Friday, August 18, 2006

Tracey Ullman: Behind the Music

In what is apparently an attempt by my subconscious to squelch any last remaining claim to maleness on my part, I've decided to blog about the music career of Tracey Ullman. Not her lengthy career as brilliant comic actress and writer, but a much more ephemeral stint as pop singer which apparently lasted all of two years but managed to produce more obscure singles than I can count. I came across Tracey's first album in a record store in Kansas City. How, I can't quite recall- I'd never spent much time in the pop/rock section, and I'm only slightly more familiar now- but there it was, and Trace was looking, well, adorable. I'd seen a VH1 bit on her brief career, with some footage of her performing, and this seemed like such an odd, neat thing that I had to have it, cheesy hearts on the back cover and all. Hence the affair began.

Tracey was already known as a comedian before starting her song career, and she apparently happened into it as a lark. (I think every celebrity in Britain who displays any singing talent must release at least one pop album by law. Not doing so is an offence punishable by not being invited on the chat shows quite as often.) With help from a number of industry veterans, most notably Croydon goddess Kirsty Maccoll, Tracey released her first album, "You Broke My Heart in 17 Places", and it was a hit. She also charted with several singles, by far the most successful being "They Don't Know", a cover of one of Maccoll's songs that hadn't quite broken out the first time around. (Interestingly, the B-side to that single was simply "The B-Side", a spoken comedy bit with Tracey doing the voices of several studio musicians, and which is quite funny.)

Tracey's style was almost purely retro, an homage to 60's girl groups. Most of her songs were covers from this era (or, like "They Don't Know", tributes thereto)- for a time I was under the impression that her career had been all covers, but it turns out there are a few originals here and there, at least two ("Candy" and "Thinking of Running Away") with lyrics by Tracey herself. Some of the more offbeat covers included "I Know What Boys Like" and "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear", but her high, sweet little voice and the solid 80s-pop production lends every number a bouncy, sugary quality. It's pure bubblegum, and by those standards excellent.

To digress personally, I've always found Tracey's music a perfect mood-lifter. I don't know if it's her own charisma or the Motown-esque beats backing her, but I find it nigh-impossible to resist singing along and pounding my fist in the air during "Helpless" or "I Don't Want Our Loving To Die." I've also grown intensely found of "You Caught Me Out" (a rare original) and the ethereal "If I Had You." At this point it's obvious that I need to sign up for gender reassignment therapy, or maybe just watch a few Bond films to raise my testosterone levels. It would be cheaper.

Anyway, "You Broke My Heart..." came out in 1983, and in 1984 Tracey's follow-up record, "You Caught Me Out", was released. It didn't do nearly as well, with a couple of singles charting but nothing spectacular. Granted, I don't think the evidence indicates it was a bomb, either, and I suspect Tracey could easily have pressed forward, but she decided comedy was her true calling and soon moved to America to continue her career. Somehow, as a byproduct of this, the Simpsons were born.

Tracey's original albums are hard to find on CD, but her music has been released in several compilations, each one with a slightly different song list. I have no clue exactly how many songs she did, and haven't taken the time to count- there are seemingly endless obscure b-sides and singles floating around out there, an impressive output for so short a career. In America, the two discs to look for are "The Best of Tracey Ullman" with the above cover artwork, and "Tracey Ullman Takes On The Hits", a more recent CD. In the UK you can find "The Best Of... Tracey Ullman", a compilation by Stiff records, her original label, as well as CDs of her albums (including the 1985 best-of release "Forever"). You can also get her two albums on CD in Japan, apparently.

To conclude on another personal note, Tracey was pretty much my gateway to non-soundtrack music. At the time I picked it up, I had a few Cat Stevens albums, and had heard They Might Be Giants and Weird Al Yankovic, and that was practically it. But I listened to this, and was entertained. On an AOL board I frequented, I noted that I'd picked up Tracey's album, and a fellow poster recommended Kirsty Maccoll to me. I obliged, and slowly gained a larger appreciation of this thing called "popular" music as well as the whole "album" format. So I've got Ms. Ullman to thank for my not being completely hopeless when it comes to knowing Kylie from Madonna, the Beatles from Pink Floyd, and Devo from... whomever I could possibly mistake for Devo. And I heartily recommend her distinct brand of pop to anyone with a sweet tooth.

[Thanks to Totally Tracey Online for additional research info, and the Tralfaz Archives for the album cover image.]


Moviezzz said...

I alwyas liked "THEY DON'T KNOW ABOUT US" when it was a single, long before I knew her as a comedienne. The video was very funny, with a cameo by Paul McCartney. It is shown quite a bit on VH1 Classics still.

Oh great, now I'm going to be singing the song all day.

Evan Waters said...

Congratulations, you're the first comment on this blog ever!

I actually caught "Move Over Darling" on VH1 Classics once. That was cool too. Too bad I don't get digital cable in my apartment.