Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn – review

Tracey Thorn's memoir lifts the lid on UK pop life with unusual charm and wit

It is a truism that being in a band is both cool and exciting.

Repeated pop star autobiographies reveal, however, that the experience is often quite ridiculous – and frustrating, and humiliating and unexpectedly tragicomic. When you sign up, nobody warns you that one day, Florentine teenagers might chase you across the Ponte Vecchio, mistaking your perfectly successful 1980s band for another one. And you will have to roar "we are NOT fucking Matt Bianco!" at them.

You will never be adequately prepared, either, for that US radio symposium in which the "new adult contemporary" classification is being discussed, and your literate vignettes about the limitations of dreams are held to be the same crap as Enya. You will wait and wait for your big break. And then one day, when you are sitting in a plush Tokyo hotel room, the call will come with the offer of a support slot on U2's US tour.

If you are Tracey Thorn – ex-Marine Girl, the girl in Everything But the Girl, an amber-via-velvet vocalist who sang Massive Attack's Protection, and the writer of 1995's club-pop crossover hit, Missing – you will turn them down. Why? Because the sound levels on your biological clock are way up in the red.

Fondly eye-rolling pop memoirs such as these are helped immeasurably when the person at the keyboard is as perspicacious and warm a writer as Thorn. Bedsit Disco Queen is that most satisfying thing – a book that pulls back the veil for fans with candour and humour, while charting a social history of UK pop with Zelig-like perspective.

Pen pals with Morrissey, courted by Paul Weller, stopped on the school run by George Michael, EBTG's pop success and right-on punk roots meant that the band Thorn shared with her partner, Ben Watt, had a foot in many camps. They jetted around to European pop festivals when these weren't hip affairs but ghastly televised variety performances. They gathered gold discs but were complicit in an attempt to write a song by committee for the Labour party. In those years, EBTG's interview technique was spiky and ideological, which confused even those on their side. "Sounding like Astrud Gilberto while coming on like Gang of Four was always going to be a problematic approach," Thorn now reflects wryly.

Very much a creature of the British 80s, Thorn bridles at how that decade is lazily remembered in TV shorthand. It was not "yuppies chugging champagne in City wine bars, toffs dancing around in puffball skirts to Duran Duran", but the miners, and Meat Is Murder, and benefit gigs for Nicaragua. Throughout, she reflects on the limits of her and Watt's ideological positions. But Bedsit Disco Queen is marvellously frivolous, too – Christian Louboutin patent wedges appear near the end – and emotional. Thorn spends an entire page wishing she had invented Twitter in 1987, so that EBTG could be spared the lonely misery of being caught between a highly critical label and a fanbase whose composition was a mystery.

Thorn lays bare the process of being a successful creative as a push-me-pull-you of kismet, endless compromise, false starts, luck and Todd Terry remixes. As misfortune, and fortune, would have it, EBTG got dropped by their UK label, just before Terry's remix of Missing would tear up dancefloors all over the world. But this gave Thorn and Watt huge creative freedom, as well as money in their pockets.

The truly rewarding passages are less about the band's chart positions (always lower than forecast), and more about Thorn herself, her suburban upbringing, her lyrics, her feminism, her postgraduate interests, and her relationship with Watt.

The worldly jazzy boho to her 19-year-old girl-band veteran, Watt contracted a life-threatening illness in 1992, the subject of his own previous tome, Patient (1996). Thorn writes rivetingly about the anxious monotony of a carer's limbo, and, tentatively, about the love between them, with very little yuck factor. If 80s feminism decreed that the personal was political, then Thorn and Watt's situation complicated matters further: the musical was domestic, too.

The bleep of hospital machines recurs again with the premature birth of Thorn and Watt's eldest twins. Stay-at-home motherhood suits Thorn down to the ground, and she retires from the music industry until one day the urge to sing, and record, returns – a period glossed over, but summarised with warmth and candour.

Her tale rips along, chatty, studded with song lyrics, diary entries, cuttings and snapshots (like the one of the cassette labelled "Massive idea" – the kernel of the track that would become Protection). But there is a writerly bent here, too, that befits a woman still half-contemplating a PhD on Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. You can't fail to smile when someone describing the rivalries between teenage bands says: "If at this point it all sounds a bit Enid Blyton, it was about to get a bit Irvine Welsh."

Perhaps the fondest eye-roll of all here is the way Thorn attempts to reconcile "pop star Trace" (her sobriquet at Hull University) with her other job. When Thorn signed up, no one warned her, either, that one day, she might be pushing her youngest around Gap and Missing would come on the stereo. And that her youngest would point to the speaker and say "Mummy! You are singing in the shop!" with delight.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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