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