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26 January 2022

One of my old cassettes takes me back to when I was the moody girl on guitar

I hear myself giggle on the recording, but I can’t help noticing that I don’t say much. The boys seem to be in charge.

By Tracey Thorn

I’ve spent the past couple of days listening to old cassettes. Not that this was an easy thing to do, as first of all I had to find something to listen to them on. An old Walkman in the garage contained leaky batteries and even with new ones it remained dead. Another seemed to be working but then chewed up a precious old cassette. Finally, at the back of our home studio, covered in a layer of dust, we found a tape deck – and I started to listen.

The tapes were about 40 years old and captured moments from the very beginning of my musical life. Here were the Marine Girls sounding raw and chaotic, our guitars echoing around a too-big rehearsal room, our inability to end a song in unison reducing us to fits of laughter. Here were other songs I’d recorded alone, planning a solo album as a follow-up to A Distant Shore. And here was a cassette from even further back, of me with my first teenage band, the Stern Bops.

It must have been about 1980. We were all 17 or 18 years old and practising in our guitarist’s bedroom. I was the only girl, and was on rhythm guitar, not vocals, and the collective noise we made was endearingly energetic and ramshackle. But it wasn’t the songs that really caught my attention; it was the bits in between, when our young selves were captured for ever in moments of silly chat and laughter, as though we were still there in that room, larking around, teasing each other.

“God it’s freezing in here,” says Dave, our guitarist, and it’s as if he’s standing next to me. He died a few years ago, and we’d lost touch anyway, so in my mind he is always 17. We had kissed in a bathroom at a party once, then I ended up going out with the bass player, so there must have been a certain frisson at these rehearsals – excitement in the air, blood running high. It’s almost unbearably poignant to listen to now.

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I say “hello” into the mic, and then the tape cuts off. Did we not record that song? Or did I tape over it afterwards, horrified by my singing voice? That seems all too likely. It was a long while before I dared sing in public. I hear myself giggle, but I can’t help noticing that I don’t say much. The boys seem to be in charge. In truth, I was a bit scared of their expertise, and mystified as to where they’d picked it up. I kept shtum so as not to embarrass myself. I was happy to appear enigmatic: the moody silent girl on guitar.

The tape continues and an extremely familiar guitar riff begins and in comes our raucous cover of “Twist and Shout”, which used to go down well at the parties where we played. I can’t help thinking as this song begins that these tapes are like my own tiny, insignificant version of the Beatles’ Get Back documentary series.

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When I watched that recently, I was struck by their endless mucking around, the deferring of work, the avoidance of being serious. I wondered: is it a particularly English thing? Forever putting off the moment of commitment with another silly voice, another parody? Taking the piss out of your own music with a self-deprecation that avoids any risk of pomposity? It was very familiar to me. It’s how it’s always been at every rehearsal or recording session.

And the other thought that occurs to me now is: if I find it poignant listening to a crappy tape of me and my friends from 40 years ago, what the hell is it like for Paul McCartney to watch Get Back? Does his heart slightly break when he sees footage of his eyes meeting John’s as they effortlessly harmonise? And can Ringo calmly watch himself and smile affectionately at the guy he used to be – an ever-present steadying force with those lilac-lidded heavy eyes looking both sad and serene – or does it make him want to weep?

I suppose all of us have our records of the past: the home movies, the photograph albums. They have to be handled with care because you know what’s coming for these people, both good and bad.

I carry on listening to my rehearsal tape. “What’s the time?” one of us asks. “I’ve got to go soon.”

[see also: How I wish my old diary held more detail of the night I met my husband]

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed