Reviewed: Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn
Backing into the spotlight.
Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star
Virago, 384pp, £13.99
It’s no surprise that Bedsit Disco Queen is an immensely likeable book. Everything but the Girl are (were?) an immensely likeable band and Tracey Thorn is an immensely likeable person – at least, she comes across that way in her songwriting, singing, interviews and, now, her autobiography. Caitlin Moran calls her “the Alan Bennett of pop memoirists” and the writer and the musician do have a great deal in common. Like Bennett, Thorn is observant, funny, modest and dry. Both have a profound sense of pop; they have each mastered their chosen form’s versions of catchy. Most of all, they share a particularly English conflict between propriety and fame.
No one has ever been more skilled than Bennett at backing into the spotlight. “Who? Me? Sorry, it’s very bright . . . Here? Oh, dear. Well, yes, I suppose now that I do have your attention, I’d better at least try to entertain you.” And then he does, in a way that has been scrupulously framed: I am here because of the audience’s desire for a performance, not my own desire to perform.
No performer is more beloved by the English than the reluctant and impromptu performer. The whole of Bedsit Disco Queen could be read as a sequence of “Who? Me?” moments. When Thorn auditions for the position of singer in her first band, she does so from inside a wardrobe. Hindsight has brought her a sophisticated understanding of what this might have been about:
Why was I so ambivalent about the very concept of attention, both wanting and not wanting it? Making music is never just about making music. It’s about being heard, fighting for your personal vision . . . But while I wanted all this, I seemed to want it in an invisible kind of way. I wanted to be heard without having to be heard . . .
Bedsit Disco Queen is written in such an understated manner that it often seems to be saying less than it is. But passionate points are always being made, often as asides, sometimes in carefully familiar language. Why, after all, is there any need for “fighting for your personal vision” when what you’re producing is “the utterly fey . . . wimp-pop” of the Marine Girls, the “a little bit indie, a little bit bossa nova” sounds of Everything but the Girl or the “stoned snail” “BOOF CLACK diddle-iddle-ick . . . (pause)” of the backing track to Massive Attack’s “Protection”? (All the bits in quotes here are Thorn’s descriptions.)
The answer needs to be put together from inferences scattered throughout the book. On EBTG’s first appearance at Glastonbury, Thorn writes, “For my generation, [festivals] have held none of the allure they do now, in my mind being forever associated with hippies, boring old farts, long hair, mud, prog rock and guitar solos – everything I hated and was bent on destroying.” Destroying? A few pages earlier, Thorn quotes a long review from the Village Voice of Todd Terry’s remix of “Missing” – a song that blithely meandered to number two in the US charts, making Thorn and Ben Watt proper famous: “The Remix EP proves that behind tonal modesty can lay stuff so devastating that it could level forces of distorted guitars.” Just to make it clear that this is a manifesto she could sign, Thorn immediately says, “I wish I’d said that.”
She may not have said it but she has been doing it all along: devastating and destroying. And this is where, apparently incongruously, Kurt Cobain comes in – Kurt of “long hair, mud . . . [and] guitar solos”, if not the other festival ingredients; Kurt, whose relationship with devastation and destruction seems a lot more obvious than Thorn’s. What connection could there possibly be?
In March and May 1981, in a shed in Ilford, the Marine Girls – not Thorn’s band but a band in which she wrote and sang quite a few of the songs – recorded an album called Beach Party. In 2002, when Cobain’s Journals were published, Thorn notes, “There are the Marine Girls on page 128 and page 241, while on page 77, in a list of his all-time favourite songs, are two of mine . . .”
Where Cobain and Thorn connect is feminism; where they disconnect is rock. In the early days of EBTG, Thorn was reading “Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan and Kate Millett” and “finding a theoretical framework for many of the instinctive grievances I’d had since I was a teenager”. Cobain was finding a similar framework through listening to the radically unmacho music of the Marine Girls, the Raincoats, the Slits, the Young Marble Giants. Thorn saw all the signifiers of cock rock as irredeemable. Electric guitars? Destroy all these fascist machines. Cobain loved the jagged sound of them and thought they could be rehabilitated by being lyrically undermined. The contradictions of where Cobain ended up – alternative, mainstream and dead – have been gone over enough times. It’s enough to suggest that, in his final days, if he’d been able to bear listening to it, an album as apparently innocuous as Beach Party couldn’t have helped but sound like: “J’accuse.”
This is not the devastation or destruction that Thorn was aiming at. It is, though, collateral damage to the indie values deriving from what Cobain, in his suicide note, called “punk rock 101 courses”. It is also something that is there in all the great music Thorn has made, “heard without having to be heard”. To a 13-year-old girl hearing them though a kitchen window on Radio 2 or Capital Gold, Everything but the Girl might be indistinguishable from other “new jazz” bands of the mid-1980s (such as Matt Bianco). But if she pays attention, she will find an absolute and empowering difference. She may also find something more passionate than likeability. A final, Alan Bennett-ish anecdote:
On a day off, Ben and I went for a stroll around Florence and found ourselves being pursued by a shouting mob of teenagers . . . Halfway across the Ponte Vecchio, they got close enough that we could hear their voices. “Hey! Matt Bianco! Matt Bianco!” they were shouting. This was too much . . . Ben stood his ground and shouted, “We are NOT fucking Matt Bianco!”