In a fascinating and moderately frank book “Bedsit Disco Queen: How I grew up and tried to be a pop star” by Tracey Thorn (half of the duo Everything but the Girl), apart from stories about the creative path, the recording of albums of the band, meeting her future husband Ben Watt and the early female
post-punkband, contains an interesting chapter about working with Massive Attack.
Instead of an introduction, I’ll give you a little context. In the early 1990s, Tracy Thorn began to experience difficulties in her career — their sixth album Worldwide, released in 1991, went completely unnoticed in the British press. (Tracy wrote that she eagerly searched for at least negative reviews, but there were not even these. Later, Thorne admitted that they themselves hadn’t really invested in the record. “Now I was in danger of making records simply because I had to; it was what I did, it was the day job. And the truth is, it really isn’t a dreadful record, just
The duo didn’t know where to go. On the one hand, British music was being squeezed by ravers and acid house hysteria. On the other hand, they were bored with their previous lifestyle, lacking confidence and tired from compromises with the label. Ben and Tracey were 30 years old, together for 10 years, not married yet and without children. The band bought and arranged a country house, but in the first week, they realised that the noisy life in the city was better. The house was sold. The relations with the label were as strained as possible. Tracey was worried about not knowing where to lead the band, but this wasn’t even the main problem. In the summer of 1992, her partner Ben collapsed from a rare disease with minimal chances of survival. (But everything worked out.)
As often happens,
the near-deathexperience forced them to look at life in a new way. For the band it meant stopping wasting their time fiddling with a record label, trying to please people, doing sloppy work and forcing themselves to be creative and instead just doing what they love. Below is a fragment from one of the chapters of Tracey Thorn’s memoirs Bedsit Disco Queen, published in 2013.
“It’s the summer of 1993, and Ben and I are sitting in the homely, country kitchen of Dave Pegg, bass player with the legendary Fairport Convention. We’ve come out to Oxfordshire on the introduction of our live sound engineer, Rob Braviner, who has worked with Fairport for years. The band all seem to live in the same small village. So we find ourselves sitting in Dave Pegg’s kitchen, with pints of beer in front of us, and I can’t help noticing that in the corner of the room is the computer from which Dave seems single-handedly to run their career — booking gigs, organising their festival, selling their merchandise. The whole shebang is run from home, like a little cottage industry, completely independent of any interference from record companies or the obvious trappings of the music business. Do they even have a record company? I don’t think so, and there is no visible manager, either. Yet they still connect with a huge and devoted audience, and seem, after all these years, genuinely to be doing it for the love of it.
This, I realised, was how you could carry on making music without constant compromise and meddling. Fairport Convention were not of my punky generation: they were dyed-in-the-wool, ale-drinking, jumper-wearing old folkies, but they were as DIY and indie as anyone I’d ever met. It was inspiring. It was all starting to come back to me now, like I’d been asleep for a long while and had woken up, struggling to remember who and where I was. And so, while some people will claim that Massive Attack saved my life, and others might say that it was Todd Terry, I also want to let it be stated for the record that Fairport Convention played their part, too, and were instrumental in bringing about a huge change in our attitude which in no small part contributed to everything that happened next. Almost the next day, or so it seems, there is a phone call from Massive Attack asking me to collaborate and sing on their second album.
To say this comes as a surprise would be putting it mildly, but it transpires that there is some method in their madness, and they are looking to make a sideways move from what Geoff Travis (founder of Blanco y Negro label) describes as the Motown reggae of their first album. They are, in fact, in the process of inventing trip hop, and reaching out to a ‘rock’ audience as a way out of the Brit
I look at Ben. I’ve just had my first introduction to trip hop, and the track I’ve heard is Protection, though without any title, or vocal melody, or lyrics, or indeed any indication as to where those things might go. There is no real beginning, middle or end. I’m not sure whether I have ever heard a piece of music this slow and empty before, and when the next one starts in just the same mood, I realise that a whole new thing is happening here.”
A small digression: the collaboration with Shara Nelson, the singer of all female vocal parts on the debut album by Massive Attack, ended in a quiet altercation. On the wave of success, major labels offered Nelson the opportunity to launch a solo career. The band remained without powerful soul vocals. To make the second record, endless auditions of famous
As Tracy later remarked in an interview: “No one in Massive Attack ever said a word to me about what they wanted or why I was there. The most I ever got was that Nellee Hooper, who was producing the record, had produced Björk and Björk was a big Distant Shore fan. I think that’s the connection. I remember competing feelings,” she explains of the first time she heard their music. “On the one hand, I don’t understand this at all. On the other hand, I understand this completely. This is minimalism. I do minimalism. I get it. And yet, it was being done in such a different format I had to listen to it maybe 10 times with complete bewilderment before I suddenly went, Oh, I know how to do this.”
“I carry the tape around with me for a while. At first I can’t get anywhere with it. Then it starts to seep into my brain, insidiously digging in under my skin until I know it so well it feels like a part of me. A few days later, I put on the Massive tape again, get out some paper and a pencil and almost in one go write the entire song, Protection. It starts off with the story of a girl some friends had told me a few nights before, then moves on to deal with my protective feelings towards Ben since his illness. Within about ten minutes I’ve written the whole thing, and will never change a word. When I send the tape back with the vocals, it’s exactly what they wanted, and I’m summoned.
Encountering Massive Attack is both a hilarious and a daunting experience. They exude all the confidence and insularity of a true gang, speaking in an apparently private code much of the time. Despite possessing bona fide
gang-stylenicknames, they choose to ignore these and all address each other as Jack. But as an outsider, what are you supposed to call them? Do I call 3D by his real name, Robert, or do I call him 3D, or Jack? And is Daddy G to be called Grant, or Dad, or what? In the end I take my lead from other outsiders, and end up calling them D, G and Mush. It all seems to go down OK. I kind of wish I had a nickname, too.
Journalists meeting Massive Attack at this time experience the same slight disorientation as I do. Simon Reynolds writes about his encounter in Melody Maker. Interviewing Massive Attack is a bit like being a supply teacher drafted in to supervise an unruly class. Mushroom is the superficially docile but slyly subversive pupil ... Daddy G is the intransigent type at the back of the class ... And 3D? Well, he’s the closest to teacher’s pet,
Nellee and 3D seem to be the driving forces behind the recording process; Nellee, a somewhat raddled pixie-like creature, exudes an atmosphere of imminent debauchery, as though he can’t wait to conclude this recording session and get back to the real business of ... well, God knows what. 3D appears to be the most serious about it all, and is the aesthetic brain of the band, producing all the artwork and seemingly trying to steer the creative ship. He’s earnest and committed, but changes his mind a lot; it’s a bit like working with Paul Weller. Daddy G is the calming, fatherly figure in the background, saying little whenever I’m around, but clearly an important and steadying presence.
Mushroom, on the other hand, is a complete enigma. I get the feeling he’s suspicious of me, perhaps unsure about why I’m here. Was he party, I wonder, to the choice of me as singer on this track? I later find out that Protection is one of his tracks, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he feels possessive of it, and I’m not altogether sure he’s bought into this concept
Musically, they seem to be pulling in different directions, but for the time being this is creating a dynamic tension that is productive at least as often as it is destructive. Crudely speaking, Daddy G brings the reggae input, Mushroom the hip hop and 3D seems to want to be The Clash. The disagreements are spectacular—and I only witness a fraction of them—and ultimately the centre will not hold, but for this brief period it just about works. The tension between them all is personal as well as musical, and again seems to stem from the kind of playground relationships they are locked into.