I’d say there are four things that Tracey Ullman is known for here in the UK:
- Being a very funny comedian;
- Having a very busy 1980s where, in reverse order, she had her own TV show in the States in the late 80s which gave birth to The Simpsons;
- Appearing in Three of a Kind, a sketch show in the UK in the mid-80s, in which she starred with Lenny Henry an David Copperfield (not that one);
- Having a brief but wonderful pop career in the early 80s, which included 3 Top 10 and a further 2 Top 40 hits in the UK.
It is of course the pop career we’ll be looking at this morning. And just in case you’re already turning your nose up and thinking “novelty hits” well…you’d be partly right, for all of her hits were cover versions.
But these were novelty hits with some artistic weight behind them, for they were released on the legendary Stiff Records label, home at some point or another to such luminaries as Nick Lowe, The Damned, Lene Lovich, Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Devo, Madness, The Pogues, The Belle Stars, and, most importantly, Kirsty MacColl.
MacColl actually wrote the title track for Ullman’s debut album, You Broke My Heart in 17 Places:
I mean, it’s got early Kirsty written all over it, hasn’t it?
The first of her hits was a cover of an old Irma Thomas tune, written by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley, and was probably the least well-known as a cover when it was released in March 1983, peaking at #4 in the UK charts:
And, in case you’re as unfamiliar with the original version as I was when Ullman’s version came out, here you go:
I have two things to say about that; firstly, when she first released that, it was called Break-A-Way rather than Breakaway; and secondly, if you’re of a similar vintage to me, and if your brain is wired the same way as mine (and heaven help you if it is) then you too will have seen the word Breakaway and immediately thought of this, and are now feeling a bit peckish:
But I digress.
You may have noticed a recurring theme when looking at Ullman’s album and single sleeve; Ullman dressing up in various guises. This is something which she carried over into her videos; here she is in the Breakaway promo, where, when not dressed as a go-go dancer with an array of beehive hair-do’s, she demonstrates the art of singing into a hairbrush:
This is entirely in keeping with Ullman’s background, for truth be told she very much stumbled into her pop career: “One day, I was at my hairdresser,” she once recalled, “and Dave Robinson’s [head of Stiff Records] wife Rosemary leant over and said, ‘Do you want to make a record?’… I went, ‘Yeah I want to make a record.’ I would have tried anything.”
Before she embarked upon her brief life as a popstar, she had won a full scholarship to the Italia Conti Academy at the age of twelve, attended a dance audition at sixteen, which resulted in her landing a contract with a German ballet company for a revival of Gigi in Berlin, then joined Second Generation dance troupe on her return to the UK, before branching out into musical theatre where she was cast in numerous West End musicals, such as Grease, and The Rocky Horror Show.
Now, if you thought having written the title track of Ullman’s first album, that Kirsty McColl’s work here was done, then you’d be very much mistaken, for the second single was a cover of Kirsty’s ruddy marvellous They Don’t Know, which reached #2 in the UK charts in September 1983.
Rumour has it that Ullman was unable to hit the high “Baby!” after the instrumental break, so Kirsty had to do it. It certainly sounds like her…:
And of course, I cannot resist also posting Kirsty’s version:
Probably one of my favourite records ever, that. It’s certainly in the Top 10.
The video for Ullman’s version not only gave her further opportunity to dress up and show both her acting and dancing chops, it started a trend which she continued through her next few singles: the celebrity guest appearance.
Wait for it…..:
Single number three from the album was a cover of Doris Day’s Move Over Darling; released in December 1983, it peaked at #8 in the UK:
Here’s the original, for completeness’ sake:
There were more guest appearances in Ullman’s video:
I should end this here, but the next single from the follow-up album You Caught Me Out is worth mentioning. Not because it was her final Top 20 hit (it wasn’t – it peaked at #23; the next single Sunglasses got to #18 and that was the last time Ullman bothered the Top 40)…
…not because it was yet another cover version (which it was, albeit with a gender swap in the title)…
…but because this time the video contained the most infamous of cameos:
Yes, that really is then-Leader of the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, hamming it up.
It’s hard to imagine reliably-dull Kier Starmer doing anything so glamourous…