Tracey Ullman

Stiff SEEZ-51, 1983
Issued in US as MCA/Stiff MCA-5471, 1983
Reissued (with bonus tracks) as Rhino R2 70292, 1992

Tracey Ullman, woman of a thousand voices and capable of a different look for each one, was never planning a career as a singer. Tossed out of drama school as a teenager, she took up dance, and wound up doing musicals in London's West End. She still considered herself basically a non-singer, though, and in the early Eighties, when Stiff Records offered her a chance to record, she decided to eschew the usual standards-and-torch-songs bit in favor of some bouncy girl-group pop tunes.

Reissue cover artWith that in mind, Ullman reported to the studio and turned out "Breakaway", a relatively-obscure Jackie DeShannon-Sharon Sheeley composition that is perhaps best known in its Irma Thomas version, issued as the B-side of "Wish Someone Would Care" in 1964. Sped up to a seemingly-impossible tempo and over with in a mere 2:36, "Breakaway", released in February 1983, shot up to #4 on the British charts. The follow-up was a cover of Kirsty MacColl's "They Don't Know"; MacColl's own recording had, er, stiffed, which didn't stop the composer from sitting in on the session and contributing backing vocals. Also lending a helping hand was Paul McCartney, with whom Ullman had worked on Give My Regards to Broad Street; he does not appear on the record, but did co-star in the video. "They Don't Know" made it to #2 that summer, and on the strength of the video, MCA agreed to issue the track Stateside, where it reached #8 in the spring of 1984.

The Kirsty MacColl connection continued. MacColl and keyboardist Gavin Povey, a latter-day Pretty Thing, produced "You Broke My Heart in 17 Places", written by MacColl, which became the title track of the LP. The other tracks ran the gamut of pop styles, from Chicago R&B ("Oh What a Night", the Dells classic) to spiky punkishness ("Presence Dear", from the Blondie catalogue) to American pre-Beatles pop (Marcie Blane's "Bobby's Girl"). Peter Collins produced most of those tracks, and Jools Holland's Wealthy Tarts were pressed into service as background vocalists. The effect was retro before retro was cool, and the album sold huge quantities in Britain and did tolerably well in the US. Tracey Ullman would have three more British chart singles — "Move Over Darling", from the Sixties Doris Day (!) film; "My Guy", a cover of an early ska track by Madness; and "Sunglasses," a little-known tune by John D. Loudermilk — before fading from the musical scene. In the US, MCA issued "Breakaway" as the follow-up single to "They Don't Know"; it stalled at #70.

But then, Tracey Ullman had other irons in the fire, including movies and a return to the stage, and in 1987, her legendary Fox TV series debuted, which kept her busy for the next three years. She has, she insists, no plans to return to music. Recently, she has been most visible in "Tracey Takes On...", a series she did for Home Box Office in which she got to play all manner of characters, just the way you always hoped she would. She's also turned up on Fox's Ally McBeal series, playing John Cage's (and, eventually, Ally's) eccentric (and occasionally, yes, singing) therapist. The Rhino reissue (pictured above, reusing the original cover art) includes some tracks from her second British album, You Caught Me Out, not issued in the US, and pertinent B-sides. It's definitely worth your attention.

Further exploration: A handy overview of all things Tracey can be had at a browser near you from TTO: Totally Tracey Online, by Roger Reini. If that's not enough, Andrew Mitchell offers The Tracey Ullman 'Go Home' Page for your browsing pleasure.

Track listing:

  • Breakaway (DeShannon-Sheeley)
  • They Don't Know (MacColl)
  • Bobby's Girl (Hoffman-Klein)
  • Oh, What a Night (Junior-Funches)
  • Move Over Darling (Lubin-Melcher)
  • I Close My Eyes and Count to Ten (Westlake)
  • Long Live Love (Andrews)
  • (I'm Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear (Valentine)
  • Shattered (Thompson)
  • You Broke My Heart in 17 Places (MacColl)
  • Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me) (Dolph)

CD bonus tracks:

  • You Caught Me Out (MacColl-Briquette-Crowe)
  • Baby I Lied (Allen-Bourke-Van Hoy)
  • Terry (MacColl-Povey)
  • Sunglasses (Loudermilk)
  • Helpless (Holland-Dozier-Holland)
  • My Guy (Barson)
  • Falling In and Out of Love (Kjeldsen-Snow)
  • I Don't Want Our Loving to Die (Howard-Blaikley)
  • Dancing in the Dark (Collins-Chapman)

Backing vocalists include:
The Flying Pickets
Kirsty MacColl
The Sapphires
The Wealthy Tarts
Clare Torry
Miriam Stockley

Produced by Peter Collins for Loose End Productions except as noted
"Bobby's Girl" produced by Steve O'Donnell for Malpas Productions
"You Broke My Heart in 17 Places" produced by Kirsty MacColl and Gavin Povey

Updated 23 August 2004

Site Meter | Back to the Music Room | E-mail to Chaz

Copyright © 1997-2004 by Charles G. Hill
Cover art © 1983 by Stiff Records