Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn – review

This is a modest and sensitive memoir from the Everything But the Girl frontwoman and former Marine Girl

There are a number of things about Tracey Thorn's Bedsit Disco Queen that would be incongruous in any ordinary pop star autobiography. When her original band, the Marine Girls, was already relatively successful, she went to Hull University anyway and got a first in English. Her contemporaries used to call her "Popstar Trace". She's a thoughtful, trenchant feminist, and had reservations about the place of women in music that went far beyond "Shall I take off my top for Top of the Pops?" It is plain that she sees her appearance only as a prop in her wider self-fashioning when she says that by 1983, "I'd had the black curls chopped off in reaction to seeing one too many photos of myself in the press looking doe-eyed and ringletty, and my hair was now long and spikey on the top and shaved all round the back and sides … deliberately trying to look as unlike the music we were making as possible." If she's not without vanity, she is without physical vanity – it's salutary and a bit depressing to think how unusual that would be now, while in the 80s it would have been unthinkable to make the kind of music she made and be any other way. From a rock'n'roll point of view (I mean the attitude, not the sound – she hates rock'n'roll), the most unusual thing about Thorn is that she made music with her lover, Ben Watt, continuously for 17 years, without the relationship ever becoming bigger than the project. Or even anything like as big – they were so quiet about the fact they were together that when Everything But the Girl had their mid-90s resurgence, even asking whether or not they were a couple would have been filed under "rude to pry".

Yet the remark I found to be most unlike any music memoir I could think of had nothing to do with the raw facts of an unusual life. Talking about the object of an unrequited affair that spurred much of her early songwriting, Thorn pans out and writes: "He was only a boy, 17 years old, totally unprepared to face a world of girls. I'm 50 now, and I have a boy of my own. Every day I watch the sixth-form boys mooch out of the gates of the school over the road. Lanky, awkward, sucking on fags and cans of Tango, they loiter outside our house, sometimes leaning on the car, then leaping shamefacedly out of the way if one of us approaches." I'm trying to imagine Keith Richards refracting the passions of his youth through the prism, not of maturity, but of parenthood, that defining state of obsolescence. Thorn seems to be without the obliterating ego we take to define a performer, and perhaps as a result, she describes her early songwriting and stagecraft as a painful process, with a lot of hiding in wardrobes to practise and vomiting. Yet, in other ways, she meets perfectly the criteria you expect from outstandingly creative people, the marriage of bulldozerly single-mindedness and exquisite sensitivity, so that if her own sensibilities ever went head-to-head with her determination, it would be like watching a rabbit smashed to death with a pneumatic hammer.

Simply as a straight memoir – that is, if she had never become famous – I think this would function as a critical but sensitive portrait of an idiosyncratic but intensely appealing character. Arguably, the gift of an interesting protagonist allows its author to be somewhat reticent about the aspects that other musicians would have to go large on. There are very few drugs (one brush with barbiturates – in 17 years!) and no sex at all (bar a member of the touring band disappearing in Italy and coming back with muddy knees). The demise of the Marine Girls is tantalisingly vague – Thorn gives her own point of view, states very precisely that the others disagree, but doesn't reveal their perspective. As for rock'n'roll – it's easy to forget that, as music's intersections with politics used to be much more intense, so the politics of music were much more heated, and there was more of a narrative: in the early days of Thorn's career, guitar-heavy man-rock had been slain by punk and wouldn't reappear in any credible sense until Nirvana and Pixies. Deliberate amateurism was more than an attitude – it conveyed elements of anarchy without needing to conform to any agenda of destruction. Thorn sees problems with her early, ramshackle sound but never loses the political threads that give so much density and permanence to the work. It's fascinating to hear the arguments and context, then see them blossom into her most openly issue-driven lyrics – Everything But the Girl's 1984 single "Mine", for instance, about a single mother, distils that peculiar poetry of song, where so much is condensed into simple, impressionistic phrasing. It's no wonder people fall in love with singers; the listeners themselves bring so much to the table.

Musos will love the trainspottery chronicle – "The Buzzcocks had called it a day as early as 1981, along with the Specials and Delta 5. The Undertones and the Au Pairs had split up in 1983, Gang of Four and the Raincoats in 1984 and even Orange Juice were on their last legs …" She describes music in a very professional, brisk, germane way, never using more than two adjectives, which gives those sections the atmosphere of studio notes rather than prose. Musos will love that too, I imagine; anybody who lived through any of the period will fall for the modest, often bathetic anecdotes, where Paul Weller has to phone their nearest phonebox, or they're booked on to an Italian TV show with someone whose song is called "Bum Bum", or Thorn charts their fall from fashion with a list of their deteriorating hotels as they tour Europe.

I fell for the deceptive simplicity, the way Thorn can make you feel as if you were at the gig or in the damp cottage, precisely because she doesn't exaggerate, doesn't surrender to the slightest nostalgic overstatement. She seizes your attention because she never asks for it, and in that her authorial voice is very like her singing voice, soft and low, magnetic.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn – review
Tracey Thorn's memoir lifts the lid on UK pop life with unusual charm and wit, writes Kitty Empire

Kitty Empire

10, Feb, 2013 @8:00 AM

Article image
Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia by Tracey Thorn – review
Snogs at discos and Saturday shopping ... the Everything But the Girl frontwoman looks back on humdrum days in the spiritual home of English pop

Joe Moran

02, Feb, 2019 @10:00 AM

Article image
My Rock'n'Roll Friend by Tracey Thorn review – a story of sexism in pop
A vivid and witty memoir of the friendship between Thorn and Lindy Morrison of the Go-Betweens, two women in a cultural world dominated by men

Fiona Sturges

25, Mar, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Tracey Thorn on Brookmans Park: ‘As a teenager this slice of suburban heaven felt like hell'
The singer-songwriter and author on growing up in ‘a village that wasn’t a village’, discovering punk and wanting to escape

Tracey Thorn

16, Feb, 2019 @11:59 AM

Article image
Tracey Thorn: ‘I’d kill to be able to sing like Adele’
The Everything But the Girl singer, whose second book is out this month, on Twitter, The X Factor and why she hasn’t toured in years

Jude Rogers

12, Apr, 2015 @8:00 AM

Article image
Tracey Thorn: 'I managed 10% of War and Peace during lockdown'
The singer, songwriter and author on struggling with Tolstoy, learning from Billie Holiday, and the book to give fans of Joy Division

Tracey Thorn

02, Apr, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
Tracey Thorn: ‘Not everything you do is cool’
Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn on performing, her parents and her second memoir, Another Planet

Interview by Tim Lewis

27, Jan, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Tracey Thorn: Tinsel and Lights – review
A Christmas album by Tracey Thorn might once have seemed like a hoax, but the surprise is how well it suits her, writes Alexis Petridis

Alexis Petridis

25, Oct, 2012 @2:30 PM

Article image
Tracey Thorn: the accidental pop star

She quit the music business to start a family at the height of Everything But the Girl's success – but then Tracey Thorn has never felt like 'a proper star', she tells Decca Aitkenhead

Decca Aitkenhead

10, Feb, 2013 @7:00 PM

Article image
Tracey Thorn: ‘I went through a phase of carrying Camus under my arm’
The musician on rereading her teenage diaries and why she’s now a fervent fan of Jack Reacher

Jude Rogers

25, Jan, 2020 @6:00 PM