Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



UK pop duo named after a furniture store on the Hull University campus, formed by vocalist Tracey Thorn (b 26 September 1962, Herts) and guitarist Ben Watt (b 6 December 1962), students studying English and drama. Thorn was in Marine Girls (albums Lazy Ways '83, Beach Party '80); Watt's father had led a big jazz band in Glasgow, his mother a classical actress who became a journalist; Watt and Thorne shared radical politics (Thorn wrote for Spare Rib) and a liking for folk and jazz. Both signed to the Cherry Red label; Thorn did solo A Distant Shore '82; Watt's North Marine Drive '83 was well regarded. They collaborated with Robert Wyatt on EP Summer Into Winter '82 (all these reissued on two Cherry Red CDs '87). Their duo single 'Night And Day' intended to fuse jazz, folky harmonies, acoustic guitars; they moved with label boss Nick Austin to his new blanco y negro label, scored no. 28 hit with 'Each And Everyone' '84 from album Eden. They turned down a Top Of The Pops TV appearance because of exam commitments.

Love Not Money '85 was in the same gentle agitpop/jazz/folk vein, produced by Robin Millar, whose work with Sade it paralleled; Simon Booth from pseudo-jazz pop group Working Week sessioned on the album, which included 'Sean', dedicated to Ulsterman Sean Downes, killed by a rubber bullet (Watt's only lead vocal on the album), and a song dedicated to Frances Farmer, an actress who had a tragic life. (Thorn sang on Working Week's single 'Venceremos' '84.) They recorded with session players, toured with changing back-up; they were the first Western group to play Moscow in six years '85; at home they displayed ideological soundness by playing benefits during the miners' strike. Baby The Stars Shine Bright '86 was smooth, lushly orchestrated by Watt, with alto saxist Peter King in the backing, including single 'Come On Home'; a cover of Patsy Cline's 'I Fall To Pieces' was also '86. Idlewild '88 did well; The Language Of Life '89 was made in Los Angeles including sidemen such as Michael Brecker and Stan Getz, and charted in the USA. Their self-produced Worldwide '91 reached the top 30 in the UK; EP Covers '92 (including acoustic versions of e.g. Mickey and Sylvia's 'Love Is Strange') was extended and reissued late that year on Atlantic as Acoustic. An EP The Only Living Boy In New York '93 was followed by best-of compilation Home Movies and another EP, I Didn't Know I Was Looking For Love.

Watt came down with Churg-Strauss Syndrome, an auto-immune disease, and nearly died several times, losing most of his small intestine, he wrote an excellent book about it all: Patient '96. The peculiar-looking duo claimed to be the antithesis of pop stardom; influenced by John Martyn, Cole Porter and Antonio Carlos Jobim, their fragile music had more substance than detractors would admit, and then they evolved: when Watt pulled through they issued Amplified Heart, an album hinting at new things to come, but then Blanco y Negro (by then a division of WB) dropped them. Thorn was asked to contribute lyrics and her voice to single 'Protection', a big '94 hit by the Brit-hop group Massive Attack; she and Watt then collaborated on Massive's 'Better Things'; techno producer Todd Ferry remixed Everything's soulful 'Missing' and it reached no. 2 in the USA; they signed with Virgin and released Walking Wounded '96 for their biggest commercial and critical hit. They had found their own way on to the techno wagon: 'We picked up on drum'n'bass and deep house because it felt right for our music,' said Watt, pointing out that if they hadn't followed their own way, 'we could have been a cabaret band by now. We could have crashed and burned.'

After 28 years as a couple and three kids, they were finally married in 2009. Meanwhile Thorn had concentrated on raising their family and Watt worked as a DJ, label boss and clubowner. He preferred communing with an audience through the underground dance scene to the rock band rutual, but became jaded with that too. He still has to take pills every day to keep well; meanwhile he lost his sister Jennie to lung cancer in late 2012, and lyrics started coming: he released his second solo album, Hendra, in April 2014, named after the road on which Jennie and her husband had a weekend hideaway. He also wrote another book, Romany and Tom, about his parents. Thorne has been producing her own solo material: albums out Of The Woods 2007, Love And Its Opposite 2010, and a Christmas album. Tinsel and Lights 2012. Her memoir is called Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up And Tried To Be A Pop Star 2013. Creative people just can't stop.