MIXING POP AND POLITICS, THEY ASK ME WHAT THE USE IS

Billy Bragg famously related the tale of him being asked said question, by a cynical fanzine writer, within the lyric of Waiting For The Great Leap Forward. If only the writer had been brave enough to ask a similar question of Jimmy Somerville…….

It will be 35 years next month since Age of Consent, the debut LP by Bronski Beat was released. The trio of Somerville, Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek had already tasted chart success earlier in the year with their first two singles, Smalltown Boy and Why?, going Top 10 in many countries across Europe. They weren’t the first to make wonderfully catchy synth-pop that was aimed at the dance floor, nor were they the first to link the genre with gay culture; but they were the first pop stars to get up on a soapbox and demand that folk listened and took action on the inequalities of life that had to be endured if you were of a gay persuasion.

Nobody should be in any doubt that the band took huge risks with such an agenda. The early 1980s was not the most tolerant of periods, with some of the most right-wing and conservative political administrations governing the UK and the USA. It was a period when the cultural world of performing and visual artists did voice their concerns in a concerted way about some injustices happening within society, not least the horrors of the apartheid system in South Africa, but nobody was willing to really stand up and shout about homophobia and the dangers faced daily by, in particular, young people the world over. The promo video to Smalltown Boy had been a revelation, being, in effect, a short film that showed a gay man seemingly finding some happiness, only to have it ruined, firstly by the vicious fists and boots of a violent mob and secondly by the vicious rejection of his family. The line ‘mother will never understand why you had to leave’ is one of the saddest lyrics you’re likely to find in any uptempo tune.

The single certainly raised awareness of the fact that attitudes, particularly among those living in traditional working-class communities, had much to do with the fact that young gay people felt the need to run away from the security of their home and upbringing. Many parents felt stigmatised and regarded themselves as failures if their son or daughter had turned out to be queer, with the situation exacerbated by the shame of knowing their offspring was breaking the law. (I should, and indeed must, point out that Jimmy Somerville’s own Glaswegian parents did not disown their son at any point in time, albeit he did indeed leave home and head to London, but only as a result of frustration he felt at the narrowness and limited appeal of a ‘gay scene’ in his home city and elsewhere in Scotland)

The hit singles had created the circumstances that the Bronski Beat debut album was likely to enjoy a fair amount of commercial success. It offered the perfect platform to say and do something of huge significance and to the delight of what seemed like the entire gay community, and those standing outside who were appalled by homophobia, the band didn’t disappoint.

Forget, for a moment, that the vinyl contained ten tracks of high-class music, some of which burst and bristled with energy while others were mournful and thought-provoking. Forget too, that one of its highlights introduced the work of the Gershwin brothers to a whole new audience and instead take a few minutes to study the artwork.

The inner sleeve and the label on the vinyl is dominated by a pink triangle, the symbol used by the Nazis in concentration camps to identify homosexual prisoners. Originally conceived as a badge of shame, the pink triangle had, from the 70s onwards, began to be reclaimed as a positive symbol of self-identity. The inner sleeve also set out, plainly and simply, the different international ages of consent for males to engage in gay sex, drawing attention to, and ridiculing, the fact that there were huge inconsistencies, with the UK being amongst the worst examples in declaring the age to be 21.

The so-called swinging 60s has been an era in which the UK establishment began to relax its attitudes across a whole swathe of societal issues with new and more liberal laws covering divorce, abortion, race relations and fairness in the workplace. Homosexuality had gone from being wholly illegal but was still seen as a huge taboo, causing all sorts of outcries and scaremongering within the powerful media circles, particularly across tabloid newspapers where so many agendas were set and led to millions of readers forming opinions and holding attitudes. Oh, and the churches didn’t help things either, choosing to focus on very narrow and literal interpretations of scriptures as an excuse to uphold bigotry, hatred and prejudices.

Nothing had changed much in the best part of 20 years and indeed there was a feeling at large that the right-wing nature of the Thatcher government was going to make things worse. Indeed, in 1988, things did take a turn for the worse with the passing of the outrageous and scandalous ‘Section 28 Amendment’ to local government legislation that made it illegal for schools and teachers to promote the idea that homosexuality could be a stable and harmonious way for a family relationship.

The thing was, for many people, this was closing the stable door long after the horse had bolted as attitudes, particularly among young people had changed dramatically. Bronski Beat had shown up the insanity of the UK’s approach to homosexuality and had done so with grace, dignity and some fabulous music. In their wake followed many, not least The Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Culture Club, Holly Johnson and, of course, The Communards, the group formed by Jimmy Somerville just a year after the success of Bronski Beat, all of whom not only enjoyed #1 hits and sell-out tours, but did so to an incredibly mixed audience.

The social and political outcomes of The Age of Consent must never be underestimated, but I’ve no doubt in my mind that it needed the music to be of top quality and mass appeal to succeed on these fronts. Indeed, if the album had been duff, there would have been a danger of setting things back somewhat, giving strength to those (and there were many) who felt that dance music was only good for clubs and discos and not for promoting any meaningful messages.

mp3 : Bronski Beat – Why?
mp3 : Bronski Beat – Need A Man Blues

Bronski Beat would enjoy two more hit singles lifted from the album, both of which were covers. Indeed, for the final hit single, they revamped the closing song of the album by introducing a guest singer, someone who had overcome all sorts of homophobic media coverage as his fame increased to find himself, and his attitudes, accepted increasingly by the mainstream:-

mp3 : Bronski Beat – It Ain’t Necessarily So
mp3 : Bronski Beat feat. Marc Almond – I Feel Love/Johnny Remember Me

No embarrassment or the usual excuses. A copy of The Age of Consent should be in every pop fan’s collection.

JC

11 thoughts on “MIXING POP AND POLITICS, THEY ASK ME WHAT THE USE IS

  1. I’m fairly convinced that the video for ‘Smalltown Boy’ played a very large role in the development of my very liberal attitude towards gay men. Coming from a small village myself, where everything “not common” was automatically seen as being “ill” by and large, I immediately had the biggest respect for Bronski Beat’s message. I mean, I didn’t listen to 70’s prog rock in the early/mid 80’s as everyone else did, I prefered Punk + New Wave – and for that reason only I was considered to be some kind of an outlaw. Just imagine I would have been gay in addition to my incorrect taste in music – they would have sought for a tree with a rope in their hands, I suppose … !

  2. Dirk…I think the video helped change a lot of people’s attitudes for the better.

    I’m just glad you didn’t provoke you fellow citizens too much…but I’m sure if they had rounded on you, then you’d have used that charm and humour you’re famed for to win them over!

  3. What an exceptional piece of writing. You didn’t miss a beat – Bronski, or otherwise. The original Bronski Beat were a largely unrecognised political tour de force with many pop commentators making absolutely no reference to the lyrics of Smalltown Boy or the overtly political nature behind the magnificent Age of Consent. I agree with JC, that for many reasons it’s an LP deserving of attention.

    I have often thought Mr Sommerville one of the great champions of gay rights – some of his NME interviews (I think with The Commundards) were a revelation in tone, language and honesty – exploring what being a gay man meant at that time (for some). No cries of gender bending, no claim of a tea preference to sex – he talked about sexuality in a way I had never heard anyone talk about sexual encounters – gay or straight.

    As a young man, not at all sure about his sexuality, growing up in a Glasgow scheme I had a voice (a colloquial voice) that spoke my language and made me feel less isolated and alone. I don’t ‘do’ heroes but if I did I would have to include Jimmy. As I have said in previous comments Marc Almond and Jimmy seemed to be the only 2 gay men in pop, in the early 80s, unashamedly unencumbered by their sexuality.

    Many years later … I met my partner who upon getting to know my love of all things music dropped the story that Mr Sommerville had at one time bounced cheerfully on his knee in a venue in Glasgow called the Third Eye Centre.

    Jimmy Sommerville is a vocal talent, a champion of diversity and equality and by all accounts quite the giggler.

    Thanks to JC.

  4. The Age Of Consent is in my collection because it is a great album and it carries a great message. Either would have been enough to gain my respect, but excelling in both makes it extra special.

  5. Alas, the full on falsetto of Jimmy Sommerville has always been a impediment I could not surmount with Bronski Beat. Falsetto is one of those vocal effects [like vibrato] that I simply dislike. And no matter how significant or revolutionary BB were in their context, I struggled with his vocal style. If he used falsetto for emphasis, sparingly – like most singers, I could have weathered the storm.

    I sometimes listen to Billie Ray Martin, one of my favorite singers, who sounds very, very similar to Sommerville. I think about the similarity often. Yet her singing causes me no discomfort. I think it’s down to the fact that fasletto is a deliberate artistic effect in Sommerville’s case. It’s a voice straining to be something that it isn’t, whereas BRM is simply singing in her range, like you are supposed to do. So as revolutionary a song as “Smalltown Boy” [and the great Bernard Rose video] was in normalizing a large, but discriminated against subculture, I just don’t want to hear him sing.

    The second Bronski Beat album has been in my collection since its release! John Jøn was a vocalist I could listen to with no discomfort. He’s singing from a place of no affectation. I never could listen to Big Country, either, for a similar reason. Stuart Adamson was always straining to reach a higher register than what was obviously his normal range, and when I hear vocalists singing out of their range, I get “sympathetic discomfort” listening to them. Simon LeBon is another singer who I struggle with due to his penchant for singing out of his natural range. This irks me because Bronski Beat were otherwise my kind of band.

  6. Great post. I remember exactly when Smalltown Boy came out (as it were). I was living in the Dover, Kent area and the old Dover cinema had been converted into a ‘disco’ club. The opening night was great – great sound system, lights everywhere and superb D.J.’s. The music was great – charts hits juxtaposed with old (we thought) disco.

    Then……. this track started and everyone left the dance floor. Except me. I kept dancing. I had bought it the day before from Hummingbird Records – the 12″. And I kept dancing. And people laughed. And I kept dancing. Then slowly people came back to the floor and realised that it was a fantastic song.

    THAT was Smalltown Boy to me. Being able to dance when everybody was looking. Being able to show I wasn’t afraid to dance to an openly ‘gay’ song – to show my true colours.

  7. Great post, JC. I remember thinking at the time how brave the video was, under the circumstances. Glad to read it was such a positive statement for so many folks.

  8. A wonderful piece of writing. I too bought this as a kid and thought the sleeve was amazing – i never knew about the pink triangle though. I’m sure Bronski Beat and Holly Johnson and all the other out gay pop stars of the 80s shaped my attitude towards homosexuality.

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