Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen (Subtitled: How I Grew up and Tried to be a Pop Star) is as much an analysis of the fickle and ever changing face of pop music from the 1970s onwards, as it is the author’s own honest, and often moving account, of her life first as a founding member of a vaguely successful but hugely influential all girl indie band, and then, with her partner Ben Watt, one half of the band Everything But the Girl.
Although the pair had met some months before on the London music scene – both by this time were already enjoying minor success and critical acclaim – the couple got together musically and romantically in their first year at Hull University where, completely coincidentally, both were reading English literature. Thorn was then nineteen and a child of the punk era (though in the brilliant opening chapter she wonders whether her claim to have been such a thing was a fabrication for interviews with the music press), Watt a year older and the child of a rather bohemian jazz loving family. That Thorn finished her course with a first and, during a hiatus when Everything But the Girl lost its way – the victim of a music scene that liked to pigeonhole – completed a Masters degree at London’s Birkbeck College, is testimony to a talented woman with a flair for the written word, whether in the poetic and often haunting lyrics she wrote for the Marine Girls and later for Everything But the Girl, or these highly entertaining and well structured memoirs.
The style is chatty and engaging, self deprecating at times and often very funny. Fortunately Thorn still has some volumes of her teenage diaries, excerpts of which make for some wry observations about the later musical influences she would cite during the sometimes confrontational encounters with music journalists. If the seventies influenced Thorn musically, the eighties were to be responsible for her growing politicisation, especially her strong feminist stance. Becoming a young adult myself in the 1980s, I identified with Thorn’s account of how this happened quite naturally: interestingly, Thorn makes the point that while TV shows that recap the eighties focus on the yuppie attitude and a money-grabbing attitude, this ignores the simple truth that during this period the personal – the musical – was most definitely political, epitomised by the miners’ strike and a ‘Meat is Murder’ ethos.
As well as excerpts from her own diaries, there are words from the diaries of music business friends, song lyrics and clippings from interviews and reviews illuminating Thorn’s own memories. I have to confess to always being a fan of the sound rather than the sentiment of Everything But the Girl, but seeing how those lyrics fit in with what was going on in the lives of Thorn and Watt at the time gives this volume an unexpectedly candid dimension.
Thorn’s response when Watt tells her they’ve been asked, in 1997, to open for U2 (“Actually babe, d’you know what? I think I want to stop now.”) encapsulates her attitude to being a pop star, a career she acknowledges with some candour she was never really suited to. There are pop star moments and a recognition that she has over the years been part of a world that many can only dream of, but Thorn’s self awareness and reluctance to be totally consumed by the pop star lifestyle make her account all the more fascinating. She appreciates the benefits but is incredibly open about the pressures that come from the commercial side of the music industry, without ever giving an impression of biting the hand that feeds.
A correspondence with Morrissey, having Lenny Kravitz’s dreadlocks attached to her dress and, performing a duet with Jeff Buckley at their first Glastonbury (which did not come until Thorn’s collaboration with Massive Attack) are some of the musical highlights of Bedsit Disco Queen but my favourite is the image of Watt and Thorn waiting in a Hull telephone box for a call from Paul Weller. What is especially endearing is the way that Thorn looks back the self-confessed spikiness which typified her attitude toward being interviewed and finally opens up. One of the most compelling parts of this book is the section that deals with Watt’s sudden descent into ill health and Thorn’s fear that it might be too late for her to say how she really felt about him: the couple had often played with journalists, refusing to deny or confirm their romantic status, preferring to leave them hanging on in much the same way as the White Stripes’s Meg and Jack White. So too her desire to have children and her subsequent retreat from the music business makes for an insight that was never previously possible.
There’s something incredibly ‘English’ about Bedsit Disco Queen: witty, self deprecating and entirely without artifice. There’s none of the drug fuelled parties (though one teenage experiment with amphetamines turns Thorn off the idea of drugs for life) and crazy hotel wrecking that accompanies most rock memoirs but there’s plenty of drama and some really fascinating insight while one delicious reference to some unfeasibly high Christian Louboutin shoes shows that Tracey Thorn has enjoyed it all a lot more than her public persona might have suggested.
Bedsit Disco Queen (How I Grew up and Tried to be a Pop Star)
by Tracey Thorn
Published by Virago, March 2013
With thanks to the publisher for the review copy provided.
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