Tracie – (I Love You) When You Sleep
Building the perfect pop star from scratch has never been easy. Whether it’s some shady Svengali-type exploiting a precocious singing talent they’ve stumbled upon at a holiday camp karaoke competition or a talent agency intern sifting through thousands of desperate-to-please hopefuls who’ve answered an ad in the back pages of The Stage, there’s no fool-proof formula and even after hours, days, months and even years of careful planning, there’s absolutely no guarantee of success. If the great unwashed collectively shrug their shoulders with an unenthusiastic, “huh”, no amount of ‘positioning’, ‘impact dates’ or ‘buzz releases’ will turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse. These days, there’s obviously no shortage of outlets for aspiring musicians trying to find ‘their platform’ and an entire industry dedicated to finding potential recording artists has sprung up online, on TV via shows like The X-Factor and The Voice and through a network of non-televised, regional singing contests such as Live and Unsigned and Open Mic UK.
Me? I prefer the old-fashioned approach. I remember virtually every Smash Hits profile ever written contained a variation on the same story: ‘We’d been gigging around for years, getting nowhere, when we put an ad in Melody Maker to find our drum machine programmer and Keytar player and the rest is history’ – It was the 80s after all. Not only did these mythical ‘Want Ads’ appear to miraculously heal countless fractured groups, tantalisingly poised on the brink of stardom, or fill in the cracks left by the hasty exit of a disgruntled band member, they promised to magically transport any aspiring singer, Narnia-like, from everyday rags to music industry riches. Forget queuing for hours beside thousands of spotty oiks bleating, ‘It’s my dream,’ or wasting a whole weekend at bootcamp listening to an endless parade of pre-teens chiming in unison, ‘I’ve been working for this my whole life.” Back in the 80s getting your big break definitely seemed a lot simpler and everyone was just one stamped, self-addressed envelope away from stardom.
It was this approach, involving some crossed-fingered optimism and (many might argue) a degree of misplaced faith in the UK postal service, which was utilised by Tracie Young back in 1982 when she replied to an advert Paul Weller had placed in Smash Hits. Hoping to find a young, female soul singer to join the roster of acts at his newly launched Respond label, on hearing her demo tape Weller was instantly convinced Tracie was exactly what he’d been looking for. Thus, with Weller’s backing, Tracie’s introduction to The World of Pop was something more akin to Alice tumbling into Wonderland via that health and safety baiting rabbit-hole or Dorothy’s twister-assisted journey to Oz. It truly was a fairytale beginning to anyone’s pop career. Within weeks of the pair meeting, Tracie was on Top of the Pops singing backing vocals for The Jam as they performed their final single, Beat Surrender, and consequently she would be asked to supply vocals for Weller’s next project’s debut single, The Style Council’s Speak Like a Child. As a means of introducing his new signing, Weller’s plan was pretty flawless. Tracie’s debut proper, The House That Jack Built (written by label-mates, Scotland’s very own The Questions – an inevitable future Into the Popvoid subject themselves) was an instant hit, reaching no.9 on the UK singles chart in April 1983.
Tracie’s initial appeal (and USP) was her undeniable ‘girl-next-door’ charm, an innocence and unfiltered raw quality which made her completely relatable and sets her apart from the army of media-trained-within-an-inch-of-their-lives pop starlets currently being mass-produced at the Brits School these days. While much of the new breed exude an air of being only one ‘But I WANT a new pony’ screaming tantrum away from becoming Bonnie Langford’s Violet Elizabeth, Tracie looked like she wasn’t afraid to roll up her sleeves and graft her way through a few shifts at the local chippie to boost her pocket money. It’s something which is best exemplified by a story my older brother told me involving Tracie which took place at Stirling University around the time of the formation of The Style Council.
My brother’s friend was due to interview Weller for the campus radio station and as his girlfriend was also a big fan she asked to sit in on the recording. When Weller turned up, he had Tracie in tow and on entering the room they noticed she and the interviewer’s girlfriend were wearing exactly the same dress. Now, I reckon that if the same thing happened to Jessie J or Charli XCX there would have been a bit of a strop and someone would have had to go home and change, but Tracie just laughed it off and got on with it. Evidently, she was decidedly more Joanne and Susanne than Pixie and Ellie, and in my book, that’s no bad thing.
But as always, the public’s attention soon shifted and in the middle of 1984, distracted by the sparkly, shimmering delights of the seemingly far more exotic and mysterious Madonna, Sade and Hazell Dean (?), by the time Tracie released her fourth single, the sublime (I Love You) When You Sleep, her time inside the UK top 40 was well and truly over and even the addition of her surname (Young) to consequent releases couldn’t halt her inevitable commercial decline.
When You Sleep – which Elvis Costello reworked from his own song Joe Porterhouse, especially for Tracie – signalled a fairly dramatic change of pace. As her first ballad, it showcased Tracie at her most down-beat and understated. With less emphasis on the ‘rubbery’ synth sounds and the rather stark drum machines which dominate the production of most of the tracks on her debut, Far From the Hurting Kind, it stands as an album highlight and showcases some of the more soulful undertones present, but previously underexploited, in Tracie’s voice. The song has an uncomplicated, almost nursery rhyme simplicity but, with little more than a smattering of muted keyboard chords, delivers a refreshingly unsentimental and satisfying love song in the same vein as Kirsty MacColl’s They Don’t Know.
Perhaps Tracie’s story exists as nothing more than a cautionary tale, discouraging teenage girls from becoming pen pals with older ‘gentlemen’ with floppy hair and an unfortunate mod fetish, but for me it is proof that silk purses are somewhat overrated and I’d rather get my pop delivered by someone who’s not too proud to frequent Top Shop, someone who probably knows how to wrap up a decent portion of cod and chips and might just throw in a free pickled onion if you said you liked her new single.
Entered chart: 02/06/84
Chart peak: 59
Weeks on chart: 4
Who could sing this today and have a hit? – This has the same appeal as One Direction’s Little Things, so why not give it to the biggest boy band in the world for their next (and presumably) farewell album?