Naked at the Albert Hall by Tracey Thorn

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Reviewed by Annabel

After the success of her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen (which I reviewed here) in which she told us how she joined a band and had a brilliant career in the pop business, Tracey Thorn is back with another book which allows her to explore in detail one area which didn’t fit in the first book, specifically the art of singing.

She serves us up an enticing mixture which includes snatches of memoir, interviews with other singers, the mechanics of singing, ruminations on what it means and its power.

The first chapter introduces us to how Tracey discovered that she had a voice – tiny at first covering only an octave or so, but later blossoming with extra notes after she made the choice to extend her vocal range.

We move on to the mechanics, and she wonders if there truly is a typical classical singer’s mouth – Maria Callas’s was likened to a ‘Gothic cathedral’ by her producer Walter Legge. There are many practicalities to keeping in fine voice, though, and singers are always anxious about the state of their throats:

Phlegm is an absolute nuisance to the singer, present – as for most people – in greater quantities in the morning, and makes early performances, for instance on breakfast TV shows, something of a throat-clearing nightmare, to be avoided whenever possible. Eating also causes phlegm to be produced, and so meals before a gig are troublesome. On tour, the structure of the day usually means that arrival at the venue will be followed by a soundcheck, leaving an hour or two before the show in which to eat and get ready. But that is already too close to showtime to eat a meal, and so often – like many singers, I suspect – I would choose not to eat much at this time of day. Later, there would be sandwiches at the hotel, or a bumper bag of crisps on the tour bus, no proper food, no fruit or vegetables. And then we wonder why we fall prey to colds and respiratory tract infections.

She also talks about singers in literature – from Eliot’s Daniel Deronda to the carol singers in Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicles via George Du Maurier’s Trilby – once you start looking there is a wealth of choice for anyone interested in fictional songsters.

She goes into detail about her favourite singer (Dusty Springfield), and at the other end of the spectrum, the ‘No singing’ style of punk vocalists, and she looks at how Karen Carpenter rarely breathed audibly – such control and what a voice.

More technical chapters follow – on mike technique, and on vibrato which is often distrusted as it can disguise imperfect pitch. But take Judy Garland:

… her voice throbs with it [vibrato], every note pulsating, her body tense and alert like a startled hare. Yet she is the most movingly sincere singer, and far from sounding like she is trying to cover something up, she gives the impression of hiding nothing, leaving herself wide open at the end of every song; exposed, exhausted.

Soon Tracey moves on to talk about why we don’t see her singing any more – although she still records in the studio. She suffers from bad stage fright, what the doctors call ‘dysphonia’, and she likens it to a nightmare of singing ‘Naked at the Albert Hall’. One singer who famously suffered from the condition and gave up singing was Linda Thompson, and Tracey lets her put the record straight, in that although stress makes it worse, it wasn’t her split from husband Richard that caused it. There is now evidence that it can have a neurological basis, but I don’t think we’ll hear Tracey singing live again any time soon somehow.

The interviews between Tracey and other singers, including Alyson Moyet, Kristin Hersh, Green Gartside from Scritti Politti et al are all lovely and warm – comparing notes and chatting about their roles as singers.

Although she quotes from classical singers like Ian Bostridge who has written extensively about singing, Tracey’s emphasis is more on the pop voice, but also on the role that singing has in everyday life. She is interested in when we sing – from nursery rhymes with our babies to birthday parties, to carol services (where the carols are inevitably all in the wrong key for easy singing), and importantly she considers why we sing.

Naked at the Albert Hall is an engaging look at the world of popular singing. It was not Thorn’s intention to cover any one topic in depth; instead we breeze through many areas in this light-hearted book. She explores her art with wit and warmth, and thoughtfully she still marvels at the power of song and the voice.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and used to be an alto in the school choir but is now decades out of practice.

Tracey Thorn, Naked at the Albert Hall (Bloomsbury: London, 2015) 978-0349005263,  256 pp., hardback.

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