No easy way: Dusty Springfield performing in 1965. Photo: Dezo Hoffmann/Rex
Show Hide image

Good vibrations: Tracey Thorn’s new book crushes our ideas about what makes a good singer

Naked at the Albert Hall is a history of singing that hums with freshness and passion.

Naked at the Albert Hall: the Inside Story of Singing
Tracey Thorn
Virago, 256pp, £16.99

The first time I heard Tracey Thorn, I was ten and tiny at a till in a provincial supermarket. Her voice was a magical portal to a state of sophistication and grace, like treacle over posh chocolate. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she crooned. “If I stay here, won’t you listen . . .” Only my mum wouldn’t let me. That summer in 1988, when Everything but the Girl reached number three in the charts with their sleepy cover of the Rod Stewart hit, Thorn wasn’t singing to me – but that’s how people like us think of people like her.

“When we respond to a singer, often we don’t really see or hear the actual person. We see and hear an imagined version of them, a projection of our own needs and desires.” So Thorn writes at the start of her second book, reminding us that we have lungs, tongues and teeth just like the singers we worship and how, as a consequence, we feel closer to them than to bass or tambourine virtuosos. Hold up, though, writes Tracey. Cut it out. Think again.

Thorn, who has a fortnightly column in the NS, is in the business of bursting pop myths one at a time. Her first book, Bedsit Disco Queen (2013), laid the groundwork. A surprised look at her so-called pop life, it spanned her teens making bedroom tape pop with the Marine Girls (Kurt Cobain was a huge fan, which still shocks her); meeting Ben Watt, who became her band mate and husband (they released ten albums together, six apart, and now have three teenage kids), at Hull University; and their brief, blustery brushes with international fame – one being the song I caught in the queue, the other the transatlantic smash “Missing” in 1995. This was also a memoir by a woman who “wanted to be heard without having to be heard” but make no mistake – there was a streak of stridency behind her subtleties.

In her new book, Thorn debunks the myths of the singer’s instrument in raw, phlegmy detail: the primary function of the vocal tract is actually to be “one of several lines of defence against choking”, for instance. Her style is matter of fact, no nonsense. She laces together references to Willa Cather, George Eliot and Roland Barthes without sounding pompous and is good at presenting arguments in crisp, funny lines. “As singers, we are not only working with a mechanism inside our own bodies, but a mechanism that isn’t even really intended to do what we try to make it do,” she continues, waving her metaphorical chalk. “It’s like trying to use a cheese grater or a vacuum cleaner to make music, and doesn’t this make singing seem both mundane and heroic?” More fresh thoughts follow.

Thorn crushes our ideas about what makes a good singer. She has weak lungs, a pronounced underbite (one doctor suggested that she required a broken jaw) and asthma gained in her twenties from cats. We are told how singers with the greatest voices aren’t always happy with them – Dusty Springfield, for example, used to turn up her voice so loud when she was recording that she was, in essence, “singing into a void”. Meanwhile, Karen Carpenter, who was originally a drummer, didn’t want to go centre stage: “She hadn’t known what the rules were, and had never signed up to them.” Women’s doubts haunt this book like notes vibrating in the air. Nevertheless, Thorn pierces the ideas of stage fright (including hers) being born of vulnerability and of dysphonia – the inability to sing, which the folk singers Shirley Collins and Linda Thompson have suffered from – arising from hysteria.

There are chewy sections in which she meets other singers to debate the craft without pretension. The list is largely indie: the American singer Kristin Hersh, the wayward British pop singer Green Gartside, Romy Madley-Croft from the xx. “A lot of people sing better than me,” Madley-Croft says. Thorn replies, “That’s how I feel, too.”

The book has a searching spirit that feels ego-free, admitting to its flaws, such as when Thorn tries to describe a singer’s voice: “Ugh, all the same old words, and they won’t do, will they?” For me, a critic who barely reviews records any more by choice, that rings too true. She also has a facility with language that makes me want to hand in my freelancer’s P45. “A sneering engine of a voice levelled straight at your forehead” perfectly captures Liam Gallagher. “Gender-neutral, expressive without being melodramatically emotional and rebellious without buying the rock notion that rebelliousness was inherently masculine”: spot-on John Lydon. “Often accused of emulating black singers, but really, who? It’s a cartoon of a black singer, painted on to a balloon and then inflated, then put through a mangle, then through an amplifier”: one of the greatest descriptions I’ve heard of Mick Jagger. Thoughtful, funny, not overthought, just right . . . Bloody singers.

Thorn defends her passions enthusiastically, too – watching The X Factor, or singing in an Americanised accent, things that some people may think are weird. Ditto, not wanting to sing live any more: “I do sing, it’s just that quite often, like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, there is no one there to hear me.” We can hear her now, albeit in a different register. She wants to talk about everything and I’m still listening. 

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Brexit Big Brother is watching: how media moguls control the news

I know the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph well, and I don’t care to see them like this.

It would take a heart of stone now not to laugh at an illustration of Theresa May staring defiantly out at Europe from the British coast, next to the headline “Steel of the new Iron Lady”.

Those are, however, the words that adorned the front page of the Daily Mail just five months ago, without even a hint of sarcasm. There has been so much written about the Prime Minister and the strength of her character – not least during the election campaign – and yet that front page now seems toe-curlingly embarrassing.

Reality has a nasty habit of making its presence felt when news is remorselessly selected, day in and day out, to fit preconceived points of view. May and her whole “hard Brexit” agenda – which the public has now demonstrated it feels, at best, only half-heartedly enthusiastic about – has been an obsession of several British newspapers, not least the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

I know these papers well, having spent the best part of a quarter-century working for them, and I don’t care to see them like this. When I worked there, a degree of independent thought was permitted on both titles. I joined the Telegraph in 2002; at the time, my colleagues spoke with pride of the paper’s tolerance to opposing views. And when I was at the Mail, it happily employed the former Labour MP Roy Hattersley.

Would I be able to run positive stories about, say, my mate Gina Miller – who successfully campaigned for parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process – in the Telegraph if I were there today? Or at the Daily Mail? Dream on: it’s two minutes of hate for that “enemy of the people”.

Morale in these newsrooms must be low. I am finding that I have to allow an extra half-hour (and sometimes an extra bottle) for lunches with former colleagues these days, because they always feel the need to explain that they’re not Brexiteers themselves.

Among the Telegraph characters I kept in touch with was Sir David Barclay, who co-owns the paper with his brother, Sir Frederick. Alas, the invitations to tea at the Ritz (and the WhatsApp messages) came to an abrupt halt because of you-know-what.

I don’t think Sir David was a bad man, but he got a Brexit bee in his bonnet. I was conscious that he was close to Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, and both had cordial relations with Rupert Murdoch. It became clear that they had all persuaded themselves (and perhaps each other) that Brexit suited their best interests – and they are all stubborn.

It seems to me unutterably sad that they didn’t sound out more of their factory-floor staff on this issue. We journalists have never been the most popular people but, by and large, we all started out wanting to make the world a better place. We certainly didn’t plan to make it worse.

People used to tell me that papers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph changed because the country had but, even in the darkest days, I didn’t agree with that premise. We are in the mess we’re in now because of personalities – in newspapers every bit as much as in politics. The wrong people in the wrong jobs, at the wrong time.

Would the Daily Mail have backed Brexit under Dacre’s predecessor David English? It is hard to imagine. He was a committed and outward-looking Europhile who, in the 1970s, campaigned for the country to join the EU.

I can think of many Telegraph editors who would have baulked at urging their readers to vote Leave, not least Bill Deedes. Although he had his Eurosceptic moments, a man as well travelled, compassionate and loyal to successive Conservative prime ministers would never have come out in favour of Brexit.

It says a great deal about the times in which we live that the Daily Mirror is just about the only paper that will print my stuff these days. I had a lot of fun writing an election diary for it called “The Heckler”. Morale is high there precisely because the paper’s journalists are allowed to do what is right by their readers and, just as importantly, to be themselves.

Funnily enough, it reminded me of the Telegraph, back in the good old days. 

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496