MacColl had enrolled at Croydon College of Art in a bid to placate her parents, who both wanted her to go to university. But after six months she dropped out, hanging out in snooker halls and drifting in and out of temporary jobs. The closest she came to music had been working in the mail order department of Bonaparte Records. But via her brother Hamish, she had become close to a group called the Tooting Frooties and when they reinvented themselves as Drug Addix, MacColl joined, assuming the moniker of Mandy Doubt. An EP was released on Chiswick as part of a set called Suburban Rock, Billy Bragg’s band Riff-Raff being one of the other releases. The record succeeded in getting Stiff’s attention, but it wasn’t the band it was interested in. It wanted the sassy young singer.
“Paul [Conroy] was the big enthusiast for her,” remembers Sternberg. “Paul came up to me one day and said, ‘I’ve found this singer, Kirsty MacColl. Have a listen because I think this is really great‘. I didn’t see it at first, but then I met her down in a pub in Chelsea and I really liked her.”
MacColl said : “After I left [the band], Stiff Records called and said, ’We’d like you to come and play us anything you’ve got’. I said, ’I thought you didn’t like the demos,’ and they said, ’We hate the band, but we quite like you!’ When they asked if I had any songs, I said, ‘Oh yeah, loads!’, even though I hadn’t at all. Then I thought, ‘Oh God, I’d better write something before I go to see them.”
One of the songs the teenager had quickly pulled together was ‘They Don’t Know’ and it was at Stiff’s mobile studio – The China Shop – that she arrived to record it. Sternberg was there to produce and Lu Edmunds from The Damned was drafted in to play on the record. His spontaneous solo was kept on the finished record, which became her debut release on 1 June 1979. A sublime pop song, it was simple but moving, and her searing cry of ‘Babeee’ that cut in Spector-esque before the final verse served notice that Stiff had unearthed another raw talent. ‘Turn My Motor On’, the B-side, was another of her songs that had been a feature of Drug Addix sets, and had reportedly been mooted as the single by Stiff before being switched.
Rosemary Robinson was among those seen following MacColl down a flight of stairs on the black and white picture on the record sleeve. BUY47, as well as being the first record in MacColl’s solo career, had the honour of being Stiff’s first picture-disc. In a pink jacket and a matching ribbon tied in her flame-coloured hair, Kirsty MacColl looked every bit the pop star.
Robinson said : “She fitted perfectly. We didn’t have any girls who wrote and had her kind of attitude, which was fairly in-your-face. She wasn’t sweet. She wanted to interview the record company. She’d obviously come with an attitude.”
In the event, that “attitude” proved too much for Robinson and the two didn’t hit it off. MacColl wasn’t a malleable young artist swooning at the thought of a record deal and as a result, Robinson didn’t give the record the backing it deserved, according to Sternberg. “They loved her, but Kirsty and Dave didn’t get along,” he says. “Kirsty and Dave was just not possible. She didn’t want to sign a longer deal, so Dave didn’t promote the record. It was like in the top three in airplay, but they didn’t press any more. It got air-played to death and there were no records being sold because there were no records out there. I think that was Dave’s revenge on her situation, getting Tracey Ullman to do it. Kirsty was tough to deal with if you wanted to stitch her up, like Dave probably did, and her father was in the music business, and obviously she was nobody’s fool.”
To be fair to Stiff, another factor had played a part. A strike by independent distributors coincided with its release, preventing copies that had been pressed up reaching the shops. MacColl, like other Stiff acts before and after her, was left to ponder her ill-fortune.