Everything But the Girl: Origins of a Love Affair
Sometimes I think love is so elusive because it comes to you in unusual ways and often when you least expect it. Such is the case for my now nearly 40-year love affair with the sound of U.K. band Everything But the Girl. These days Tracey Thorn’s voice is as familiar to me as my own, though nobody should ever be forced to hear me sing.
It was the early 1980s and I was studying journalism at San Jose State University and working nights at a record store. One of the perks of the job was that we were allowed to take home any record in the store under the guise of “research” to be a more informed clerk. We could have any five records checked out at any given time, and the store manager would return the used vinyl to the manufacturer as defective. One day I was sorting the bins and I ran across an album cover that caught my eye.
I’d never heard of the band, but the two kids peeing in the puddle made me laugh and since it cost me nothing to give it a spin I took it home. The moment I heard the first few notes of the first track I felt that unmistakable twinge of familiarity — I knew this woman’s voice. I racked my brain for a while, and then it hit me. The voice on this album was the same voice that sings lead on The Paris Match from the Style Council’s 1984 debut record Cafe Blue.
I’d been a longtime fan of Paul Weller from his days in The Jam and when he joined forces with Mick Talbot of Dexy’s Midnight Runners to form the Style Council I was hooked. The Style Council was a huge departure from The Jam’s punk sound. Instead, it was soul-infused pop. But The Paris Match was different even from the rest of Cafe Blue. It was a torch song that could have been written and performed in the 1940s, and the sultry voice on lead vocals was haunting. But apparently not haunting enough for me to check out the liner notes on Cafe Blue to learn that the singer was Tracey Thorn, and even if I had I had no idea who Tracey Thorn was…until the moment I put Everything But the Girl onto my turntable and touched the needle down.
Love Not Money turned out to be the second studio album by British band Everything But The Girl, a duo made up of friends and sometimes lovers Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt. The pair met as students at the University of Hull and by 1984 had recorded and released their first record, Eden. Thorn had previously been a member of a band called Marine Girls, but she and Ben were destined to be together. Eden sparked a minor hit with the song Each and Every One, gained critical acclaim, and obviously caught the ear of Paul Weller which ultimately led her to feature on Cafe Blue.
I played Love Not Money over and over, and even found a promotional poster at work that ended up on my dorm room wall. The band wasn’t getting played on radio stations in the U.S., though it likely got some play on college radio. In fact, the band never built any momentum in the U.S. despite its popularity in England until 1994 and that was unintentional (more on that in a bit).
Over the succeeding years, my appreciation for the band grew even as Tracey and Ben morphed the band’s sound. In 1986 the pair released their third album, Baby, The Stars Shine Bright and it opened my ears for the first time to what I naively call mid-century country. The album consisted of ballads and torch songs backed by lush horn and string sections. It was unlike anything I’d ever listened to before and I honestly think it opened my mind for the first time to country-like music. I’m not saying I ran out and bought a Patsy Cline record, but it did lead me to artists I still love today like k.d. lang and Lyle Lovett. Baby, The Stars Shine Bright was a gateway drug to alt-country.
The band followed that album up with 1988’s Idlewild which is my favorite EBTG album. For my money it’s a damn near perfect album with spectacular songs from start to finish, including my all-time favorite song by the band, I Always Was Your Girl. Idlewild peaked at #14 on the U.K. charts but the band remained unknown in the U.S. Still, at least one song off the record turned some ears as Apron Strings was featured in the film She’s Having A Baby starring Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth McGovern.
1990 brought another new record, The Language of Life. This album marked a bit of a turning point again for EBTG as it was the band’s most highly produced record to date as Tracey and Ben brought in Grammy award-winning music producer Tommy LiPuma to give the record a polished feel versus the smoke-filled small club feel of the band’s earlier records. LiPuma worked with a lot of mature-sounding artists like Al Jarreau, Anita Baker, George Benson, and Barbra Streisand. The result was a gorgeous pop album with songs designed to be hit singles like Driving, Me and Bobby D, and Imaging America. The album featured a sensational list of guest artists like Kirk Whalum on sax, Russell Ferrante on piano, Omar Hakim on drums as well as Stan Getz, Joe Sample, Michael Brecker, and more. Still, American success did not come despite the band’s growing success and influence in Europe. The album went gold in the U.K. and reached the top 10 on the U.K. album charts.
It was around this time I got my first taste of EBTG in concert. The band toured America promoting The Language of Life and I saw them at The Warfield Theater in San Francisco. It’s a day I’ll never forget because the theater was open seating so my girlfriend and I decided to camp out all day in line to be among the first fans let in. When we arrived in the city we took our seats on the sidewalk in front of the theater as the first two people in line. By midday, hundreds of EBTG fans lined up behind us. We ended up in the front row for the concert and seeing Tracey and Ben live was a treat I’ll never forget. But I’ll also not forget what took place on the street and sidewalk in front of the Warfield that day. It turns out the city’s famous gay and lesbian pride parade was on the same day. As we sat on the sidewalk we watched the whole parade go by, from the Dykes on Bikes to topless trans men showcasing their buxom boobs to full-on half-naked makeout sessions right in front of us. But the thing I remember most is that more than once a gay man or couple stopped in front of the Warfield to see what we were up to, looked up at the marquee that read Tonight Only: Everything But The Girl, nodded, and said yeah, that’s about right.
By the time I moved to Phoenix EBTG put out a few more wonderful albums, including a really fun covers album called Acoustic. In 1994 the band released Amplified Heart, for me their second-best record after Idlewild. When the band toured that year we scored front-row seats to the show at what was then called the Red River Opry (now san seats and called The Marquee). But the highlight of that day was the in-store appearance by Tracey and Ben at Borders prior to the concert. Leslie and I showed up and got what turned out to be damn near a private acoustic set by the band as only a few people found out about the appearance.
Amplified Heart sounds like most previous EBTG records, but something unexpected happened not long after its release that propelled the band to international fame and launched its first U.S. hit. The album’s second single, Missing, was remixed by American deejay Todd Terry as an electronic dance song and it skyrocketed up the charts, eventually reaching as high as #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. The hit pushed Amplified Heart to gold status in both the U.K. and U.S. and introduced Tracey and Ben to a whole new audience. Striking while the iron was hot, EBTG went back to the studio and in 1996 released Walking Wounded, an album that took full advantage of the new audience and turned into the band’s highest charting album ever in the U.S. peaking at #37 in the U.S. (it landed at #4 in the U.K.). Walking Wounded is an electronic dance record, but no matter what the music sounds like it still benefits from the magical voice of Tracey Thorn.
I have to admit Walking Wounded isn’t my favorite EBTG album, mostly because I’m not much of an EDM person. But I can’t fault Ben and Tracey for cashing in while they had the chance and for folks who like EDM it certainly resonated. The band doubled down on EDM with its 10th studio album in 1999 called Temperamental which also charted in the U.S. but not as high.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Everything But The Girl these days because the band is back this month after a 22-year hiatus with the release of its 11th studio album, Fuse. Over the past 22 years, Ben and Tracey have lived quietly together in North London and in 2009 the longtime collaborators tied the knot. They have three children together. Each released solo work in the time between 1999 and now, and in truth, I’ve really liked Tracey’s solo albums, especially 2018’s Record.
But I’m nervous about Fuse because the first few tracks I’ve heard are electronic, and I much prefer the older acoustic and natural-sounding stuff. I’ve read Fuse will contain some of both, which is smart I guess as they may be able to appeal to both old and new fans. Here’s a taste.
All this is to say, Everything But The Girl is one of my all-time favorite artists, and the story of how I found them is typical of how I stumble across artists I like. Some people have asked me how I stay abreast of new music when it’d be so easy to just stick to what I know and love. I love the chase. I love the rabbit holes. I’ll hear a voice on a song and explore it. I especially like it when an artist I like brings in a guest vocalist that I don’t know because it gives me the chance to research the artist and take a listen. This is exactly how I came to like Noah Cyrus — she was a guest vocalist on a Jake Bugg song that I loved (Waiting off Hearts That Strain).
For me, music really is the soundtrack of my life. I remember bits and details of my life, but those details are made more memorable by the music I was listening to at the time. And I love to share the music I love, which is why I write this blog and why I’m constantly posting about music on social media.
I hope you enjoyed my deep dive into Everything But The Girl, but even more I hope that if you’ve never listened to them you’ll go back to the start and give them a shot. And I won’t even hold it against you if you prefer the EDM stuff!