Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn have been the First Couple of Indie for as long as there has been such a thing as Indie, and a lot of us have become adults along with them. The thing I like about these two photos is that you don’t have to have had a successful music career (or still be with your college girlfriend/boyfriend) to relate to the story they tell.
I was a student just a couple of years later than they were and looked the same as they do on the left: the second-hand clothes, the cheap haircut, the white socks. Living in cold rooms and eating tinned food, drinking litre bottles of cheap cider at parties, evenings in the pub putting the world to rights while sinking pints and filling ashtrays. You’re awkward and unsure of yourself, but the freedom of living away from home for the first time widens your horizons and you start to become the person you’re going to be when you grow up.
Then you leave college and take those first steps into the big wide world. If you’re lucky you get a job and have some money in the bank (or an overdraft and credit card bills if you’re me). Your clothes and haircuts get better, you appreciate good food and stop looking like you live on a diet of cold baked beans and roll-ups. Increasing experience and responsibility over the years means you’re no longer a callow amateur but a professional and an adult.
The photos are also a good illustration of the musical trip Ben and Tracey have taken, from fragile acoustic Indiepop to sophisticated electronic club music — the clothes got better there too.
I didn’t have a bank account until I started college when I was 20. The jobs I’d had before then paid me cash (in those little brown envelopes nicely stuffed with notes) but I got a grant to go to college and I had to put the cheque somewhere. So I opened an account with NatWest who gave me one of those new-fangled cash cards that let me get money out of a hole in the wall anytime I wanted. Quite a radical idea at the time which meant you didn’t have to rush to the bank before 3pm on a Friday to make sure you had enough cash for the weekend.
But giving a student easy access to money is not a good idea and by the time I left college I had an overdraft of £300, most of which went on beer and records so it’s not as if I wasted it. It seems like a piddling amount now but the bank got a bit shitty about it during my final term and took my cheque book and cash card away from me. I had to go to my branch every time I wanted money and tell them what it was for, saying “I need £40 because they’re having a sale at Our Price” wouldn’t have gone down too well so I had to use it for boring stuff like food. I guess they weren’t confident that I’d be a wealthy, world-famous graphic designer one day. Very wise of them.
I paid it off once I left college and got a job, but then the fools went and gave me a credit card. Uh-oh. Big trouble.
Here’s one of the records I spent my grant cheque on. Super dirty funk music from 1983.
Being a responsible and mature adult I suppose I have to tut-tut the violence but I must admit that seeing those students rioting at Tory party headquarters in London during the protest against tuition fee increases last week did warm the cockles of my heart quite a bit. I didn’t think students had that kind of fight in them anymore, having long ago swapped the dangerous passion of political activism for dull, conformist careerism and it brought back fond memories of my own time at college — except without all the fire-starting and window-breaking stuff.
I was at Maidstone College of Art in the early 80s (the same year as Tracey Emin — oh, the stories I could tell you) when we had clear “enemies” in the form of Thatcher and Reagan and while there I went on (non-violent!) marches in support of the GLC, CND and the striking miners. More locally we were involved with fighting a plan to merge Maidstone with the nearby Canterbury and Rochester art colleges that was being forced through by the Thatcherite National Advisory Board for Education against the wishes of not only the staff and students but even the local Tory council. Being a soulless technocrat Thatcher obviously didn’t see the point of any higher education that wasn’t “practical” like the arts so we had to be made more “efficient” and the art school system turned into a vocational sausage factory. We had a big protest march through Canterbury but the main event was an all-night sit-in at the college which turned out to be more of a party than anything with live bands and dancing but who said political activism had to be boring? It certainly felt great to be involved in something like that and what’s the point of being young if you can’t make futile, idealistic gestures?
As usual it was all for nothing, Maidstone was merged with Canterbury and Rochester in 1987 after I left (though they were stopped from closing one of the colleges down completely) and now those have been folded into one multi-campus monster called the University for The Creative Arts. It turned out that our new Principal — the very man who attended all our Student Union meetings and assured us he was on our side in opposing the merger — was actually appointed by the Advisory Board tasked with the job of helping the merger happen so basically the bastard was a mole who stabbed us all in the back.
With the draconian budget cuts his government is passing David Cameron could become a hated bogeyman on a par with Thatcher and we could be in for a replay of the 1980s — futile or not. Let’s hope the music will be as good too, we may have been on the losing side in most of the battles but we had a bloody good soundtrack.
Even though I was mostly listening to Northern Soul when I was at art college in the early 80s, there’s something about this ancient Everything But The Girl video that perfectly captures the feel of those days. It’s not just the hair and the clothes or their pale, skinny frames that look like they could do with a good meal, but together with the maudlin wetness of the music it’s like a Proustian sensory experience of what it was like to be a student back then. The dishwater-gray Northern sky and industrial bridge give it a real “Thatcher’s Britain” vibe too.
Of course Ben and Tracey were students themselves at the time and when they joined together to form EBTG they created the uber student couple. Art college was probably a little weirder than regular university (at least I hope it was) but I’m sure the same rules still applied: everyone listened to The Smiths and New Order, lived on beans on toast, got their hair cut by the local barber (mine was called Eric The Razor), bought their clothes second-hand from charity shops or vintage 50s emporiums like Flip, and Ben and Tracey’s gentle acoustic pop was what you heard drifting from student rooms late at night — the soundtrack to many a miserable night alone with a book or, if you were lucky, inexperienced fumblings with the bra of some cute indie girl. We were all so much younger then.
Of all the cute and clever indie bands that came out of England in the 1980s, Prefab Sprout were easily the most polite and bookish, they were the band who sat in front of the class while Orange Juice were sitting at the back chewing gum and telling jokes. And of course there was that name Prefab Sprout which was so precious and twee it was just asking to be beaten up and have its lunch money stolen.
Sprout lead singer Paddy McAloon wrote highly literate pop songs which were so loaded with obscure references and clever allusions that they needed footnotes. How many other writers would come up with a title like “Lions In My Own Garden (Exit Someone)” for their debut single because the first letter of each word spelled out the name Limoges, the French town where his girlfriend had gone to university? In another example of The Sprout’s clever-dickery McAloon once planned an entire album called “Famous Fakes” where every song was named after a famous person, this never materialized (like most of Paddy’s big ideas) but these two lovelies that were written as part of the project ended up as b-sides.
According to this discography “Donna Summer” has been a b-side on three different singles though in this case it’s off the double-pack single release of “When Love Breaks Down” in 1984 from where the wonderful “Diana” also comes. “Donna Summer” is another of those Sprout songs that needs footnotes, even knowing the lyrics its meaning goes right over my head. It’s a gorgeous record though and there’s something nicely perverse about naming such a slow, mournful song after the Queen of Disco. The subject matter of “Diana” is clear enough, it really is about that Diana and I think is one of the best things The Sprouts ever did, much too good to be tucked away on a b-side. A slower version of this song appeared on their “Protest Songs” album which I think I prefer, but only just.
I first saw Tracey Thorn back in 1983 as one third of the ramshackle all-girl group The Marine Girls when they were supporting Orange Juice, and you wouldn’t have thought then that this shy, doe-eyed girl with the guitar would still be around 25 years later with a string of great records under her belt and also be one of the best female singers ever to come out of England.
Later this month she releases her second solo album, a mere quarter century after the first one “A Distant Shore” came out in 1982. Back then Tracey was a student at Hull University (albeit one who had a recording contract with Cherry Red) and the album’s homey acoustic sound and melancholy, lonesome mood made it a big favourite with introspective college girls (it’s funny how many of these customer reviews mention the fact they had the album while at “uni”), finding a home on the Reject Shop shelves in their student digs alongside a well-thumbed copy of “The Bell Jar” and a poster of Robert Doisneau’s “Le Basier de L’Hotel de Vilne, 1950” hanging on the wall. It was the indie equivalent of the singer-songwriter confessional album, a generation before those girls would have had Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” on the shelf instead.
That Robert Doisneau image was used on the sleeve of the “Plain Sailing” single, the b-side of which was the gorgeous track “Goodbye Joe” which didn’t appear on the album. This was originally recorded by the (very underrated) Monochrome Set on their 1980 album “Strange Boutique” and is about Warhol “superstar” actor Joe Dallesandro whose crotch and torso grace the cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” and The Smiths’ debut. Even back then Tracey had the sort of voice that could make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and her breathy, intimate vocal on this makes it sound as if she’s performing the song sitting at the end of your bed.