From my long-threatened book The Greatest Record Ever Made! (Volume 1). An infinite number of songs can each be THE greatest record ever made, as long as they take turns. Today, this is THE GREATEST RECORD EVER MADE!
TRACEY ULLMAN: They Don’t Know
Written by Kirsty MacColl
Produced by Peter Collins
Single, MCA Records, 1983
I moved from Brockport to Buffalo in August of 1982. The two years spent in Brockport after graduation had been…well, they certainly had been. Maybe I’ll write about all of that some day. I kept on listening to the radio, AM and FM. At the beginning of ’83, a new job required my own set of wheels, so my Dad arranged for me to get the 1969 Chevy Impala that had previously belonged to my grandfather. My first car. My first opportunity to drive with the radio on. Like Jonathan Richman: I got the AM radio on!
In the Impala, I was sometimes able to pick up a great AM hit station out of Toronto. More often, the Impala’s AM dial was locked on 14 Rock, a former Christian station that had recently converted to a pop format. It was my last gasp of trying to listen to AM Top 40, and it had its moments.
In late ’83, Tracey Ullman‘s “They Don’t Know” was one of the finer moments. I was not familiar with Kirsty MacColl‘s original British single, nor could I even figure out initially who was responsible for this splendid, irresistible confection emanating from my car’s speakers; note to DJs then and now: if you play it, SAY IT! Jeez, how can radio do its job of selling records if we don’t know the names of the records playing?
In that flashpoint of mystery, when the singer was still an anonymous discovery that would not reveal her secret identity, “They Don’t Know” filled my Impala as no other song could. It was the sound of the ’60s girl groups, of course, but its tacit nostalgia didn’t overwhelm its sense of immediacy, its importance as an AM Top 40 hit RIGHT NOW, or at least the “right now” of that very moment in 1983. Hearing it at home, when I could close my eyes and let the song play in my waking dreams (an approach best avoided when one is driving), it felt like 1965 again. And this time, I was old enough to appreciate it. It was 1983. Anything could happen in 1983.
I eventually ID’d the singer and the song. Tracey Ullman became far better known as an actress and comic performer, but she made her mark in music, too. She’s considered a one-hit wonder in America, but her British hit cover of Irma Thomas‘s “Breakaway” shoulda been a smash on these shores as well. Wish I coulda heard that on the radio, too.
I did hear “They Don’t Know.” I didn’t hear it often enough to suit me, but I heard it, and it mattered. Its cute MTV video, with the comic emphasis and the cameo by Paul McCartney, didn’t necessarily enhance the song, but it didn’t detract from it, either. As Ullman’s career progressed and her profile grew grander and more widespread, I wished her well from my humble sidelines, rooting for her as if she’d been an old friend. As I guess she had been, in a way. She was a voice on the radio. What better friend could one ask for?
(And if Tracey Ullman’s “They Don’t Know” really was my final big AM Top 40 song, then I went out in style. Radio up. Windows down. Let’s hit the road and drive.)
By Carl Cafarelli
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