2000 – A boating accident in Mexico claims the life of singer Kirsty MacColl.

She was best known for her vocals alongside The Pogues’ Shane McGowan on the 1987 Christmas No 1, Fairytale of New York.

Kirsty Anna MacColl (10 October 1959 – 18 December 2000) was an English singer-songwriter.

MacColl scored several pop hits from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. During this era, she often sang on recordings produced by her husband Steve Lillywhite, notably those of The Smiths and the song “Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues.

MacColl was killed in a controversial boating incident in Mexico.

Early career:

Kirsty MacColl was the daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl and dancer Jean Newlove. She and her brother, Hamish MacColl, grew up with their mother in Croydon, where she attended Park Hill Primary School and Monks Hill High School, making appearances in school plays. At the time of MacColl’s birth, her father had been in a relationship with folksinger, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Peggy Seeger since 1956 (a relationship that would continue until his death in 1989), and already had a son with her.

She came to notice when Chiswick Records released an EP by local punk rock band the Drug Addix with MacColl on backing vocals under the pseudonym Mandy Doubt (1978). Stiff Records executives were not impressed with the band, but liked her and subsequently signed her to a solo deal.

Debut single:

Her debut solo single “They Don’t Know”, released in 1979, peaked at #3 in terms of airplay. However, a distributors’ strike prevented copies of the single getting into record stores, and the single consequently failed to appear on the UK Singles Chart.

MacColl recorded a follow-up single, “You Caught Me Out”, but felt she lacked Stiff’s full backing, and left the label shortly before the song was to be released. The single was pulled, and only a few “white label” promo copies of the single are known to exist.

MacColl moved to Polydor Records in 1981. She had a UK #14 hit with “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis”, taken from her critically acclaimed debut album Desperate Character. In 1983, Polydor dropped her just as she had completed recording the songs for a planned second album (to be called Real) which used more synthesizers and had New Wave-styled tracks. She returned to Stiff, where pop singles such as “Terry” and “He’s On the Beach” were unsuccessful but a cover of Billy Bragg’s “A New England” in 1985 got to Number 7 in the UK charts. This included two extra verses specially written for her by Bragg. Also around this time, MacColl wrote and performed the theme song “London Girls” for Channel 4’s short-lived sitcom Dream Stuffing (1984).

In the United States, MacColl was probably most recognisable as the writer of “They Don’t Know”. Tracey Ullman’s version, helped by a video guest-starring Paul McCartney, reached Number 2 in the UK in 1983 and the Top Ten in North America. It was also played over the closing credits of Ullman’s HBO show Tracey Takes On in 1996. Ullman also recorded three more of MacColl’s songs, “You Broke My Heart In 17 Places” and “You Caught Me Out”, as the title tracks of her first and second albums respectively, and “Terry” which was released as a single in 1985.

Chart re-emergence:

When Stiff went bankrupt in 1986, MacColl was left unable to record in her own right, as no record company bought her contract from the Official Receiver. However, she had regular session work as a backing vocalist, and she frequently sang on records produced or engineered by her husband, Steve Lillywhite, including tracks for The Smiths, Talking Heads, Big Country, Crossfire Choir, Anni-Frid Lyngstad (of ABBA), and The Wonder Stuff among others. She appeared in the videos “Welcome to the Cheap Seats” for The Wonder Stuff and “(Nothing But) Flowers” for Talking Heads (along with ex-The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr).

MacColl re-emerged in the British charts in December 1987, reaching Number 2 with The Pogues on “Fairytale of New York”, a duet with Shane MacGowan. This led to her accompanying The Pogues on their British and European tour in 1988, an experience which she said helped her temporarily overcome her stage fright. In March 1989, MacColl sang backing vocals on the Happy Mondays’ Hallelujah EP.

After the contract issue was resolved, MacColl returned to recording as a solo artist and received critical acclaim upon the release of Kite (LP) in 1989. The album was widely praised by critics, and featured collaborations with David Gilmour and Johnny Marr. MacColl’s lyrics addressed life in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain on “Free World”, ridiculed the vapidity of fame in “Fifteen Minutes”, and addressed the vagaries of love in “Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim!” Although Kite contained many original compositions, MacColl’s biggest chart success from the album would be the cover of The Kinks’ song “Days”, which gave her a UK Top 20 hit in July 1989. A bonus track on the CD version of Kite was a cover of the Smiths song “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby”.

During this time, MacColl was also featured on the British sketch comedy French and Saunders, appearing as herself, wearing tartan and singing songs, including “15 Minutes” (from Kite), “Girls On Bikes” (a reworking of B-side “Am I Right?”) and, with comedy duo Raw Sex, the Frank and Nancy Sinatra hit “Something Stupid”. She continued to write and record, releasing the album Electric Landlady (coined by Johnny Marr, a play on the Jimi Hendrix album title Electric Ladyland), including her most successful chart hit in North America, “Walking Down Madison” (co-written with Marr and a Top 30 hit in the UK), in 1991. Despite the song’s U.S. chart success, Landlady was not a hit for Virgin Records, and in 1992, when Virgin was sold to EMI, MacColl was dropped from the label.

Later work:

She released Titanic Days, inspired by her divorce from Lillywhite, in 1994, but ZTT Records had agreed only to release the album as a “one-off” and declined to sign her to a contract. The following year she released two new singles on Virgin, “Caroline” and a cover of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” (a duet with Evan Dando), together with the “best of” compilation Galore.

Galore became MacColl’s only album to reach the top 10 in the UK Albums Chart, but neither of the new singles, nor a re-released “Days”, made the Top 40. MacColl would not record again for several years; her frustration with the music business was exacerbated by a lengthy case of writer’s block. MacColl herself admitted that she was ready to give up her music career and become an English teacher in South America.

In 1998, the album What Do Pretty Girls Do? was released, containing BBC Radio 1 live sessions (featuring Billy Bragg on two songs) that were broadcast between 1989 and 1995.

After several trips to Cuba and Brazil, MacColl recorded the world music-inspired (particularly Cuban and other Latin American forms) Tropical Brainstorm, which was released in 2000 to critical acclaim. It included the song “In These Shoes”, which garnered airplay in the U.S., was covered by Bette Midler and featured in the HBO show Sex and the City. It would later (after MacColl’s death) be adopted by Catherine Tate as the theme tune for her BBC TV show and feature on the soundtrack to British film Kinky Boots.

Death:

In 2000, following her participation in the presentation of a radio programme she had done for the BBC on Cuba, MacColl took a holiday in Cozumel, Mexico, with her sons and her partner, musician James Knight. On 18 December 2000, she and her sons went diving in Cozumel, in a specific diving area that watercraft were restricted from entering. With the group was a local veteran divemaster, Iván Díaz. As the group was surfacing from a dive, a speeding powerboat entered the restricted area. MacColl saw the boat coming before her sons did; Louis was not in the boat’s path, but Jamie was. She was able to push him out of the way (he sustained minor head and rib injuries) but in doing so, she was hit by the boat and killed instantly. MacColl’s remains were repatriated to the United Kingdom and the subsequent funeral took place at Mortlake Crematorium in London.

The boat involved in the accident was owned by Mexican supermarket millionaire Guillermo González Nova, who was on board with several members of his family. An employee of González Nova’s, boathand José Cen Yam, claimed to have been driving the boat at the time that the accident occurred. Several published reports have included accounts from eyewitnesses that have stated Cen Yam was not at the controls; eyewitnesses also indicate that the boat was travelling much faster than the speed of one knot that Nova had claimed. Cen Yam was found guilty of culpable homicide and was sentenced to 2 years 10 months in prison. However, he was allowed under Mexican law to pay a punitive fine of 1034 pesos (about 63 € or £61 or US$90) in lieu of the prison sentence. He was also ordered to pay approximately US $2150 in restitution to MacColl’s family, an amount based on his wages. Published reports have included statements from people who spoke to Cen Yam after the accident, claiming Cen Yam had received money for taking the blame for the incident.

Justice For Kirsty campaign:

MacColl’s family launched the Justice For Kirsty campaign in response to the events surrounding her death. Among the group’s efforts:

Lawyers for MacColl’s family and the group campaigned for a judicial review into the events surrounding her death. They were in repeated contact with the Mexican government, and made an application to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

MacColl’s friends and family were critical of what they perceived as a lack of cooperation from the Mexican authorities. In May 2006, Emilio Cortez Ramírez, a federal prosecutor in Cozumel, was found liable for breach of authority in conjunction with his handling of the MacColl case.

The BBC has featured a documentary by Olivia Lichtenstein, entitled Who Killed Kirsty MacColl?

U2 and Paul “Bono” Hewson, who was a friend of MacColl’s, spoke about the incident during a concert in Monterrey, Mexico, in February 2006. The Mexican government released a statement after the concert indicating they would take action. However no additional details were immediately forthcoming.

In December 2009, it was announced that the Justice For Kirsty campaign was being wound up since “the committee was successful in achieving most of its aims” and “it is unlikely that any more could be achieved.” The campaign’s remaining funds will be divided between two charities “of which Kirsty would have approved,” Casa Alianza Mexico and Cuba Music Solidarity.

Legacy:

Since MacColl’s death, Billy Bragg has always included “her” extra verses when performing “A New England”. She was honoured in 2002 with a memorial concert in London at the Royal Festival Hall, featuring a number of musicians that had worked with her or been influenced by her. A similar memorial concert has been scheduled for her birthday (10 October 2010) at the O2 Shepherds Bush Empire, to support her favourite charity The Music Fund for Cuba.

In 2001, a bench was placed by the southern entrance to London’s Soho Square as a memorial to her, after a lyric from one of her most poignant songs: “One day I’ll be waiting there / No empty bench in Soho Square”. Every year on the Sunday nearest to MacColl’s birthday, 10 October, fans from all over the world hold a gathering at the bench to pay tribute to her and sing her songs.

MacColl continues to receive media exposure; in 2004, Kirsty MacColl:The One and Only, a biography of MacColl written by Karen O’Brien, was published. A retrospective three-CD set spanning her full career, From Croydon To Cuba, was released in 2005. Titanic Days was re-released in 2005 as a deluxe 2CD set, and Kite and Electric Landlady were also remastered and rereleased with additional tracks. Her first album, Desperate Character, remained out of print as of late June 2010, but some selections from that work were included in the box set. On 7 August 2005, The Best of Kirsty MacColl, a single-disc compilation that included a “new” single, “Sun on the Water,” made its debut on the UK album charts at #17, climbing to #12 a week later.

MacColl’s collaboration with the Pogues, “Fairytale of New York,” remains a perennial Christmas favourite. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, it was voted favourite Christmas song in a poll by music video channel VH1. The song was re-released in the UK in December 2005, with proceeds being split between the Justice for Kirsty Campaign and charities for the homeless. The re-release reached #3 on the UK charts, and spent five weeks in the top 75 over the Christmas and New Year period. It reached the top 10 for the third time in its history in 2006, peaking at #6, and charted yet again in December 2007, when there was brief controversy over the use of the word ‘faggot’ in the lyrics, which BBC Radio 1 dubbed out “to avoid offence,” 20 years after it had first passed over the airwaves without comment (or apparent offence) – following criticism from listeners and MacColl’s mother, Radio 1 reversed their decision later in the day. The song has also made the Top 20 in the two subsequent years, and has now charted in eight separate years. With the exception of the 2005 re-release, the seasonal re-charting in the 21st Century is due to download sales, and not due to further releases (download sales counting toward the singles chart since 2005).

Biography:

Sun on the Water – The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Kirsty MacColl – Jean MacColl.

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