There are two girls who both arrived out of the initial storm created by Punk, but who’s seemingly very different paths somehow crossed over via a chance meeting at the hairdressers, and the existence of Stiff Records.
On the face of it, the two seem to have very little in common; one was a slick stage-school trained TV star, and the other a solo singer previously called Mandy Doubt, but the similarities are everywhere. They were both born in 1959, both lived in unfashionable commuter satellites of London, Slough and Croydon respectively, and both grew up with absent fathers. One was to go on to have worldwide success in TV comedy, and one went on to craft and perform some of the most honest and original songs of the latter twentieth century.
In June 1979, Stiff records issued a song called “They Don’t Know”. It was the first single by a young artist called Kirsty MacColl. She wasn’t actually called Kirsty when they first encountered her though, she was called Mandy Doubt, and was the backing singer of a band of hopefuls called the Drug Addix. The band had been supporting Graham Parker and the Rumour, and a copy of their EP “The Drug Addix Make A Record” released on Chiswick, found its way onto Dave Robinson’s desk at Stiff.
Stiff turned down the band but after hearing Mandy’s voice, and finding out that this backing singer was also writing her own, unusual and bittersweet songs, they offered Mandy/Kirsty a solo deal.
In the sleeve notes on from Croydon to Cuba (EMI 2005) Kirsty explained Stiff’s response “We hate the band, but we quite like you’. When they asked if I had any songs, I said: ‘Oh yeah, loads!’, even though I didn’t at all. Then I thought: ‘Oh God, I’d better write something before I go in to see them.’ And that’s when I wrote They Don’t Know. I went round with a cassette, singing to an acoustic guitar. They liked it and signed me.”
So, “They Don’t Know” was all set to storm the singles charts; a great song, a great performance, heavy rotation on the radio, and….hells bells!!! a distributors strike which meant that the single didn’t even reach the shops, and consequently never made it into the charts.
By 1981, Tracey Ullman alongside Rik Mayall (as Kevin Turvey) and Robbie Coltrane, was appearing in BBC2’s flagship “alternative” comedy sketch show A Kick Up The Eighties. “One day, I was at my hairdresser, and Dave Robinson’s wife Rosemary leant over and said, ‘Do you want to make a record?’ I was having some of those Boy George kind of dreadlock things put in and I went, ‘Yeah I want to make a record.’ I would have tried anything.”
So Tracey joined the Stiff stable, and for her second release, decided to resurrect Kirsty’s first single, “I got obsessed with “They Don’t Know, I used to play it and play it and play it.”
Tracey changed the key, souped up the 60s references, and made a memorable video including a cameo appearance by Paul McCartney. Catchy, poppy and playful, it hit the UK Number 2 spot and US Billboard Number 8 in 1983. The record also included MacColl, who was back to her old job of providing the backing vocals, including the mid-song BAY-BEE. Ullman has since credited Kirsty for starting her along the path of her success in America, which she traces back to that single, “My entry to America was getting into the Billboard top 10 with Kirsty’s song – they got me over to be one of the first MTV veejays”.
By the late 1980s, Tracey wasn’t the only one to be appearing in the TV comedy schedule, Kirsty was chosen as the regular musical guest for another BBC “alternative” comedy sketch show, this time featuring French & Saunders. In 1985 Ullman also covered the MacColl written “Terry”, which had only peaked at number 82 when performed by the songwriter, and when Ullman released it, it peaked at 81! That’s also quite similar.
Different certainly, but both of these incredibly talented post punk girls were in the business making records and jokes which reflected their own experiences, of both pop culture and of being girls. Not shouty Slits girls (who we still love btw), but girls who were now no longer pandering to men, but who were writing songs and sketches packed with girl references, and doing it their own way. Between them, they took the girls night out to the mainstream, we could all relate to Tracey’s hairbrush as a microphone, and Kirsty’s downbeat and honest wordsmithery…. And after the dust had settled, these were exactly the kind of things that eventually paved the way for long term change and between them, Kirsty and Tracey were right there at the tip of the spear. Teamwork.