Standing on the edge of emotion with Everything But The Girl and Fka Mash
Occasionally the music gods can loop your past into your present in a way you could never have anticipated. One of those impossible moments happened at the end of May when I heard South African producer Fka Mash’s remix of Everything But The Girl’s Caution To The Wind.
One of the 10 songs on Fuse, Everything But The Girl’s first album in two dozen years, Fka Mash brought his distinctive Afro House sound to the track, turning down the handclap-like beat that propels the original in favour of drilling into the bass-heavy, atmospheric terrain of the genre he works in.
“We love the assurance in Mash’s style,” said Everything But The Girl of the remix. “He knows how to harness and intensify both the heartfelt and the euphoric on the dance floor. The song is about standing expectantly on the edge of an emotional moment, and his remix nails it.”
I don’t know how Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, who make up this UK band, connected with the Johannesburg-based producer. Watt is also a DJ and on his ever-expanding SpinCycle Spotify playlist he includes Abdullah Ibrahim’s Maraba Blue and displays a voracious curiosity about all music, so it’s easy to imagine the duo encountering the wave of glorious dancefloor music — like amapiano and gqom and Afro House — emerging from South Africa and turning south when looking for someone to remix Caution To The Wind.
But the possibility of Thorn, in particular, collaborating with a musician from my country was something that I could not have dared imagine when I first encountered her music. That was around 1983, when the government was getting close to imposing a State of Emergency that would increase the power of the police and the army to act against the liberation movement and when the possibility of a democratic South Africa seemed to be vanishing, like a cargo ship leaving port for a never-ending journey.
It was also the time of the cultural boycott — part of a crucial larger campaign to isolate the country’s apartheid regime and hasten the end of its policy of racial segregation — that called on artists not to perform in South Africa (from 1983, the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid published a Cultural Register with the names of artists who ignored the call and, on the 1984 list, the UK led the list of 28 countries, with the names on it still making for compelling reading — among them Elton John, David Essex, Cliff Richard, Shirley Bassey and Leo Sayer).
You could still get recorded music in the shops — provided it was passed by the apartheid censors — and there were a handful of radio shows that delivered decent listening for music lovers with fringe tastes. But getting your hands on a record like Thorn’s 1982 eight-track A Distant Shore came through being part of an informal community of music lovers with similar tastes, a few dedicated members of which were ordering vinyl from the UK and would tape an album for you, if you asked nicely (or, in some cases, if your taste was deemed worthy of the effort involved).
In this circuitous route, the tape that I got of A Distant Shore was a recording of a recording and my cassettes of Marine Girls — the group Thorn formed while still at school — were probably three times recorded by the time they reached me. But the dulled sound coming out of the speakers of my cassette player never sullied my love for songs like Lazy Ways, the title track off Marine Girls’ 1983 record, or the disarmingly direct In Love off their 1981 debut Beach Party, and makes revisiting them with decent sound a satisfying experience (in truth, though, I’ve never had the time or resources to be an audiophile and have always listened to my music on the most basic tech).
Maybe it was because I was also a “small-town girl” — I grew up in the beach village of uMhlanga Rocks — that I clutched the songs on A Distant Shore to me like a favourite winter coat. Actually, uMhlanga is not even 20km from Durban, one of South Africa’s biggest cities and, by car, it takes just 20 minutes or so to reach it on the road ribboning alongside the Indian Ocean.
But for most of my childhood, it was a village, cut off from city life, and we visited Durban only a handful of times a year, mainly to go to the dentist or the beachfront funfair with my aunts and uncles or, before my parents’ divorce, accompanying my dad to the newsroom of the newspaper where he worked.
A journey of music and cultural exploration
It was my dad’s less than conventional life — among many other things, he started a music publication, helped run a folk club, recorded musicians in our lounge on a reel-to-reel, played the sitar and told us we could love opera as much as Pink Floyd — that provided the example and, as I grew into my teens, I worked hard to leave behind the ordinary and begin a journey of music and cultural exploration that eventually ended up with me becoming, first, an activist journalist and then a music journalist.
To say that listening to A Distant Shore while I drove my ageing car — I named her Flo and she was also second or third-hand — to gigs in Durban played a small part in that is not overstating the fact. As I drove, I wasn’t just singing along but living deep within Thorn’s songs, like Seascape:
Tides that take me away
To a distant shore
And I don’t want to be saved
Like most Thorn fans, I was soon listening to Everything But The Girl — formed by Thorn and Watt in 1982 after they met at Hull University — and when Baby, the Stars Shine Bright came along in 1986 it became another cassette that was played and turned over and played again and again. I still listen to it when I need some 1980s pop with heart and intelligence and great hooks.
Years later, I watched with happy astonishment as Thorn and Watt became global names when a Todd Terry remix of Missing off their 1994 album Amplified Heart went supersonic and was not at all surprised by how perfectly Thorn’s voice suited Massive Attack’s Protection off the 1994 album of the same name, which I also played relentlessly, this time as a shiny new CD that my partner and I had been given, either because of my music writing or through his work as a music publisher, I forget which.
And many years after that, I loved reading Thorn’s memoir Bedsit Disco Queen which was subtitled How I grew up and tried to be a pop star, the tried bit referring, in part, to the decision, when U2 asked Everything But The Girl to support them on their US stadium tour, to step away from the public spotlight and retreat to a more private life that included having and raising children.
Sometimes the music of your formative years stays locked in that specific time and place, to be revisited like a treasured piece of jewellery that you don’t wear very often but take out every now and then to hold, look at and remember. And, on a few occasions, the artists who made that music return with an album once again so resonant with your life at that very moment that it feels as if an old friend just arrived back in town.
So it was with Thorn’s 2018 release, Record, which was brimming with songs that the 53-year-old me — now a mother of four, still writing about music, still bumbling as best as I could through life with my partner, still not averse to a big night out on the dancefloor — kept clutched close.
Thorn’s ability to reflect back my own experience across several decades had me close to tears on songs like Babies (“Cause I didn’t want my babies/Until I wanted babies/And when I wanted babies/Nothing else would do but babies/Babies, babies”) and Sister, which I am listening to today when news from faraway Durban about my mother is not good, and once again I am living in Thorn’s words (“And I miss my mother, I miss my mother now/Thank God for my sister and for all the girls”).
Because apartheid consciously engineered it that way, life in South Africa before democracy was non-porous with influences on, and experiences of, culture more likely to come from a country many thousands of kilometres away — punk flourished in Durban in the late 1970s — than from a township a few kilometres down the road.
So it was with great joy that my work as a music journalist from the mid-1990s had me writing about the emergence of kwaito, South African hip hop, Afro Pop, Maskandi and so much more of the country’s musical richness, including the rise of Afro House. But even then I never imagined artists who were so important to me decades back would eventually collaborate with one who is among those defining South African excellence, innovation and creativity in the post-democratic era.
‘A perpetual point in time’
Caution To The Wind is, Thorn has said, a song about arrival and seizing the moment, “so with the music we tried to capture the feeling of a perpetual point in time” — and Fka Mash’s remix emphasises that point.
There is some music that carries you — with Proustian completeness — to sacred perpetual moments in time and you arrive with a fulfilment that can be only half described, never fully shared. Thorn and EBTG take me to those moments every time.
Dear readers, I leave you with these notes.
I once found Ben Watt’s Romany and Tom: A Memoir in Amoeba Music, and was so glad I bought it. It’s a gorgeously written story that brings his less-than-conventional parents to life and is among my top memoir reads. I’d urge you to seek it out. These days, Watt is also a birder (“Slipped away from EBTG release day fever for some crafty birding. Found a lovely willow warbler at Brent Reservoir, and was tipped off to four early autumn whinchat on Hampstead Heath,” reads a recent entry on his X account) and so is my son, Zachary, who works as a field guide in Pafuri, one of the richest birdlife areas of the Kruger Park and reports on his many bird sightings there on his Instagram account. I love that small connection too.
And, finally, if you’re looking for some new music, try the just-released debut EP from Family Stereo, called Matter. It’s a quietly beautiful four-track offering and I especially love I Don’t Need Light with its elegant melody and lyrics that again resonate as I think of my mom, terribly ill in Durban (So I hold on tight/To the evening sky/But I don’t need light/I just need time). I hasten to add, Family Stereo is the music project of Blake Watt, one of Thorn and Watt’s three children. DM
This story was first published on Notations.com
Diane Coetzer is a music journalist