Music education always & always looking forward.

Adding to the Original: Deceptive (???) Modulation & Cadential Extension (???) in Kirsty MacColl's "A New England"


I find myself entranced by Kirsty MacColl, and then I shelve her music for very long periods of time. While writing this piece tonight, I listened to a portion of her 1993 album Titanic Days, and I began to feel my soul turn inside out and consume my body and I remembered why I tend to put her songs away for a little while too long. 

I don't have a deeply personal connection to Kirsty the same way I do other red-headed songwriters, Tori Amos & Jenny Lewis to name a few, but it seems impossible to separate Kirsty from the immense tragedy that cut her down in her prime. At the age of 41, Kirsty was killed by a boat propeller near Cozumel, Mexico, after doing everything she could to remove her sons from harm's way. Her death became an international rallying cry and led to a nine-year inquest, spearheaded by her mother. Collaborators Billy Bragg, Shane MacGowan, and even U2's Bono led the call for justice for Kirsty. 

Today, she is largely remembered for her collaborations and her covers. Her debut single, "They Don't Know" was re-recorded by Tracey Ullman, reached the Top Ten in both the UK & the US, and was used as the theme song for Ullman's successful HBO show. Despite her formidable songwriting chops, Kirsty's most successful singles were either collaborations, including "Fairytale of New York" with the Pogues, or covers, including The Kinks' "Days", The Smiths' "You Just Haven't Earned It Yet, Baby", and of course "A New England." 

Her songwriting will haunt you (especially diving into Titanic Days, which was greatly informed by her relationship with her estranged husband), but I promise if you're not familiar with her work, it is all well worth your time. And if you're familiar with her music, it's no surprise to you that this particular key change is an easily overlooked but extremely musically satisfying one.

You can also look up her work with and tremendous support for Music for Cuba (formerly known as Cuba Music Solidarity). The concert auditorium at the Miramar Theatre in Havana was named after Kirsty.

Intro: Kirsty MacColl is known to many music fans as one of the most underrated British singer/songwriters to have lived. She was largely undervalued by the British recording industry in the early 1980s but left behind four complete albums and numerous recordings worth of backing vocals & sound engineering. "A New England" was written and recorded by British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg in 1983 and released with only two verses and minimal instrumentation. The next year, MacColl recorded it with a key change and two additional verses that Bragg wrote for her to extend the song. The song became MacColl's biggest UK charting hit, attaining a #7 spot. Kirsty MacColl was murdered in Mexico in 2000 while trying to shield her teenaged sons from a boat propeller, and Bragg still performs this song with the verses he wrote for her in tribute. 

Analysis: In contrast to Billy Bragg's rather sparse recording of "A New England", the vocals and instrumentation on MacColl's version soar. Produced by MacColl's ex-husband Steve Lillywhite (and reminiscent of other Lillywhite-produced bands such as U2, Big Country, Peter Gabriel, and Talking Heads of the era), the filled-out arrangement also benefits from an unusual modulation.

The chord progression of the early verses in C major is somewhat standard (I-V-iii-IV-vi-V-IV-I), but the chorus takes on a non-diatonic chord upon the first utterance of the word "girl" (first heard in this video recording at :51, and upon repetitions serves as a launching point for MacColl's vocal runs) of E major.

More interestingly, after the second repetition of the chorus (heard here at 1:57), the last cadence does not move from IV-I but IV-♭VII (F-Bb major chords). The song doesn't stay long on Bb, arriving at the new key of D major, with the same chord progressions as heard earlier, at 2:17. One interpretation of this harmonic movement is that this :20 of layered vocal harmonies could be considered cadential extension. The movement of IV-♭VII delays the cadence, but while you could interpret the ♭VII as replacing the V chord, it lands on the I chord of an entirely new key, a full step up. This is, as music theory commenters on the internet call it, "crunchy as hell."

Considerations for Teaching: MacColl was known for her punk rock sentiments, and best known as the guest vocalist on the Pogues' “Fairytale of New York”, which features a good deal of swearing. Bragg is often associated with punk rock and leftist movements, but associations aside, there is very little questionable material in this song. The only remotely possible offensive line – “But that was bloody yesterday” – would likely go by unnoticed in an American secondary classroom.

Further reading:

Kirsty's mother in 2007, discussing her death and the comfort of hearing "Fairytale of New York" each Christmas.

Kirsty's son Louis gave his first interview about her death in 2012. 

The legacy of the Justice for Kirsty campaign.

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