Everything But The Girl - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
Out of the few British synth-pop groups of the ’80s who actually went on to thrive in the ’90s, Everything But The Girl may have underwent the most dramatic and successful makeover ever. The English duo—comprised of vocalist Tracey Thorn and multi-instrumentalist Ben Watt—are best known as the pop-friendly electronica outfit behind the 1995 mainstream megahit, “Missing,” yet EBTG had gained a sizable European following a decade prior as jazzy acoustic pop act. EBTG was a major force in Britain’s lite-jazz movement alongside notables like Sade and The Style Council. What made the success of “Missing” all the more remarkable was that just two years prior to its release, the duo nearly called it quits after Watt fell victim to the rare auto-immune disease, Churg-Strauss Syndrome (CSS). The disease left him on the brink of death, and it took him a full year to fully recover. Given the back story, the mega-success of the breakthrough album and hit single have only added to the pair’s mystique. Thorn and Watt rank among the world’s most reclusive stars, as they rarely grant interviews. They eluded the press so effectively that it wasn’t even common knowledge the pair were a romantic couple, much less married, until years after the fact. Since 1999, Everything But The Girl has been relatively silent as a unit, with both members taking a break to tackle solo projects.
Thorn and Watt formed Everything But The Girl in 1982 while students at the University of Hull. Prior to tandeming, both musicians were signed as solo artists to the independent Cherry Red label. Thorn also played in minimalist pop group that was called The Marine Girls. The duo took their name from a sign posted in the display window of their local Turners’ Furniture store that read, “for your bedroom needs, we sell everything but the girl.” Thorn and Watt would bond over a shared interest in creating a jazz/pop fusion sound, yet initially the group was only meant to be a one-off collaboration.
By the time EBTG released its samba-inspired rendition of the Cole Porter classic “Night and Day” in 1982, Thorn was still an active member with The Marine Girls and had just released her own debut solo album, A Distant Shore (1982 Cherry Red). After a brief interval of inactivity, Thorn would quit The Marine Girls the following year upon having a backstage argument with lead singer, Alice Fox. That same year, Watt issued an unheralded solo album of his own, North Marine Drive (1983 Cherry Red). Dissatisfied with their solo trajectories, Thorn and Watt reunited in late 1983 to pursue a career as Everything But The Girl in earnest. Their second single—a cover of The Jam’s “English Rose” for an NME sampler—made good impressions. Former Jam vocalist Paul Weller was so moved by it that he invited the duo to contribute to his new band The Style Council’s debut album, Café Blue (Polydor), in 1984.
Not long thereafter, EBTG would drop its official debut album, Eden (1984 Blanco y Negro). Thorn and Watt fused bossa nova and samba flavors into their increasingly popular contemporary-jazz-pop sound, spawning a moderate UK hit with “Each and Everyone.” Uncomfortable with the rock presses attempt to pigeonhole them as “sophisti-pop”—a generic umbrella term for mid-’80s pop groups with a penchant for jazz—EBTG revamped their sound to reflect the more alternative jangly pop aesthetic.
Love Not Money (1985 Blanco y Negro/Sire) featured blatant political and social references to Britain’s unpopular occupation of Northern Ireland, sexism, child poverty, and the late troubled actress Francis Farmer. In her haunting alto, Thorn made a compellingly dour statement within the pop framework. Like their previous effort, Love Not Money was a hit in the United Kingdom, but it was almost completely ignored in North America. Breaking the American market would prove to be a continual road block for the group throughout the ’80s.
EBTG again retooled their sound by adding inspired orchestral pop into the backdrop and drastically shifting its lyrical focus from politics to sensuality for their third full-length, Baby, the Stars Shine Bright (1986 Blanco y Negro). Thorn sings of illicit rendezvous’ and romantic let downs, in what was a far more introspective album that the previous offerings. Despite an increasingly enthusiastic critical reception, the album sank from the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. EBTG would abandon the bombastic orchestral signatures for the time being, although they would go back to it with greater success a decade later.
In hopes of making a more accessible hit record, EBTG returned to its earlier roots for Idlewild (1988 Blanco y Negro/Sire)—the contemporary jazz-pop formula of their earlier releases. The album would spawn the Top 5 UK hit, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” which was written by Crazy Horse guitarist, Danny Whitten. The elegiac song “April Strings” was also on Idlewild, a tune that has been performed by many artists since.
Subsequently, “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” inspired Atlantic Records to sign EBTG, and they traveled to Los Angeles to begin work on their fifth full-length album with veteran pop vocal and jazz producer Tommy LiPuma. Although packed with big name guest artists like Stan Getz, Joe Sample and Michael Brecker, The Language of Life (1990 Atlantic) nevertheless suffered from instrumental over indulgence and subpar songwriting. Thorn’s vocals, which had been edgy and driven, were buried behind the Latin jazz-inspired music.
Worldwide (1991 Atlantic) was inspired by EBTG’s worldwide tour on the heels of The Language of Life, and it marked a welcome return to their signature electro pop sound. The album boasted the moderately successful single, “Old Friends,” and the love song, “Understanding.”
Partly recorded during an acoustic club tour, Acoustic (1992 Atlantic) was a split record with the first half featuring acoustic covers of tracks by Bruce Springsteen (“Tougher Than the Rest”), Elvis Costello (“Alison”) and Cyndi Lauper (“Time After Time”), while the latter half showcased live acoustic versions of EBTG standards. Though the trademark sparseness was back to the fore, the album sagged on the charts in the UK and North America, leaving the group in desperate need of a hit.
Everything But The Girl was forced to take a two-year hiatus after Watt was hospitalized with a diagnosis of Chung-Strauss Syndrome. The disease devastated his body and left him with only three feet of intestines. Watt would later document his miraculous survival story in the autobiographical book, Patient (1998 Grove Press). Despite a long and arduous period of recovery, Watt used his near-death experience as motivation and immediately began writing new material for EBTG’s eighth full-length album. Based around simple orchestration and mostly acoustic melodies, the Amplified Heart (1994 Atlantic) showcased EBTG’s strongest set of songs in years and featured guest performances by Fairport Convention legends Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks. The moody album was a moderate success upon release in the summer of 1994, but really took off the following year after House artist, Todd Terry, remixed the single “Missing” into an international club sensation.
Over a year after its initial release, Amplified Heart became a huge worldwide seller with the remixed version of “Missing” a certified global phenomenon. After 14 years of togetherness, “Missing” also established Everything But The Girl as an “overnight success” in North America.
Eager to capitalize on their new found audience, EBTG took to a heavy electronic sound on future releases, something Watt had dabbled with in the past but never quite committed to. Walking Wounded (1996 Atlantic) seamlessly incorporated trip-hop beats and computerized effects into their signature sound, garnering the duo some of the best reviews of their career.
The drum’n’bass heavy Temperamental (Atlantic) followed in 1999, and though it was devoid of trip-hop it was chock full of the house music underpinnings that had broke the band into its evolved phase. Shortly after the album’s release, Everything But The Girl went on an extended break and has not yet reformed. Thorn and Watt are raising three children, and although Watt has reinvented himself as an electronica producer and DJ, the couple prefers a quiet family life over the unstable road-weary life of a pop band. After a 25-year gap between solo albums, Thorn released her long awaited sophomore effort, Out of the Woods (Virgin) in 2007.