Boys Forever, Geoff Palmer and Lucy Ellis, Karen Basset, Kirsty MacColl, Leslie Carter, Men of the North Country, Michael Carpenter, Moneybrother, Nailpin, So Cow, Subterfuge, They Don't Know, Tracey Ullman
The guitar harmonics intro to Kirsty MacColl’s original version of “They Don’t Know” is just so perfect, conjuring both the Phil Spector and British girl singer traditions. But ultimately it’s the strength of the songwriting that makes this song a classic and eminently coverable. As one internet commentator quipped, the track is ‘bombproof.’ After listening to a couple dozen versions I’d have to agree. Still, MacColl’s version remains definitive for me.
MacColl’s 1979 original was her recording debut and an immediate hit with British radio. But distribution problems with Stiff Records prevented the single from making the official charts. In fact, most fans would have to wait for MacColl’s 1995 album Galore to get their hands on it. In the interim comedian Tracey Ullman took the song to number 2 in the UK and number 8 in the US in 1983. Ullman cranked the sixties references in the tune to the max, turning it into an enjoyable bit of retro kitch. But as subsequent covers have made clear, “They Don’t Know” is not limited to a 1960s girl group register.
There are plenty of choices when it comes to covers of this song so my picks are obviously selective. Early covers by Gigolo Aunts and the Young Fresh Fellows are fine but not as pop rocky as I would prefer. Subterfuge’s 1988 low-key jangle-heavy version strips things back a little, letting the song’s bones show through. Leslie Carter’s 2001 take leans on the piano for the ornamentation and some strong girl group background vocals. The song’s popularity can also measured by the number of foreign language versions – of which there are many. Moneybrother’s 2006 Swedish version speeds up the tempo and gives the proceedings an aura of Springsteen at his most power pop. Belgians Nailpin sing in English but sharpen things up with a very poppy, slightly punk-infused version that bends the basic melody in interesting ways.
More recently indie versions of “They Don’t Know” have been piling up as MacColl’s songwriting skills and performance have gained greater appreciation and prominence. Big indie names like Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs added the song to Volume 3 of their Under the Covers series but, as far as duo versions go, I think I prefer Geoff Palmer and Lucy Ellis‘ version from their recent Your Face is Weird collaboration. Michael Carpenter gave the track a wonderful 1960s beat group treatment while Robyn Gibson lovingly recast the song as a great lost Peter and Gordon out-take on his critically acclaimed Volume One in his Bop of the Pops series.
Many artists have messed with the tempo and feel of the song, with both arresting and exciting results. Feather and Down slow things down with their spare, mostly acoustic performance, an effort that only amplifies the song’s aching melodic beauty. Lydia Loveless takes things in rebel country direction, Karen Basset goes garage rock, while both Boys Forever and So Cow work the DIY indie rock vibe in different ways. My most recent fave cover is from Men of the North Country with their great horns, trebly guitar and video with Kirsty hovering in the background.
Kirsty MacColl’s catalogue is full of great tunes, well worth exploring. But if she’d only written this one song she’d be in the karmic black for sure. More covers in the future are a certainty.