Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Bedsit Disco Queen - Tracey Thorn


I must admit I've never paid that much attention to Everything But The Girl. They just never struck a (jazz) chord with me. I must admit also that I was surprised to read that over their eighteen year existence they recorded 9 albums and sold around nine million records. That's some serious unit shifting as your ex-manager might have said. A weird thing is that I know their names - Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn - and so I would guess do a good many other people though without necessarily knowing their music. Such is the nature of fame.
I've no wish to be unkind about Everything But The Girl as they've never done me any harm and I've no wish to be unkind about Tracey Thorn, though she does during her book Bedsit Disco Queen leave herself wide open for it. But I'll get to that in a minute.

To start, I've no qualms about agreeing with the likes of Caitlin Moran, Zoe Williams and Kitty Empire that Tracey's a good writer. She's very warm, inviting and very unassuming; drawing the reader in with attention to detail and a self-effacing, dry sense of humour. And importantly - to Tracey at least, and to me as well, actually - her Punk credentials are sound. In 1978, for example, she was seeing Siouxsie And The Banshees, Buzzcocks, Subway Sect, UK Subs, The Fall and The Clash. That same year she was ordering records by The Clash, X-Ray Spex and Patrick Fitzgerald from Small Wonder Records. And do you know, there are people in Exmouth who don't even know who Small Wonder Records were?

By 1981 Tracey was in the Marine Girls who without knowing it were a seminal, all-girl pop band when pop was DIY. It's interesting to read Tracey's account of what has now become a hugely respected cult band, particularly when she writes about being approached by Courtney Love and being told that her and Kurt Cobain were huge fans of the band. Tracey doesn't quite know whether to believe it or not and it's only when she reads Kurt Cobain's Journals and she sees it there in his own hand writing that she realises it's true.
This is the point in the book where I began to suspect Tracey is lovely. Such modesty! Here was Kurt Cobain, one of the biggest figures in music history putting the d├ębut album by the Marine Girls featuring songs written by Tracey in her bedroom and then recorded in a shed up in a list alongside albums by the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Public Enemy. Tracey tells us about it but almost shyly, almost as an aside.

Tracey ends up at Hull University studying English where she meets Ben Watt, leading to the formation of Everything But The Girl. Now, as I said, I've never paid that much attention to EBTG (as I shall now refer to them) but I always knew they were there. When they started, I can only describe those years as 'extreme' and there were other bands and other forms of music I felt more in tune with than them. I mean, after a night of sniffing glue and battling it out on the streets with cops and beer monsters (and beer monster cops) you just don't feel like going home and putting on a bit of 'easy listening, new jazz', do you? There were other bands and other forms of music that were more apt, more fitting, more conducive to the moment.

It's still interesting, however, to read Tracey's account of those years because her and I are basically coming from the same Punk culture and the ethics, attitudes and ideology of those times is what shaped us and made us what we are - for better or for worse. I think we all became aware at around the same time that the wheels had come off our dream. Like Lennon had stated years earlier: the dream was over. The only problem being what else was there? Was adaptation to the free-market economy our only recourse?
As Tracey puts it: "From now on, it seemed we were just an individual group, alongside all sorts of other fairly disparate groups, with no sense of belonging to any kind of collective moment in pop history... For now, there was simply a sense that we were on our own, as were our contemporaries - individual bands in an age that revered the individual above all thoughts of collective identity. If the 1980s saw an attempt to undermine and belittle the notion that there was any such thing as 'society', then it was perhaps no accident that the feeling we had of every band being an island took hold at the same time."

And out of that period came The Smiths, whom Tracey became a huge fan of and who acted as a guiding light in how to be and where to go with EBTG. The Smiths at that time were untouchable and never really needed to flaunt their politics in the slightest. Their fans just knew where they stood, which was obviously against Thatcher though that didn't necessarily mean they were for Kinnock. (But then come to think of it, perhaps they were?)
Red Wedge was the Labour Party's bid for the youth vote and this is the point at which Tracey is deserving of ridicule. Everything But The Girl, Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, The Communards and everyone else involved with Red Wedge and the Neil Kinnock roadshow (including The Smiths for one gig) were totally out of step with this. What on earth made them think that Kinnock was the solution to Thatcher?
I can remember Kinnock giving a speech at a mass CND rally in Hyde Park once and him saying the only way to avert nuclear war was to vote for him. I remember bottles being thrown at him by the anarchists down at the front for the sheer shit he was talking and then those throwing the bottles being condemned by CND for their actions. A little while later, Kinnock did a complete volte-face and started saying that he wouldn't do away with all nuclear weapons after all. He was saying anything to get himself elected, thus proving those who had thrown bottles at him to have been justified and right. If the aim of Red Wedge was to get young people engaged with politics then that wasn't what came across at all, instead it was getting young people engaged with Neil Kinnock - which was an atrocious thing to try and do.

But never mind. Onwards and upwards.

Actually, Tracey makes a very good point when writing about the Eighties which I'm in complete agreement with: "I often feel that I barely recognise 'The 1980s' as a decade, in the form that is now remembered and repackaged for glib TV programmes. I would later see the decade reviled, and then revived, but in a manner that bore almost no relation to the years I had lived through. Events that many of us had shied away from, or sneered at, or at least had reservations about, from the Royal Wedding to Live Aid, have now become the unchallenged and unchallengeable iconic moments of the period. It's not possible to say that you watched not a second of the wedding, and that you were dismissive of Live Aid, without sounding like a complete killjoy outsider, but many of us simply lived an entirely different set of experiences, which seem to have gone unrecorded and unwritten about, so that it's as though they never happened. Scenes which I never witnessed in my life - yuppies chugging champagne in City wine bars, toffs dancing in puffball skirts to Duran Duran - have now become the universal TV shorthand to locate and define the era."
She's perfectly correct and I tend to find it all a little disturbing, to be honest. My own (and Tracey's) version of the Eighties is being erased and eclipsed by one I have no recognition of. Like Trotsky famously being removed from a photograph it's manipulation and falsification of history and the only solution to it as far as I can see is to record our own history in our own words. But then at the end of the day does it really matter, I wonder? No it doesn't - but it's important.

Come 1989 and after experiencing commercial success with their cover version of Rod Stewart's I Don't Want To Talk About It, Tracey finds herself out of place and out of time. The Smiths have split and all the kids want is to take drugs and go raving, so EBTG head off to America to allow themselves to be polished and over-produced to within an inch of their lives. It wins them some further success particularly in the American market but it doesn't win them happiness nor artistic fulfilment. For what does it profit a man if he gaineth the world but loses his own fucking soul?

Through a combination of encounters, firstly with Fairport Convention, then Massive Attack, then DJ Todd Terry their star later rises pheonix-like from the ashes of artistic torpor. From Fairport Convention they glimpse how it's possible to be in a band completely independent of any interference from record companies or the obvious trappings of the music business. From Massive Attack and guest-singing on Protection they're thrown a lifeline to credibility as they're hurtled into the future. And from Todd Terry they're given the re-mix of Missing, causing the song to open like a flower and in the process communicate something universal to a world-wide audience.
The year was 1995 and the world was a significantly different beast from how it was in the early Eighties. The world and EBTG had finally caught up with each other and were chiming perfectly.

Tracey's story is an interesting one and Bedsit Disco Queen is an enjoyable read. It's not the best music-based memoir I've ever read by any means and it's this point that for me raises a troubling question.
I recognise who EBTG's audience might be post-Massive Attack because as I said, the world by then had changed and I can recognise the post-rave comedown mood that came into being and how that altered people's perceptions and changed what they could be receptive to. I fail, however, to recognise who EBTG's audience were during the Eighties. I have a suspicion they appealed to a strictly student audience and I suspect a good few from that audience have ended up with jobs in academia and the media.
Bedsit Disco Queen, as it states on the cover, is the Sunday Times top ten bestseller and not that I think Tracey's book doesn't deserve to be awarded such a title but I do wonder how it happened? Are all the critics who have praised the book all old EBTG fans? I think they may well be because I wonder why no other music memoir - The Rest Is Propaganda by Steve Ignorant of Crass (which is every bit as good as Bedsit Disco Queen), for example - hasn't ended up on that Sunday Times bestseller list also? I wonder how Tracey and not Steve Ignorant (for example) has ended up being a columnist for the New Statesman, giving talks to University audiences and being invited to book festivals and events throughout the land? To paraphrase David Byrne, who Tracey quotes in her introduction: 'How did she get there?'.

John Serpico


  1. I enjoyed your analysis of a book I read and rather liked a while ago. It's difficult to not like her, isn't it? As for who their original fans were, I have to confess I was one - though I didn't end up in either the media or academia (currently on the dole) - I WAS a student back then, though. Whilst largely suspicious of that whole 'new jazz' thing, I liked their early sound even if they did become too polished later on. As I was never an anarchist or into the music made by anarchists, this might explain things. Her voice has always appealed to me greatly. I think you are both right about the 80's - we only ever get one side of a complicated story.

    1. Brilliant. Thank you. And you're right, the story of the 80s is a complicated one.