Book review: Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn

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BEFORE she met her musical and romantic soulmate Ben Watt at Hull University and formed Everything But The Girl in 1982, Tracey Thorn played guitar in a band called the Stern Bops.

Bedsit Disco Queen

By Tracey Thorn

Virago, 384pp, £16.99

When they asked her to have a crack at lead vocals, she agreed, on condition that she could sing inside a wardrobe. That’s a neat encapsulating image not only of the heartfelt, understated brand of pop that Watt and Thorn have put out for 30 years through EBGT and other guises, but also of this drily downbeat memoir.

In prose as in song, Thorn has a lovely, lulling, disarming tone, steely beneath the self-effacement. She is part of the indie wave of musicians inspired by punk’s DIY ethos to form their own bands, and writes briefly but acutely on the problems of growing up and gigging in the suburbs (the Stern Bops were once pelted with pigs’ ears by rivals). She forms the wispily tuneful, all-female Marine Girls, who sign with Cherry Red records and have some success but don’t last long.

On her first day at Hull a fellow student who is also signed to Cherry Red has her paged over the Tannoy. Almost immediately, Thorn and the part-gypsy jazz aficionado Ben Watt start writing songs and living together. Paul Weller joins them onstage at the first EBTG gig at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1983. “For God’s sake,” says Thorn. “If we’d known we were going to carry on for years we would have come up with a better name.”

What follows is a corrective to bombastic rock books. Thorn recalls cadging 10p pieces off adoring rock journos to feed the meter in her Hull flat and says the Eighties weren’t all Madonna and toffs dancing in puffball skirts to Duran Duran but also the bleak poetry of The Smiths, the efforts of Rock Against Racism and Red Wedge.

I was touched by her earnest recollection of what it meant in those days to be “authentic”, and of the way her self-doubt flooded back when the band’s early success tailed off. There’s name-dropping, but musicianly rather than vulgar.

Like Morrissey, only a lot more likeable, Thorn is a distinctive and interesting English voice. She writes frankly about how she and Watt coped when he almost died of the rare auto-immune disease Churg-Strauss syndrome (detailed in his own book, Patient).

Their career rallies after a collaboration with Massive Attack, and a subsequent single, Missing, sells three million copies. But she rejects the chance to support U2 on a US stadium tour to have children. Their lives reconfigure: he becomes a club promoter, DJ and daytime dad, she a full-time mum who starts to write a book..... then shelves it to pen a solo album. That’s why the manuscript, rediscovered when she and Watt moved house last year, ends in 2007, leading to confusion over dates. “I’ve let the inconsistencies stand,” Thorne says. “You’re a grown-up. I know you won’t mind.”