Tracey Ullman released “They Don’t Know” in September 1983 and peaked at #2 in the U.K. Singles Chart. The song charted at #8 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 1984. Taken from Ullman’s debut album, You Broke My Heart in 17 Places, the production on the single and the album was a retro fusion of 60s/70s pop with an 80s edge.
Ullman’s recording is actually a cover of singer/songrwriter Kirsty MacColl’s first single that was originally released in June 1979, however, due to a strike at her distributor’s, the record was prevented from shipping to shops, even though it reached #2 on Music Week Airplay Chart. MacColl sang backup vocals on Ullman’s recording of “They Don’t Know,” as well as the famous “Baby!” just before the final verse.
Some rumors have suggested that Ullman simply sang “They Don’t Know” over MacColl’s original backing track, but this is not true. According to the mix engineer, Phil Chapman, Ullman’s recording is a semi-tone up from MacColl’s original, and MacColl’s harmonies on the Ullman’s version are different. Chapman also stated that since it was habit to use a single loudspeaker to mix the song for radio, MacColl’s backing vocals are as prominent as Ullman’s. When Ullman recorded a cover of MacColl’s 1983 single “Terry,” she did, in fact, use MacColl’s original backing track for that recording.
Ullman charted six singles between 1983–1985 in the U.K. Singles Charts and recorded a second album, You Caught Me Out, before abandoning her music career and launching a successful television career in the U.S. MacColl went on to record several more well-received albums and score a few more hits before she was tragically killed while diving with her sons in Cozumel, Mexico. MacColl and her sons were surfacing when a speedboat owned by Mexican supermarket millionaire Guillermo González Nova entered the restricted diving area. MacColl pushed her son Jaimie out of the way and was killed instantly when the boat struck her. The boathand José Cen Yam stated that he was driving the boat, although witnesses disputed this. He was sentenced to two years and 10 months in prison and to pay $2,150 in restitution to MacColl’s family. It is speculated that Nova paid Yam to take the fall for the incident. As a result, MacColl’s family launched the Justice for Kirsty Campaign.
They Don’t Know 2’59
The music video captures Ullman’s personality, with a taste for dressing up in funny costumes and making funny faces. The first two-thirds of the video shows Ullman infatuated with a boy named Paul, and the last third of the video shows her grown, married, and dowdy, as she shops with a little girl in a grocery store. Paul is seen working there. He throws something in her shopping cat and pinches her behind. A final fantasy sequence shows Ullman cozied up to Paul McCartney in the car featured in the beginning of the video.
I have always loved this song. I like that bell at the beginning and throughout the song, and who doesn’t like the “BA-BY!” after the bridge. It’s a great song to sing along to, and I still get excited whenever I catch it on the radio or hear it in the grocery store.
What are your memories of “They Don’t Know” by Tracey Ullman?