Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star, by Tracey Thorn, Virago, RRP£16.99, 384 pages
Tracey Thorn, already quite famous as one half of fey, melodic English indie group Everything But The Girl (known as EBTG), has written a memoir that may make her even more of a star. Bedsit Disco Queen is a funny, honest book about growing up as a music-mad, politically passionate suburban teenager, then forging a career in the male-dominated music world in the 1980s and 1990s.
Anyone who loves the sex-drugs-excess narratives of conventional celebrity autobiographies should probably steer clear of this one. Thorn first meets Ben Watt, the other half of EBTG, on their first day at Hull University in 1981. Racily, they go up to his room, where “Ben rolls a joint, puts on John Martyn’s Solid Air and my mind, as they say, is opened”. That’s it as far as debauchery goes. Watt and Thorn are still together nearly 32 years later, and have three children.
Indeed, the charm of this book lies in the unlikeliness of its authorial voice – Thorn is an interesting, thoughtful and (in her own assessment) often “awkward” woman who just happened to become a pop star. Though EBTG officially ended in 2000, she’s since released three solo albums.
Bedsit Disco Queen is also a nostalgia-fest for anyone who remembers that vanished age when people judged and were judged on the basis of the record collections visible on the shelves of rented flats. Our dominant cultural narrative of the 1980s is that of puffed-up excess, of City traders with giant mobile phones clamped to their ears, greed, champagne, and the Royal Wedding. Thorn’s book is a valuable reminder that there were parallel narratives of people looking for different connections and meanings in that decade. “Many of us simply lived an entirely different set of experiences, which seem to have gone unrecorded and unwritten about, so that it’s as though they never happened.”
Thorn’s world is that of John Peel on BBC Radio 1 every night; a world of bands, including EBTG, who played benefit gigs for striking miners and were self-consciously “right-on”. (In 1985 Thorn tells an interviewer from Smash Hits, a glossy teen pop magazine, that the last book she read was The British in Northern Ireland: The Case for Withdrawal.)
If this sounds 1980s-dour, it isn’t. Thorn is very funny on the day-to-day life of the pop star, including the “infantilising, but also addictive” world of the tour. There’s not much glamour: “Being on tour was always a bit Spinal Tap … During the UK tour for [the album] Idlewild, for instance, we drove after a gig from Loughborough to Norwich. As my diary records, we all got drunk in the van – I had to stop to pee in a field and fell over and stung my hands really badly on stinging nettles’.”
In the early 1990s Thorn started to suffer from severe self-doubt, and became detached from the music business. Then Watt almost died from a rare illness (he’s written a book about it, Patient) and Thorn is moving about this period: “It would be a long time before I could get over that state of appalled expectation, and break the habit of holding myself braced for bad news at any minute.”
Later, there’s massive and unexpected success with the single Missing; and Watt and Thorn keep playing after the birth of their twins in 1998. You really can’t blame her for taking that break after child number three. And it does make for a good anecdote: Thorn is chatting to the other mothers at the school gates when a black Range Rover pulls up: “The window whirred down and a voice called out, ‘Tracey! Tracey! Hi, how are you?’ In unison all heads turned towards the car and the familiar face that leaned out, the stubble and sunglasses confirming the unbelievable fact that, yes, it was George Michael.”