Everything But The Girl

TrackAlbum / EP / Single
Each And Every OneEden
Native LandBlanco Y Negro NEG 6
Ugly Little DreamsLove Not Money
Cross My HeartBaby, The Stars Shine Bright
Tears All Over TownIdlewild
Imagining AmericaThe Language Of Life
My Head Is My Only House...I Didn't Know I Was Looking For Love EP
RollercoasterAmplified Heart
MissingAmplified Heart
Walking WoundedWalking Wounded

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Contributor: David Tanner

In June 1996, I was at an Everything But The Girl gig in the Town & Country Club in Leeds, it was a mix of new electronic tracks with some interludes of older acoustic calm.

“Why do they keep slowing down? It’s better when they’re all dancey,” shouts someone.

However, as EBTG start their next song it’s very ‘dancey’ and the place goes wild with whistles and dancing. Danny Thompson, the veteran bass player, looks across at Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, shakes his head and grins. The track is the international pop dance hit, Missing. How on earth had EBTG got here?

 

An indie jazz pop band?

“Could Tracey Thorn of the Marine Girls please come up to reception now.” This, over the tannoy of the student bar at Hull University in 1981, is how Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt first met.

They bide their time for a whole six weeks before forming a band. Everything But The Girl is named after a sign on a local shop.

According to Tracey: “We spent much of that first term getting drunk, watching Brideshead Revisited and hatching a plan to take over the world with our stark jazz minimalism.” (Tracey Thorn, “Bedsit Disco Queen”)

After an initial single – a cover of Night And Day – the first EBTG album, Eden, came out in 1984. My selection is the first single off the album, Each And Every One.

“Our single, Each And Every One, was intended as an angry lyric about being a female musician, patronised and overlooked by male music critics … but I wrote it too subtly, and so it was heard as a lovelorn lament, a lonely girl waiting for a letter from a boy.” (Tracey Thorn)

Which is exactly how I heard it back then, the muted brass intro and bossa nova rhythms merging with Tracey’s low breathy vocals.

 

A Smiths-influenced guitar band?

The superb single, Native Land, is my next choice. It’s a bit of a lost track (reaching a dizzy number 73 in the charts in 1984) coming out between the Eden and Love Not Money albums. It leans heavily towards the latter album as EBTG move away from the bossa nova acoustics of Eden, towards a style heavily influenced by the jangle of the Smiths and hence the appearance of Johnny Marr on harmonica.

“I loved Morrissey with a devotion … which I now blush to recall.” (Tracey Thorn)

The next album, 1985’s Love Not Money, saw a move towards more overtly political lyrics. It included Ugly Little Dreams about the Hollywood actress, Frances Farmer.

What chance for such girls
How can we compete?
In a world that likes its women
stupid and sweet

 

A big ballads band?

“It was a grand gesture of a record. Slightly manic in both intent and delivery, it is both a wonderful thing and absolutely barking.” (Tracey Thorn)

So says Tracey about EBTG’s next album, Baby, The Stars Shine Bright (1986), on which the influences of Phil Spector, Dusty In Memphis and Patsy Cline loom large in extravagant orchestral arrangements produced by Mike Hedges, later to work with Manic Street Preachers on Everything Must Go. Cross My Heart has strings that swoon and Tracey’s voice is swathed in echo and reverb; it’s lovely.

 

A band “too sophisticated, too strange”?

Ben Watt had by now been experimenting with synths and drum machines and this is married to their original sound for the next album, Idlewild (1987).

When delivered to their record company, WEA, they hated it, criticising it as, “too sophisticated, too strange … too miserable, not enough fast songs, too many gloomy lyrics”.

EBTG are forced to rework some tracks and write a couple of more “poppy” numbers. It was a difficult time for many bands originally emerging from the indie underground into the bright lights of 80s pop.

“I would say that period derailed many great bands: Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout, Scritti Politti, Orange Juice. All of them battled the same thing.” (Ben Watt, The Guardian)

For me, Idlewild is a career high; a gorgeous collection of songs that benefits from a slightly glossy production adding a sheen to lyrics – mainly from Tracey – from a very female perspective. Tears All Over Town has great harmony vocals, a chorus other bands would kill for and a classic 1980s sax solo.

However, EBTG felt “the atmosphere of band in decline that was starting to surround us – you could almost smell it…” (Tracey Thorn).

Little did they know that a huge hit in the unlikely form of a cover of an old Crazy Horse song would soon propel them back up the charts. I Don’t Want To Talk About It was released in June 1988 reached No.3 and got them on Top Of The Pops.

 

An American soul pop band?

A couple of years go by, Tracey does an MA in Modern English Literature, though the question of how they would make their next record never goes away.

Finally a decision is made; America might be the answer.

In 1990, they release The Language Of Life, their glossiest most poppy album yet. It could have gone horribly wrong, but it’s my EBTG guilty pleasure. Imagining America is my choice with its call and response vocals and relentless rhythm.

It was well received in America, not so much in Britain with Madchester in full flow.

The next album, Worldwide, was released in 1991. “It really isn’t a dreadful record, just a not-good-enough record,” says Tracey, and she’s right. The production is the same but the songs are weaker and really their hearts just don’t seem in it.

Much more listenable are the acoustic EPs released after Worldwide, mainly consisting of cover versions, including their lovely take on Captain Beefheart’s My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains.

Where were EBTG to go now?

“Luckily, Ben decided to contract a life-threatening illness and, in doing so, saved us.” (Tracey Thorn)

 

A drum and bass pop band?

Ben Watt’s illness has been well documented both by Ben in “Patient“ (Penguin, 1996) and by Tracey in “Bedsit Disco Queen” (Virago, 2013). Suffice to say it changed everything for EBTG.

In 1993, out of the blue, Tracey is sent a tape from Massive Attack, apparently big fans of her A Distant Shore album, wanting her to sing on their next release. She writes the song, Protection, and is introduced to the argumentative, bickering collective that is Massive Attack.

Rejuvenated, and with Ben now recovering well, they make a start on the next album, Amplified Heart (1994). A mixture of acoustic sounds and samples point a way ahead, with lyrics littered with references to lives shattered by illness. The musicians include Danny Thompson (Pentangle, John Martyn, David Sylvian etc. etc.), Dave Mattacks (Fairport Convention), John Coxon (Spring Heel Jack). This seemingly disparate line up works incredibly well, producing for me their finest ever album.

Rollercoaster opens Amplified Heart, a perfect mixture of their past and future. Danny Thompson’s acoustic bass plays a jazzy figure, while analogue synths play beautiful, yearning lines: “… and my life is just an image of a rollercoaster anyway”.

My next pick is Missing and what a strange story surrounds this track. Released by EBTG as a single from the Amplified Heart album it predictably fails to bother the charts and seemingly disappears from view. Until, that is, house DJ and remixer Todd Terry produces a remix for them. Modestly, he said, “I didn’t have a lot to do … I just made it dance.”

This starts getting a lot of club plays and, with terrible timing, WEA drop them from their label. Missing eventually made No.2 in the USA and spent eleven weeks in the top ten in the UK, selling around three million copies. So WEA now have a massive hit on their hands but no longer have the band.

Stubbornly, I prefer the original album mix to the Todd Terry version!

Ben Watt was by now immersing himself in the UK drum and bass scene and thinking about a new album, the one that would become 1996’s Walking Wounded.

“… in the acres of space he could hear room for a big fat vocal like mine. The guiding ethos was electronica with songs.” (Tracey Thorn)

The first track, Walking Wounded, recorded with Spring Heel Jack for the new album is my last pick. Drums skitter and crash, synths lay down a melancholy tune and over all this Tracey sings a tale of lost love. “I could have loved you forever”.

Tracey Thorn has spoken about her disconnection from music making around this time: EBTG turning down a support slot on a U2 tour; Tracey in particular wanting to step off the pop merry go round.

Less than a year later, in 1998, Tracey gives birth to twins and becomes “totally wrapped up in the world of babies, happy as a clam. I loved all the music Ben was creating, but I just wasn’t in the right state of mind … I ended up being guest vocalist on someone else’s album.” (Tracey Thorn).

That album was Temperamental (1999) which carried on with the same template as the previous record, but to my mind with much weaker songs. It was to be the last EBTG album.

In recent years, both Ben and Tracey have produced very well received and successful solo albums and books. Recent Twitter posts would appear to show that another new Tracey Thorn album is imminent along with a book about growing up in the suburbs.

At the moment there would seem to be no desire or room for another Everything But The Girl album, but what they’ve left us with is a far ranging body of work that has passed the test of time.

 

NB: Tracey Thorn’s quotes come from her memoir, “Bedsit Disco Queen”

Tracey Thorn albums
A Distant Shore (1982)
Out Of The Woods (2007)
Love And Its Opposite (2010)
Tinsel And Lights (2012)

Ben Watt albums
North Marine Drive (1983)
Hendra (2014)
Fever Dream (2016)

 

EBTG official website

Tracey Thorn official website

Ben Watt official website

“Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up And Tried To Be A Pop Star” by Tracey Thorn (2013)

“Naked At The Albert Hall: The Inside Story Of Singing” by Tracey Thorn (2015)

Books by Ben Watt

Marine Girls (Wikipedia)

Everything But The Girl US TV debut on “David Letterman” (1990)

Everything But The Girl biography (iTunes)

David Tanner hails originally from South Wales and spent 40 years working as a librarian – the last 30 in Yorkshire – and is now happily retired in Northumberland. There are not many music genres he doesn’t like and he’s never stopped seeking out good music. Always another unknown band around the corner!.

TopperPost #652

1 Comment

  1. Glenn Smith
    Sep 1, 2017

    EBTG, is there ever a time they were not around? And I mean that in a nice way, Tracey’s voice floating through the zeitgeist has been one of the musical highlights of the last 30 years. Missing, doesn’t matter which version, is superb. As you’ve noted they kicked off with a great cover in Night and Day and I think their covers generally are superb, Love is Strange and Alison in particular. Their take on Beefheart’s My Head, while faithful to the original, is probably the nicest tribute to his greatness you’ll ever hear, you’d hope they played it at his funeral. And I’m a fan of the title track from that EP too. But there’s nothing to change with this list, great work David.

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