Jan 302015

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Kirsty MacColl was still in her teens when she wrote and recorded “They Don’t Know.” It should have been a major smash, and in a way it was, peaking at #2 on a UK airplay chart; unfortunately, her distributor picked a horrible time to go on strike, which meant the single never got released, which meant it never placed on the sales-based UK Singles Charts. It took Tracey Ullman’s near-soundalike cover four years later to bring the song into the top ten where it belonged. Kirsty helped out with the backing vocals (that’s her a cappella “BAY-ee-BEE-ee!”), and she never resented Tracey for coming up with the brass ring that in a perfect world would have been hers; instead, she said things like “I don’t mind a bit of reflected glory” and “I’m grateful for (her) paying the rent.”

On MacColl’s website, the song has not one but two pages devoted to covers of “They Don’t Know.” Here are five of them…

Andrea Corr – They Don’t Know (Kirsty MacColl cover)

With the Corrs on hiatus, their lead singer has stretched her wings a bit, moving away from the traditional folk sound and doing more popular fare. Her version of “They Don’t Know” appeared on 2011’s Lifelines, an all-cover album with very diverse original artists – were Daniel Johnston and Vangelis ever paired up before? – and Corr’s lovely voice helped it stand out.

The Sweptaways – They Don’t Know (Kirsty MacColl cover)

The Sweptaways have been “keeping singing ladies off the streets since 2003,” to quote their Facebook page; they’re thirty-some-odd Swedish women singing songs arranged choir style, and they give off the vibe of the Polyphonic Spree going to about five and a half. Usually an a capella group, here they recruit Swede popster Anders Wendin, a.k.a. Moneybrother, to mix a little campfire into their “They Don’t Know.”

Graham Alexander – They Don’t Know (Kirsty MacColl cover)

From Here Comes the Reign Again (which you may remember us naming one of the best cover albums of 2014) comes this version of “They Don’t Know.” Graham Alexander not only slows it down, he sees fit to alter the lyrics – not just pronoun changes, but with the sensitive singer-songwriter recovering from being hurt. It’s a curious change, but it doesn’t harm the song at all.

Katrina Leskanich- They Don’t Know (Kirsty MacColl cover)

Katrina Leskanich will always be best known for “Walking on Sunshine,” but she doesn’t need to belt it out to bring the feeling. Her acoustic version of “They Don’t Know” pulls off the remarkable trick of piercing even as it caresses.

Gigolo Aunts – They Don’t Know (Kirsty MacColl cover)

The Gigolo Aunts apply their power pop sound to “They Don’t Know.” It’s amazing what some fuzzy jangling guitar and a few handclaps can do; the song really comes to life in their hands, turning from a winsome statement of fact to a rockin’ assertion of self.

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  3 Responses to “Five Good Covers: They Don’t Know (Kirsty MacColl)”

Comments (3)
  1. One more version of this song I like a lot is on the new Lydia Loveless album Somewhere Else

  2. English/Argentinian band Keshco did a choppy punk interpretation of ‘They Don’t Know’, for their Now That’s What I Call Keshco project tackling all of the original 1983 compilation.

  3. This song belongs in the rare category of being virtually ‘bombproof’. It 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 was all she ever wrote, then her legacy is assured. It deserves to be. And the lyric…..” ‘Cos they don’t know about us, and they’ve never heard of love”…..these 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 instantly 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, it’s ours only, so it can’t truly be understood by outsiders, particularly in matters of the heart. Sheer genius, Kirsty. RIP.

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