White Label Wednesday: Tracey Ullman, “Breakaway”

Written by Music, Popdose, White Label

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Scout’s honor, I had no idea this mix even existed until a few months ago, when it popped up on an ‘80s remix message board I frequent. Always a big fan of the song – and sporting a mild crush in my early teens on Tracey Ullman in that ‘50s school girl outfit in the video – I downloaded this mix post haste…

…and couldn’t have been more disappointed. Well, I suppose I could have been more disappointed, but I’m not sure how. Nearly everything I liked about the single version was undermined in one way or another. The only thing that survives is the memory of my crush on Tracey Ullman in that long skirt and knee socks. She changes outfits a few times in the clip, even donning a super-leggy, sparkly dress, but isn’t it funny how she looks sexier when she shows less skin? Millions of young girls could learn a thing or two from that example.

But I am not here to lecture young women on their tendency to dress like unattractive strippers. I am here to talk about “Breakaway,” the follow-up single to Ullman’s only American Top 40 hit – and ultimately Top Ten hit – “They Don’t Know.” For those who, um, don’t know, “They Don’t Know” was written by the late, great Kirsty MacColl, who inspires frequent debates amongst the Popdose staff about who loves her more. (Seriously.) Anyway, the 1983 album from which both singles were spawned, You Broke My Heart in Seventeen Places – MacColl also penned the title track, along with the title track of Ullman’s 1984 album You Caught Me Out, with the help of Boomtown Rats rhythm section Pete Briquette and Simon Crowe – was a ‘60s girl group album released at the tail end of the ‘50s nostalgia trend. That sounds like perfect timing on paper, but both sides of the pond were apparently too dazzled by New Wave and synth pop to give Ullman more than three minutes and two seconds of their time.

Pity, because “Breakaway,” written by folk-rock pioneer-turned Bacharach muse Jackie DeShannon – she also wrote “Needles and Pins” and, holy shit, “Bette Davis Eyes”! – is sixteen different flavors of awesome. Unfortunately, it’s not much of a dance track. With a BPM roughly in the 220’s, which is about 100 beats per minute faster than your typical ‘80s dance track – the only song that a DJ had a chance of blending into this song in a beat mix was the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”

The speed, however, was the least of the extended mix’s worries. The drums are de-emphasized – that’s right, they de-emphasized the drums on a mix made for dance clubs – in favor of…the backing vocalists? Are you kidding? You might be able to get away with this on a track like “They Don’t Know,” where the backing vox are all done by our beloved Kirsty, but not here. So the song has less rhythmic punch, and an increased presence of pinched vocals. What, then, makes this mix notable? The sax solo. It’s pure “Wakety Sax”-y goodness.

Props to Stiff Records for even entertaining the idea of a 12” mix of this song, but they should have sent this one back for a do-over, citing something or other about “market research” or “focus groups.” Easily the worst mix of all the songs WLW has posted to date, but since I know many within Popdose’s audience are collectors like we are, I thought it selfish to keep this one to myself. Now go check out a then-23-year-old Tracey Ullman in a long skirt and knee socks. There is a Britney Spears-unattractive stripper joke in there somewhere, but for once, we’re taking the high road.

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Tracey Ullman – Breakaway (Extended Version)