Her music has meant very little to me over the years but I heard Tracey Thorn talking on the radio and liked what she was saying so I read the book. Bedsit disco queen: how I grew up and tried to be a pop star (Virago, 2013) is a delightful memoir, one of the very best of its oeuvre – honest, witty, intelligent, ironic, natural. sardonic and life affirming. The promise of that extended title is more than fulfilled, and there’s the added frisson of integrity of its being published by Virago.
Born 1962, a child of the Hertfordshire suburbs who came to musical consciousness in punk’s year zero, her first efforts surfed the post-punk DIY indie wave. The unpolished, minimalist Marine Girls – now, she bemusedly reports, lauded on the internet as “a somewhat seminal post-punk DIY band” and a favourite of Kurt Cobain’s – were enthusiastically reviewed in the NME while Tracey was still at school doing her A-levels. She met label mate Ben Watt in her first week at Hull University; they formed Everything but the Girl (EBTG) and made a name for themselves while still studying full time. Tracey ended up with a First in English Literature; she did an MA later too.
What makes Bedsit Disco Queen so insightful and charming about the music business is this sense of contingency combined with a certain reluctance and intellectual distance. They had stumbled into a career:
Part of me enjoyed the limelight, but another part, possibly a larger part, was happier in the library.
Later, after considerable success, in a career limbo -“I hadn’t belonged anywhere for a few years now” – and a few years on from their initial DIY motivation:
Luckily, Ben decided to contract a life-threatening illness, and in doing so, saved us.
And there she is chuckling to P.G.Wodehouse sitting for weeks by Ben’s bed in hospital. Later again, offered a world tour with the all-conquering U2, she retires to be a mum. For 5 years she doesn’t miss it, and then she does, so a solo album. Making videos had always been one of the least favourite tasks on the treadmill, but now:
Here I was again with a stylist and a rail of the latest clothes, having my make up done for me. It was like a mum’s spa-weekend dream come true … to dip into it was a perfect antidote to midlife melancholy.
Ah, yes, mid-life. What got her back working was:
I wanted to make a statement that I was still that girl who’d gone and bought an electric guitar aged sixteen and formed bands.
We get a lot of that girl and the joy of it is that Tracey kept a diary – don’t you wish you’d kept a diary, even if it was just the bands you saw? – so she can actually take us to the moment. It’s brilliant, captures that initial unvarnished rush. Here she is looking forward to the Anti-Nazi League rally in Victoria Park in April, 1978 (hey, I was there and all I can remember is someone selling Rock Against Racism rock):
We are going to see loads of bands we like AND stop the Nazis, all in one day.
(She has a way with CAPITALS throughout, which works beautifully.) “All of a sudden,” she says, “it seemed as if everyone I knew was forming a band” but then:
If at this point it all sounds a bit Enid Blyton, it was about to get a bit Irvine Welsh.
All this while still doing A-levels remember, and in the full throes of sad teenage angst – one’s heart goes out to:
Meanwhile I was hopelessly in love with someone who was either not interested at all, a little bit interested, or very interested but too inept to do anything about it; I never really knew.
The wise and wary young aspirant could do a lot worse for sanity’s sake than read Bedsit disco queen as a career 101. By page 289 Tracey is telling us “How peculiar and unpredictable and uncontrollable a career in the music business can be,” and her story certainly bears that out. I won’t go into details of the twists and turns involved – the out of the blue involvement of Massive Attack is, well, massive – but there’s certain demystification, a de-mythification of after the event hagiography at play here:
There’s a random element to how bands develop, which goes against the idea that there has to be some unifying plan or manifesto giving rise to the band’s sound and identity. Often, it’s more that there are chance meetings with people who turn out to be important.
There’s the recognition that “An element of almost ritualised humiliation seemed to be part of the process” and given the pandering that goes with this, “You can see why celebrities turn into arseholes…” while Spinal Tap “isn’t a cartoonish satire at all but in fact the most accurate film ever made about what it’s like being in a band – any kind of band.” And then there’s the record company:
Now I’m not saying you should never listen to your record company, or that no one ever knows better than the band themselves, but in this instance, IN THIS INSTANCE, that really was not what we should have done. And what’s more, it didn’t even work.
And at a certain stage, the Is that all there is ? moment:
The success we’d managed to come by in the last couple of years had been seemingly at our own expense, in that it left us feeling impoverished.
I really liked this book but I’m sorry to have to say that I’ve never been able – and regrettably still can’t – to transcend the problems EBTG have had with the gap betwixt the perception and appreciation of what they do with their perception of what they were trying to do. Their concern that “the quiet, minimalist thing could easily be misinterpreted as easy listening” because “sounding like Astrid Gilberto while coming on like Gang Of Four [brilliant! say I] was always going to be a problematic approach.” Later on “those dreaded words, background music and easy listening” got an upgrade and they “found ourselves being offered a new radio home, within a new format called New Adult Contemporary, or NAC, which would turn out to be a very scary place indeed.” Still, two decent people are making a decent living out of it, and that is good.
At times Bedroom disco queen feels like it’s come from different planet to that of the last music biz memoir I read, Pete Brown‘s disappointing White rooms and imaginary westerns. Indeed, Tracey and Ben belong to that post-punk DIY generation of musicians that Pete scornfully resented as “scab labour“. I’m still surprised he couldn’t appreciate the spirit of the age, but then I guess they were getting the recording contracts when he wasn’t. What does link Pete and Tracey, though, is a shared crisis of confidence in their vocal abilities, the feeling that they were not as good singers as the accompanists and session musicians they were working with warranted. Even now – “I still really think of myself as ‘someone who sings’ rather than ‘a singer” – the modest but never dismissive of her talents Ms Thorn makes no great claims for the in-demand entity that is ‘The voice of Thorn’.
As it happens I’ve been listening to Living life backwards, the interesting anthology CD of Pete Brown‘s ’70s bands, the Battered Ornaments and Piblokto, and I have to say that, though obviously influenced by the man, I prefer his vocals to the bluster and bombast of his vocal hero Jack Bruce. Good collection of songs that grew on me, in particular the haunting Thousands On A Raft (that’s us, that is) and the brilliant Things May Come And Things May Go But The Art School Dance Goes On Forever (that’s us too).