x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl pens sweet ode to husband, music

In 1996, Everything but the Girl’s Ben Watt wrote Patient, his lauded memoir. Seventeen years later, his wife Tracey Thorn has fashioned an even better book about their lives together in sickness and in health, writes James McNair

Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl in 1984, several years after meeting at the University of Hull in England. It would be more than a decade before the band's popularity peaked. Peter Noble / Redferns
Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl in 1984, several years after meeting at the University of Hull in England. It would be more than a decade before the band's popularity peaked. Peter Noble / Redferns

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up And Tried To Be A Pop Star
Tracey Thorn
Virago

Twitter's 140-characters-or-less format often thwarts flowing prose, but Tracey Thorn's account - 36,000 followers and counting - has long showcased both her intellect and wit. Now Thorn has delivered a rather more substantial "tweet" with Bedsit Disco Queen, an all-life-is-here story that eschews the usual cliches of the pop-star memoir.

That Thorn should have a unique take on things should come as no surprise. An androgynous-looking anti-hero who grew up "wanting to be heard but not looked at", she has, in her time, been a DIY punk, a remixed disco diva, and an extraordinary collaborator with Massive Attack, Deep Dish, The Style Council, et al.

Her book begins with a cliffhanger. It's March 1997 and Everything but the Girl (EBTG), the nine-million album-selling duo comprised of Thorn and her husband Ben Watt, are luxuriating in a ch-chi Australian hotel room replete with a white baby grand piano.

The phone rings and it's surreal news: U2 want Thorn and Watt to support them on their US arena tour. Only on page 340 of the book do we find out whether or not they accept, but by then we've been on the most engaging of journeys. Bedsit Disco Queen is funny, wise and touching, and Thorn's refreshingly candid story parses the trappings of the United Kingdom's 1980s and 1990s pop scene with no lack of insight.

Thanks to diaries she kept while growing up in the London satellite town of Brookmans Park, the singer can date her punk awakening accurately. In 1976, she's buying David Essex singles and noting that Brotherhood Of Man have won the Eurovision Song Contest. The next year, however, Thorn has discovered punk. "It seemed impossible to carry on being civil to your parents while claiming to like The Stranglers," she writes.

When she starts playing music herself, purchasing a guitar when she's 16, we are reminded how much the rules of engagement have changed since. Today's YouTube and Facebook-primed rock fledglings seem music-biz savvy within days, but Thorn concedes her teenage self was more naive. "I think I imagined that the point of an electric guitar was that you plugged it into the electricity socket in the wall and somehow a loud noise came out," she recalls.

When Thorn auditions as a singer for her friend's band Stern Bops, crippling shyness drives her to do so from inside a wardrobe. Punk and new wave's DIY ethic soon galvanises her, however, and by 1981, she is making small waves with the Marine Girls, a feminist all-girl group influenced by acts such as Young Marble Giants and the Au Pairs.

Using classified ad space in the New Musical Express, they sell cassette copies of their lo-fi debut album A Day By The Sea in dribs and drabs, but are later courted by Cherry Red records. Further into her book, Thorn recalls that, when she and Massive Attack played BBC TV's Later … with Jools Holland, Courtney Love approached her to say that she and Kurt Cobain had been avid Marine Girls fans. Such surreal moments are a staple of Bedsit Disco Queen; Thorn is often taken aback when other famous people recognise her.

Naturally, the book is largely the story of EBTG and Thorn's relationship with Watt. A pithy crop of their respective family photo albums pits the Watts' "kaftans in Tangier" against the Thorns' "wind-cheaters in North Wales", but Thorn holds that she and her husband have endured because of, not despite, their differences.

They became an item while both were studying at the University of Hull. Thorn had been a precocious reader of Jean-Paul Sartre and Sylvia Plath and would graduate with a first class honours in English. She writes of how she and Watt bond around John Martyn's Solid Air, and of how their respective record collections diverge, but when they form EBTG they unite around an anti-rock manifesto.

"We both bought into that completely, albeit from different angles," says Thorn. "He from the avant-garde corner, opposing the idiocy of rock; me from the popster's corner, feeling an instinctive affinity with the pure simplicity of pop."

Here, as when she lists EBTG's rules while recording their 1984 debut Eden ("Rule Number One: No snare drum"), Thorn is partly poking fun at how po-faced they once were.

Later in the book, any barriers between indie and rock seem more permeable. The singer's claim that much-loved heavy metal band satire This Is Spinal Tap is "accurate about what it's like to be in a band - any kind of band", rings true.

EBTG's music - "a little bit indie, a little bit bossa-nova" - is soon fêted by Morrissey and Paul Weller. We follow them to Florence, where they are mistaken for the now largely forgotten early 1980s act Matt Bianco on the Ponte Vecchio, and to Moscow ("It was too much like a parody - someone genuinely did ask if they could buy Ben's Levis.")

Thorn also writes well about pop and politics, noting that, to a later generation, EBTG and various other musicians' involvement in the pro-Labour Party collective Red Wedge would seem "quaint and hysterical".

Further in, the group's 1988 cover of the Rod Stewart hit I Don't Want To Talk About It proves a game-changer. Thorn recalls that, when EBTG's version reached No 3 in the UK, she and Watt found themselves being chased by the paparazzi and enjoying it.

By now, her biological clock has begun to tick and in the early 1990s she has a crisis of confidence brought on by doubts about her voice and a sense that EBTG's creativity is beginning to atrophy. It's here, though, that Bedsit Disco Queen shifts up a gear via one sentence: "Luckily Ben decided to contract a life-threatening illness, and in so doing, saved us."

Thorn's account of Watt's battle with the auto-immune disease Churg-Strauss syndrome is immensely moving. "It was like a foretaste of old age," she writes, and in the ensuing pages she is able to explain all that she and Watt have meant to each other. When the pair eventually return with 1994's Amplified Heart, it is on their own terms, and with new priorities.

Ben Watt's 1996 memoir Patient was lauded by The New York Times, among other publications. Now, some 17 years later, his partner has written a book that's at least as good and probably even better. The couple's twin girls Alfie and Jean arrived in 1998, and in July 2000, while pregnant with their son Blake, Thorn retired from music after an EBTG gig at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

When she writes about being a full-time mum in Bedsit Disco Queen, there are some lovely vignettes. One day she and Blake are browsing in a branch of Gap when EBTG's Missing comes on, reminding Thorn of her other life. "Mummy, you are singing in the shop!," remarks her amazed toddler.

James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.