The Single File: Kirsty MacColl, “My Affair”
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Regardless of whether the album is becoming obsolete, the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for rewind.
Some would say that Kirsty MacColl owes the bulk of her career to Tracey Ullman. Others would suggest that a sizable chunk of the thanks should go to Billy Bragg. In the U.K., the skirmishes between these two factions have been known to linger well beyond last call, but there is a third and—in the U.S.—substantially larger contingent that responds to the topic quickly, decisively, and concisely, needing only three words to establish their hard-line position on the matter:
“Who’s Kirsty MacColl?”
Those who find themselves in this third contingent and wish to remedy the situation will want to read on. Those who prefer to remain blissfully unaware of one of the great female singer-songwriters to emerge from England during the ’80s... well, that’s their affair.
As it happens, one of Kirsty MacColl’s songs was heard on the U.S. airwaves with considerable regularity in 1983 (even if it generally wasn’t identified as such) when Ullman introduced “They Don’t Know” to the charts. MacColl can even be heard on Ullman’s version: That’s her high-pitched “baby” at the end of the bridge. Not that any of this helped MacColl’s own chart fortunes in the States, but at least she was able to take comfort in the success she was seeing at home, courtesy of her cover of Billy Bragg’s “A New England.” It would take the better part of half a decade for MacColl to even earn a U.S. release for one of her recordings—and even then, it wasn’t one she’d written.
By 1988, writer-director John Hughes was finally starting to grow up, leaving the world of teen angst behind in favor of exploring the torment of being a twentysomething. But if She’s Having A Baby wasn’t as creatively or commercially successful as Hughes’ previous work, the film still had a hell of a soundtrack. With contents split evenly between male and female vocalists, side one—yes, that’s how long ago it was—features contributions from Dave Wakeling, Love And Rockets, Gene Loves Jezebel, XTC, and Bryan Ferry, with the first track on side two offering the perfect transition between genders: a song written by two guys and sung by a girl.
MacColl’s cover of the Smiths’ “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” wasn’t her first work with Morrissey and Johnny Marr: She’d already sung backing vocals on “Ask“ and “Golden Lights.” In fact, her voice had already been featured on the songs of several artists by that point, and she went on to sing on plenty more, including Bragg’s “Greetings To The New Brunette,” Morrissey’s “Interesting Drug,” Robert Plant’s “Tall Cool One,” and Talking Heads’ “(Nothing But) Flowers.” Her most memorable contribution to someone else’s material, however, occurred on the Pogues’ If I Should Fall From Grace With God, where she served as the voice of sobriety to Shane MacGowan’s wayward drunkard on “Fairytale Of New York.” Fine tracks all, yet MacColl still maintained a negligible presence in America.
At last, Charisma Records came to the rescue of MacColl’s Stateside solo career in May 1989 by releasing her new album, Kite. Punchily produced by her then-husband Steve Lillywhite, the record served as a perfect introduction to MacColl’s pop stylings (the single “Free World” being among the highlights) and, for those who had been following her career up to that point, revealed considerable growth in her songwriting. Never one to rest on her laurels, however, there would be no creative complacency from MacColl in the wake of Kite’s release. Indeed, a seed for the next stage of her musical evolution had been planted before the album ever hit stores.
While working with David Byrne on his 1989 album, Rei Momo, MacColl had a fateful encounter with one of the other hands hired for the sessions: noted brass and string arranger Angel Fernandez. Smitten with his efforts for Byrne, she was inspired to utilize Fernandez’s skills on some of her own material, recording several tracks with him at Electric Lady Studios, one of which would go on to become one of the most important songs in her catalog—even if it may have seemed at the time like little more than an entertaining one-off.
The fifth track on MacColl’s 1991 album, Electric Landlady—see what she did there?—“My Affair” was the first time listeners were introduced to a side of her that she once teasingly described as “Carmen MacColl.” The Cuban-influenced number is both irrepressibly catchy and unabashedly flirtatious, giving its singer the chance to elaborate on some of the themes she’d previously sung about in “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby,” as well as an opportunity to celebrate both her femininity and her independence. MacColl co-wrote the song with Mark E. Nevin, late of Fairground Attraction, the two having first met years earlier through their mutual friend (and MacColl’s fellow Stiff Records recording artist) Jane Aire.
Nevin—who kindly agreed to reminiscence a bit about the song for The A.V. Club—recalled that their method of musical collaboration was inspired by MacColl’s observations of the way Morrissey and Johnny Marr worked together. “It wasn’t in the old fashioned, sit-down-and-wrestle-out-a-song-together songwriting style,” Nevin said. “Johnny wrote what sounded like a finished track without a vocal and sent it on a cassette to Morrissey, and he in turn sang his lyrics on top of it. So I gave Kirsty these tracks and she wrote her part on top of them. It didn’t quite feel like ‘proper’ songwriting to me, but the songs that resulted from it were definitely proper, so what the hell.” Nevin also revealed that the aforementioned inspiration she received via her work with David Byrne was merely fuel for an already burning desire to “go Cuban,” as it were.
“We used to stay up all night getting drunk and stoned out of ours skulls and listening to records we loved together,” said Nevin. “Kirsty had this old Cuban record that her dad [folk singer Ewan MacColl] had brought back from a trip to Cuba—it obviously had massive personal significance for her—and that old album would always come out near the end of the night. She often talked about how, one day, she would like to make a record in that style.
“So I gave her the ‘My Affair’ track, she wrote the lyrics, we did a simple demo of it, and the idea was to go to New York and record with David Byrne’s Rei Momo band, with Angel doing the arrangement of the song. In the end, I couldn’t go to New York because it coincided with the birth of my first child, which obviously took precedent, so guitarist Pete Glenister went in my place. But I remember the phone call I had from Kirsty when she got back: She was so excited, playing the whole song down the phone to me. She considered it to be the best thing she had ever done at that point.”
Although she never gets explicit with the lyrics of “My Affair,” MacColl nonetheless manages to start the song with a relatively randy anecdote about the perils of teenage lust when one’s parents are home: “I kissed the boy in secret / Thrilled me to the very core, I couldn’t stop, I wanted more and / I didn’t hear the door and / They caught me on the floor / With my affair.” The titillation continues as she describes the early days of her marriage: “We used to stay in bed / All day and night, all night and day / We bedded half our lives away.”
Ah, but that was then. Now, their marriage is over, and having suffered betrayal at the hands of her husband, she reminds him that “now it’s no concern of yours / if I sleep with the president.”
As she further underlines what a sexual dynamo he’s lost, however, the bouncy, horn-driven happiness of the music belies the fact that she’s also making him feel guilty on a different level, revealing that she’s living a rather perilous existence at this point. It’s one thing to smugly say, “If I don’t come home tonight, it’s my affair,” but it’s quite another to admit to “making eyes at perfect strangers” and add, “I know that it could be dangerous.” It doesn’t take a master of reading between the lines to see that she’s saying, “You had me, you lost me, and if anything happens to me now that I’m out on my own, it’s your fault, and you’ll have to live with it for the rest of your miserable existence.” Dark stuff. But, hey, she’s gotten it off her chest, she’s made her man feel guilty, and with that out of the way, it’s time to get back to dancing!
Or, as MacColl herself said of the song in a 1991 interview with The Guardian, “Life’s a bitch, but that doesn’t mean we have to play it as a dirge.”
“My Affair” may have been MacColl’s first attempt to bring a bit of Latin flavor to her songs, but it was far from the last, although her interest in the sound remained dormant on her next album, 1993’s Titanic Days, which proved to be a comparatively quiet and subdued effort. Describing herself as “very unhappy” when she recorded the record, MacColl slipped into a self-imposed hiatus afterward, later explaining to The Independent, “I made a conscious decision … not to do another album until I was feeling more happy about life.” By the time she re-emerged in 2000, not only she had cheered up in a big, big way, but she came bearing a new album, Tropical Brainstorm, which sounded strikingly similar in tone to a “Affair.”
The similarities were not coincidental. “The fact that ‘My Affair’ had been the most fun I’d ever had in the studio led to me wanting to do more of that,” MacColl confirmed during the press blitz for Tropical Brainstorm. “It just took this long for me to get it together because I wanted to know more of what I was doing before I embarked on that road. I had to learn about that music by listening to an awful lot of stuff and visiting the countries where it came from.”
The material on Tropical Brainstorm is uniformly strong and, for the most part, relentlessly upbeat, making the album as perfect to play as the soundtrack for summer sun and fun as it is to offer a temporary respite from the winter blues. (For those as yet unfamiliar with its charms, please note that the album has also been found effective during spring and autumn.) Indeed, MacColl’s songwriting skills were in such fine form during these sessions that she managed to write herself a song that would effectively go on become her signature tune for U.S. audiences, “In These Shoes?”
There’s a bit about the Stateside success of “In These Shoes?” that makes the accomplishment bittersweet at best, however: It arrived posthumously.
Kirsty MacColl died on December 18, 2000, in a manner as noble as it was horrific and stupid. While diving in Cozumel with her sons, in a restricted area where no watercraft should have been, she was struck by a speeding powerboat. Although her son Jamie was with her at the time, MacColl spotted the boat in sufficient time to shove him out of the way, sacrificing her own life for his.
Four months later, Tropical Brainstorm was released in the U.S. As such, no matter how good a mood the music may inspire upon listening, it’s still hard to leave the proceedings without a certain amount of sorrow, imagining what might’ve been if MacColl had lived. It’s not such a far-fetched notion that the success of “In These Shoes?” might well have finally pushed her out of cult status and into a position of becoming a major player on the American charts.
When sadness begins to set in, however, there’s a simple cure, and it takes less than five minutes and 25 seconds to take effect: Just spin “My Affair.”