They Don't Know (Kirsty MacColl song)

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"They Don't Know"
Kirsty MacColl They Dont Know.jpg
Single by Kirsty MacColl
B-side"Motor On"
Released1 June 1979 (1979-06-01)
LabelStiff Records
Songwriter(s)Kirsty MacColl
Producer(s)Liam Sternberg
Kirsty MacColl singles chronology
"They Don't Know"
"Keep Your Hands Off My Baby"

"They Don't Know" is a song composed and first recorded in 1979 by Kirsty MacColl, which became a Top Ten hit via a 1983 recording by Tracey Ullman.

Original version[edit]

Composition and release[edit]

Kirsty MacColl on the genesis of "They Don't Know"
When I was with the R&B outfit Drug Addix, Stiff Records paid for some demo s to be done with the band, but they didn’t really like them. When they heard that I'd eventually left [Drug Addix] they called me & said: "We'd like you to come & play us anything you’ve got." I said: "I thought you didn't like the demos", and they said: "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 gutar. They liked it & signed me.[1]

Recorded in Stiff Records mobile studio the China Shop in the spring of 1979, Kirsty MacColl's original recording of "They Don't Know" "emphasized layered harmonies in which MacColl turns her own voice into a chorus of over-dubbed parts"[2] - an evocation of a long-standing admiration for the Beach Boys engendered at age 7 by hearing her brother's copy of the "Good Vibrations" single (MacColl quote:" I played it so much he just said: 'have it'...I played it incessantly for about twelve hours a day, working out all the different parts and harmonies.").[3] Besides the regular vinyl single release of 1 June 1979 a picture disc edition was issued 6 July 1979. The B-side to "They Don't Know" was MacColl's recording of her composition "Turn My Motor On" - some copies read "Motor On" - , a setlist staple of Drug Addix, the band MacColl had recently left (consideration had been given to making "Turn My Motor On" the A-side).[1]

MacColl's "They Don't Know" reached number two on the Music Week airplay chart[4] without generating sufficient sales to reach the UK Singles Chart - a shortfall blamed on a strike at the distributors for Stiff Records keeping the single out of stores, although its producer Liam Sternberg attributes the failure of "They Don't Know" to ill feeling which developed between MacColl and Stiff Records president Dave Robinson: (Sternberg quote:) "Kirsty and Dave didn’t get along...She didn’t want to sign a longer deal, so Dave didn’t promote the record. [Despite] airplay...they didn’t press any more [so] no records [were] sold because there were no records out there."[1] Promo copies of a followup single: "You Caught Me Out", were pressed in October 1979 but Stiff opted to shelve the single, with MacColl's first release subsequent to "They Don't Know" being her remake of "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby" released in 1981 on Polydor.

MacColl's version of "They Don't Know" would not make its album debut until 1995 on the singer's retrospective album Galore[5].

Track listing[edit]

  1. They Don't Know (K. MacColl)
  2. [Turn My] Motor On (K. MacColl)[6]

Tracey Ullman version[edit]


Ken Tucker (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
on Tracey Ullman's "They Don't Know"
Ullman's rendition...makes [the song] palatable to American audiences by [replacing] McColl's fervent intensity with a bouncy cheerfulness & layers of...synthesizers...It's a cheerful throwback to the innocent hits of 1960s girl-group rock.[7]
Tracey Ullman in 2016 on the #2 UK chart peak of "They Don't Know"
I wish I'd got to #1 - but "Karma Chameleon" [by Culture Club] hung on... When Kid Jensen announced [on Top of the Pops] I still hadn’t made #1, I was really pissed off. I mean, I wore that pink lurex miniskirt for weeks, with all the dry ice on flipping Top of the Pops, & I still didn’t make it. It still hurts.[8]
"They Don't Know"
They Don't Know single.jpg
Single by Tracey Ullman
from the album You Broke My Heart in 17 Places
  • The B-Side (UK)
  • "You Broke My Heart in 17 Places" (US)
Released9 September 1983 (1983-09-09) [9]
Format7-inch and 12-inch singles
Songwriter(s)Kirsty MacColl
Producer(s)Peter Collins
Tracey Ullman singles chronology
"They Don't Know"
"Move Over Darling"
Audio sample
"They Don't Know"

In October of 1983 Tracey Ullman reached number two on the UK Singles Chart with her recording of "They Don't Know" for Stiff Records: the track would be included on Ullman's debut album You Broke My Heart in 17 Places.

Well known in the UK as an actress/ comedienne, Ullman had had a surprise Top Ten hit with her debut single "Breakaway": Pete Waterman, whose Loose End Productions had recently provided Stiff with the Belle Stars hit singles, suggested to his friend Kirsty MacColl that she pitch her composition "They Don't Know" for Ullman to record as a her second single.[10]

The production of Ullman's "They Don't Know" was credited to Peter Collins, Waterman's Loose Ends partner: Waterman himself would hone the track, including having MacColl and Rosemary Robinson - the latter the wife of Stiff Records president Dave Robinson - (Pete Waterman quote:)"add Shangri-La-type backing vocals", and having MacColl reprise her original "bay-ay-be-ee" to intro the third verse (as Ullman had a limited high-end range).[11]

Held off from the number one position on the UK singles charts dated the 15th and 22nd of October 1983 by "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club - the eventual number one single for the year, then in the fourth and fifth week of its six week number one tenure - , "They Don't Know" would be ranked at number 23 on the year-end tally of UK chart singles, and would afford Ullman a number one hit in Ireland for two weeks, also spending nine weeks at number one in Norway.

MTV-cofounder Robert Pittman saw the video made to promote Ullman's "They Don't Know" (see section 3.3 below) and, despite Ullman having nil exposure in the US, Pittman invited her to be a guest MTV VJ for the week of February 13-18 1984 with a resultant positive response which caused MCA Records to rush-release "They Don't Know" as Ullman's debut US single,[12] which eventually reached number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 11 on the Adult Contemporary.

"They Don't Know" would be Ullman's only Top 40 hit in the US: although she would have three more entries in the UK Top 30 - including the Top Ten hit "Move Over Darling" - Ullman would in a 2017 Guardian interview answer the question: "If you could edit your past, what would you change?" by saying: "I would have stopped making records after 'They Don’t Know'."[13]

In 1997, "They Don't Know" became the theme song for the final three seasons of Ullman's HBO television series Tracey Takes On.... The Ullman version was also used as the theme for the opening credits of Our Nixon, a 2013 documentary about U.S. President Richard Nixon.[14]

Comparison with Kirsty MacColl original version[edit]

Although it has been alleged that Ullman's version of "They Don't Know" utilizes the backing track of the Kirsty MacColl original version, Ullman's recording - produced by Peter Collins - was in fact brand-new in all respects, noticeably differing from MacColl's recording (produced by Liam Sternberg by being in a different key, and featuring a slightly faster tempo, a distinctly different arrangement and a guitar solo that differs substantially from the one played on MacColl's version, which was. The confusion may stem from the fact that Ullman did use a previously-existing MacColl backing track when recording her own version of MacColl's "Terry" in 1984. (Both versions of "Terry" were co-produced by MacColl.)


A video was filmed to promote Ullman's version of "They Don't Know" in which Paul McCartney, then filming Give My Regards to Broad Street in which Ullman had a cameo role, appeared as himself. Directed by Stiff Records president Dave Robinson, the video for "They Don't Know" had a storyline devised by Ullman herself showing the song's "protagonist's bittersweet fidelity to a once idyllic love...sustained only by her fantasy life with Paul McCartney [concluding] with a pregnant Ullman grocery shopping and dance-dragging her pom-pom scuff slippers along with a resigned bravado."[12]


Chart (1983–1984) Peak
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[15] 6
Canada Top Singles (RPM)[16] 5
Canada Adult Contemporary (RPM)[17] 9
Germany (Official German Charts)[18] 35
Ireland (IRMA)[19] 1
Netherlands (Dutch Top 40)[20] 8
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[21] 10
New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)[22] 15
Norway (VG-lista)[23] 1
UK Singles (Official Charts Company)[24] 2
US Billboard Hot 100[25] 8

Other cover versions[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Balls, Richard (2014). Be Stiff: the Stiff Records story. London: Soundcheck Books. p. 178-180. ISBN 978-0-9575700-6-1.
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Gajarsky, Bob (27 February 1995), REVIEW: Kirsty MacColl, Galore (I.R.S.), Consumable on line, archived from the original on 30 June 2012, retrieved 4 February 2011
  5. ^ "Galore - Kirsty MacColl". Retrieved 30 October 2014.
  6. ^ "They Don't Know 7" single - Kirsty MacColl". Retrieved 30 October 2014.
  7. ^ Ken Tucker "An era of eccentric female rock singers arrives" The Philadelphia Inquirer 6 May 1984 p. 4-M
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Waterman, Pete; Mathur, Paul (2000). I Wish I Was Me: the autobiography. London: Virgin Books. ISBN 9780753505731.
  12. ^ a b Billboard vol 96 #9 (March 3 1984) "Ullman Stages a One-Woman British Invasion" by Mary Anna Feczo p.38
  13. ^
  14. ^ Hachard, Thomas (17 March 2013). "Our Nixon". Slant Magazine. Retrieved 29 December 2013.
  15. ^ " – Tracey Ullman – They Don't Know" (in Dutch). Ultratop 50. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  16. ^ "Top RPM Singles: Issue 6730." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  17. ^ "Top RPM Adult Contemporary: Issue 6732." RPM. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  18. ^ " – Tracey Ullman – They Don't Know". GfK Entertainment Charts. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  19. ^ "The Irish Charts – Search Results – They Don't Know". Irish Singles Chart. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  20. ^ "Nederlandse Top 40 – week 44, 1983" (in Dutch). Dutch Top 40 Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  21. ^ " – Tracey Ullman – They Don't Know" (in Dutch). Single Top 100. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  22. ^ " – Tracey Ullman – They Don't Know". Top 40 Singles. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  23. ^ " – Tracey Ullman – They Don't Know". VG-lista. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  24. ^ "Official Singles Chart Top 100". Official Charts Company. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  25. ^ "Tracey Ullman Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved 28 March 2018.
  26. ^ Moss, Corey (31 January 2001). "Leslie Carter: It's Her Party". MTV. Retrieved 4 October 2018.
  27. ^
  28. ^ Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. Under the Covers, Volume 3 at AllMusic. Retrieved 4 October 2018.
  29. ^ Deming, Mark. Somewhere Else at AllMusic. Retrieved 4 October 2018.