Naked at the Albert Hall by Tracey Thorn, Virago 2015
Bedsit Disco Queen by Tracey Thorn, Virago 2013
I’ll probably always associate Tracey Thorn’s voice with slightly hungover Sunday mornings. Back in the mid-80s Auckland BFM used to frequently play Everything But the Girl’s ‘Each and Everyone One’ at that time of the week: I loved it so much I went and bought the album.
‘Eden’ – which could out last year in a remastered digital version – became regular Sunday morning music, with or without hangover.
While one of these books is a memoir and the other is a book about singing – mostly other people’s singing – they are both really books of a Music Fan (and I capitalise that title deliberately). A Music Fan who just happened to be a singer herself, equipped the with the experience, as well as the wry observational skill and writing ability, to get what she wants to say across.
Or not, sometimes.
Here is Thorn, about a programme in which Elvis Costello enthused about her favourite singer, Dusty Springfield
‘…and for the first time I truly heard that voice – that smoky, husky breathy, vulnerable, bruised resigned, deliberate, sensual voice.
At which point Thorn breaks off, exasperated.
‘Ugh. All the same old words, and they won’t do, will they?’
And she goes on to quote Barthes – a theorist chappie who hurt my brain so much at uni I stopped reading such stuff – on the adjective being ‘the poorest linguistic category’.
All of which might make Naked at the Albert Hall sound inaccessibly pretentious and high brow.
It ain’t. Thorn switches between the deep thinky stuff and the engagingly human, readily and easily.
There is a lovely vignette of being recognised in a night club toilet as she washed her hands: instead of being asked for an autograph or a photo she was asked by some girls to sing a few bars of ‘Missing’
to prove she was that
She did so – ‘because I’d presumably had a few drinks or I would have run a mile in the opposite direction’ and the girls grabbed each other and squealed “YOU SOUND JUST LIKE YOU!”
Which, naturally, becomes a chapter heading. It is perfect for this book.
She starts with the basics of singing, pointing out the primary purpose of the vocal tract is not even to make a noise: it is there to stop us from choking.
‘…is like using a cheese grater or a vacuum clearer to make music, and doesn’t this make singing seem both mundane and heroic?’
Her own career emerged in the aftermath of punk and although the band she formed with partner Ben Watt sounded very unlike punk they considered themselves heirs of the tradition and for that reason refused to go on Top of the Pops to promote their records.
Thorn, in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, remembers all this, and that many, in Britain’s fractious national cultural obsession with in-groups and out-groups, couldn’t handle thus rather difficult-to-categorise band. After ‘Eden’ – came out nearly a year after they had recorded it, and after their music had changed,
‘Those who didn’t like what we were doing had marshalled themselves by now and launched an attack and it was mostly based on the recurring accusation that we were soppy wimps, wallowing in easy-listening blandness,. Making soft tinged soft rock background music for bed wetters. I think that sums it up – have I forgotten anything?
‘Our career might have been heading at full speed towards the mainstream pop world, but I had in no way made my peace with what that meant, so while we were making quite commercial sounding music, we were at the same time trying to uphold the stand taken by the Clash.’
Later, at the time of Britpop wars between Oasis and Bur she preferred Oasis because of Liam Gallagher’s singing:
‘a sneering engine of a voice levelled straight at your forehead, the first vocalist since John Lydon to capture that underdog spirit of defiance in all its glory…At the super-slick, stage-managed MTV Awards I attended in New York he rolled onto the stage, spat on the floor, sang at us with lazy, contemptuous fury, and made me proud to be British.
‘But his voice really was the most impressive thing about them…’
The trouble was, Thorn can sing, and sing very well. Damn.
While ‘unconventional’ singers – Bob Dylan being the proto-example – had always abounded in rock music, punk made a point of, to use a phrase Thorn makes her chapter title on the subject, ‘No Singing’.
This, though, was itself a contrivance.
‘Listening to Johnny Rotten, you couldn’t possibly believe in his delivery as a “natural” way of singing. It’s completely improbable to picture an early rehearsal, at which the band started up the opening riff, of, say, Pretty Vacant and Johnny just opened up his mouth and that was the sound that came out. No, you could be sure that a lot of thought had gone into that sound; that it was a style of singing that embodied a whole attitude towards singing and music.’
Thorn herself tried emulating Siouxsie Sioux but ‘realising I could actually sing, it seemed liked an act of the greatest inauthenticity to cover it up’
The idea that a ‘difficult’ voice is more authentic and it is there for a reason, she suggests: it makes people listen more closely, make more effort.
‘And so the non-singing style of punk and its aftermath meant that you could impress upon an audience, and perhaps more to the point, upon music critics, the thing that you were serious, worthy of close scrutiny; that your work was demanding, and by implication, clever.’
It was also – as Thorn implies rather than makes explicit – something of a charter for posers and frauds.
But more personally, ‘it seemed to be taken for granted by many journalists that there was something suspect about what might be termed “proper” singing.’
The singer, she says, is almost always the way in to the band…something I’m not sure I agree with. Personally I often find the guitars or drums are the way I get into a band, and can almost be indifferent to the singer. The Who is probably the best example I can think of.
It’s possible, in fact, to find the singer a bit off putting – again the Smiths, a band I’ll return to in a few weeks – being a personal example.
Bedsit Disco Queen – the earlier book, and the more direct memoir – is unlike almost any muso memoir I’ve read. It lacks the usual narrative arc (boy meets guitar; boy gets famous; boy meets drugs; boy has identity/life crisis; boy cleans up/becomes older/wiser/more pompous and boring).
Thorn lacks the grandiosity for that: there are laughs a-plenty but they are about human foibles (her own and others) rather than of the tv in the hotel swimming pool/amazingly dumb things done while smashed out of brain/oh how we laughed variety.
There are some lovely observations of the ‘strangely infantilising’ and ‘subtly disempowering’ experience of being a musician on tour – ‘yes it is infantilising, but also addictive…on the surface luxurious and lazy, but in the middle of it all you can feel powerless, useless and without choice.’
One example of a growing suspicion the ‘grown ups’ weren’t necessarily all that clued up: the video for the ‘When All’s Well’ in 1985, the clip was made to mate the lyrics ‘when all’s well, my life is like cathedral bells’ with a shot of Thorn standing inside an enormous cross section of on overturned bell, while partner Ben would be stuck down a well..
‘Yes, I know. But the idea went down a storm in the recording company offices……If in the finished version we look a little uncertain as to what on earth we are doing, I ask you to search your conscience and tell me if you could have done any better.’
The dreary right on 1980s politics gets a chapter to itself, including the much-mocked ‘Red Wedge’ campaign by the British arts community which did so much to prevent Margaret Thatcher being an effective prime minister.
There was an abortive “Song for Labour” project – a sort of “socialist Eurovision Song Contest” she says – and tells of left wing Labour MP Eric Heffer, brought in to adjudicate on the offerings, dismissing what Thorn calls an ‘apocalyptic’ reggae number with the comment that ‘we don’t want that kind of country and western thing.’
The meeting descends into further farce…but, look, I won’t spoil the book. Read the rest. It’s worth it.
Both books are. Thorn is a great, thoughtful, humorous and occasionally spiky read.