At last. I can review one of the best books I read last year. The reason I didn’t review it when I read it is that it’s published this year, and there’s no advantage to showing off that you’ve read a book before it is available in the shops. It is published now, in fact, in fancy hardback. Tracey Thorn very kindly sent me an advance copy of her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen and I devoured it quickly. (Sorry, The 9/11 Wars by Jason Burke, you had to be put to one side.) If you lived through any of the pop years covered in this book, but especially the early ones in the 80s, it will ring a bell, and possibly warm your cockles. It will almost certainly provide a cue for a song. (I found myself mainlining my old EBTG albums while reading it.)
Tracey, whom I’ve only ever met twice in the flesh, was kind enough to include me in her publisher’s advance-reading list as we’d corresponded as far back, I think, as 2007, when she was first researching her own life in pop. She wanted to know if I had a copy of the NME in which I’d interviewed Everything But The Girl in 1990. Sadly, I didn’t. (My NME archive is patchy, at best – I only kept the issues for which I’d written the cover stories after a scorched-earth loft clearout, although I ended up re-purchasing some from eBay, to replenish my self-vandalised collection.)
I’d been a card-carrying fan of Everything But The Girl – and Tracey’s first band the Marine Girls – since the early 80s and Pillows & Prayers. Their first album, Eden, and their second, Love Not Money, got me through my first years of college, and their fourth, Idlewild, is one of the albums that marks my post-graduation year and the first days of living on my own in a studio flat. (I will always regard Eden as one of my “homesickness” albums. I taped it off my first next-door neighbour at the halls of residence on arrival for the first time in London, and its jazzy melancholy was a perfect fit for the way I felt, as well as a tub of emotional balm.)
So, when I got to meet and interview Ben and Tracey in 1990, when the disarmingly slick, LA-recorded The Language Of Life came out, it was one of those big-tick moments: all my years of fandom could be pressed into professional, journalistic service. I’d love to say I met them at their house – the first journalists to interview them got to go to their student flat in Hull! – but alas, it took place at somebody else’s smart mews house in West London, as I recall. (A dastardly trick used to this day by celebrities on Come Dine With Me.) Tracey remembers the interview, perhaps too well, in her book.
Andrew Collins came to interview us for the NME, and he too focused on the fact that the best aspects of the album were our songs, and more specifically the caustic lyrics to a couple of them … We were lucky to get off as lightly as this with the NME, to be fair. By now the acid-house revolution, and the Madchester scene it had given rise to, was no marginalised alternative fad, but dominated both the rock press and the charts. Andrew Collins had turned up for that interview wearing baggy dungarees and a smiley badge, and I remember thinking, ‘Bloody hell, the game’s up if this how they dress at the NME now.’
In the interests of New Yorker-style fact-checking, I must stress that Tracey confirmed with me the possibility that I might have been wearing dungarees. I’m afraid it’s all too likely, smitten as I was by the Stone Roses style. I’m prepared to concede the smiley badge, which I suspect may have been affixed to this “scallydelic” top. (Here modelled by a lake in Hultsfred, Sweden, circa 1990, with Tim Burgess.)
Now, as you can sense, I have a personal connection to the Tracey Thorn story. We’re of a similar vintage. We were in higher education at roughly the same time. (There’s a couple of years in it, which is how come she was already in a band making albums that helped me through my exams, as it were, in her immediate post-graduation years.) And that’s the beauty of the book. She simply tells her own story, and allows the observations made from the vantage point of the end of her forties to contextualise what she was going through at the time. When she first forms the band with Ben, she remember asking herself many speculatively melodramatic questions about their relationship, and concludes, from the distance of almost 30 years, “I didn’t really have the answers to any of these questions, and I’m not even sure I asked them.”
Bedsit Disco Queen is not raw with confession and emotion, which suits the private person Tracey has always been, but it is at all times honest. Her first memory of seeing Ben at Hull University is “blurred” (“What was he wearing? Levi’s probably? A white shirt?”); her early brush with leftwing politics is driven by interviews with other bands, like Gang of Four and Delta 5, who “introduced me to concepts and political theories which I was too young and inexperienced to comprehend fully – nonetheless, I agreed with every word”); and when she and Ben move to the country in 1989 to escape the rat race, she speaks of “a time-wasting fury of DIY mania” and confesses, “It took us about half an hour to discover we weren’t cut out for country life.”
Nobody is expecting self-aggrandising myth-making from a Tracey Thorn autobiography. After all, her songwriting has always been painfully honest and plain-speaking – and the full song lyrics seem especially suited to the chapters they now open: “I’m getting too used to this way of life” … “Now you’re feeling hopeless, now you’re looking older” … “Sure, I’d love a wild life, but every wild man needs a mother or a wife.” But this is not to say her rise-and-plateau-and-rise through fame and fortune is not without profound truths (that Massive Attack are locked into “playground relationships”, for instance), or, frankly, rollickingly entertaining insights. It ends on a hilariously random moment involving some younger female pop icons, for instance, which I won’t spoil.
In yesterday’s Guardian interview, Decca Aitkenhead observed, “In another life Thorn would have been a brilliant columnist” (which rather unfairly precludes the possibility that she could become one now), and this is no truer in the book than when she ruefully reflects upon the advice given to contestants on The X-Factor by Lady Gaga after performing “inside a giant ten-foot bathtub” wearing “a tight, reflective leather cat costume” – “Be yourself.” From this spark, Tracey reflects upon the disconnect between authenticity and the pop industry, and her own struggles with truth and artifice.
She covers the big issues with candour, such as motherhood (admitting that, aged 25, she became broody over her sister’s little boy, but ruled it out at the time due to being “a singer in a pop group”), and Ben’s near-fatal illness (she poignantly remembers sitting by his bedside in hospital “doing jigsaw puzzles and reading PG Wodehouse”), but leaves out anything that might cheapen or coarsen the picture she wishes to carefully and diplomatically paint. (I innocently asked her about the absence of a particular player in email correspondence and she privately gave a perfectly decent and thoughtful reason for leaving them out.)
And my favourite passage of all is one about Twitter. Tracey has built a life-affirming community of souls around her on the social networking site, and, if anything, has raised her own profile by accident. (The Guardian piece was astutely headlined The Accidental Pop Star.) She wishes she could go back in a time machine to her and Ben’s lowest ebb, in 1987 – Idlewild, a harsh verdict from the record label, wrangles over the first single, career stalemate, boredom, self-doubt, anxiety – and “invent Twitter.”
I won’t quote it in full, as you should buy the book and read it in context, but it’s the most persuasive argument I’ve yet read for the positive effects of the sometimes maligned Twitter. She thinks, at that time, it would have been her “salvation,” imagining coming out of a depressing meeting at WEA and getting it off her chest by Tweeting about it. “You would have all Tweeted back with supportive comments, witty put-downs and descriptions of similar experiences in your own workplace,” she retro-fantasises. Back in 1987, of course, there was no direct way of communicating with fans, or like-minded souls, without a telephone or a stamp. You, too, will wish that you could go back in a time machine and invent Twitter for the 1987 Tracey Thorn.
I won’t put a link to the high-street-destroying Amazon, in the usual kneejerk fashion. You can find Bedsit Disco Queen your own way. Maybe you could order it via a local bookshop, or find one online, without using Amazon as a third party, and do it in the spirit of Cherry Red, who launched Tracey and Ben’s career. But this is her publisher’s website.