Caught by the River

Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up And Tried To Be A Popstar

Emma Warren | 4th February 2013


A review by Emma Warren.

It’s funny that Tracey Thorn’s autobiography has a tagline about trying to be a popstar, because one of things that rings out through this brilliant and charming book is the tension between not wanting to be in the ‘kryptonite’ public gaze and the singer’s need to do what comes naturally.

On one hand, she performs her audition for her first band Stern Bops from inside a wardrobe, such is her desire not to be seen. On the other, she actively chooses a life which has seen her sell nine million records and have at least three separate, interlinked musical lives as part of cult post-punk girl band Marine Girls, then through Everything But The Girl and their accidental pop success, and onwards through the whole Massive Attack Todd Terry phase, during which time she and Ben found themselves at Fabio’s tiny drum ‘n’ bass night Speed and recognised it as the logical inheritor of the punk world they’d come from: “It was like a postmodern Specials gig… strange yet familiar. It felt possible”.

It’s this tension between what she most wants and what she most fears that makes this book so readable. That, and the brilliantly deadpan prose. You can almost hear her pausing at times: “I violently disapproved of Top Of The Pops,” she says in a section about how normal it was to be political in the 1980s. “Too mainstream, too commercial and probably sexist.”

The book is filled with detail that evokes both an individual life and a time passed: she loved Julie Burchill but cut Tony Parsons out of the picture on her bedroom wall; The Marine Girls bought a drum machine because no-one knew a girl with a drum kit; the Miner’s Benefit concert at which they shared a bill with Wham!

The detail around the intersection between music and politics is fascinating. She evokes a period of time where Red Wedge had their own offices on the Walworth Rd, held minuted meetings and had ambitions to get local officials onto safe seats in Leicestershire. She tells a very funny story about the ‘socialist Eurovision Song Concert’ where she helped judge a competition with old-school labour MP Eric Heffer to find a song for the party which involved him dismissing some Midlands dread reggae as ‘country and western rubbish’ and which involved a stand-off between the MP and Thorn as he insisted on only hearing entries from Liverpool, and she insisted on hearing all the entries from WOMEN.

Thorn’s broad political prism covers love and relationships, too. Being in a band, she recognises, gives you instant power. But it didn’t immediately solve the love equation. There’s a great line about the moment she shares her youthful hope that the qualities she liked in boys, ‘being clever and spirited and having a good record collection’ would work in reverse. It didn’t, until she found Ben Watt at Hull University, and my teenage self wanted to shout out loud: I know! Isn’t it unfair! Watt appears as a constant background pulse, a device that neatly sees off the problem of revealing too much about her private life.

There’s a second tension in the book which threads throughout: between how she and her bands look and how they sound – or more accurately, the difference between the intention and the end result. Much like David Byrne explains on the sleevenotes of his Tropicalia compilation Beleza Tropical, soft and tender music can mask a radical intention. She dealt with this by dressing in Sex Pistols Ts and big boots to signal their intent, for those that couldn’t hear it through their love of bossa nova and Vic Godard. Just remember for one minute that Thorn’s early incarnation involved songs about Spanish tourists getting caught up in ETA bombings, and then call them easy listening. Or as she says, “sounding like Astrud Gilberto whilst coming on like Gang Of Four was always going to be a problem”.

It was their American hiatus and accidental position as a New Jazz, for American audiences at least, that sowed the seeds for ‘Missing’. In America they happily co-existed with Jam and Lewis or Sade (and Kenny G, Thorn says, ever-honest) which meant that Todd Terry’s mix of Missing made perfect psycho-geographic sense to the mid ’90s New York club kids and the Atlantic A&R man who pushed the mix until it took on it’s own smash hit trajectory. She’s very clear, though, it wasn’t just Massive Attack and Todd Terry who opened the doors to EBTG’s second wind. It was Fairport Convention, although you’ll have to read the book to find out why.

It is, she says in the introduction, a story where characters blunder through life. Blundering never seemed so human, or so much fun.

Bedsit Disco Queen is published by Virago on Thursday. Copies can be pre-ordered from the Caught by the River shop at the special price of £13.00

It gives us great pleasure to be hosting the official launch of Bedsit Disco Queen on the day of it’s publication (7pm on 7 February 2013) at Rough Trade East. On the night, Tracey will be in conversation with Caught by the River contributor Emma Warren. More information on this event can be found on the Rough Trade website, here. Guaranteed to be busy so plan to arrive early.