColl’s funny and cheeky side. I dare say the BBC may have wanted to be paid handsomely for the footage.

Kirsty MacColl

As box sets go, this is one of the better ones to have been assembled. It would be easy to assume that with 161 tracks, there would be a lot of unnecessary additions. Due to the inclusion of the second album that never was, Real, mixed with superb live recordings, BBC appearances and the final disc of collaborations, you get a truly extensive exploration of the career of MacColl. You never feel as if there are bundles of superfluous padding. This collection was compiled with MacColl’s estate, not just a record label cashing in. It certainly shows as if a lot of thought has gone into the creation of this collection.

MacColl was a unique presence in the music industry. She could not be pigeonholed and conveniently marketed to make fortunes for record industry bosses. Yet, she was a talent, respected and sought after by her peers and with a devoted following. She ploughed her furrow, making the music she wanted to make. This collection exhibits this with aplomb.

While we all would love to have heard what MacColl could have produced over the last 23 years, let us be thankful we have a repository of her music, such as this box set, to delve into when we feel the need for a special hug from Kirsty.


Xsnoize Author
Iam Burn 40 Articles
Iam Burn is a photographer based in the North East of England. Fave bands: R.E.M, The Lovely Eggs, Half Man Half Biscuit, Madness, Inspiral Carpets, Billy Bragg, The Pogues, The Proclaimers, The Ukrainians, They Might Be Giants, The Chats, Matt Berry, Lead Belly, Grace Petrie, The Beautiful South, Carter USM… and many more! Favourite album: Impossible to choose but Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by Dead Kennedys is pretty awesome. Most embarrassing record still in my collection: Hole in my Shoe by Neil.

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