on 25 February 2013
I loved this book from the very beginning to somewhere near the end, and it's impossible (I think) to read it and not fall in love a little bit with the author. Tracey Thorn's writing style is heavy with self-effacement and understatement, and she's a brilliant chronicler of the 70s/80s music scene, university life, relationships, the pop industry, writing songs, motherhood, and well, just about everything. It's impossible too, to finish a chapter and not start the next one immediately, such is the compelling nature of the prose and the story. So it comes as a bit of a blow when we reach 2006 and the story gets wound up in a few sentences, because Tracey actually wrote this book then, but dumped it in a box, unfinished, while she revived her dormant music career. I would really have appreciated a bit more of an encore, but if the motto of successful artists is always leave them wanting more, then she did, and I do.
on 17 July 2015
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.
on 11 September 2014
I think this is about as good as it gets as a memoir of life in and out of the music business. Tracey Thorn is blessed with a beautiful voice that in some ways meant that her decision to become a DIY musician, at a time when such things were both possible and looked up to, was likely to result in fairly rapid success. And indeed success did come at an amazingly young age. However, TT is a very articulate and intelligent feminist in what is very much a man's world and so, despite her success, she frequently felt herself compromised by how the "business" tried to portray her (stroppy, difficult, miserable, past it etc.). The constant changes in musical direction taken by her and Ben Watt also meant that together as Everything But The Girl they struggled to keep a large enough loyal fan base and eventually led to them being dropped by their label - just as Todd Terry's remix of "Missing" is released. "Missing" went on to massive worldwide success with sales over 3 million copies!
A constant thread thro' the book is the fickle nature of being a pop star. Her career was also interrupted by Ben Watt's almost fatal illness and slow recovery, a return to academic study (an MA in English), and motherhood.
Despite her obvious talents as a singer and lyricist (every chapter ends with the lyrics from one of her songs illustrating just how autobiographical is her song writing) her story as a whole is portrayed as unremarkable. This is primarily because TT is very good at managing to come across as a level headed and quite ordinary (in the best sense of this word) mother, partner and friend.
Of all the different threads herein, I most enjoyed her attempt at anonymity after the birth of twin girls and a son. She herself is unclear as to how successful this all was; were other parents at the school gates genuinely unaware of her past life as a 'pop' star? This uncertainty is hilariously blown apart by George Michael (I wont spoil it for you by giving away any more).
An easy, rewarding and insightful read.
on 1 February 2014
If you buy this book you probably know something of Tracy Thorn, lead singer of EBTG. I have to admit, I could only name one song of theirs and knew not much else, but good reviews attracted me to read this book. I'm glad I did. Initially Tracy comes over as what we in Scotland we would call a "nippy sweetie", a girl with attitude and aggression despite her looks and success. Although she is spiky, contrary and a bit of a tomboy, however, you warm to her.
She's standoffish in the first half of the book, admitting she pours her emotions into songs and holds them back everywhere else. This is most evident in her relationship with Ben, her other half in both the band and her life. If I was Ben, reading this book, I would be wondering if I'd even went out with her on a date, never mind having shared a bed and most of my life with her. This gets rectified in the second half of the book when Ben contracts a serious illness and Tracy is forced to care for him and assess their relationship, but even then it's almost with reluctance that she does so. She only really warms in her emotions when she becomes a mum. Her children open her heart more, like a flower blooming, but she then admits that this kind of happiness robs her of her muse.
Throughout the majority of the book, insecurity underpins so many paragraphs. She struggles with how to "be yourself" as an artist while she can't work out who "herself" actually is. To have to face this on stage and in public is a strain, but it's a universal struggle for everyone, isn't it? And that's the likeable thing about this book. As it progresses you feel that she's just like you and me and you grow to enjoy her company. Because the kind of people that will be attracted to this book, well, deep down, we're all bedsit disco queens, really.
I haven't really followed the career of Tracy's collaboration with her musical partner/husband Ben Watt particularly closely over the years but have heard great things about her autobiography and the fact that it was serialised on Radio 4 is always a good sign. It's very well-written as you'd expect a woman with a first-class degree in English Literature plus a Master's from the wonderful Birkbeck College and pretty informative throughout. I did find though that she dropped names of bands whom I've never heard of, although she's a fair bit older than me and as she's in the music biz I would expect that she'd have some insider info. It was the story of a talented middle-class girl and her musical soul mate making it in a ferociously difficult industry.
So, why on earth did I deem it 'smug' - well, although it was readable, I kept thinking that she wanted us all to know how important, intelligent and darn 'right on' she was and the name dropping got a bit much after a while. The epitome of this is when she encountered George Michael driving past in his Range Rover whilst she was picking up her kids from school (here's hoping that they kept out of his way in the circumstances...) and and a result all of the other parents then realised that she was famous. Hmm. Surely in moneyed postcodes such as Hampstead this is a fairly common occurrence and quite frankly, unless you're my age or older most people wouldn't recognise her anyway?
Saying that, this book was a great read and the chapters dealing with Ben Watts' almost fatal illness were beautifully crafted and underlined the love part of this story. There are also a whole load of song lyrics dotted throughout and as a result, I've been listening to the tracks again and she's an excellent songwriter, that's for sure.
on 7 September 2013
This page turner did not satisfy the inner man. Having gone through ten years of having a chronic illness where my musical tastes were defined by an inability to manage being in the same space as two chord thrash or industrial white noise, Tracey Thorn and EBTG were where I camped my ears in moozack. Not Enya and not ambient but a long way from garage punk and the adrenalin spit and mayhem of Tall Dwarves, The Clean and Bill Direen that had been my soundtrack of the early eighties. And even now 2013, listening to EBTG is not a hard ask. I was interested in this auto-bio because I had previously read Ben Watt's very courageous book on managing chronic illness and wondered about the creative and human relationship at the core of EBTG. Ms Thorn writes well and is mostly even handed in her insight. She is modest about her vocal range. However, her writing is not in Alan Bennett territory (as recommended by a reviewer on the cover). It is an enjoyable read and Ms Thorn comes across as likeable and able, more creative than she credits herself as being-her description of her interaction with Massive Attack is a highlight of working together/but passing by each other. The history of post punk feminist to disco diva, mum and solo artist lacks the bite the material seems to imply. Rare flashes of anger light the pages and as a reader I willed her to cut loose and put in a boot or two for emphasis. At heart of this book, and this makes it such a worthwhile work, is one half of a love story. As told here it is a fine achievement and shows both Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt as decent human beings existing through a world where to be so, is rare and a challenge that they achieve without over stating its accomplishment. One star missing is passion...
on 3 April 2013
This music autobiography strikes a different chord from most of the genre. Tracey starts from her comfortable middle class family background in anonymous suburbs north of London , becoming a keen music fan when punk started to break through . The naive formation and performances of the cult band The Marine Girls, with their first album recorded in a garden shed, then going off to Hull University and teaming up with Ben Watt, who became her long term musical & lifetime partner in Everything But The Girl. Getting off to a flying start with their debut album Eden, with many influential and enthusiastic musical friends,then through time somewhat losing their way and being buffeted around by different producers,and becoming frustrated and rather disenfranchised by the music business process. Having largely fallen out of favour and being largely overlooked , drifting rather aimlessly,good luck then shone on them with the Todd Terry remix of Missing becoming a bona fide world wide hit, something that had previously alluded them. The chance somewhat unlikely link up with hip trip hop band Massive Attack as an invited guest vocalist, the critical illness of her partner Ben Watt, then the start of a new solo career. Balancing the ambition of becoming a successful popular music performer, with the maternal instinct to have a family and develop a cosy domestic homelife is an interesting challenge. She also gets a First Class degree and goes on to complete a PhD, has a consistent feminist attitude , not bowing to the normal expectations of women in the music business, and has a nice line in self deprecating gentle humour. It reveals that much happened by chance, it is easy to get carried along in the flow of the music business, but despite some difficult times, she seems to have ended up with a good work life balance and is now more in control of her life and destiny through her experience. Lots of fascinating asides about other music stars, this is a personal and honest account that is very readable and entertaining.
on 30 March 2013
When I worked at the Our Price store in Croydon we were always on the look out for something new and interesting to play. One day we ordered a copy of Plain Sailing and it was played, and played, and played. Every time it went on the turntable somebody in the shop would come and ask what it was, and we would sell another copy. And I still have my original copy, and the single.
I followed Tracey and Ben throughout the years and was always a great fan, I loved the way the music changed and developed and I loved their integrity (I only wish I'd been able to see them live)
The book was a great read, I loved the association of the lyrics and the stories behind them. Reading about Tracey and Ben's meeting at university and how this became Plain Sailing just lit up my mind, and it jumped me straight back behind the counter in that slightly grotty record store. I was also fascinated by other sections of the book: I went to the Rock against Racism gig in Victoria park, and the mention of Patrick Fitzgerald (another performer I saw at university) bought another wave of memories flooding back.
I've rarely read such an interesting book by a performer, it is easy to see why Tracey got her 1st, the structure and language reach deep into you and are often intensely moving. As a 55 year old man I really shouldn't have been sniffing quietly into a tissue and dabbing my eyes whilst I was reading this on the early morning commuter train, but I'm happy to admit that I did.
Thanks Tracey, and please keep making your wonderful music, Long White Dress is one of my new favourites...
on 12 February 2014
Like other reviewers I read this in (almost) one sitting (I find work does get in the way of reading books). I confess to being an early Marine Girls fan and even managed to persuade my mother that Distant Shore is a great album. She agrees and plays it every so often at 81.
I like my literature and my pop to be laced heavily with politics. And occasionally humour. this book fizzes with politics of the 80s and rings true of my own experience growing up in the north and later, a north-eastern polytechnic. Trust me. We really didn't have a lot to laugh about in those days. As a man, I can't claim to be a feminist; but I'm certainly aware of discrimination against women and applaud those who rally against it.
I smiled as Tracey reminisced about the joy of hearing The Smiths for the first time (hey! me too!). Was amazed to read she was also there when they played The Hacienda after performing 'This Charming Man' on TOTPs. I must confess to having stopped being a fan of EBTG until Walking Wounded came out. But after reading this, so did many others. I've happily re-joined the club after buying her last two solo albums.
I don't read autobiographies (well apart from the Morrissey one). But I haven't laughed out loud so much in ages. She has a true gift with words that shouldn't be wasted.
It isn't often you read a book that you just want to shout about to everyone that they must read. But this is it.
Maybe this is best read by "people of a certain age"...mine I guess.
How I loved reading this book....some great stories...I guess beginning around Punk time...so this is me too.
I can absolutely relate to some of the comments that are made....looking back on late 70's and 80's...I had a great time...largely due to the fantastic music that was around ....there was the usual excess of complete pants music too.
This is really well written...keeps you involved and interested all through.
Don't want to spoil anyone reading it...but there are some interesting stuff I wasn't aware of ...Morrissy/Paul Weller
Absolutely spot on with Rod Stewart......!!
If you like music, and I mean a real fan of music...this is a fabulous read. The ups and downs..the highs and lows of the music Biz from an artists point of view.
During the later period with Ben Watts illness...It brought back memories of the Edwin Collins book which Gracie wrote about Edwins illness and incredible recovery...another essential read if you can take it.
The book does end a bit abruptly....but I'm not really sure how I would expect it to end....!
The Eden album will always remind me of working in Our Price records in London...we played and played it in the shops...it was a great "crossover" album.....possibly appealing to "each and everyone".