Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Music Box: Everything but the Girl

When I thought about writing this post about Everything but the Girl, I was trying to figure out the right way to frame it. As regular readers know, Blondie has long held the No. 1 spot on list of favorites bands. But to say that omits a huge chapter of the book, a time when it seemed like nothing was real but The Girl. It began when Blondie split up in the early '80s. The Pretenders were my backup band, but after a thrilling post-tragedy return to form on "Learning to Crawl," the "band" became a revolving cast of characters that backed up Chrissie Hynde, and the music suffered from it.

It was around the same time this band -- albeit a modest duo -- went from being a group I liked (I'd discovered "Each and Every One" on Rock Over London when I was in high school) to being my "current" fave, catapulted to the top with the release of their epic "Baby, the Stars Shine Bright" in 1986, a stark collection of songs about love, loss, loneliness and betrayal. (You have not lived until you've heard "Sugar Finney (for Marilyn Monroe)," "Cross My Heart," or "Don't Let the Teardrops Rust Your Shining Heart") If the bossa nova and alt-country influences of their earlier albums made me a fan, this lushly orchestrated masterpiece put me under a complete spell that would literally go on for years. (I'm not going to lie, I was obsessed. In my defense, they made it awfully hard for a true fan not to be, what with their endless gatefold singles, rare b-sides and obscure collaborations.) When I finally got my first CD player in 1990 I quickly found imports of EBTG's first three albums at a record store at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., not far from where I was living when I took my first post-college job at The Orange County Register. (I was only making $23,5000, so these $30 CDs -- 90 bucks total -- were a major expense, but one from which I would get my money's worth.) Because I worked nights and weekends (sound familiar? I pride myself on never having had to start work before noon in my life!), I was allowed to bring my "boom box" into the newsroom, and I would play those three CDs on repeat all night for the course of my shift. If my co-worker Mike minded, he never let on. And Lois definitely became a fan as I remember her going out and buying some of their albums on her own -- like she needed to hear them more often!

By then I'd gotten "Idlewild" and "The Language of Life," and would occasionally find myself living my life as if it were a musical set to EBTG songs. (Another Derek-induced heartache? I'd break into "Take Me": "Baby, baby, baby. I'm lonely can't you see? ... ) Seriously. It was that same year that the HUGE news came that the band was touring America. It was a moment I'd waited years for, so I rushed out to the mall to get tickets. (Remember when you had to go a box office at a department store?! I miss you, Dillard's.)

Mark, my best friend with whom I'd been crashing until I found a place of my own, kindly agreed to go along, and even drove us up to the Wiltern, a glorious Art Deco theater on Wilshire Boulevard in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. (Mark and I would also end up seeing Pat Benatar on her "True Love" tour that summer at the Wiltern.) While I know I'm prone to hyperbole, I truly cannot remember being this excited at a concert before. Our seats were nowhere near the front, but I was certain Tracey was singing directly to me, and I just remember being so happy to finally have this event happen. (OK, some people have loftier goals -- jobs, marriage, children -- what can I say, I was beside myself.)

After I moved back East, I had a second chance to see them, this time at the equally gorgeous Lincoln Theatre, located on "Washington's black Broadway." (It served the city's black community when segregation kept them out of other venues,) This time, I had a more-than-willing co-conspirator in my co-worker Paula Bohan, and again I was beside myself with excitement. (When Tracey did one of the songs she'd recently recorded with Massive Attack, "Protection," I thought I'd die on the spot!) Truth for told though, at this point fans were lucky the band was even around as Ben Watt had nearly died after coming down with a rare life-threatening auto-immune disease (Churg-Strauss syndrome). But they were on the road again to promote "Amplified Heart," which was a beauty of a "comeback," and one that would propel them to international stardom as "dance" artists as a result of Todd Terry's inventive revisioning of the single "Missing." (That original version of that song and the rest of the album were actually very low-key and acoustic. Richard Thompson even contributed guitar.) While the new "direction" this dance exposure took them was something I enjoyed, it definitely ranks on the lower end of their work.

The band essentially called it quits after touring for "Tempermental" in 1999 (a show at the Hammerstein Ballroom that I missed because I went home for Thanksgiving that year). But somewhat ironically, that was THE SAME YEAR Blondie returned with "No Exit," their first album in 17 years. And instead, I saw them live FOR THE FIRST TIME ever, at Madison Square Garden with my friend Leah. Was it was the music gods not wanting my heart to have to decide between my two favorite bands? Perhaps. But even though EBTG dropped off the face of the earth when the new century rolled around, the Internet only fueled my obsessive collecting habits -- and THANKFULLY led to my FINALLY getting my hands on every known recording of theirs, including the Holy Grail of Ben and Tracey work, Tracey's collaboration with James McMillan covering "Over the Rainbow." (It's funny that these two would be such gifted songwriters yet many of my favorite recordings of theirs are covers, something they have an amazing knack at selecting and reworking.) It's been an emotional roller coaster over the years, corresponding with people all over the world. Meeting total strangers at their house (and mine) to rip bootleg and homemade CDs. (This was pre-YouSendIt, guys!) But when all was said and done, my friend Greg Jelinek and I produced the three albums of which I am most proud, "Kitchen Sink Treasures" Vol. 1 and 2, plus the odds and ends sister CD, "Live, Demos and Remixed." I would offer to share them with my fellow fans, but I understand that Ben Watt himself is none-too-pleased that I've even made them at all (well, OK, a couple of them maaaaaay have wound up on eBay years ago), but I will share the artwork Greg made as I absolutely love it. (Greg actually revised it HERE, but I prefer the original covers.) And Ben, if you're reading this PLEASE release something like this yourself. My vinyl transfers of "I Fall to Pieces," "Don't You Go" and many other obscure songs are just dying to be replaced by remastered versions for which I am willing to spend virtually any amount. (I've traveled the world tracking this stuff down, what's another 100 bucks?) We'd love a new Everything but the Girl album. But even if you don't put one out, you've got enough stuff to keep us satisfied for years to come. Please, don't leave me behind ...

Everything (including the kitchen sink)

  • Read all Music Box Posts HERE.


    Marc Lallanilla said...

    Huge fan of EBTG here too -- what sweet, soulful music. Though I miss Tracey's angelic voice, Ben Watt has been mixing some great music, and giving incredible live shows, with his Lazy Dog and Buzzin' Fly ensembles. I saw him at the tiny Martini Club in L.A. in 2002, and it was one of the most joyful dance parties I've ever been to. Much happier, more upbeat music than most of EBTG, but after nearly dying in 1992 of a rare disease, it's good to see Ben out there celebrating.

    rocketboy said...

    Ok Kenneth, being the huge EBTG fan that you are, I'm hoping you can help me. I love their music also, but my knowledge doesn't go far back enough (it more or less starts with their acoustic CD). But I heard a song by them a million years ago and I can't seem to find it. I don't know the name of it, but lyrically Tracey says something about 'like a bullet train'. Does this sound familiar to you? I'm dying to get the song and album it is on. Thanks very much if you can help.

    taffy said...

    just caught up on your blog. somehow it slipped thru my knowledge of your music taste that you were such a huge EBTG fan. The post was great reading, and like your posts often do, it made me want to haul out the albums and play 'em all, back to back. I recall this chick in college who morphed into more easy listening tastes who owned Eden, but i think it was Love Not Money that i bought first, thx to the the line "my love is like cathedral bells!" But my fave albums are def Idlewild and Baby the Stars Shine Bright. I saw them live a few times - weirdest show was them performing in a "beer garden" at some waterfront/harbor festival in Boston in the 90s. Cant recall offhand the year, but i'm guessing it was circa the Worldwide album. Oh, and one cool EBTG story - my first trip to London, April 1994, with my bf for our 10th anniversary, we were walking in Hampstead and saw two small people. The man and woman each had a snuggle-sack with a baby in it, and they walked into a kid's clothing store. James realized first it was Tracey and Ben. Ben esp was impossibly slight, and Tracey had that oddly dour face. We stalked them a bit, then let them be.

    OK, done reminiscing.

    nojarama said...

    LOve the old, the middle & the post EBTG periods. Ben & Tracey are brilliant solo &, of course, together!

    Rusty said...

    @rocketboy: You may be thinking of the song "Troubled Mind" on the Amplified Heart album. The lyrics go:

    'Cause with your troubled mind
    You're like a goods train running through my life

    That's easily my favorite ETBG song ever, even after 15 years. I've never been fortunate enough to have seen them in concert, but central Missouri tends to be a bit barren on the culture side.

    Anonymous said...

    This post made me smile from beginning to end. I am so happy to see that there are others who appreciate EBTG as much as I have over the years. Thanks for re-igniting my interest to keep collecting.....

    Jane said...

    Thank you thank you for your ebtg memories from another huge and obsessed fan-I have your Kitchen SInk Treasures playlists in iTunes!!! Complete with cover artwork. We played Tracey's 'Over The Rainbow' at mum's funeral a couple of years ago-one of her favourite songs and this version is the best I have heard. Funny how ebtg songs seem to get into those moments of your life you need a song for-they have a perfect musical moment for every mood of the day.

    rocketboy said...

    Thanks Rusty. I'll check it out but it sounds about right. Funny thing is, I have that album. It never occurred to me it was right under my nose.

    SteveDenver said...

    Wondering... are the fan compilation CDs available? I'll be looking through my stuff for the tracks you're seeking.

    Have you listened to these other New Romance-era treasures?
    The Lover Speaks
    Alison Moyet (solo)
    Style Council
    Frazier Chorus

    New kid from Sweden, Jens Lekman has songs with the epic Decca sound similar to BABY THE STARS SHINE BRIGHT. Youtube has many videos for his work. Songs you might be interested in are:
    Maple Leaves
    And I Remember Every Kiss
    Black Cab
    If I Could Cry
    A Postcard To Nina

    leesa said...

    Aw poop... so you don't feel any regret showing us Everything But The Girl fans the Holy Grail of sorts... and then not sharing???!!!

    My little heart just slipped into my stomach... pout.


    SnuffyPuff said...

    WOw - Im so late to the game on this one! I didnt know that someone had compiled these EBTG rarities - I bought the Expanded editions and cant believe Im still "missing" (har har) some of their recordings. If you know where I can get a copy (purchase or otherwise) please let me know.

    Thanks Randy

    blureu said...


    Stumbled upon this post. Any chance the kitchen sink treasures are online somewhere?