Book review: Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn
I CAN’T stand heavy metal, but Anvil!, the documentary about a bunch of head-bangin’ no-hopers, is my favourite rock movie.
Bedsit Disco Queen
I was never a fan of Everything But The Girl but love Tracey Thorn’s memoirs of her 1980s pop life. Be open-minded, expect little, be pleasantly surprised – this is how we should approach music biogs. And maybe: start worrying that the ones you really want to see and read won’t be anything like as good.
Who from the 80s will come up with a better written book? Simon Le Bon from, as Thorn puts it, “vacuous social climbers Duran Duran”? The forgotten Blue Rondo à la Turk who simply wanted to “display their wardrobes to the world”? Or Morrissey, camp and butch and so appealing to an androgynous girl like Thorn that she wanted to sleep with him? Well, they’ll have to beat her on – this picked at random – the unrequited teenage crush who inspired her earliest songs:
“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. Each day I watch the sixth-form boys mooch out of the gates of the school over the road. Lanky, awkward, sucking on fags and Tango, they loiter outside our house, sometimes leaning on the car… On sunny days they’ll lie down on the road… They look as if it hasn’t yet occurred to them that anything will ever in any way threaten them. They look innocent, naive, more or less hopeless… My heart goes out to them and, in retrospect, the boy their age who I blamed and raged and sulked over, when probably he had not an inkling of what was going on inside my complicated girl head.”
Thorn sulked a lot in EBTG publicity photos and, boy, was life in that band complicated. Not really a band as such, but a concept, a cause. Just the two of them: she and Ben Watt. At Hull Uni, Eng Lit, they found each other amid “prats in rugby shirts and girls who hid their Tampax behind flowery curtains” and retreated to a bedsit to watch Brideshead Revisited and formulate a plan to “take over the world with our stark jazz minimalism”.
No snare drums (too rockist), no electric bass guitar (had to be double bass), no acoustic guitars (too folk), no piano (too evocative of “ghastly 1970s rock ballads”). There were lots of rules. No Top of the Pops was another (too mainstream, too sexist) because the singer had discovered feminism: “Was it the right decision to be in a band with my boyfriend? Should I really try to be a lesbian?”
Thorn watches retro TV – “Yuppies chugging champagne… toffs dancing in puffball skirts” – and doesn’t recognise her decade. EBTG belonged to the other 80s, epicly right-on, playing for the miners and against Nazis, touring Russia and signing up to Labour’s Red Wedge. But Thorn isn’t the least bit precious about any of this, remembers when EBTG were silly and pretentious (two key components in good pop, don’t forget), acknowledges they weren’t universally loved (“Background music for bedwetters”) and reserves her best writing for their demise. There’s the realisation that the gold discs weren’t their own records but random pieces of vinyl spray-painted (the number of tracks confirmed this). The tours got smaller, weirder, more Spinal Tap and Thorn concludes that as a fiercely private couple, she and Watt didn’t give enough of themselves: “Our story seemed to be lacking in the drama and passion that would have entertained the public.”
Soon they had too much drama with Watt contracting a rare auto-immune disease. His reaction, in a phonecall to Thorn was classically minimalist EBTG: “They think I might be having a heart attack. D’you think you could come over?” He survived, the band didn’t, but their greatest contribution to pop history is this book. «
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