Thursday, 16 May 2013

‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ by Tracey Thorn.

"Women like Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde were a godsend to someone like me, who was a natural tomboy in appearance, and at the moment when I was trying to forge a self-image they seemed to beam the empowering message that you didn't need to be 'pretty' or take your kit off in order to get attention"

A pop memoir that affectionately tells the tale of a sometimes reluctant pop star, Tracey Thorn’s ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ reveals an artist who is all at once witty, intelligent, feminist, self-doubting, full of stage fright, but most of all likeable and modest. She talks of her wish to stay out of the limelight, to not play to the pop star machine, and with her prose that delves into old diaries to recount, you do believe her.

As half of ‘Everything But The Girl’ her relationship with trying to be a popstar starts in a garden shed with some school friends and runs alongside her later band mate Ben Watt (who I didn't know was her boyfriend/husband). Their relationship is written romantically yet without sentimentality, together from 19, mostly over a connection to make music colliding in an undergraduate bar at Hull, fusing his jazz with her indie, starting out with guitars and ending up electronic. There are little snippets of their personal life together, a first date where they saw different films after being unable to agree and had their date afterwards, to a spat in a hotel which left them in separate rooms, Ben’s near death from a rare condition and the birth of twin girls and a boy soon after. The trials and domesticity of their life accounted for without the mush of even a wedding picture that could leave you with a yuck feeling of the ‘Richard and Judy’ of pop.

The memoir starts with a very shy 14 year old, who on discovering punk ends up in a band, already having dabbled in the ‘token girl in a boy’s band’ mostly to get a boyfriend, awkwardly realising boys in bands don’t go out with girls in bands mostly,

‘It drove me mad to discover that the kind of female docility which I’d hoped had died out in about 1958 could still be appealing…I had assumed that the qualities I found attractive in boys - being clever and spirited and having a good record collection and being in a band - would work in reverse, but I was starting to wake up to the fact that, of course, many boys found those things threatening and unattractive in a girl’.

And now here's the bits that normally dominate the pop memoir. In the very early days, it reads as a sort of confessional of ways to fit in with a mostly male set up that left few female role models outside of Siouxsie Sioux or Poly Styrene. Tracey goes on to recount how she tried to shyly emulate Siouxsie during her first audition from behind a wardrobe door as the 'token' girl. This quickly led onto the formation of the all girl indie punk group, Marine Girls.

 A few years later, after juggling studies at Hull University in a relationship with her band mate, 'Everything But The Girl' was on the road, band crushing with Paul Weller between 'The Jam' and 'The Style Council' times, ending in a live collaboration and some embarrassingly penned fan letters, then on discovery of The Smiths, falling for Morrissey, a fellow melody maker and miserabilist. Tracey's ringlets were shorn off to an androgynous cut that left her adoring and emulating Moz, flowers on stage and all.  A few years on, a ‘Massive Idea’ would be scrawled on a cassette and an offer to support U2 on tour around America is left with Tracey saying to Ben,

'Actually, babe, d'you know what? I think I want to stop now'.

This pop memoir held my attention in the same way Marc Almond’s ‘Tainted Life’ did, mostly as these things only work if they get a bit ‘confessional’ and there’s nothing more boring than carefully worded industry talk and a who’s who of pop, plus the obligatory slanging matches and fall outs in music biography, (eg, ‘Morrissey and Marr, The Severed Alliance’ has been nothing more to me than something to dust on the bookshelf, even people that have borrowed it, have returned unfinished).

I think this is where Tracey’s book works, it’s no good writing a memoir unless there’s a story that universally appeals. What ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ and ‘Tainted Life’ share is humour, humanity and the agonies of growing up, you don’t even have to be the biggest ‘Everything But The Girl Fan’ to enjoy it. Anything pre-Missing 95 is *whoosh* right over my head musically, (although of course I will now look over the back catalogue)  but does show how big that track must have been as I was at University at the time and was far too busy being (intellectual?) drunk to watch Top of the Pops and probably didn't have a TV… but I enjoyed all the reminiscing and the largest part of the book is those earlier years that any teen struggling to find themselves will relate to. There’s politics too, not too much, just enough to watch the young Tracey angrily boycott Top of The Pops for years on the ground that girls danced in cages, and then to her socialist and feminist leanings, I would find it hard not to love her on this alone.

In the latter part of the book, Tracy becomes a mother and suddenly finds herself loving the minutia of life around other women for the first time, after years of working within a mostly male dominated industry. Her musings of unconditional love and protectiveness, for the most part over her song writing and now replaced with real babies, will resonate with most mothers… minus perhaps the celeb-ish anecdotes like George Michael pulling over to say ‘hi’ on the school run and her little boys saying ‘mummy, you’re singing in the shop’ while pushing a pram through Gap, all that does is give it that personable edge with some incredible glamour.

And something I learnt while reading this, bands don’t have much power, so next time I get on my high horse about how un-live a gig is, I might just wonder if they didn't get much choice over it. Tracey describes many incidences of lack of control over their performances and albums and how even after a huge hit, they still ended up lip-synching with Ben pretending to play a keyboard that wasn't even plugged in against their better judgement. She even talks at one point of how she wished she'd invented twitter so they could have had a place to kick back rather than sit alone in hotel rooms brooding and frustrated at the industry.

Anyway, I recommend this book if you like music and pop culture, if you've ever wanted to be in a band (I haven’t so even that’s not required) or if you’re just interested in hearing about someone’s life. It’s just so readable, and could probably stand alone outside of the ‘Popstar Trace’ angle. Every chapter is interspersed with song lyrics making that EBTG karaoke night even more of a possibility!

So here they are, her voice is beautiful, this song is lovely. Go get the Bedsit Disco Queen’s book now.

In other related news, I’ve spent about a million pounds on Bestival tickets and a tipi in the posh ‘glamping’ area *just* to see The Knife and the live reviews are SHOCKING so far. I exaggerate under stress of course. Blog love x

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The Alcohol Years - Carol Morley

It’s been a bit of a pop memoir kind of week so far. I'm currently reading ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ by Tracey Thorn, and then stumbled upon Carol Morley’s film ‘The Alcohol Years’ pre-dating the brilliant 'Dreams of A Life' and definitely worth a mention.

It’s a tale of five years of being quite lost yet right at the centre of an emerging music scene, hob- knobbing, quite literally, some of the movers and shakers and some not so, in and around The Factory of Hacienda. There’s a lot of mythologizing of said Madchester, the town you’re most likely to bump into someone buying Custard Creams at a corner shop, then see slumped in their own vomit outside a club and end up on Top of the Pops a week later. This film however is much more real, more interesting for me than '24 Hour Party People', which really did just send me to sleep if I'm honest, and as Morley points out in this interview, 

So what did I like about this? It’s a bit uncomfortable to watch in places, a bit like her other docufilm ‘Dreams of A Life’; some of the people interviewed kind of make you cringe, particularly Alan 'club owner man' who talks of her pretty face and big breasts, just too many times really. Then there’s 'I'm still mad at you eyes' man who clearly still has anger issues firing in Carol’s direction, he’s basically tired of talking about her, gets interviewed by her to tell her he’s tired of talking about her and effectively wants to say ‘shut up, we don’t need to talk about you any more’. So he’s in love with her then.

Then there’s her best mate and on/off partner in crime on the promiscuous front, ‘Debby’, who’s debauched revelry (basically carrying on like most men which means some adore her and others hate her) involved picking up people here, there and everywhere and spending quite a lot of New Order’s money in hotels. And then there’s an ode to her band 'ToT', they had two songs and couldn’t play anything. Win. Here's a fab interview with her explaining her inspiration and influences, very much centred on the word 'actuality'.

How did this film start? Well mostly after a chance meeting with someone from her past who told her stories she could not remember happening that led to a journey of, well let’s see what else I’ve forgotten. This transgressed to an advert in a paper that said ‘if you knew me between 82-87, please get in touch’. The docufilm of  ‘Dreams of A Life’ came about with a similar advert asking for anyone who knew the mysterious Joyce. These films do link for me as it’s as if Carol is the missing or dead person in her own film, a tale of a young woman, bleached hair, red lipstick, infantilised and playing with rubber ducks and train sets in nightclubs before preying on men and women alike to take to bed relentlessly. There’s hints this is due to the suicide of her dad when she was 11, a drinking habit that took hold by 12 years old, and a growing obsession with missing persons as he was known to ‘wander’ through her childhood.

'The Alcohol Years', as did 'Dreams of A Life', feels like the script emanated from a social network wall of comments and albums of images of your worst and slightly better moments #confessional. Yet Carol professes not to like that word, it seems she is one for putting her own life under a difficult microscope. It did come across as the unromantic unravelling of the myth of Manchester that left her with enough people to want to say something about her years and years later after she escaped, you never see her as she’s behind the camera, but at times you hear a snigger.

Doesn’t everyone wonder how others see them, and especially in their darkest hours and in a *shudder* reunion kind of way? I reckon my equivalent ‘ The Liebfraumilch Through a Straw in a Spar Car Park Years’ wouldn’t be half as rock n roll though. It will be interesting to see where her filmmaking goes from here on, it's already evolving with 'Edge'...and will big brother Paul be dragged in at any point, seeing as he’s always got plentiful to say for himself. Not a beautiful film in a mainstream kind of way, but definitely worth watching; a reunion with a realistic difference in the construction of memory... by another brilliant lady.

In The Alcohol Years, one interviewee recalls a heartfelt letter from the young Morley bemoaning her "floundering". At the screening, the director explained her motivation in making Edge: "Something I am fascinated by is how, as a collection, a collective, we can make something of our lives beyond the isolation. So, I guess I always want to make some attempt in my films to bring people together."

Related Post: Dreams Of A Life