Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Kirsty MacColl - "A New England" (1985)

The late Kirsty MacColl, teaming up with her then-husband, producer Steve Lillywhite, created what is surely one of the most originally conceived remixed songs of the 80's. The four-minute single of "A New England" absolutely stands on its own, but the remix is breathtaking.

In the United Kingdom, Kirsty MacColl was an institution and deservedly so. She had a beautiful voice, wrote marvelous pop songs, and came from musical lineage as she was the daughter of folk singer Ewan MacColl.

You already know one of her songs -- Tracy Ullman made her girl-group-ish "They Don't Know" an international hit in 1983, although MacColl's own version came out four years earlier.

But nothing could prepare anybody for the brilliant cover of folk singer Billy Bragg's "A New England," especially in its full eight-minute remixed version. Completely reconfiguring the wistful tune into a high speed tour de force of multitracked vocals, delayed guitars, and a tommygun-programmed drum machine, this was a creative production achievement matched by few at that time.

Launching with just MacColl's heavenly reverbed vocals accompanied by a drum machine ramping up to supersonic speed more commonly associated with drum and bass electronica, "A New England" bursts into a bright mix of bubbling guitars and chords very reminiscent of Pink Floyd's "Run Like Hell" from
The Wall. You can tell Lillywhite produced the early U2 albums because of their shared epic guitar tones.

The first two minutes cook like a racing overture with layers and layers of MacColl's wordless vocals and doo-wop inflections swelling and then simmering down for the initial verse. When Billy Bragg heard MacColl was doing an epic remix of the single, he wrote two additional verses for the production.

MacColl sings the lyrics with a combination of being wise beyond her years and subtle bile at a former elusive lover, completely changing the lyrics to a female perspective, as you can hear from the original Bragg version:

I was 21 years when I wrote this song
I'm 22 now but I won't be for long
People ask me when will I grow up to understand
Why the girls I knew at school are already pushing prams

I loved you then as I love you still
Though I put you on a pedestal you put me on the pill
I don't feel bad about letting you go
I just feel sad about letting you know

I don't want to change the world
I'm not looking for a new England
Are you looking for another girl?
I don't want to change the world
I'm not looking for a new England
Are you looking for another girl?

Despite the lovelorn subject matter, the charging drums, guitars and vocals bring about a rare sense of euphoria for a rock remix record.

MacColl truly cemented her place in British music history by later recording "Fairytale of New York" with the Irish band Pogues, which has become something of a modern Christmas classic.

MacColl tragically died in a boating accident in Mexico where she was diving with her two sons in 2000. While in the United States, there were small obituaries, the UK was put into a state of shock. Many young girls grew up admiring MacColl for being a successful songwriter and recording artist, and identified with her distinct female viewpoint and sense of humor.

While leaving us with several albums over the years, "A New England" still stands as an amazing collaborative achievement of songwriting, sound, production and creativity that is still riveting today.

Below is the song's official video of the single starring MacColl strolling through the English winter, followed by a tribute video of the classic remix in all its glory.

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