Off the Charts

    Everything but the Girl: British Sophisti-Pop

    Issue 159

    On Beverly Road in Hull, England, there used to be an old furniture shop called Turner’s. Its slogan was painted across the front awning: “Everything but the girl.” Two young British musicians, ready to launch a duo act, took the slogan as their name. For nearly 20 years, Everything but the Girl (EBTG) flourished in and around a subgenre of the British New Wave called sophisti-pop, which leaned on jazz sensibilities as heavily as it did on synth chords.

    It was 1982 when singer Tracey Thorn paired with guitarist Ben Watt, who also played keyboards and produced. They met at the University of Hull, but unlike most bands who struggle from nothing and then land a recording contract, Thorn and Watt each already had a solo record deal with Cherry Red Records when they met. At the time, Thorn was also in a band called Marine Girls. There’s another way these musicians were unusual: they were a couple in their private lives as well as in their music-making, but against all odds, that never turned into a conflict.

    Speaking of conflict, the members of EBTG were still individually under contract with Cherry Red in 1984 when they cut their first duo album, Eden, for Blanco y Negro Records. That company put practically no effort into promotion of the album, so it went nowhere. It was, however, significant that EBTG was assigned the production expertise of Robin Millar, who also worked with fellow sophisti-pop artist Sade.

    Millar stayed with EBTG, helping to define their sound. The second album, Everything but the Girl, turned out to be their American debut through a contract with Sire Records. Half of the 12 tracks were taken from Eden, and the rest were a mix of new songs and previously unreleased singles. In the latter category was “Easy as Sin.” It’s an excellent introduction to one of the band’s early traits: the emotionalism of Thorn’s contralto voice contrasts with the treble-heavy jangle of Watt’s guitar. It’s a choice in sound production that takes advantage of those extremes. Some critics categorize the sound of those first years as “jangle pop” for exactly this reason.

     

     Love Not Money, from 1985, was also produced by Millar. The big difference was the reception: this album spent nine weeks on the British charts. And while it produced no solid hits, two of its singles reached the UK’s Top 100.

    Thorn and Watt had befriended the members of the Smiths, particularly Johnny Marr, who played harmonica on one track of their debut. The straightforwardness of Morrisey’s lyrics, poetry without euphemisms, the blatant expression of politics – these Smiths characteristics clearly had an influence on EBTG.

    Stylistically, there’s a lot going on in Love Not Money, and the inconsistency is sometimes a weakness. “Ugly Little Dreams,” for example, is a classic country waltz, with an extra-jangly banjo and marching band snare-drum cadences, all as a backdrop for a pro-feminist statement. It’s kind of a mess as assembled, but the constituent parts are all interesting.

     

    The most striking change to EBTG’s approach to album-making on Baby, the Stars Shine Bright (1986) is the arrangements. The jangle is toned down, and in its place is not just a velvety sleekness, but a full orchestra providing the lush wallpaper.

    This is not to say that the duo had turned to more subtle lyrics, only a smoother presentation. “Sugar Finney” decries America’s cruelty and cynicism, using the treatment of Marilyn Monroe as its exemplar. The chorus is short and brutal: “America is free, cheap and easy.”

     

    At the recording sessions for Idlewild in 1988, Watt reportedly was a bit obsessed with mastering the drum machine and other new digital gadgets he’d acquired. Thorn, on the other hand, was imagining more of an acoustic spin on their new songs. The result was described by Thorn as a “bizarre hybrid,” but the effect is unfocused, and sometimes even vapid.

    They found surer footing with The Language of Life (1990). Here the duo intensified their commitment to the jazz aspects of sophisti-pop, beyond even what groups like The Style Council had done. A key decision was to use seasoned jazz and soul producer Tommy LiPuma, who hired arrangers and session musicians who really knew those genres. Not all of EBTG’s old fans approved, but the band gained plenty of new fans for their efforts.

    The album was also notable for including a track written by someone else. “Take Me,” released as a single, is by Cecil Womack, of Motown’s Womack Brothers, and his wife Linda Womack, the daughter of soul king Sam Cooke. That song stood as a touchstone, an authentic point of comparison for newly written soul tunes like “Baby Don’t Love Me Anymore.”

     

    Worldwide (1991) has the dubious distinction of selling less than any other EBTG album. Maybe those new fans from Language of Life were disappointed that the sexy soul sound had shifted to sentimental synth pop. The single “Talk to Me Like the Sea” looks back nearly a decade to Phil Collins’ heyday, and the music-buying public had moved on.

    The stripped-down arrangement on “Boxing and Pop Music,” plus its caressing melody and evocative lyrics make it a standout song. By this point Watt was singing much more than he used to; his clear, uncomplicated baritone doesn’t have the complexity of Thorn’s voice, but it’s a pleasant instrument to listen to.

     

    The band was producing its own albums now, but on Amplified Heart (1994), under contract with Atlantic Records, they had help from experienced remixer John Coxon. That association was critical for the album’s success in America: Coxon’s dance remix of the single “Missing” was a US smash, and suddenly everyone wanted to buy the album.

    The best non-single track is “I Don’t Understand Anything,” written by Thorn. The sound mix is a more mature, subtle version of their early jangle-pop contrast between the rounded voice and the strummed acoustic guitar. The bowed stringed instruments and the gently syncopated melody have a retro 1970s feel: Karen Carpenter could have sung the heck out of this song.

     

    For the first time, sales seemed to have a major impact on the band’s next album. Being with a major label likely contributed to that decision. Whatever the reason, Walking Wounded (1996) is dripping with electronica and house music influences in the wake of the “Missing” dance remix.

    And the change stuck through EBTG’s tenth and final album, Temperamental, which came out in 1999. The US could not get enough of that electronic beat, and three of the singles hit No. 1 on the dance charts. The best remembered is probably “The Future of the Future (Stay Gold).”

    But the duo hadn’t lost interest in soul music. “Downhill Racer” has a mellow groove and takes great advantage of Thorn’s sultry voice.

     

    Thorn and Watt were tired of the touring, the industry pressure, and the lack of time for doing their own thing. So, they put out Temperamental, supported it with a tour, and then called it a day for the band. Everything but the Girl may have split up in 2000, but Thorn and Watt did not. They got married in 2009. If music be the food of love, play on!

    Header image of Everything but the Girl by Marcelo Krasilcic.

    3 comments on “Everything but the Girl: British Sophisti-Pop”

    1. Glad to see some light thrown on a very underrated band. Got to admit Amplified Heart and Home Movies their Greatest Hits CDs are both played regularly. Well worth a listen.

    2. I read an article about Ben Watt recently and his bird watching on the Welsh Harp. He made a funny comment I remember about his wife liking plants, so when they go for walks he looks up and she looks down. I should be ashamed not having listened to any of his music as we were at school together for 8 years. He was a very quiet chap. Better late than never.

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