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Everything But The Girl

The merge – and indeed marriage – of girl-next-door-styled singer TRACEY THORN and guitarist/vocalist BEN WATT, the once publicly shy, melancholy duo EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL blended together lite-jazz, lounge-folk and agit-pop, their influences ranging from BILLIE HOLIDAY and ASTRUD GILBERTO to JOHN MARTYN and ROBERT WYATT.
In competition with mid-to-late 80s lounge-pop stars SADE, PREFAB SPROUT and The STYLE COUNCIL, the pair ran up a gamut of sophisti-pop singles and albums before succumbing to re-invent themselves on the electro, trip-hop market; a dramatic Todd Terry re-mix of `Missing’ notched up their second Top 3 hit, their first since 1988’s cover of CRAZY HORSE’s emotive `I Don’t Want To Talk About It’.
Formed while attending Hull University in spring 1982, soon-to-be graduates Tracey and Ben had already established themselves as Cherry Red Records artists; the former with the heavenly indie-fied MARINE GIRLS, and the latter as a solo artist (his `Cant’ was released in 1981 and a ROBERT WYATT collaboration, `Summer Into Winter’, delivered on the eve of EBTG’s trip into the studio). Lifting their cutesy-pie moniker of EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL from a sign they saw outside a local second-hand furniture store, what was intended to be just a casual one-off single, a cool cut of Cole Porter’s `Night And Day’, led to them to record a cover of The JAM’s `English Rose’ for an NME sampler EP. As a result of impressing PAUL WELLER, who’d come up with the sophisti-smooth STYLE COUNCIL, THORN and WATT appeared on their debut album, `Café Bleu’ (1984), by which time the couple had graced the indie charts with respective solo sets, the mini `A Distant Shore’ (1982) and `North Marine Drive’ (1983); Tracey, meanwhile, had parted company with MARINE GIRLS, as intimate indie album, `Lazy Ways’ (1983), signed off their time at Cherry Red.
Better suited at linking EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL’s bossa nova beats and sultry samba with the day’s ever-expanding jazz-pop creations, Geoff Travis and Mike Alway’s WEA/Warners subsidiary Blanco Y Negro Records guaranteed debut set, EDEN (1984) {*7}, would be taken seriously. Sentimental-styled songs mostly written (and sung) individually or together, the Top 20 record opened with the pair’s treatise-of-the-heart hit, `Each And Every One’. If evidence was needed that they were not a flash in the pan, Tracey’s endearing `Bittersweet’ and `The Spice Of Life’ (very EAGLES `Best Of My Love’), plus Ben’s torch-like `Tender Blue’ and the expressive `Soft Touch’, matched the wintry weaves of `Frost And Fire’.
As subsequent singles, `Mine’ and `Native Land’, registered exclusive minor hits in the British charts, both were added to the Sire Records-sanctioned US eponymous version of the set.
1985’s LOVE NOT MONEY {*6}, however, was a more contemporary indie-pop affair that breeched the Top 10, despite its lack of singles success from `When All’s Well’ (b/w: a sullen version of The PRETENDERS’ `Kid’) and `Angel’. Adding a touch of jangly-pop, SMITHS-ish pessimism on the likes of `Are You Trying To Be Funny?’, `Ballad Of The Times’ and `Anytown’, auxiliary alumni ranged from drummer June Miles-Kingston (ex-MODETTES) and bassist Philip Moxham (ex-YOUNG MARBLE GIANTS), to seasoned campaigners B.J. Cole (pedal steel), Dick Pearce (trumpet) and Peter King (alto sax).
The duo went for an altogether more orchestrated country sound on BABY, THE STARS SHINE BRIGHT (1986) {*6}, having been influenced by America’s grassroots music scene while touring there. Dealing with fascism through `Little Hitler’, the despairing Marilyn Monroe on `Sugar Finney’ and fame and fortune on `Country Mile’, the added attraction of minor hits `Come On Home’ (#44) and `Don’t Leave Me Behind’ (#72), positioned Tracey among the day’s most stylish singer-songwriters; Watt, meanwhile, self-penned the Thorn-sung `Don’t Let The Teardrops Rust Your Shining Heart’ and `Careless’.
Thus far, EBTG’s career had been grounded in album sales, their loyal student following ensuring a respectable placing for each successive release; no one really expected their tender cover of ill-fated guitarist Danny Whitten’s heartbreaking `I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ to reach its Top 3 peak, coming as it did after flops `These Early Days’ (#75) and `I Was Always Your Girl’. The attendant album, IDLEWILD (1988) {*8} – considered by many to be their finest hour – had already reached No.13, and with a push from the said hit, returned a No.21 placing. Sadly, further singles `Love Is Here Where I Live’ and a Dave Bascombe remix of `These Early Days’ were unforthcoming chart-wise.
Employing yet another ensemble of classy musicians (among them STAN GETZ, JOE SAMPLE, MICHAEL BRECKER and Russell Ferrante), the duo cut the more overtly jazzy Top 10, THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE (1990) {*7}, with producer Tommy LiPuma in the rosier climes of L.A. Dispensing with the edgier lyrics of Thorn, Watt was now (with the exception of the mood-enhancing title track and two others) in full control of the lyric sheet. Opening with the original, modest hit version of `Driving’ (re-mixed for Top 40 fodder in late ’96), and the name-checking `Me And Bobby D’, Tracey’s soulful whisper was its touchstone; mysteriously, their rendition of WOMACK & WOMACK’s `Take Me’ went chart AWOL.
1991’s WORLDWIDE {*7} was harshly judged at the time for its pop approach, thus its lowly Top 30 position. Atlantic Records in America had found it difficult to pitch the duo and with a lack of response in the UK for singles, `Old Friends’ and `Twin Cities’, the nostalgia-fuelled EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL had looked to have hit the buffers creatively.
Early 1992 had seen a resurgence of sorts by way of the “Covers” EP, a smooth-as-silk array of songs that comprised redefined readings of MICKEY & SYLVIA’s `Love Is Strange’, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’s `Tougher Than The Rest’, CYNDI LAUPER’s `Time After Time’ and ELVIS COSTELLO’s `Alison’. Add to these, a version of TOM WAITS’ `Downtown Train’ and five other quietest moments from their back catalogue, America released the tracks as the exclusive “unplugged” ACOUSTIC (1992) {*5}.
Over several years at the top of their game, EBTG had covered familiar tracks (BURT BACHARACH’s `Alfie’, PATSY CLINE’s `I Fall To Pieces’ and The Wizard Of Oz nugget `No Place Like Home’ come to mind), but it was in another interim Top 50 spin of SIMON & GARFUNKEL’s `The Only Living Boy In New York’ (backed by NEIL YOUNG’s `Birds’), that kept up their momentum. The concluding track on their Top 5 compilation, HOME MOVIES: THE BEST OF EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL (1993) {*9}, little media attention was given to Ben who was recovering from a rare, life-threatening illness (Churg-Strauss Syndrome). A similar attempt in this EP formula, `I Didn’t Know I Was Looking For Love’ (backed by Thorn’s `A Piece Of My Mind’, RANDY NEWMAN’s `Political Science’ and CAPTAIN BEEFHEART’s `My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains’) only managed to squeeze into the Top 75.
Thorn, on the other hand, found a perfect vehicle for her languorous vocal stylings with trip-hop pioneers, MASSIVE ATTACK; the singer’s transcendent contribution resulting in two of the best songs on their glorious `Protection’ set (i.e. `Better Things’ and the title track).
With subsequent contributions from such stalwarts as RICHARD THOMPSON, Dave Mattacks and the ubiquitous DANNY THOMPSON, EBTG’s AMPLIFIED HEART (1994) {*8} was a return to form, showing the Top 20 duo more willing to experiment with sound and atmosphere. On the back of the `Rollercoaster’ minor hit (opening an EP featuring The STARS OF HEAVEN’s `Lights Of Te Touan’), one of the album’s best tracks, `Missing’, was duly given an unlikely re-mix by house DJ, Todd Terry; the result was a stunning transatlantic Top 3 combination of dancefloor dynamics and raw emotion which captured the imagination of record buyers around the world in late ‘95.
Suddenly, EBTG were big news, a hip name to drop in dance circles; the following year’s WALKING WOUNDED {*8} album took the logical next step and paired the duo’s stripped-down melancholy with cutting edge drum ‘n’ bass textures. Critically acclaimed by both dance critics and the mainstream rock media, the record became one of the biggest selling EBTG albums to date, spawning three Top 20 platters in `Wrong’, the title track and `Single’; the PORTISHEAD-esque `Before Today’ pushed out the envelope for a fourth hit. Recorded for the HIV/AIDS benefit “Red Hot + Rio”, the duo’s brilliant version of ANTONIO JOBIM CARLOS’ `Corcovado’ was lost to fans until a later compilation (“Like The Deserts Miss The Rain”) was issued in 2002.
As dance acts around the country wanted in on the action, Deep Dish (with EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL) possessed the acumen to reach the lower end of the UK lists with `The Future Of The Future (Stay Gold)’. Yes, Ben and Tracey were cutting the rug once more, and with a fresh set of songs courtesy of 1999’s Top 20 TEMPERAMENTAL {*7}, the couple hypnotised and fulfilled their cocktail-house credentials courtesy of compelling singles `Five Fathoms’ and the title track. Then again, in some circles, the record was derided and critically lambasted bedsit musak for the New Labour yuppie, while becoming a bit trite for the more discerning rock ear.
It seemed they always played down the fact they were a loving couple, maintaining a low profile when it came to talking about romance. The end of EBTG as a duo came about when Tracey gave birth to their son in 2001, having had twin daughters three years earlier. The mother of three eventually married Ben in 2008 at the Chelsea Registry Office; 27 years was a long time without a ring. Since splitting their musical liaison permanently, THORN and WATT have issued a handful of albums between them; the former with `Out Of The Woods’ (2007), `Love And Its Opposite’ (2010) and `Tinsel And Light’ (2012), and the latter with `Hendra’ (2014) and `Fever Dream’ (2016) – all charting, incidentally.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS May2016

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