The dig into the memory bank for yesterday’s posting also got me thinking about some of the gigs that I saw at Level 8 of the Strathclyde Students Union in the early 80s. Just about all of the Scottish jangly pop bands would have graced the stage at some point or other, while it was also a stopping point for many new or emerging acts, often on the cusp of mainstream success. The venue was only ever used for live gigs on Friday and Saturday nights, putting it at a disadvantage to the Queen Margaret Union which was attached to Glasgow University, which meant that very few genuinely jaw-dropping names came through the doors, unlike the period just before I went to uni when the likes of The Jam, The Ramones, Talking Heads and The Cramps all graced the stage.
One gig that came back to me, for the first time in many many years, was from when the stage was occupied by the American singer, Harris Glenn Milstead…..or as he was better known, Divine.
Yup, the actor and drag queen once performed a show to an audience of students in Glasgow in 1984.
Divine had made a name for himself as an actor in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, primarily through notorious appearances, usually always as a female impersonator, in films directed by John Waters. The problem was that these films tended to be of the cult variety and Divine was never able to make much of a living from them. By the time the 80s came around, Divine was 35 years old and at something of a crossroads. He began to eke out something of a living from a stage show of his own devising in which he would perform as a drag queen and incorporating covers of well-known disco songs. It was in 1982 that he hooked up with a songwriter named Bobby Orlando was who beginning to make a name as a composer of hi-NRG music, a newish development in disco. A number of singles in 82/83 were hits in Germany and Holland where the more liberal attitudes to gay life and culture meant it wasn’t seen as being extreme or at the edges, with the music crossing over into some of the clubs here in the UK.
Divine and Orlando had a huge falling out over money, with the singer feeling he wasn’t getting his fair share of the proceeds from the sales. It all ended up in court and the contract with O-Records, the company established by the composer, was declared null and void. Waiting in the wings was a newly emerging British production team of Stock Aitken and Waterman (SAW) who got talking to Divine and persuade him to record a version of a song by Geoff Deane, a UK songwriter who had previously been part of The Leyton Buzzards, a punk parody band in the 70s, and later as frontman of Modern Romance, a cabaret/dance act who were mainstays of the UK singles charts in the early 80s.
This was the first ever record in which SAW had worked and it proved to be a smash, eventually going top 20 in the UK and in turn exposing Divine to a wider audience thanks to what proved to a hugely complained about performance on Top of The Pops.
The promotional efforts around the single also saw Divine tour clubs and venues across the UK which is why he came to find himself on the Level 8 stage. As he was a chart act, the ticket prices were marginally higher than usual, maybe £1 or £2 higher, but given that the usual gigs cost £2-£3, it was regarded as a big mark-up.
The gig was something of a catastrophe. It was a packed venue and it became clear beforehand that a fair number were there to heckle and goad Divine. There was a highly toxic homophobic atmosphere and I do clearly recall a number of blokes justifying their behaviour by saying that it wasn’t real or live music given that it would just be singing over backing tapes. It didn’t make sense then and it just seems bonkers now all these years later. Divine took to the stage to mixture of cheers and boos, with the latter, shamefully, being louder. It all came to what seemed to be an abrupt end after no more than four songs which only led to the crowd getting angrier and edgier. The lights went up and the DJ went straight into disco mode from his booth at the back of Level 8 and within a few minutes, the venue was largely cleared.
It turned out that this was a typical Divine show/appearance with the gigs, if they could be described as such, lasting no more than 20-25 minutes, consisting of a small number of songs and provocative/confrontational dialogue from the stage. But nobody was seemingly aware of this in advance.
It was certainly one of the strangest things I’d ever been at. It was certainly the first time that I’d seen a drag act in the flesh, but, as a veteran of New Order gigs it was far from the first time I’d seen a huge use of backing tapes.
Divine’s emergence as a hi-NRG performer led to a greater interest in his previous career and he returned to acting, eventually reuniting with Waters in 1987 for the film Hairspray, which would go onto be a mainstream success, popular with critics and audiences alike. Sadly, this all came too late for Divine as he died in his sleep, from heart problems, on 7 March 1998, a mere three weeks after Hairspray had been released.
By this time, I was aware of a cover version of the big hit from a couple of years earlier, one that had been recorded by a Glasgow duo. I’m thinking they may well have been in the audience at Strathclyde University the same night as I was…..and no doubt, equally appalled by all that happened.