This is the 28th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
In 1978, English punk band The Drug Addix recorded an EP called “The Drug Addix Make A Record.” Executives at Stiff Records heard it and had some interest, but they were only interested in a deal for Drug Addix singer Mandy Doubt. Stiff invited her to record a single, which she did under her real name, Kirsty MacColl.
The single was 1979’s “They Don’t Know,” a song about misunderstood love inspired by ’60s girl groups and Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Because of a distributors’ strike, the single was never sold, and because the UK Singles chart was solely sales-based, “They Don’t Know” never charted.
But even though the single wasn’t sold, it became a huge radio hit, reaching Number 2 on the Music Week airplay chart.
Thematically, the song was not too different from Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To Be With You” in that both songs were odes to relationships that don’t seem that healthy. MacColl’s narrator, like Springfield’s, seems to stick around out of convenience or maybe obsession, rather than any noble reason:
You’ve been around for such a long time now
Oh, maybe I could leave you but I don’t know how
And why should I be lonely every night
When I can be with you, oh yes you make it right
And I don’t listen to the guys who say
That you’re bad for me and I should turn you away
‘Cos they don’t know about us
And they’ve never heard of love
I get a feeling when I look at you
Wherever you go now, I wanna be there too
They say we’re crazy but I just don’t care
And if they keep on talking still they get nowhere
These folks MacColl references have maybe never heard of love, but I’m not convinced her narrator has, either. Young kids, amirite?
Four years later, English actress and comedian Tracey Ullman recorded “They Don’t Know” as her second UK single (the first was her cover of “Breakaway,” originally recorded by Irma Thomas in the ’60s.) MacColl sang back-up in Ullman’s version, including the signature “baaaaaaby” in the middle. This version, like the original “They Don’t Know,” was on Stiff Records.
Ullman’s version reached Number 2 in the UK, and when it was released in the United States the following year, it peaked at Number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Ullman was well established in the UK when her “They Don’t Know” was released, but she was unknown in America. What probably helped sell the song there was the video, which featured a cameo by Paul McCartney, in whose movie “Give My Regards to Broad Street” Ullman had a minor role. The premise of the video recasts the song as the story of a bored woman (Ullman) daydreaming about McCartney. In that scenario, the lyrics of “They Don’t Know” no longer detail a creepy relationship so much as an escape fantasy.
Though Ullman’s version was arranged similarly to MacColl’s, Ullman’s version had the fuller sound more reminiscent of the ’60s girls groups that had inspired MacColl in the first place. MacColl’s involvement in the track signified a continuity between the versions. That arrangement from the original has remained intact in most of the versions; the main differences among the versions has been genre and tone.
Gigolo Aunts turned “They Don’t Know” into a jangly power pop song for a compilation album in 1994. The song had the poppy feel of modern radio (think the Gin Blossoms), but without the whiny angst. The happy-go-lucky vocals indicated that in this version, the narrator had no qualms about the relationship about which he was singing.
Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service performed an acoustic version of “They Don’t Know” when he visited Seattle’s KEXP radio station in 2003. Gibbard’s gentle vocals, paired with the quiet guitar, gave the song a tenderness that wasn’t readily noticeable in MacColl’s or Ullman’s versions. Ullman’s version was funny if you interpret it as her singing to McCartney, but Gibbard’s vulnerable version was heartbreakingly sweet. He sang so earnestly that you want to root for the relationship, hoping that it’s not on the shaky ground that it probably is.
San Francisco synth band Pale’s version of “They Don’t Know” was a lo-fi but danceable tune in the vein of ’90s era Magnetic Fields (think “Long-Forgotten Fairytale,” “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” or “You And Me And The Moon.”) There’s so much going on in the background that you might have to listen a few times before you hear all of the layered nuances in there. Which, coincidentally, fits very well with a song about a relationship that isn’t what it appears to be at first blush.
Katrina Leskanich, of Katrina and the Waves, recorded a slowed-down acoustic version that drew on strings for a tender, melancholy sound. Leskanich’s beautiful vocals conveyed a sense of sadness, as if the narrator in her version knew she was lying to herself about this relationship.
Swedish singer Anders Wendin teamed with The Sweptaways to record a not-quite a capella version that sounded like a group singalong that broke out at the beach or at a bonfire. By the end of the track, Wendin sounded like he was channelling Bruce Springsteen circa 1984. Just close your eyes and listen, but you have to wait to the end. You’ll seriously think it was a B-side to “Glory Days” and wonder why Clarence Clemons never chimed in with some mean horns.
Wendin, who records under the moniker Moneybrother, released a version in Swedish, called “Dom Vet Ingenting Om Oss.” It was faster than the version Wendin recorded with the Sweptaways, including more instrumentation, including piano and a sweet, sweet saxophone.
Belgian band Nailpin’s 2007 cover of “They Don’t Know” updated the arrangement of the original to include pop-punk and powerpop flourishes. It’s catchy, to be sure, and you might find yourself bobbing your head to it. But it doesn’t have the emotion or character that defined MacColl’s or Ullman’s versions, and if you watch the video, you might be inclined to root against the overtly enthusiastic narrator.
Kim Wilde, whose “Kids In America” we reviewed last week, covered “They Don’t Know” for her 2011 covers album, “Snapshots.” Like many of Wilde’s modern releases, it sounded pretty gentle compared to “Kids In America” or “Keep Me Hangin’ On,” but “They Don’t Know” demonstrated her vocal capacity better than those songs did. The backing track, an electronic take on the familiar arrangement, may have had too much aural clutter to it, but damn, that drumbeat will make you bop your head.
Andrea Corr, who performed with her siblings as part of The Corrs and whose sister Sharon recorded a version of “Smalltown Boy,” recorded “They Don’t Know” on her 2011 album “Lifelines.” Corr’s “They Don’t Know” had the signature elements of The Corrs: country-friendly choruses that would sound twangy if not for a subtle Irish lilt, poppy but not crunchy guitars, and subtle woodwinds that refer back to the Corrs’ family’s Irish heritage.
Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs released a series of covers albums called “Under the Covers.” The third volume contained a “They Don’t Know” that sounded more reminiscent of Hoffs’ work with The Bangles than any of Sweet’s ’90s pop rock. Sweet’s influence on the track was barely noticeable, if at all. The song’s arrangement sounded pretty similar to Ullman’s, but it didn’t matter, because when you listen to Hoffs sing, your main focus is on her voice, and how you wish she would cover every song you have ever loved.
Country singer Lydia Loveless released a cover of “They Don’t Know” on her 2014 album “Somewhere Else.” Loveless’ version had some jangly guitar to it, but it was not overly produced, which is why it felt more like folk than what we currently know to be “country.” In other words, it felt more earthy, and did not at all resemble the polished twangy pop on CMT.
Singer-songwriter Graham Alexander’s cover of “They Don’t Know” appeared on the compilation “Here Comes the Reign Again: The Second British Invasion.” Alexander’s version, with a backing track that sounded reminiscent of Extreme’s “More Than Words,” reinterpreted the song by substantially changing the lyrics and tone of the song. In Alexander’s “They Don’t Know,” the heartbroken narrator sang, “You don’t care about us/You’ve never heard of love.”
When we looked at “It’s Raining Men,” we deemed the version with RuPaul and Martha Wash to be an alternate version, rather than a cover, because it was billed as The Weather Girls and RuPaul. Had it been billed as a RuPaul song, with Wash singing background only, then it would have been a cover.
Which is why Ullman’s version counts as a cover and not just an alternate version. MacColl, who wrote and first recorded the song, appeared on Ullman’s version, but only in a supporting, backing role. But because Ullman’s “They Don’t Know” was the first version that most of the world got to hear, it’s hard not to think of it as her song as much as MacColl’s. MacColl singing backup on Ullman’s version gave it a weight and authority that other covers might not have.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.
Thanks for the excellent summation. To me, each of your separate comments attests to one core truth – this song is so good that it is virtually ‘bombproof’ and will continue to be so in the hands of any half-decent singer. Its simplicity, message, hook, chorus and melody offer up great raw material for a variety of artists, so the tone, tempo and instrumentation applied to each version leads to a ‘new freshness’ being discovered each time it’s recorded. I honestly don’t dislike any version that I’ve heard, because regardless of my varied musical tastes, I still find any take on it to be interesting, listenable & insightful. Without wishing to over-analyse this tune, to me it carries a rare empathy within it which can’t fail to come through in the delivery, regardless of whose point-of-view is being emphasized…..to paraphrase a Velvet Underground song title, “I’ll be your mirror”. In other words, you find in this song whatever YOU are looking for, and that’s why it’s so special. It is damn well lyrically perfect, but more than that, it creates and sustains believable emotions, empathy & even tenderness. When you hear this in any 3 minute pop song , you feel something real and authentic, which is why this song is so good. Kirsty MacColl wrote many great songs, but to me, if this is all she wrote, then her legacy is assured. It deserves to be; many thanks….
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One more thing I forgot…..” ‘Cos they don’t know about us, and they’ve never heard of love” are the absolute clincher lines in this song, which elevate it to the level of sublime pop, in my opinion. Why? Because this couplet simply & ingeniously makes the listener recall the feeling they had when there really was a ‘me & you’ only and for a time at least, nobody else existed. To write about the essence of love is difficult for even the best poets (maybe it’s well nigh impossible), but these two lines eloquently remind us that each perspective we have is unique & can’t truly be understood by outsiders, particularly in matters of the heart.
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