Everything but the DJ

With Lazy Dog, English songwriter Ben Watt gets a modish makeover behind steel wheels.

Sometimes, a couple of good lines from a pop song can explain in a few words what otherwise might take an hour: "Consider for a minute who you are/Then decide it's time to re-invent yourself/Like Liz before Betty, she after Sean/Suddenly you're missing, then you're reborn."

Neil Tennant's pithy lyric -- culled from the Pet Shop Boys' 1991 single "DJ Culture" -- was intended as a stinging indictment of the phenomena of celebrity reinvention, in this case a pre-Betty Ford Clinic Elizabeth Taylor and a post-Sean Penn Madonna.

Ben Watt -- writer/instrumentalist cum electronic superstar -- has, at times, risked being lumped in with the posers. He's definitely done some shape-shifting over the past couple of years. In 1995, Watt's band, the treacly and acoustic pop project Everything But the Girl, was instantly rechristened as a dance act when DJ Todd Terry transformed "Missing," a ballad from the band's release Amplified Heart, into a house hit. Following that introduction into the world of electronic music, Watt began a second career as a mixmaster of choice for British hipsters. Now he's attained the title of DJ as one-half of the spinning collective Lazy Dog.

Of course, Watt is hardly alone in his discovery that the tools of electronica are sometimes preferable to standard rock-and-roll trappings. Kids now shop for turntables and perfect their beat-mixing skills while electric guitars and drum kits gather dust in the garage -- which explains why former Housemartins bassist Norman Cook transformed himself into Fatboy Slim more than a decade ago. The bankability of the DJ skill set also explains why an aging pop product like Boy George earns more dollars behind the turntables than he does as the vocalist of a reformed Culture Club.

Everything But the Girl's re-creation from longtime British pop darling to cutting-edge electronic act, then, seems a foreseeable progression. It was certainly a commercially viable one: Terry's remix of "Missing" floated on Billboard's Top 100 singles chart for a staggering 55 weeks, including a term at number two. The single's break-out success seemed to fuel EBTG's aspiration to dive wholly into the electronica pool in which it had been dipping since the early '90s; the tinkling piano-driven sound of early long-players such as Idlewild (1988) and The Language of Life (1990) morphed dramatically into the dance-tastic beats of subsequent releases, including Walking Wounded (1996) and Temperamental(1999). The only common feature of both phases of the band's career was a morose navel-gazing tendency planted just this side of sentimentality.

Last year, Watt took things a step further by strapping on a headset, stepping to the turntables and releasing a Lazy Dog debut compilation CD -- the beat-mixed Deep House Music, which features a set from Watt and one from his partner, Jay Hannan. Once Watt had changed his focus entirely, some began to question whether his evolution was motivated by a desire to catch up with a new movement -- or simply to cash in.

On the phone from London, Watt is unaware that he even has a case to make. Pleasant but firm, he traces his artistic about-face during the '90s to a longtime affinity for beat-friendly music.

"I remember always buying house and garage," he says, "as well as some of the early hip-hop records, but thinking that movement was happening over there [the States], and we were over here."

According to Watt, he and Everything vocalist Tracey Thorn always shared a taste for danceable sounds. The band's recordings, though, were more in line with the Latin and rare-groove music predominant in England during the post-Jam and Clash period than the dance beats that later turned into techno, acid-house and trip-hop. "When we first started making records and appeared in the mainstream with Eden [EBTG's initial long-player in 1984], we were very interested in London's groove-based soul scene," he says. "That really informed our first major album."

This soul flavor colored the band's early output, with mixed results. When Watts and Thorn were both solo signees to the Cherry Red label, they teamed for a samba cover of Cole Porter's "Night and Day"; while crafty and pleasing, this introduction eventually led the pair deep inside the twilight world of lite jazz, which had a definite expiration date stamped all over it. Happily, fabulous collaborations with a Style Council-era Paul Weller, jazz legend Stan Getz and guitarist Richard Thompson saw the duo grow artistically -- and reap critical acclaim. Unfortunately, behind every one of the band's thoughtful, neo-mod recordings lurked a pointless hit from Curiosity Killed the Cat or Johnny Hates Jazz, turning a groovy scene into easy listening. Eventually, not even Watt and Thorn's killer new-wave haircuts could save them.

"I think what happened was, over the ensuing years, we became enmeshed in making grown-up records, if you like," says Watt. "We started to concentrate on making ballads for an audience that was growing up with us, and I think we just took our eye off the ball for a while." The duo drifted along successfully on the quality of Watt's writing and the melancholy beauty of Thorn's voice, but it washed ashore a decade ago with such commercially slick but empty releases as Worldwide (1991).

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