Tracey Thorn’s account of her years as half of the band Everything but the girl, Bedsit disco queen, has been praised as both an enjoyable, honest memoir and a fascinating journey through British music from punk to the mid-2000s. It is both, but it is also possible to read as a guide to a creative career, in this case in music. I’m going to review it as that.
Thorn started with a punk ethos of, we can do this ourselves. In 1980, her first band the Stern Bops provided a track to a compilation cassette sold for £1.50 through a couple of local record shops and an NME small ad; she recalls going to a tape copying facility in London to get more run off. The chapter is titled ‘DIY’.
Thorn and her partner Ben Watts formed the band Everything but the girl in 1982 at Hull University and continued until 2000. Despite this, she describes being a singer as “a job I wasn’t really cut out for” – she feels more comfortable writing and recording, and suffers periodically from stage fright. She uses this distance at some points of the book to assess pop music as a career option.
One thing it’s not set up for is maternity leave. Everything but the girl concludes in 2000 – it sounds wrong to say it breaks up, because Thorn and Watts have three children, and her desire to look after them (after an attempt to go on tour with twins) is what leads her to semi-retire in her late 30s. Watts carries on as a DJ and club promoter – which allows him to do his share of childcare, and also strike a reasonable work-life balance. Perhaps it’s time to see Boy George as a careers guru.
Thorn is great on the expectations and pressures on performers including singers (as opposed to DJs, writers and recording artists – Thorn has since returned to the latter, but with minimal performing, although she is going on a reading tour for this book, see panel on bottom-left). She describes life on tour as “a strangely infantilising experience… on a day-to-day level the job can be subtly disempowering,” with managers acting as parents organising every waking moment, ‘per diems’ as pocket money and tour catering like school dinners. She adds that it’s addictive, but: “You can see why celebrities turn into arseholes, even if they’re not to begin with.” With everything done for you, you don’t know how to do it yourself any more, Thorn says, and if you try to change things you sound like a diva.
There are interesting sections on the band ceding too much control and ending up with records they didn’t really like; the mixed blessing of doing very well with a version of someone else’s song (‘I don’t want to talk about it’, originally sung by Rod Stewart – Thorn relates how its success lost them cool points) and the joy when their 1993 album Amplified Heart, which the band do their own way following Watts’ serious illness, is a great success.
That album also contains a lesson about being open to opportunity in a creative career. One track, ‘Missing’, fails to sell as a single, but the band’s US label gets it remixed. Eventually, this version becomes Everything but the girl’s biggest hit and opens new doors for them in dance music, as Thorn sings with Massive Attack and Watts DJ-ing. This happened just after their long-time record company had dropped them: “It says something yet again about how peculiar and unpredictable and uncontrollable a career in the music business can be,” Thorn writes.
What conclusions can someone wanting to pursue a creative career draw? Firstly, DIY is a great way to start, and that punk-era approach is available today through self-publishing. You don’t need a record label to release your music and you don’t need a publisher to publish a book.
But secondly, there are times when having a corporate backer helps. Thorn’s career shows the help a corporate backer can provide (such as the ‘Missing’ remix, but also the dull stuff of organising promotion, production and distribution, and offering what amounts to venture capital in the first place), as well as the problems they can cause. However, such backers are far weaker than they once were, in all types of media. DIY can be very hard work, and creative people are not always great at the nuts and bolts.
Thirdly, given the difficulty of predicting what will and will not sell, creators should aim to produce material of which they are proud. Thorn talks about “a big dip” in her career with a slick album she and Watts produced in the US; there’s a funny anecdote about them being applauded at a media conference for ‘Driving’, a track that was apparently ideal for ‘New Adult Contemporary’ (NAC) format radio stations. The album made money, but “something was missing, and it was this: it was the feeling that I was expressing what I intended to express… It was the feeling of belonging,” she writes.
Creating is a very odd sort of career. Bedsit disco queen is, among other good things, a great career manual for it.