Whatever Happened to ’80s British Pop Singer Kirsty MacColl?

Kirsty MacColl
Mike Lawn/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Oddly enough, the question at hand arose from hearing a Belle and Sebastian song on the radio.

It was “Stars of Track and Field” off their 1996 album If You’re Feeling Sinister. Have a listen:

Catchy tune. I know I’d heard it before, but something about it struck me this time. It sounded like an early ’80s pop song called “They Don’t Know.” The internets pointed me to this song by Tracey Ullman. Yes, that Tracey Ullman, the British actress/comedian/dancer/singer whose The Tracey Ullman Show gave birth to a little animated sitcom called The Simpsons.

Ullman had a brief musical career in the early to mid 1980s, and she recorded two albums: 1983’s You Broke My Heart in 17 Places and 1984’s You Caught Me Out. The songs were mostly covers of ’60s pop girl groups and artists like Irma Thomas, Doris Day and Skeeter Davis.

Ullman’s biggest hit single was “They Don’t Know,” which reached No. 2 in the U.K. and No. 8 in the U.S. Here’s the music video, featuring a cameo from Paul McCartney:

Here’s Ullman performing it live in Toronto a few years ago:

Turns out “They Don’t Know” was a cover of a song composed and first recorded in 1979 by British pop/new wave singer Kirsty MacColl:

“They Don’t Know” got some radio airplay in the U.K., but the single didn’t sell well and MacColl left the Stiff Records label for Polydor in 1981. Her first LP, Desperate Character, was released that year and contained the popular single “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis”:

Her breakthrough album was 1989’s Kite, featuring a cover of The Kinks’ “Days” and two songwriting collaborations with Johnny Marr of The Smiths:

Kite was followed by 1991’s Electric Landlady, 1993’s Titanic Days and 2000’s Tropical Brainstorm. One of her biggest hits in the U.S. was “Walking Down Madison” off of Electric Landlady:

MacColl was featured as a backup vocalist in recordings by the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Smiths, The Talking Heads, Simple Minds, Big Country and others, many of whom were produced by her husband, Steve Lillywhite. MacColl and Lillywhite were married from 1984-94, and they had two sons.

She’s also on the The Pogues’ 1987 hit “Fairytale of New York,” singing a duet with Shane MacGowan:

In December 2000, MacColl, her sons and her boyfriend, musician James Knight, were on vacation in Cozumel, Mexico. While swimming and diving in the waters of Chankanaab reef, in an area restricted to watercraft, a powerboat approached MacColl and her sons at high speed. She pushed her 15-year-old son Jamie out of the boat’s path, and he suffered only minor injuries. But MacColl was struck by the boat and died instantly. She was 41 years old.

Guillermo González Nova, president of a Mexican supermarket chain, was onboard the boat with members of his family. It is alleged that González Nova was at the controls of the boat when it struck and killed MacColl, and that a boathand was paid by González Nova to take the fall for the incident. Difficulties in dealing with Mexican law enforcement prompted MacColl’s family to launch the Justice for Kirsty campaign.

MacColl’s music has had several reissues and compilation releases in the years following her death. An album MacColl recorded for Polydor in 1983 did not get a proper release until Real dropped in 2023, along with an eight-disc box set called See That Girl 1979–2000.

Earlier this year, Demon Music released a two-disc yellow vinyl collection called Kirsty MacColl: Free World – The Best Of Kirsty MacColl 1979-2000.

 Where Are They Now? Child Stars and Teen Idols
Want More?

Where Are They Now? Child Stars and Teen Idols

June 2024

What happened to those teen idols and child stars we swayed to, swooned over and watched as they grew up (while we grew up as well)?

Buy This Issue