At first I thought Tracey Ullman was a little too well-known for a “Lost in the 80s” post. After all, her first single, “They Don’t Know”, peaked at #8 on the charts in 1984, hardly obscure by any stretch. But I found when talking to people about Tracey’s music career just about all of them said the same thing: “Tracy Ullman used to make records?”
Sure. But not only did our Tracey make records, she made damn good ones that evoked the 60s girl group sound while sounding surprisingly contemporary. The backing tracks had a beefier sound and almost punkish urgency that made her records more than just mere nostalgia mining. And like any good girl group singer, Tracey was more than happy to blend into the musical wallpaper and surrender to the song and whatever producer she happened to be working with.
Tracey’s only hit in the States, “They Don’t Know”, was originally recorded by the incredible and dearly missed Kirsty MacColl, who had quite the storied recording career herself. Kirsty also became the backing singer du jour in the late 80s, appearing on albums from the Smiths, Talking Heads and, um, Frida.
Tracey and her label Stiff liked what Kirsty was doing, so after “They Don’t Know” hit, Kirsty contributed a few more songs and backing vocals to the following full-length Ullman album, “You Broke My Heart in 17 Places”. The title track was a MacColl composition and featured her typically genius wordplay – ”…cuz you broke my heart in 17 places / Shepherd’s Bush was only one”. Probably lost on the majority of people here in the States, but hey…you can’t beat the tune.
That album did well enough in the UK (and here, actually – it peaked at #34 on the charts), that a quick follow-up was in order. Not one to mess with a winning formula, “You Caught Me Out” was another pastiche of the 60s and new wave, featuring more Kirsty-written songs, including, yes, the title track. “You Caught Me Out” was, again, originally recorded by Kirsty and was co-written with members of the Boomtown Rats, who also played on the track, giving it a driving, punky feel. Unfortunately, contractual snags prevented Kirsty’s version from ever being released until years after her untimely death. Meanwhile, Tracey’s version was even more hyper, the organ higher in the mix, the beat more insistent, the vocals more histrionic. Is it blasphemy as a Kirsty fan to say I prefer Tracey’s version?
“You Caught Me Out” the LP also featured a cover of “I Know What Boys Like” by The Waitresses. That Butler guy gets around lately.
While “You Caught Me Out” was never released stateside, Rhino has put out a compilation CD that features Tracey’s first LP in its entirety, along with some b-sides and a healthy portion of the second LP, as well. Get it at Amazon .
The cute video for “They Don’t Know” features a surprise cameo at the end:
Neither song was released as a single.