Monday, May 17, 2010

Comparative Literature: They Don't Know

One of the things I really like about this blog is its relative freedom--when compared to other music blogs--from hipster consciousness. We may bemusedly post things we think are kind of woeful, but we see them as part of a larger artistic field, and I don't think we ever put up anything we don't at least think of as interesting.

In my (professional) field, criticism isn't, yanno, critical, as such. It's revelatory, explanatory. We compare not to place things on a suck-doesn't suck continuum, but to think about how and why things are different.

And so I present a song I have long loved in two incarnations. The original, written by the incomparable, deeply mourned Kirsty MacColl, came out in that banner pop year: 1979 (which I will cheerfully place against 1965 or 1991 as one of those years in which pop hit critical mass and almost got *gasp!* popular). At the time, there was some difficulty with her distributor in England, and so the song, though it received a lot of airplay, did not sell well. The charts were based on sales, not airplay, and so it was not a "hit," officially.

From 1979, then, MacColl's "They Don't Know."



Fast forward a couple of years. Pop flourished and crashed: it's all about asymmetrical haircuts and synths by 1983. MTV is still leveling the rural-urban cool factor, in that it gave hix in the stix (like yours truly) access to music easily as cool as that available to our City Mouse cousins. And into this comes comedienne Tracey Ullmann (who has pretty much always been cool), translating MacColl's gem for the MTV generation. The video is charming (and features the first self-consciously ironic use of 70's fashion I recall--eat your heart out Urge Overkill!), the cameo by Macca a stunning surprise at the time (Ullmann has a cameo in his Give My Regards to Broad Street), and even paid homage to its original: that's MacColl singing the plaintive "Baybee!" in the middle.



No great point here, just two terrific versions of a terrific song.

19 comments:

agitpropre said...

Great tune, two wonderful singers. Nice little piece here: http://tinyurl.com/29rz7y8 - includes transcript from the 2002 Concert for Kirsty McColl - Ullman sang They Don't Know as part of the finale...

steve simels said...

I've never been able to decide which version of this I prefer, now that you mention it.

One of them sounds more innocent, but I haven't a clue which one it is.
:-)

Dave said...

I usually prefer McColl's versions t covers, but this song deserves to sound like an AM hit, best heard on a cruddy car radio. It's not so much the vocals as the production: McColl's is a great song; but Ullman's sounds like a great single.

Mister Pleasant said...

Absolutely one of my all time favorite pop songs. Kirsty of course gets beaucoups of points for writing it. That lilting verse melody weaves in and out of passing tones like a perfect piece of 18th century counterpoint. But Tracey's version sends it over the top with the tubular bells and more upfront vocal harmonies. Love 'em both dearly.

Padre Mickey said...

I think McColl's version is one of the most perfect pieces of pop every recorded.

Alex said...

Love 'em both.

But the Ullman version always reminds me that Paul McCartney used to have a sense of humor...

edward said...

I guess I ultimately have to go with Tracey's version simply because Kirsty created so many greater (unappreciated) pieces of pop.

Nonetheless, cheers to both.

TMink said...

First time for me to hear the original. I really like the somewhat angular harmony.

Trey

Ken J Xenozar said...

Just out of curiousity, has a male singer ever altered the lyric and tried this song? I am actually thinking it might sound good as an acoustic strip down with a scratchy voice.

Anonymous said...

What a great song. Tracey Ullman had the liberty of winking at us with the Phil Spectorish production, lush(er) vocals, but that just tells us how deeply she got what the song deserved. - AP

Dan said...

I echo the affection -- one of my favorite songs since I saw Ullman's version on MTV that year. I only recently learned about Kirsty MacColl (first via her version of Billy Bragg's "New England," which is another great 2-version-er that she took part in), and I couldn't believe she wrote THIS SONG! I think at this point I prefer the purity of Kirsty's which makes Ullman's completely fun & joyous version sound sliiiiiightly over-produced by comparison. Plus, I guess, in terms of external factors, Tracy's a teeny bit diminished by her becoming better known for other things than music, and Kirsty's enhanced by her tragic, heartbreaking, heroic death. But I'll listen to either one, any day. It's just a beautiful beautiful song, melody and lyrics.

Dan said...

Oh and thanks for that non-trivial piece of trivia: I never knew it was MacColl's "baybee" in the T.U. version!

Mike said...

Ken J Xenozar said...

Just out of curiousity, has a male singer ever altered the lyric and tried this song? I am actually thinking it might sound good as an acoustic strip down with a scratchy voice.


Scott McCaughey did it with Young Fresh Fellows on record in the late 90s, but hardly anybody heard it. I'll have to dig it up again to hear if he did switch the gender.

Ken J Xenozar said...

Mike,
I got to stand next to Scott during an opening band for Robin Hitchcock last year. Interesting, nice guy with a real love for power pop.
I would love to hear that

Peter said...

(Warning: shameless self-promotion alert)

If you can't get enough of the song (I know I can't), here's another post about it: http://auspowerpop.blogspot.com/2009/11/song-of-day-tracey-ullman-they-dont.html.

Enjoy!

res ipsa loquitur said...

I love this song and actually sang it in public once. Hopefully no one was videotaping.

Prefer the Ullman version myself.

(Hi, Mary!)

Mike said...

I've uploaded the YFF version of this song here. And while it can't compare to Kirsty and Tracy, I think it holds up pretty well on its own. YMMV, of course.

faze said...

Ullman wins the performance award. MacColl earns a place in songwriters' heaven for writing the greatest pop song of the 80s.

Ken J Xenozar said...

Mike, thanks. The YFF took it in a direction 180 degrees of what I was envisioning. Pretty entertaining. I was thinking more of a Subdudes version. Not that that makes any sense...