Before becoming a global TV megastar, British comedian and actor Tracey Ullman enjoyed a brief but spectacular career as a pop starlet.
You Broke My Heart In 17 Places,
Stiff SEEZ 51,
Many years have passed since Tracey Ullman first found fame in the BBC series Three Of A Kind alongside Lenny Henry and David Copperfield. The fast-moving sketch show ran from 1981 to 1983 and made stars of all three of its young talented cast. After three series, Three Of A Kind finished and they each went their own individual and idiosyncratic ways. David Copperfield managed a brief career as a children’s comedian before becoming a staple of ‘where are they now?’ documentaries. Lenny Henry proved he could do a lot more than eat condensed milk sandwiches on Tiswas while impersonating David Bellamy, but the really shining megastar discovered during Three Of A Kind’s short ephemeral run was undoubtedly Tracey Ullman.
After Three Of A Kind ended Ullman appeared in Girls On Top, an ITV flat share sitcom which also gave early exposure to future comedy luminaries Ruby Wax, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, alongside veteran actress Joan Greenwood and her flea-bitten stuffed dog. Important for proving that women could actually be funny without the need to snog Bob Grant or pile on the pounds to play the role of a frumpy wife, Girls On Top was a significant moment in comedy. While it shared many similarities with the boys only sitcom The Young Ones, it was distinctive enough and original enough to prosper on its own merits.
Between series one and two of Girls On Top, Tracey Ullman was far from idle and resting on her many laurels. She appeared in films such as Plenty alongside Meryl Streep and Sir John Gielgud, and in Paul McCartney’s musical oddity Give My Regards to Broad Street. She also found time to record two music albums and release a collection of infectiously catchy and popular hit singles. Little wonder that when it came to record the second series of Girls On Top, Tracey and her TV producer husband had already decamped to Hollywood to plan her next move in achieving global domination.
After a faltering start in the US, a show reel compilation tape sent to comedy producer James L Brooks was enough to earn Tracey her own eponymous prime time TV show. The Tracey Ullman Show premiered on Fox in 1987 and was an instant hit. Rarely off the screen since, Tracey’s American TV shows have been incredibly popular over the years, winning her seven Emmys in the process and granting the world its first brief crudely animated glimpse of The Simpsons. Tracey’s shows have not enjoyed a similar level of exposure in the UK though, and all but the most dedicated of Brits will have managed to keep track of everything Tracey Ullman has made in the US over the last thirty years. Americans are probably unaware of her achievements in the UK though, that is if they are even aware that there is a place called the UK.
Prior to her move to fame and fortune in America, Tracey Ullman made quite a reputation for herself as a recording artist. Her first single release was the lively bouncy pop froth of Breakaway in March of 1983. Written by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley as the b-side of Irma Thomas’s 1964 single Wish Someone Would Care, it immediately set the tone for all Tracey’s subsequent single and album releases. Nostalgic and exuberant, Breakaway is a pounding retro gallop that never lets up, like a Motown hit pumped full of mescaline. It justifiably opens Tracey’s debut album, an album which has many treasures equal to Breakaway to explore.
The collection of love songs that makes up You Broke My Heart In 17 Places are all rendered in Tracey’s distinctive high pitched tones, backed up by a host of keen electronic musicians and singers including Kirsty MacColl, The Flying Pickets and Clare Torry (famous for screeching and wailing like an over emotional walrus through Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky).
Few songs manage to match Breakaway’s blistering pace, if such a thing is even possible. The album slows down immediately for the second track, a cover of Chris Andrews’ Long Live Love which provided a memorable 1965 number one hit for the shoe eschewing Sandie Shaw. Side one continues with a leisurely stroll through Wayne Carson Thompson’s Shattered, and The Dells song Oh, What a Night before picking up noticeably for a breathless tongue twisting sprint on a version of Reunion’s Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me). Seemingly name checking every recording artist and record company of the previous three decades in a babbling three minute mini-epic, Tracey manages to cling on to the song with her sanity intact and finishes the job with credit.
Side two continues with yet more cheap frothy bubble-gum pop tunes, starting with Move Over Darling, a swirling great cuddle of a song and a great start to any 12 inches of vinyl. A cover of the Doris Day film track, Move Over Darling provided Tracey with a number eight hit over Christmas 1983.
Another hit from the album came in the form of They Don’t Know, released in September 1983. Amongst all the vintage tracks They Don’t Know does stand out as a cover of a much more recent song. Originally released as a single by singer songwriter Kirsty MacColl in 1979, a strike at the vinyl pressing plant put paid to Kirsty’s hopes of a chart entry and the record disappeared from view. Tracey Ullman’s version managed to make it to number two and remains her biggest chart success. With Kirsty MacColl providing backing vocals on Tracey’s version, the success second time round must have offered some consolation for her initial thwarted attempts to release it.
Elsewhere on side two, Tracey also trills across a bold drum led cover of Bobby’s Girl, originally recorded by Marcie Blane in 1962, and a cover of (I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence Dear by Blondie, another female led act that knew the value of vintage elegance and how best to bring class to a classic cover version. The title track You Broke My Heart In 17 Places reunites Tracey with Kirsty MacColl, who as well as writing the song also produced it for her friend.
The album You Broke My Heart In 17 Places is an affectionate pastiche, faithful to the enduring spirit of its many cover versions without ever being a straight copy. The modern arrangements and careful production imbues all the songs with a new energy and life. The LP is a homage to the joys of cheap poular music, to insubstantial love songs and the various agonies of romance. Whether the songs covered are from the 1950s, 60s or 70s, You Broke My Heart In 17 Places somehow evokes a stylish halcyon period of the early 60s, a time that may never have really existed. Oh and it’s a cracking record!
Tracey’s second album You Caught Me Out, released in 1984, contained more spirited cover versions and chart hits for her. Sadly, since then TV and film has dominated Tracey Ullman’s career and not pop music. The legacy is quite something though, who can fail to enjoy the vivacity and energy of that very first single Breakaway?