In 1983, shortly after Paul Weller broke up The Jam and started The Style Council and released their first single, “Speak Like a Child,” along came a single by a young protege of his — literally twice over. Tracie Young was just 17 when she sent a demo to Weller in 1982 after seeing an ad in Smash Hits magazine looking for singers. Both Weller’s and Tracie’s songs were getting a good deal of airplay on Long Island’s big commercial alt-music station, WLIR, around the time I was graduating from college on the Island.
“The House That Jack Built,” in no way to be confused with the Aretha Franklin hit of the same name, was a bouncy, catchy, soul-pop tune driven by a sweet, pretty and passionate young voice. And it hinted at greater things to come.
The record was the first broadside from Respond Records, Weller’s new label, which the Modfather, a huge Northern soul fan, seemed to envision as a latter-day stable of acts a la Motown — the Sound of Young Britain, if you will. It was followed by several other singles from various artists and a killer compilation called “Love the Reason.” The highlights included a strong version of Sister Sledge’s “Mama Never Told Me” by Tracie with The Questions; and “She Is So,” a horn-and-percussion-driven bit of sweetness and fury by A Craze, fronted by Lucy Loquette, another pretty face with a fire beneath.
And the following year, there was a full-length Tracie album, “Far From the Hurting Kind,” which was even released here in the States (on A&M). It was a terribly ignored album in its time. But it built upon the sounds I had heard from her the previous year and cemented me as a fan (and, yes, I admit it, I had a tiny fan crush on her as well).
Unfortunately, aside from a couple more singles, that’s as far as her singing career went. Weller kind of lost interest in the label and it eventually disappeared. And occasionally over the years — such as those times I would pull out her album to play on my show at WPKN — I wondered what happened to her.
Well, jump ahead a quarter-century. Weller, one of the best songwriters in rock’n'roll history, still slogs on passionately 10 albums into his successful solo career. Tracie — true to her surname, looking much younger than 45 — is now a midday deejay at a radio station in Southend, Essex, and thanks to the magic of social media — I stumbled onto her MySpace page two years ago — and a groundswell of fans looking for her old material in digital form, we finally have a CD reissue of the album. Well, almost all of it, anyway, plus some other singles and two modern reworkings of old songs.
These days, I’m 49 but going on 26. Hearing this album made me feel even younger than that; it brought me back to the good parts of being 22, 23.
I’ll just get my one complaint out of the way now: subbing out the original version of my favorite song on the LP, “Souls on Fire,” for the 12-inch version, instead of perhaps including both. After all, both the 7 and 12 of “Give It Some Emotion” are included here.
I loved the original’s intro — a series of snare beats, then into the punchy instrumental and the chorus. The 12-incher here dilutes the initial impact of the song. But the flip is that there’s more of the song to love. The synth keyboards were unavoidable — after all, this was an R&B-influenced act in 1984 — but Tracie’s voice is ablaze, a perfect complement to the song’s uplifting message: Anything that your heart desires can be yours if your soul’s on fire. And it’s still a mantra this listener lives by all these years later. And as a bonus, the digital treatment allows one to fully appreciate Kevin Miller’s fierce, funky bass work.
The other change is disorienting at first (after all, you have the song sequence in your head a certain way for so long) but long overdue. Weller left her first two singles off the original LP; here, Young added the songs to the album mix.
Young placed “The House That Jack Built” in the leadoff spot (that’s a baseball term, Brits), not only giving her biggest hit the most prominent slot on the collection, but easily giving the disc a more rousing intro than the original Side-1, Track-1. “(I Love You) When You Sleep,” which Elvis Costello reworked for her after a chance meeting on a flight (it was originally “Joe Porterhouse,” from his “Goodbye Cruel World” album), is a sweet, appropriately dreamy song, but certainly not a starter. This was a much, much better way to start off the album.
“Give It Some Emotion,” her second A-side, is placed at what would have been Side 2, Track 1 of the LP. It’s another bouncy, poppy tune (written by A Craze’s Loquette and Chris Free), with a synthesized version of a Northern soul stomp beat running beneath.
The things you learn much later … The liner notes reveal the fury beneath the sweetness on the surface. Young didn’t like the way Weller sped up the vocals on “The House That Jack Built.” And while she really liked “Give It Some Emotion,” she absolutely hated the synthesized instrumental tracks Weller had laid down, and the two had a blazing argument in the studio — which ended with Tracie stalking off to the bathroom and slamming the door so hard she broke the knob, leaving her stuck in there for an hour.
Weller got his way at the time, but Young gets in her last word here. One of the bonus tracks is an acoustic guitar-and-sax version of the song from a radio session last year. Not only did she restore the swing feel she felt was missing from the original, she shows she can still sing, and give it plenty of emotion, in her mid-40s.
Same goes for the other contemporary radio track, a 2008 recording of “Nothing Happens Here but You.” The original is sweet and bouncy and poppy and all that, in a lazy summer way, and perhaps should have been a hit. And it was another huge bone of contention between Weller, who wanted to release it as a single; and Young, who hated the synth harmonica and, besides, wanted the title song to be the next single. (The compromise single was “Souls on Fire.”) The stripped-down 2008 version presents the song in an entirely different and enjoyable dimension, perhaps as much because of the maturity of her voice as the radical arrangement.
Anyway, as far as the rest of the original album goes, the songs that have stayed with me since early adulthood are still fond listens. “I Can’t Hold On ’til Summer,” a piano ballad, is as simple and beautiful yet forceful as it was back then. Another piano ballad, her take on The Style Council’s “Spring, Summer, Autumn,” is just as powerful in its own way. “What Did I Hear You Say” is a breezy oasis of tropical soul in the midst of an English landscape. And the title song, with a driving soul beat, definitely should have been a hit, or at least a single. The one song I wasn’t fond of from back then, “Moving Together,” a processed, mid-tempo synth-soul cut, still leaves me cold.
In addition to the two A-sides, the eight other bonus tracks are mostly a fun listen as well. Besides the two latter-day performances, there’s the version of “Mama Never Told Me,” as well as “Find It in Your Nature,” the uptempo B-side of her final singles in ’86 (“(When You) Call Me” in the UK, “We Should Be Together” in Germany); the processed, synthesized R&B musical bed can’t bury the impassioned vocal delivery. “Same Feelings Without the Emotion,” the B of “(I Love You) When You Sleep,” bounces along nicely despite all the synth, clearly drawing its heritage from Northern soul. The only clunker is “The Boy Hairdresser,” the flip of “Give It Some Emotion,” which has a bit of early-’80s Olivia Newton-John to it.
There are a lot of what-ifs that come with 20/20 hindsight, of course. What if Weller had stayed the course with Respond? He had a neat little lineup of acts on which to build — Tracie, The Questions, A Craze, the late Vaughn Toulouse of Department S fame — and a lot of talent and potential were left behind when the label dissipated.
What if Weller had decided to release “Far From the Hurting Kind” as a single instead of the weaker “Nothing Happens Here but You”? (In the liner notes, Tracie tells of Weller nixing the idea because he didn’t want her labeled as a “little soul girl.”) And what would have happened had Weller gone with organic instruments instead of the synthesizers so prevalent in that era? Several of these songs derived From Weller’s passion for Northern soul and would have flourished with organic instruments behind them.
In other words, the same things we ask ourselves as we get older: What if this or that had broken one way instead of the other?
Let’s face it — in my perfect world, “Far From the Hurting Kind” would have been a smash hit back then and Tracie Young would have been a big star. Tracie, like her fans, has moved on with her life, and I’m guessing that this experience has been a fun and (mostly) fond look back for her. But at the very least, though, I’m hoping she at least gets a degree of the recognition she should have received in the day, and maybe finds a new and perhaps younger audience. But for this fan, it was a wonderful visit with a lot of songs that still resonate, even at a much later, more mature (I think) time in my life.
If you have or know of an album that should be reviewed, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For disclosure’s sake: I bought this one.