I first heard of Tracey Thorn via the 1982 sampler album Pillows And Prayers which featured tracks from seventeen artists signed to the independent label Cherry Red and retailed for an impressively affordable 99p. To the thirteen year old me this record was a thing of wonder, a door to an alternative universe of obscure arty pop groups and shadowy cult figures making music variously angular or noisy or occasionally unashamedly shambolic. Thorn managed to feature on there three times: once as part of lo-fi legends The Marine Girls (one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite groups), once with a track from her solo mini-album A Distant Shore, and once with her long-term partner Ben Watt as Everything But The Girl, the name under which she eventually found fame. She, alongside other notable cult acts on the album such as Felt and The Monochrome Set, was of the generation that was inspired to take up music by the initial wave of post-punk groups, for whom lack of technical expertise on an instrument was a positive virtue – Thorn was however in contrast a naturally talented singer and quickly mastered the arts of guitar-playing and songwriting to the extent that when Everything But The Girl’s first album appeared a couple of years later it tended to garner comparisons with Sade’s ultra-smooth and jazzy Diamond Life rather than anything by The Raincoats or The Au Pairs. EBTG’s subsequent career consisted of an interesting series of sideways moves into different styles: Smiths-like guitar-based indie, bombastic orchestra-enhanced torch songs, introspective balladry, FM radio friendly modern R & B, and eventually, after Ben Watt’s recovery from a life-threatening disorder of his immune system, the impeccable trip-hop crossover Missing which became a worldwide hit in 1994 at the very moment their record company dropped them.
Bedsit Disco Queen is Thorn’s account of her somewhat stop-start musical career and it’s a delight: witty, unpretentious and full of insight into the way the music industry expects recording artists to remain within certain clearly defined parameters. She starts by sketching vivid pictures of her first groups’ stumbling and self-conscious efforts at staking out a distinctive identity in the band scene around the anonymous commuter town she grew up in before describing the writing and release of the Marine Girls’ album Beach Party (a brilliant and disarmingly primitive sounding collection that was more or less recorded in a shed) and the awkward band dynamic that led to the rapid break-up of the group. The story then continues on to her teaming up with Ben Watt at Hull University and the first EBTG gigs and records, the thoughtful and sophisticated nature of which received much critical acclaim as well as support from such august figures as Paul Weller and Morrissey. Thorn presents her impressions of a 1980s that’s in stark contrast to the usual media shorthand of yuppies, shoulderpads and vacuous electro-pop – the music scene that EBTG moved through was politically savvy and almost painfully right-on, with every other concert being a benefit for a noble cause and the thought of appearing on Top Of The Pops being sneered at as a hopeless sell-out. She’s sharp enough to recognise the contradictions inherent in this stance and some of the later chapters detail her ambivalence about the compromises her career ends up confronting her with. Her enduring musical curiosity eventually led her to her group’s second wind of popularity in the nineties when she accepted the offer to work with Massive Attack, an unlikely collaboration that inspired a new direction for EBTG and ultimately their most successful album Walking Wounded – after this Thorn retreated from the frontline of the music business in order to raise her children, though she’s not completely retired as a couple of solo albums and an active presence on Twitter demonstrate. Throughout the book she’s funny and incisive, with a keen eye for the ludicrous (a trip to Florence is disrupted by a gang of teenagers who have mistaken her and Watt for Matt Bianco) and an awareness of her good fortune, even when her album sales start drying up. Her account of Watt’s illness is unsentimental but still pretty affecting, and her reasons for giving up live performance seem entirely sane. I’m not particularly a fan of Everything But The Girl but got through the book in a couple of sittings nonetheless – highly recommended for when you’re killing time before your next beach party.