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Tracey Thorn: "The question was always, 'Do I fit in? Do I want to fit in?'"

The Books Interview.

On the cover of your book, Bedsit Disco Queen, Caitlin Moran describes you as the “Alan Bennett of pop memoirists”. What do you think she meant by that?
Thanks Caitlin! Essentially, this is a story about ambivalence, about wanting it [being in the spotlight] and not wanting it.

The question was always, “Do I fit in? Do I want to fit in?” There was always a tug between wanting attention and wanting to hide.

That ambivalence is also related to the aesthetic choices you made, isn’t it – the privileging of quietness and reticence?
It’s an argument I feel I’ve been having since the very beginning. I talk in the book about the early interviews where people would throw words like “easy listening” at us and I’d storm out of the room. I think, right from the beginning, I knew that what I was doing sonically couldn’t level people with sheer volume and bluster.

The cover of the book shows you playing the first guitar you bought – a black Les Paul copy. Were you aware of the iconography of that instrument, the sexual politics of it?
Well, no. As I try to point out in the book, I was much more innocent about it all. And ignorant – I didn’t even really understand how an electric guitar works.

When I look back now, I think, “That’s really revolutionary.” To be a girl and go and buy this thing just because you think it’s cool, when you haven’t even worked out how it works . . . In a way, just with that level of ignorance, you’re undermining all the seriousness and pre-existing iconography of the Les Paul guitar.

From very early on, you were struggling to find musical forms that could accommodate your desire to write raw, intimate songs.
In the Marine Girls, for instance, things were very rough and ready sonically and we were genuinely amateurish-sounding. So it was easy for people to see the rawness.

But I got a bit tired of that. I thought it was a bit of a dead end. As a singer, I could already hear that I had the potential to get a bit better than that. Inevitably, the records we made as Everything but the Girl became more polished-sounding and people lost the ability to say, “It’s punky because it’s rough-andready- sounding.”

Do you think you were misunderstood?
In the mid-1980s, we were writing often quite political lyrics but again they would sometimes be missed within the sonic setting. I do say something about coming on like the Gang of Four but sounding like Astrud Gilberto!

This was something that other people were wrestling with at the time, wasn’t it? Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, for instance.
Yes. He had come from the absolute outer limits of demystification and went as far as you could go in the other direction, in terms of pop production, gloss, appearance. It was a very bold journey to undertake.

As the 1980s progressed, a kind of political ambivalence set in.
It was difficult. We hit that point where I sometimes felt I was ranting on like an old harpy when everyone else had stopped thinking that argument was worth having. Then it struck me: “Is the ‘Should we or shouldn’t we go on Top of the Pops?’ argument actually over?”

One gets the impression that your career has been something that happened to you rather than being something you actively desired.
I didn’t start out wanting one. I’m sure there are people who started out genuinely believing in being pop stars but I honestly hadn’t thought about that.

Also, I don’t think we were a very careerist generation. We were much less organised than it seems to me young people are today. They’re terribly organised and ambitious and have everything mapped out. I think that’s because there’s less of a safety net now so you need to be organised. But we had the luxury of just bumbling along and assuming it’d all be fine.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire Tracey Thorn’s “Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star” is published by Virago, (£13.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis