45 at 33: The Blow Monkeys are Digging Your Scene

Apropos of everything, my initial college years of 1985 to 1987 sadly coincided with the first wave of AIDS hysteria that swept Britain and much of the western world. In fact, while my fellow students were doing what straight students do, for the entirety of those two years I was in the throes of an enforced if grudging bout of celibacy that lasted throughout college and then some.

My reasoning? I, like many, was paranoid about AIDS, and convinced myself to forgo any carnal pursuits until a cure had been found. Back then the medical industry bandied about optimistic figures and quotes plucked from the sky such as “We’ll have a cure within five years.”

Thirty five years on we’re still waiting.

Of course, the hysteria was fuelled in no uncertain terms by homophobia, hardly helped by the ultra Conservative Thatcher government of the day. Where I lived in true blue Milton Keynes, it wasn’t uncommon to overhear utterly ignorant utterances such as…

“God, can you imagine the AIDS flying around if Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Bronski Beat were in the same room?” 

Thankfully, society has evolved and become better informed (not to mention huge developments in combating the disease, if not quite a cure), but back in the 1980s, AIDS and HIV just wasn’t talked of in anything other than negative terms, of disgust, of shame, and of death.

So you can imagine my utter astonishment the first time I heard Digging Your Scene by the Blow Monkeys wafting out of BBC Radio 1 one weekday morning in early March 1986.

“So sad to see you fade away/What in the world is this feeling?/To catch a breath and leave me reeling/It’ll get you in the end, it’s God’s revenge.”

I actually gasped out loud when the last line of that first verse bludgeoned its way out of the stereo. At the time, Donna Summer’s once trailblazing career was famously in freefall because it was said the recently ‘born again’ Christian had pronounced that AIDS was God’s revenge on gay promiscuity. Divine retribution, right?

The next line decrying “Oh, I know I should come clean” was more opaque, but could easily be interpreted as a deliciously double entendre and self-lambastment for firing a deadly weapon.

Killing time before class in the Bletchley Park college common room later that morning, I piped up to anyone who would listen…

“Have you heard that Blow Monkeys song? It’s. About. AIDS!”

“Haven’t heard it” or “It’s alright” were usually my indifferent classmate’s stock responses whenever I brought up the subject of a song that caught my ear. Oh, how I longed to have a mate who was into music and lyrics the way I was. I guess my Bletchley buddies were just too busy listening to Phil Collins. Or having sex. Hopefully not at the same time.

Digging Your Scene was without the first song I heard that dared to broach the subject of AIDS in such blatant terms, and coming only a few months after the virus had felled its first major celebrity in Rock Hudson. Though it’s unlikely that all the young lovers getting their groove on knew what this blue-eyed soul jam was actually about. Brief encounters? The world is full of them. Oh, and see if you can spot Harry Enfield in this classic clip from Channel 4’s The Tube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihC8rzwOc-k

“I know its wrong, I know it’s wrong/Tell me why is it I’m digging your scene/I know I’ll die… baby.”

Well, if this wasn’t a ringing endorsement and much needed vocal support for a gay community that was being decimated, castigated and stigmatised for daring to have sex then I don’t know what was. A beguiling blend of smooth R&B, doo-wop pop and Love Boat jazz, Digging Your Scene proved to be popular across the globe – and their first taste of success. Just don’t mention that ghastly phrase Sophisti-pop.

Indeed, in the liner notes for Atomic Lullabies, the band’s Best Of compilation from 1999, singer-songwriter frontman “Dr.” Robert Howard said that it was the song “that opened the door, from being a glam jazz obscurity suddenly we were on the TV, in the papers, getting thrown out of clubs and playing Wembley with Rod Stewart.”  

Sounding less like Jonathan Ross on estrogen than on the record, the good doctor takes up the scene on the blower from his home in West London…

Digging Your Scene… A bit of a strange title, wasn’t it? I guess you weren’t digging anything with a hard hat and high vis vest?

“That was the last song (on second album Animal Magic) I wrote and I just did a four-track home demo for the band to hear. It was the first time we started using backing singers.  The soul side of my writing was coming to the fore, listening to lots of Marvin Gaye. You could define the ‘scene’ as a group of people that felt the same way about music and clothes and fashion, and got together and celebrated that. ‘Digging’… ‘digging’ in the sense of the American slang. The sense of, you know, liking, loving, appreciating.”

So you’re ‘digging’ someone else’s scene from an outsider’s point of view…

“Digging Your Scene was me tipping my hat to the club scene, and then specifically the gay scene within the club scene that… in the early Eighties, that were to me the most exciting thing that was happening at that point in my life. ‘Cos I’d kind of broken up with my first wife and I was in-between, and I was kind of enjoying myself. And it was a great scene for me to be involved in. The song itself was a homage to those gay clubs like Taboo that I used to go to – although I wasn’t gay. You know, 50% of the people in there weren’t. it was just a really refreshing kind of attitude there, because the music and the vibe was so good. You would see everyone from Leigh Bowery to Mark E. Smith there.”

So what did you mean when you’re talking about “God’s revenge”?

“I’d read an article where Donna Summer said AIDS was God’s revenge on homosexuals and I disagreed! There was a little bit of hysteria about AIDS, I think, in the early days here in the tabloids and stuff, you know. It was a bit dodgy, and people were kind of using it in order to kind of slag off the gay scene and the gay culture, you know. And the song was written basically about AIDS and the way that it was beginning to kind of happen to people that I knew within that scene. And what I wanted to do was kind of say… you know, redress the balance in my own way.”

For Digging Your Scene’s rather mincy promotional video, The Blow Monkeys would adopt the same cafe jazz set that David Bowie and Sade had used on Blue Jean and Smooth Operator (both 1984) but as a young and hungry pop band much more successful visually and aurally at capturing youth. There’s even a knowing nod to Culture Club’s earlier tale of from oppression to heartache in Do You Really Want To Hurt Me. With typically Dynasty-style togs and Max Factor shininess, Howard even harks back to another David B — the Byrne of Talking Heads’ landmark concert film Stop Making Sense – just with an even squarer jawline to match the outsized shoulders. It’s more fey than gay.

After a slow but steady ascent, on Tuesday 18 March, Digging Your Scene would reach its peak of No.12 in the UK charts. With unsettling irony, the Top Ten was stuffed full of older acts – Frank Sinatra, Cliff Richard, Prince, even Culture Club. With his ‘50s jazz throwback Absolute Beginners, Bowie himself was being denied his final No.1 single only by an even more senior citizen, Diana Ross and her effervescent Bee Gees-penned Chain Reaction. 

The band replicated their Top 20 success the US, achieving classic one-hit wonder status, though but in their native Britain they also had a No.5 hit with It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way, from an album entitled She Was Only The Grocer’s Daughter. Gee, I wonder who that could be about. From the same LP, a more minor hit was the much more direct anti-Thatcher diatribe (Celebrate) The Day After You with Curtis Mayfield, which was controversially timed to coincide with the General Election of 1987, though banned by the BBC in the name of political impartiality until polling had ended. Robert’s wishful thinking proved unprophetic anyhow: Thatcher was re-elected for a third time.

Summing up, the value of The Blow Monkeys come down to two things for me; Dr. Robert writes compelling songs (he’d soon launch a solo career and pen for Paul Weller), and the band is eclectic, their catalogue taking in New Wave, UK garage and T-Rex guitar groovery, seemingly unafraid to go anywhere by half measures. Their commitment makes them a consistently rewarding group.

Cool trivia facts: Although The Blow Monkeys’ name sounds slightly rude (though perhaps not to Michael Jackson), it’s actually Aussie slang for someone playing the Didgeridoo.  It turns out that Scottish-born Dr. Robert (clearly a moniker nicked from The Beatles’ Revolver album) spent his most of his childhood in Australia, gaining his first musical experience playing as a busker in Sydney, where I now live. By the way, this Ivy covered version of DYS is from 2000, the year of the Sydney Olympics.

In an intriguing reversal of my domestic set-up, the band’s ninth studio album If Not Now, When? (2015) includes a Trafalgar Square-referencing track which deals with the endless gentrification of England and specifically London’s Soho and West End. It’s entitled Lions of Charing Cross, which is where I was born.

Keeping things in the capital, he once smiled at me and my then housemate Judi slightly self-self-consciously in the frozen food section of Sainsburys in Ladbroke Grove, circa 1992. Digging your lean cuisine perhaps? Doc was neighbours with Dead Or Alive’s Pete Burns at the time, before the lippy years. Anyhow there’s a brilliant and bold song that remains their calling card. Just don’t mention one-hit wonder status, ok?

Steve Pafford

Postscript: Game, set and Paris Match: this Style Council-aping cover of Digging Your Scene is from 2007. Same old scene though.

 

 

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