Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
I wish Tracey Thorn was my cousin, sister even. I can say that – for we share not only a maiden name, but a love of David Cassidy, a fascination with Morrissey, and an appreciation of Fairport Convention. She’s a couple of years younger than me, so we’d have shared much of the same musical youth – just growing up in suburbia on opposite sides of London.
Pipe-dreams eh! I’ve always liked Tracey and husband Ben’s band Everything But the Girl in a quiet way, but now I’ve finished reading her volume of memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Popstar, I’ve turned into a complete fan girl and need to reinvestigate their musical back catalogue more fully.
Back to the book though; it is written beautifully. Forget the purple prose and bitter rants of Morrissey’s ‘classic’ autobiography, Tracey’s book tells of the formative moments in her musical career quietly, but with a surprising warmth and self-deprecating wit that make it a pleasure to read. She never loses her sense of wonder at the good luck she’s experienced along the way, the great musicians they’ve met and worked with, and the hard graft required to keep a career in pop on track.
Her story starts in her punky schooldays, sneaking out to gigs with friends. Soon she gets her first guitar – a Les Paul copy, not realising that she needed an amp – but liking the quietness of an unplugged electric guitar:
I become quite secretive about my music, and I go to great lengths not to be overheard. When, shortly afterwards, I borrow an amp from someone, I can’t bring myself to turn it up very loud, and so the quietness thing begins, born of necessity and ignorance and embarrassment. Only later will be become a kind of manifesto.
Tracey experienced her first moments of fame with The Marine Girls whilst in the sixth form. The girl-band grew from the dying embers of punk, but had a minimalist sound. Their debut album was well received, but Thorn says ‘if the shambolic sincerity of it left you cold, then all that remained was a kind of amateurish hopelessness.’
Once the four girls went their separate ways after school, to Hull University for Thorn, The Marine Girls ground to a halt. Thorn, by then, had met Ben Watt, her future husband, and was already working with him – and again surprised herself by becoming a proper pop star this time while studying English Literature. Contemporaries of EBTG were of course The Smiths, and Morrissey was an inspiration…
I loved Morrissey with a devotion which outweighed anything I’d felt for a rock singer before, and which I now blush to recall. It wasn’t that I wanted to sleep with him (well, no, I did actually, but that seemed unlikely to happen, what with one thing and another). It was more that I wanted to BE him. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this, though I suspect most of the others who felt this way were probably boys. For an androgynous girl like me, Morrissey was an intoxicating new kind of role model – camp in many ways, but also surprisingly butch. He reminded me more of a male version of the female singers I liked – Patti Smith or Siouxsie – than any previous male rock star. His onstage performance style inspired mine for a good couple of years …
We follow Tracey through all the all the ups and downs of Everything But the Girl, Ben’s near fatal illness (which he chronicled in his excellent memoir Patient), to eventual big stardom thanks to that Todd Terry remix of Missing, and on into semi-retirement and motherhood. That she’s managed it all while staying totally sane and never becoming a diva is a real achievement.
It was after Ben’s illness left them wondering what next, that’s where Fairport Convention come in. Recruited to sing with the band in their legendary crowd-pleasing closer at the Cropredy Folk Festival she has something of an epiphany:
This, I realised, was how you could carry on making music without constant compromise and meddling. Fairport Convention were not of my punky generation: they were dyed-in-the-wool, ale-drinking, jumper-wearing old folkies, but they were as DIY and indie as anyone I’ve ever met. It was inspiring…
Apart from the obvious quality of Tracey’s writing, it was lovely to read the selection of her song lyrics which are included in between each chapter. For a duo whose sound has tended to the light, the words are quite dark and full of longing, loss, even anger at times – another example of the conundrum to much of the music world that was EBTG.
They are a talented couple, and it’s been a pleasure to have the company of Tracey Thorn on the page. This is the best pop memoir I’ve read in a long time.
Tracey Thorn, Bedsit Disco Queen, (Virago, London, 2013) 978-1844088683, 365 pp., paperback.