Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
Tracey Thorn’s memoir Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star came out this week in the U.K. That “tried” is a perfect word choice. For the length of the 30-year career Thorn documents, she’s been a small but significant figure in the pop world, making tender, melancholic recordings with a long list of notable collaborators — and scoring one gigantic worldwide hit almost exactly in the middle of that time.
Thorn began her recorded career in 1981 with a group called Marine Girls. They were a post-punk band, in the sense that their do-it-yourself aesthetic had been made possible by punk, but their sound was quiet, casual and witty. Marine Girls also became a cult item among much louder musicians: their first album, Beach Party, turned up on (some iterations of) Kurt Cobain’s list of his favorite records. Here’s “In Love” from it.
Marine Girls released records on the British label Cherry Red. So did the young singer-songwriter Ben Watt, who put out his first single, “Cant,” in the summer of 1981, and a bit later recorded the Summer Into Winter EP (including “Aquamarine,” below) with the older, peripatetic musician Robert Wyatt. Watt and Thorn met at Hull University that year, and have been a couple ever since.
Shortly thereafter, Thorn started making solo records of her own, and Marine Girls dissolved (the remaining members continued to record under the excellent name Grab Grab the Haddock). In 1982, Thorn released a solo EP, A Distant Shore, and a single that included a sad, delicate cover of the Monochrome Set’s then-two-year-old song “Goodbye Joe” — it had originally been another Cherry Red release a few years earlier.
That year, Watt and Thorn also started recording quiet, subtle songs together under the name Everything But the Girl. Their first single was, in its way, a statement of rebellion against the lingering shreds of punk orthodoxy: it was a cover of the Cole Porter standard “Night and Day,” from 1932. (“Rule one: no snare drum,” they declared when they were working on their debut album.)
Thorn’s also always been devoted to leftist politics. In 1984, she and Watt’s former collaborator Robert Wyatt were the vocalists on Working Week’s peculiar but charming jazz-dance single “Venceremos.” (Working Week were a project headed by a couple of former members of Weekend, who I mentioned here a few months ago in the context of Young Marble Giants.)
Both Watt and Thorn also contributed to the Style Council’s first album, Café Bleu, released in the U.S. as My Ever Changing Moods; Thorn sang on a version of their song “Paris Match.”
Everything But the Girl were habitués of the lower regions of the British pop charts until, in 1988, they released a British Top Five cover of Crazy Horse’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” (best known in Rod Stewart’s version). Then they promptly returned to being a cult item (and maintained their near-anonymity in the U.S.)
Thorn’s voice reached an entirely new audience in 1994, when the trip-hop group Massive Attack brought her in to sing on several songs on Protection, including the title track.
That was part of a conscious strategy on EBTG’s part. As Watt told Billboard in 1996, “we just had to consider the routes that were open to us… I felt that the route through club music… was something we could use in our sound certainly more successfully than trying to turn ourselves into Nirvana.” Everything But The Girl’s mid-1994 album Amplified Heart included a melancholy song called “Missing”; a year after the album came out, Todd Terry remixed it as an uptempo dance record. Terry was already a dance-music veteran; he was also particularly gifted at coming up with remixes that could completely transform a record. In 1988, he’d reworked Class Action’s 1983 late-disco jewel “Weekend” into an even more spectacular track that was released under the name The Todd Terry Project.
Terry’s remix of “Missing” became an international pop hit, and the first song ever to spend an entire year on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in the U.S. As Watt put it a few years ago, “the dancefloor never lies; there’s a meritocracy.”
The two Everything but the Girl albums that followed “Missing” had much more contemporary dance music in their DNA. Thorn also sang on a few more electronic records with other artists, including “The Tree Knows Everything” with Adam F, below. But after 1999’s EBTG album Temperamental, she decided she’d had enough of the pop life, and put the band on hiatus.
It wasn’t until 2007 that Thorn recorded again; she sang on a Tiefschwarz track, and released a second solo album, Out of the Woods. Its single was another dance record, “It’s All True,” recorded with Ewan Pearson. Thorn can barely be seen in the video, which reportedly suited her just fine.
She’s continued to collaborate intermittently, one way or another, with Watt, although so far not under the Everything But the Girl name; Thorn’s dread of repeating her past comes through clearly in Bedsit Disco Queen. And she’s continued to collaborate with people from unexpected corners of the pop world, like the Hungarian band the Unbending Trees, and–on a 2009 cover of the Magnetic Fields’ “Yeah! Oh, Yeah!”–Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman.
Thorn’s most recent recording is a Christmas album, Tinsel and Lights, that came out last year. As one might expect from her, it’s immaculately well-chosen songs, most of which are melancholy or conflicted about Christmas. Here’s the video for her own song “Joy,” which features her and Watt’s three children on backing vocals.