Last week songwriter Tracey Thorn, who's best known for her work in the musical duo Everything But the Girl, released her memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star in the U.S. It's a witty and charming chronicle of a career full of happy accidents and success found in the least likely of places — like clubland, which the formerly acoustic-based duo took by storm in 1995 when legendary house producer Todd Terry remixed their "Missing" and the results yielded a global smash.
It was a long road to electronic reinvention. The following excerpt from Bedsit Disco Queen deals with Everything but the Girl's early experiences in the United States, including the recording of their fifth album, The Language of Life, in Los Angeles. Read it and join us a 1 p.m. ET, when Tracey will take part in a reader Q&A in the discussion section of this post.
How quickly a pop career goes by. Leaves behind its beginnings and transforms into something you never imagined, never planned for, perhaps never wanted. It was only 1989. Only five years since I'd left Hull University, wrapped in glory, the indie darling. Now the overwhelming feeling I had within the UK music scene – no longer being part of an indie band, not part of the rave culture, nor happily existing at mainstream level, above such concerns – was that of isolation.
It was the Summer of Love. All around me young people were heading out to the countryside to take drugs in fields and dance around in cagoules to loud, repetitive beats.
And what did we do? We headed out to the countryside and . . . bought a little cottage.
Did anyone mention the word retreat?
In a time-wasting fury of DIY mania, we ripped up carpets and threw them from the upstairs windows, stripped off wallpaper and painted bare walls chalky-white, disconnected the cooker and replaced it with an oil-burning stove and water heater that never really worked. I decided to take on the garden as my project and spent whole days, until late into the evening, struggling to clear beds choked with sticky goose grass and stinging nettles. It took me back to my childhood spent playing in the fields around the village, finding dandelion clocks and the papery seed pods of honesty. I knew precisely nothing about gardening, and would rip away at bunches of ground elder till they broke off in my hand, not realising they had an underground root system, which would ensure they came back bigger and stronger by the next morning. Having cleared an area of a few square yards, I filled the space with whatever was in flower down at the garden centre, then left the plants to fend for themselves, till within a few weeks they had wilted, or starved, or been smothered by the weeds which, reinvigorated by my turning of the soil and dispersing of their seeds, had now returned with a vengeance.
After we'd finished with the inside of the cottage, and had removed anything that smacked of suburban modern comforts, we sat down in our newly minimal space and looked out of the window. And got up to rearrange something, and sat back down again. And watched as it got dark at three o'clock in the afternoon.
‘Jesus,' I said, ‘it's very quiet, isn't it?'
Ben was pacing about a bit.
‘What time does the pub open?' we wondered.
This clearly wasn't going to work. It took us about half an hour to discover that we weren't cut out for the country life at all. The silence at night spooked us, and we couldn't sleep without the soothing sound of traffic. When a solitary car would amble down the lane late, and its headlights sweep across our bedroom curtains, I would sit bolt upright in bed, waiting for the smash of the downstairs window as the inevitable axe murderer broke in. It seemed to be dark more or less all day long, and if we arrived for a weekend it would take us most of Saturday and Sunday to get the place warmed up. What had we been thinking? We were townies, through and through; we just hadn't realised it.
Pretty soon we'd sold the cottage and come back to London full time.
But still I couldn't decide what to do next, or how to fill the time while I tried to decide.
I took another very un-rock 'n' roll decision and applied to study for an MA in Modern English Literature at Birkbeck College. I went up for an interview, at which they eyed me suspiciously.
‘So, you say you're in a pop group?' A little glance off to the side, a suppressed smirk.
‘Ye-e-es, that's right. But it doesn't take up all my time, and this is a part-time course . . . '
‘And do you ... go off on ... tours?' Barely keeping a straight face now.
‘Well, yes, but I can read on the bus.'
By October 1988, I was spending Monday evenings in tutorial sessions, talking about Yeats and Pound, Leavis and Empson, Foucault and feminism.
None of these projects or diversions solved the problem, though, or answered the basic question that was nagging away at us both – how we should make another record. And there was no doubt that we would make another one. The dilemma was fundamentally a musical one, and could only be answered in those terms. We'd lost our place within the UK music scene, partly because it had moved away from what felt instinctive to us, but also because we'd drifted into making careless mistakes. And now we felt rejected, misunderstood and blameless, and extremely sorry for ourselves. And so, like many before us, feeling scorned in Britain we went to America to feel forgiven.
It was different there. As an English band you always felt glamorous anyway. It was only a slight extension of the way in which all English people are made to feel – smart and sophisticated.
When we toured there, I always felt I was regarded as cooler, cleverer, classier than I was at home. And in the late 1980s we were still seen as being part of a pop avant-garde, experimenting with and updating classic elements from jazz and soul and stripped-down songwriting. Having not had any hits in the US also meant that we were not at all mainstream. Given that we now felt we were widely perceived in the UK as being a bit naff, this was enormously appealing.
We decided it was time to return a phone call that had first come in a few years ago. Soul/jazz producer Tommy LiPuma, who had worked with a catalogue of greats from Horace Silver and Miles Davis through to Randy Newman and George Benson, and who had recently contributed production to Aztec Camera's Love album, had said long ago that he had an interest in producing us. At the time it hadn't seemed the right thing to do, but now we took a leap of faith, contacted him and asked him if he wanted to hear some demos.
Tommy, who came from the old school in the strictest sense, said that he wasn't interested in hearing demos, he just wanted us to come out to New York and play him the songs we had. We obediently got on a plane and went to meet him at his Upper East Side apartment, which oozed Manhattan class, with fine art on the walls and a huge wine fridge in the kitchen. From there, we all went to a downtown studio, where he led us into a small recording room containing just a piano and a mic.
‘OK,' he said, ‘just play me what you got!'
Fuck, this was just like the Brill Building come to life! We were Leiber and Stoller! We were Gerry Goffin and Carole King!
We spent the whole day round the piano, hammering out every song we'd written in the last year, till I had no voice left and no idea whether I was any good or not.
‘That's terrific,' said Tommy. ‘Now we just pick the ten best and get started.'
So it was as simple as that? Apparently so.
This was a whole new approach for us, a kind of Tin Pan Alley tradition of record-making. We were the ‘talent', in the sense that we wrote the songs and sang them, but beyond that we were not expected to come up with much else in the way of making the record. It was decided that we would record in LA, using classic studios like Sunset Sound and Ocean Way. The song arrangements were written for us by Larry Williams and Jerry Hey (both of whom had been instrumental in creating those Quincy Jones–Michael Jackson records), the band was put together for us and consisted of Omar Hakim on drums, John Patitucci on bass and Larry Williams on keyboards, with Ben playing guitar and piano. We simply gave ourselves up to the experience, happy to have been relieved of some of the burden of decision-making.
As for these musicians we were working with in America, they knew little of our background, or the esoteric British scene we'd emerged from, and why on earth should they? They could not have begun to comprehend how convoluted our ideas were about this record we were making, or about records in general. Though fairly diluted by this point, I still carried around a certain amount of attitude that was basically grounded in a punk sensibility. When Larry Williams, for instance, found out that we had recorded at Abbey Road, he was immediately impressed because it fitted us into a Great Tradition of record-making.
‘Oh wow, guys,' he'd say, ‘Abbey Road. The home of the Beatles!'
‘God, I HATE the Beatles,' I replied.
There was a stunned silence.
‘You ha-a-ate the Beatles ...?' he faltered. Clearly this wasn't a stance he had ever encountered before, whereas I had grown up around people who thought there was no greater fun to be had than dissing the Rolling Stones, or saying Bob Marley was crap. A certain iconoclasm was in the very air I breathed back home, but here it seemed it just didn't translate.
If we'd thought that we might be about to recreate some classic 1970s grooves, though, we soon found that we were sorely mistaken. These guys were all fully locked into the rhythm and production ideas of mid-1980s US jazz–soul fusion, and thought the 1970s were old hat, while many of the current innovations seemed to them to be a mere flash in the pan. A bit too trashy, too ‘pop' even, to appear on a serious record. Hip hop and house beats were for kiddies, while they were going to show us how to make a record for grown-ups.
Starting work on a track in the studio one day, Ben tentatively suggested that he'd always heard it with a kind of swung beat, which he thought would sound great played in real time by a real drummer. They burst out laughing, and began to play the rhythm he'd suggested.
‘Shit, man, that's a boogaloo!' they chuckled.
‘People gonna say, "That's hysterical! You got Omar Hakim playing a boogaloo!"'
Whatever a boogaloo was, clearly it wasn't cool.
Another time, they started up a cabaret-style version of a current popular beat. Again, they obviously thought it was pathetic.
‘New Jack Swing?' they declared. ‘Noo Jack Shit!'
And we were on their turf, after all. We had come here specifically to buy some of what they were selling. There didn't seem to be much point in flying all the way out to LA and then demanding we make the same record we could have made back home. So for once, we kept our mouths shut and let ourselves sink into what was actually an extraordinarily easy and enjoyable experience.
We were innocents abroad, in many ways. We decided it would make sense if we stayed at the same hotel as Tommy LiPuma, so we checked into the Four Seasons Beverly Hills and stayed there, in a luxurious corner room with a wrap-around balcony and a view, for eight weeks. Being in a hotel meant that we had to send our clothes off to the hotel laundry service, and at the end of the first week I asked to see a running total of the bill, just to keep a check on things. The laundry bill alone was equivalent to the entire recording budget of my earliest records.
For the next eight weeks there were dinners every night in fancy restaurants. Anyone who happened to be in the studio was invited along. Tommy would order the wine and we would all drink it. We learned about Californian chardonnays and Caesar salads and grilled swordfish, when these things were unheard of in England. Ben hired a car and drove us through Laurel Canyon every day to the recording studio, and at night would drive it back to be valet-parked at the hotel. On a weekend off we drove up to the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, where Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh had got married, and stayed in a bougainvillea-draped cabin with a wood fire burning. Another weekend, we flew out to the Grand Canyon and stayed in a hotel right by the rim, overwhelmed by the vastness of the landscape outside. I took photos of the view and of cactus flowers that looked like birthday candles on a cake, and in the clear desert air the damp and chill of England seemed a long way away.
In LA, in the hotel pool in my bikini, I was Joni Mitchell in the photo on the back cover of The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The hotel smelled of lilies, and every time we wanted to leave we called down to reception for the car to be brought to the door. It was impossible not to be seduced by the California sun and the luxury lifestyle.
Back in the studio, it seemed Tommy only had to pick up the phone and any musician we wanted would come along to contribute. We needed a sax solo on one song and I said, ‘We sort of need someone who plays like Stan Getz.'
‘Stan, it's Tommy here,' he said into the phone. ‘Listen, I got a song I want you to hear ...'
And I was very much ‘just the singer'. I played not a single note on a guitar or piano, and so long hours were spent sitting in the control room while the tracks were recorded. Then, when the record was being mixed, I realised that I couldn't, as I would do in London, pop home for a few hours and come back to hear more finished results. I've never been able to sit in the room while a bass-drum sound is laboured over for six hours, and have always thought that I could offer more by returning with fresh ears and being the one to say, ‘But the vocal's too quiet!' or, ‘What have you done to the piano? It sounds like a hurdy-gurdy.' Here, in LA, I had to retire to the lounge while Ben sat in on a lot of the mixing. I learned to play Super Mario Bros., and in the evenings Joe Sample would tap on the door and come and sit with me, having had a row at home.
But the whole project was expensive, and who on earth did we think was paying for all this? I certainly never gave the matter any serious consideration. I knew enough to realise that ultimately we ourselves paid the full costs of any recording budget. But I hadn't stopped to think that being away from home meant that all these extra expenses – every hotel room, every breakfast, every car-parking bill, every bottle of wine – became part of the recording budget. When we got back home, we had two things under our arm: a fully realised, immaculately performed and produced modern American soul–pop record, and an enormous bill, which we were going to have to sell a lot of records to pay off.