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Kirsty MacColl – Terry

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Sometimes I long for the days when the words of a song or the meaning of those words were a thing I really didn’t think or care about. Nowadays I wouldn’t dream of going around singing the lyrics to Relax, but twelve year old me had no problem with it whatsoever. I suppose a record is really only filthy, or sad, or political if you’re paying attention, and of course when you’re a child you’re really only paying attention to whether it’s catchy or not. We’d sing along to Free Nelson Mandela without having any idea who he was. Golden Brown could have been about gingerbread for all we knew. Did our ignorance make these songs any less enjoyable? Of course not.

I’ve been gaily singing along to Terry by Kirsty MacColl for quite a long time now, and in all those years I’ve never really thought much about it beyond “gosh, this Terry person sounds brilliant”, but upon revisiting the song now my first thoughts are that either Terry doesn’t exist or that Terry is in prison (“Terry wants my photograph” – because he’s in a JAIL CELL). Perhaps Terry is just a construct to give her the strength to dump her no good boyfriend. I wish my brain would keep its mouth shut sometimes.

Possible desperately sad interpretation notwithstanding, Terry is still one of pop’s most exciting three and a bit minutes. It’s a record that sort of hurtles up to you, out of breath but bursting with news that simply will not wait.

I love how much there is going on this record, don’t you? There’s something very ‘wall of sound’ about it, except the wall is made of chipboard and you could probably punch a hole through it. But while it might lack the grandeur (and echo) of Phil Spector’s productions, it’s just as effective in giving you the goosebumps. Kirsty’s vocals are obviously the key to this – multi-tracked to high heaven (the Kirstettes, if you will), making her sound invincible among the twangs and clangs and breakneck speed of things. And oh god, the lyrics are funny, so long as you believe Terry actually exists. (“You thought you were such a smartie / But Terry knows about karate / There’s other things he’s good at too / Terry’s not a bit like you”).  But whether it makes you deliriously happy or strangely sad in a way you can’t quite put your finger on, Terry is a record made for that transistor radio on the kitchen windowsill, the sort of thing you might hear and grin at as you rattled past on your Grifter. Also your gran would like it.

The video for Terry is completely brilliant, with a lovely turn from Adrian Edmondson and Kirsty a vision in angora, being every bolshy girl you ever knew at school. Interestingly, Terry doesn’t get the girl in the end, which makes it rather a different experience to the one I now get just listening to the song on its own.

My favourite thing about Kirsty MacColl was that she always made the kind of pop that was rooted very recognisably in the world we actually lived in. Whereas a lot of stuff in the early 1980s was fabulously aspirational – giving my generation quite unrealistic expectations about our futures in the process – Kirsty’s records spoke of things we were all familiar with i.e. chip shops. Other pop stars revelled in the glamour of it all (most notably Nick Rhodes, whose fondness for the high life resulted in one of Neil Tennant’s favourite ever pop moments, when he asked for a peach juice and champagne before turning to the interviewer and sagely adding “it’s called a Bellini”). Indeed, the Duran Duran aesthetic at the time is a very useful counterpoint to Kirsty’s –  how many people did you know called Rio? Precisely none, I should think. But you probably did know someone called Terry (in my case, my gym teacher) and the only pop star writing about people called Terry was Kirsty MacColl.

1983 was one of those gloriously shambolic years when it seemed like anyone could have a hit  – you’d have Bananarama arsing about on Top of the Pops one minute and Dionne Warwick standing stock still like a very expensive sculpture the next  – so why Kirsty remained so resolutely hitless is rather peculiar. She made records that in any other hands would have been huge hits, and of course they were – and those other hands belonged to Tracey Ullman. Kirsty’s labelmate on Stiff Records was a huge fan, and she was able to take Kirsty’s own They Don’t Know all the way to no.2 that year (and in fact it was sliding gracefully back down the chart just as Terry entered at no.100). Tracey, of course, had the advantage of being a huge star thanks to Three of a Kind, her BBC1 comedy show with Lenny Henry and David Copperfield (whom nobody at my school thought was funny), so getting her a hit single was presumably easier. But none of this might have happened had a distributor strike not prevented Kirsty’s version from reaching many shops in 1979, but let’s be honest – Tracey’s version is fabulous (though the peak moment, the “bay-ay-be-ee” at 1:51 is actually sung by Kirsty, my mind is blown), and it brought both a tear to my eye and the house down at my wedding last year. So I’m glad it worked out the way it did.

If it feels a bit like Tracey ended up being a pop proxy for Kirsty, that’s because she sort of did. Both of her albums (You Broke My Heart in Seventeen Places and You Caught Me Out) took their titles from Kirsty songs, and just over a year after Kirsty’s version made no.82, Tracey brought out her own take on Terry, complete with the same backing track. It made no.81, and has an equally fabulous video – at times it looks like they even filmed it on the same street – in which Terry is played by Acorn Antiques’ very own Mr Derek, Kenny Ireland. He gets the girl at the end of this one.

So in the finish up nobody got to have a hit single with Terry, which seems grossly unfair given its brilliance. It marked the end of Tracey Ullman’s pop career, but turned out to be the precursor to Kirsty MacColl’s glory-ish days, as her next single A New England sailed into the top 10 early in 1985. It was always a bit of a bumpy ride after that in the charts, but the pop? Stupendous.

terryEntered chart: 20/11/83

Chart peak: 82

Weeks on chart: 3

Who could sing this today and have a hit? This will sound strange, but Brandon Flowers. It’s not so far from Terry to Diggin’ Up the Heart from 2015’s The Desired Effect.

1 Comment »

  1. Is it sacrilegious that I prefer Tracey’s version? (Both versions are ruddy fab, mind.) For years I thought the lyrics were “Fun Boy Terry’s not the kind
    To mess around and change his mind” and that the song must therefore be about Terry Hall. They aren’t and it probably isn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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