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

SATURDAY’S SCOTTISH SONG :#43 : BRONSKI BEAT

I’ve featured the singles on many an occasion in the past, both here and on the old blog.

Bronski Beat were a hugely important group.  They weren’t, by definition, a Scottish act.  But frontman Jimmy Somerville is from these parts and I’m always happy to feature them here.

From the incredibly brave and groundbreaking LP The Age Of Consent:-

mp3 : Bronski Beat – No More War

Still resonates 30+ years later.

A LAZY STROLL DOWN MEMORY LANE : 45 45s AT 45 (27)

ORIGINALLY POSTED ON WEDNESDAY 17 APRIL 2008
AND AGAIN ON SATURDAY 7 SEPTEMBER 2013

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I’ve written about Bronski Beat before. And I make no apologies of repeating what I said then – it really is all too easy to forget how brave Jimmy Somerville and Bronski Beat were for being so open about their way of life and their views. Their records, and those of such as the Pet Shop Boys and Frankie Goes To Hollywood took the celebration of queer culture into the mainstream, and made many people realise, probably for the first time, that homophobia was every bit as distasteful as racism and apartheid.

This was a band that came from out of nowhere. They inked a deal with London Records after a mere handful of gigs, and the debut single, Smalltown Boy, sold by the barrowload, hitting #3 in the UK charts in May 1984. It also made the Top 50 in the USA and Top 10 in Australia.

A trio of follow-up singles and the debut LP all sold in great quantities and the band seemed set for a long and successful career. But out of the blue, vocalist Jimmy Somerville (and acknowledged by everyone as the band spokesman) announced he was quitting the band to pursue an outlet that would allow him to be ‘more political.’ In due course, he would find massive success, including #1 records, with Communards. He also became part of Red Wedge, the conglomeration of musicians who campaigned for the Labour Party at the 1987 UK general election.

As for Bronski Beat – they did manage a couple of hits with new vocalist John Foster (who in retrospect sounds awfully like Andy Bell who would later come to prominence with Erasure), but they were very much overshadowed by the success of Communards. They soldiered on for a few more years, ever more fading into obscurity from the mainstream.

There’s just something about the early Bronski Beat records that make them sound so special. There’s a bit of the inventiveness of Giorgio Moroder in there, along with the pop-savvy touch of Human League and Heaven 17. There’s also the choir-boy falsetto vocals of Somerville that recalled, in some ways, Russell Mael from Sparks. Theirs were records that struck a chord with so many people, from the hard-core gay militants to the indie-kids and the disco-divas with their handbags and stiletto heels.

The look adopted by Jimmy Somerville for the video to the debut single is one that has become synonymous with young gay men in the early 80s. If you want proof, look no further than the recent BBC cop/sci-fi series Ashes to Ashes which was set in 1981, but in an episode centring on a young gay man, that particular character was dressed straight out of a Bronskis video from 1984.

That’s the impact and legacy of this one song –

mp3 : Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy (extended version)

 

BITEX 1, BITEX 2, BITEX 3

NPG x87636; Bronski Beat (Steve Bronski; Jimmy Somerville; Larry Steinbachek) by Eric Watson

The title of today’s posting refers to the catalogue numbers given to the 12″ versions of the first three singles released back in 1984 by Bronski Beat.

It is impossible not to write about this band without acknowledging how groundbreaking they were in terms of using pop music to make salient and hard-hitting points about homophobia. Tom Robinson a few years earlier during the post-punk new wave era had openly come out and indeed had somehow managed to get his anthem Glad To Be Gay played on BBC Radio 1, but it was still an era when pop stars more or less hid their ‘sordid secrets’ (copyright every tabloid newspaper of the era), so when Steve Bronski, Jimmy Somerville and Larry Steinbacheck put their queer lifestyle and culture right into the heart of the mainstream it was something to behold.

They, along with the likes of Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Holly Johnston and Paul Rutherford of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Andy Bell of Erasure, were at the forefront of driving home a message that homophobia was every bit as unacceptable as those causes such as racism and apartheid that brought millions onto the streets to march in protest.

One of the most remarkable things about Bronski Beat is how quickly they rose from seemingly nowhere. They inked a deal with London Records after less than ten gigs and a matter of months after forming they found their debut single, Smalltown Boy – the tale of a gay teenager having to flee his family and hometown on account of nobody accepting him for what he was) went Top 3 in the UK, The song which has all the inventiveness of Giorgio Moroder along with the pop-savvy touch of Human League and Heaven 17, had huge cross-over appeal and was loved by the hard-core gay militants, the indie-kids and the disco-divas with their handbags and stiletto heels in equal numbers.

As a follow-up, the band went real HI-NRG as Why? lyrically asked questions about anti-gay prejudices across society on the top of a tune that was tailor-made for radio and clubs. It reached #6 in the charts and still sounds remarkably fresh and lively more than 30 years on.

The third single was a cover version that was came after the release of the debut LP Age of Consent, a record that reached #4 in the album charts. It Ain’t Necessarily So originally dated back to 1935 having been co-written by George and Ira Gershwin as part of the opera Porgy and Bess. A lyrical attack on the authenticity of the stories in the bible, it certainly made for an interesting pre-Xmas single from Bronski Beat but still managed to climb to #15 in the charts and so round off a stunning year for the band who just 12 months earlier were complete unknowns.

And here’s all three of those single in their 12″ glory plus their b-sides:-

mp3 : Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy
mp3 : Bronski Beat – Infatuation/Memories

mp3 : Bronski Beat – Why?
mp3 : Bronski Beat – Cadillac Car

mp3 : Bronski Beat – It Ain’t Necessarily So
mp3 : Bronski Beat – Close To The Edge
mp3 : Bronski Beat – Red Dance

Some of the production tricks to extend the tracks out into extended territory now sound a bit naff but I hope nonetheless that you’ll still enjoy them

A NOVEL WAY TO CELEBRATE YOUR 45th BIRTHDAY

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A guest posting from long-time reader Jim Chambers

So… the vinyl villain inspired me – he didn’t know it but I can’t thank him enough for planting this particular seed in my mind and he is indirectly reaponsible for my hangover a few weeks ago. It was his 45 45s series that got me thinking…

I’ve just celebrated my 45th birthday so I’m of the generation when a 7″ single really meant something. I threw a party – the first house party since I was a student I think. (You know the way you get slightly precious about the carpet and all that.)

I invited 45 people to my house. The only condition was they had to bring their favourite 7″ single. I hired decks, a smoke machine and strobes (it was a package – honest I didn’t get carried away)…

Everyone got into the spirit of it, bringing along some absolute classics. And everyone is a secret DJ – given the chance. Even if they want to play Remember You’re A Womble. My mates spoke about what they were going to play in their ‘set’ as if they were headlining the dance tent at Glastonbury, which was all quite amusing. The night got a little hazy after the third round of sambucas but I can remember a good friend of mine and me dancing away and shouting all the words to Lost Weekend at each other much to the astonishment of everyone else. If only I’d remembered my schoolwork as well as I could remember lyrics…

There was serious drinking, dancing, grown men hugging each other and much laughter.

And obviously when you get to ‘a certain age’ it’s unusual to see so many of your friends in the same room – it’s normally reserved for weddings etc so personally the night was a sheer delight. It wasn’t without its moments… The occasional row etc but nothing too serious. The carpet didn’t get ruined, nothing got damaged and the neighbours didn’t complain so all in all a great, memorable night.

The records I’ve chosen are all Scottish (in honour of JC) and all went down well on the night.

mp3 : Lloyd Cole & the Commotions – Lost Weekend
mp3 : Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy (12″ version)
mp3 : Big Country – In A Big Country (LP version)

So thanks JC for inspiring me and thanks for allowing me to share the story. My friends are now all looking forward to a 78s party which I expect will be a much more sedate affair.

JIM

SATURDAY’S SCOTTISH SINGLE (Part 26)

Back on 8 October 2011, I started a series called ‘Saturday’s Scottish Single’.  The aim was to feature one 45 or CD single by a Scottish singer or band with the proviso that the 45 or CD single was in the collection. I had got to Part 60-something and as far as Kid Canaveral when the rug was pulled out from under TVV.

I’ll catch up soon enough by featuring 5 at a time from the archives..except that the single which was Part 26 is so important it is being featured on its own with words I had penned back in April 2008 when It was part of the 45 45s at 45 rundown:-

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I’ve written about Bronski Beat before. And I make no apologies of repeating what I said then – it really is all too easy to forget how brave Jimmy Somerville and his bandmates were were for being so open about their way of life and their views. Their records, and those of such as Pet Shop Boys and Frankie Goes To Hollywood took the celebration of queer culture into the mainstream, and made many people realise, probably for the first time, that homophobia was every bit as distasteful as racism and apartheid.

This was a band that came from out of nowhere. They inked a deal with London Records after a mere handful of gigs, and the debut single, Smalltown Boy, sold by the barrowload, hitting #3 in the UK charts in May 1984. It also made the Top 50 in the USA and Top 10 in Australia.

A trio of follow-up singles and the debut LP all sold in great quantities and the band seemed set for a long and successful career. But out of the blue, vocalist Jimmy Somerville (and acknowledged by everyone as the band spokesman) announced he was quitting the band to pursue an outlet that would allow him to be ‘more political.’ In due course, he would find massive success, including #1 records, with Communards. He also became part of Red Wedge, the conglomeration of musicians who campaigned for the Labour Party at the 1987 UK general election.

As for Bronski Beat – they did manage a couple of hits with new vocalist John Foster (who in retrospect sounds awfully like Andy Bell who would later come to prominence with Erasure), but they were very much overshadowed by the success of Communards. They soldiered on for a few more years, ever more fading into obscurity from the mainstream.

There’s just something about the early Bronski Beat records that make them sound so special. There’s a bit of the inventiveness of Giorgio Moroder in there, along with the pop-savvy touch of Human League and Heaven 17. There’s also the choir-boy falsetto vocals of Somerville that recalled, in some ways, Russell Mael from Sparks. Theirs were records that struck a chord with so many people, from the hard-core gay militants to the indie-kids and the disco-divas with their handbags and stiletto heels.

The look adopted by Jimmy Somerville for the video to the debut single is one that has become synonymous with young gay men in the early 80s. If you want proof, look no further than the recent BBC cop/sci-fi series Ashes to Ashes which was set in 1981, but in an episode centring on a young gay man, that particular character was dressed straight out of a Bronskis video from 1984.

That’s the impact and legacy of this one song –

mp3 : Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy (12″ version)

And here’s the b-sides:-

mp3 : Bronski Beat – Infatuation

mp3 : Bronski Beat – Memories

PS to last week’s Scottish singles ‘effort’

I messed up with links to the Bloomsday single.  So sorry.

mp3 : Bloomsday – Strange Honey

mp3 : Bloomsday – Night Storm