“Pushed around and kicked around, always a lonely boy…“
Question to George Michael in Smash Hits magazine, 1984: Which of the following would you most like to produce?
Neil (from The Young Ones)? “I haven’t actually heard his record yet. It’s probably very funny but enough people laugh at our records already.”
Divine? “Only if he promised it wouldn’t be another version of Blue Monday. I like his image but I hate the records.”
Everything But The Girl? “I’d like to produce Tracey Thorn because I’d know what to do with her voice. Her single Plain Sailing is an absolutely brilliant record.”
Bronski Beat? “No, they’re far too earnest for me. I don’t think they’d be a laugh in the studio. I’d probably want it to sell as many copies as possible and make it a great pop record and they’d probably want to prove a point.”
In terms of the sales George Michael deemed as the over-arching aspiration in Thatcher’s Britain, Wham! helped to male 1984 one of music’s biggest ever years, a pivotal year in pop culture, and probably the gayest ever in terms of out(ish) and loud pop stars queering the upper echelons of the UK charts.
Yet many of the flamboyant, foppish acts attempting to crush each other with eyeliner seemed divided about taking a stand on gay identity,
Tom “Glad To Be Gay” Robinson was shacked up with a woman, while Dead Or Alive’s Pete Burns was, like Bowie before him (not to mention a newly hitched Elton John), even — gasp! — had wives. The likes of Limahl, Morrissey, and, famously, Yog himself were deliberately oblique about sexuality. While others like his on-off nemesis, the other George, aka Culture Club frontperson O’Dowd, deliberately skirted the issue (pun intended), only finding a social conscience once his records sales took a pointed nosedive.
Even the absolutely flabulous Divine, tongue in innumerable cheeks, told Smash Hits he wanted to marry the Queen Mother. Now that would have been a royal wedding actually worth watching.
Rather than the middle of the road commercialism of Wham! or the Spands, Bronski Beat wrote powerfully direct pop songs with a political, almost militant edge. Indeed, as a trio whose songs were based on compelling vignettes about the vagaries of life as gay men they were often asked their opinions on their queer contemporaries.
The Bronskis criticised the deliberately sexless rag doll O’Dowd for not being “supportive” of the queer cause, stating their position ultra-clearly in their first Smash Hits interview that being gay was not about “ribbons and dresses” (George and Marilyn), nor about “shocking and outraging” (Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s far seedier Holly and Paul).
The Frankie comparison is a curious one, particularly as in 1983, the newly-formed trio rejected Paul Morley’s invitation to sign to his fledgling ZTT label and get the full treatment — deluxe Trevor Horn production, and in aesthetic terms, the screamingly obvious “idea was to have us wear and market T-shirts that basically said that we were gay, because they’d have words like ‘QUEER’ or ‘POOF’ printed on them”, Somerville later told Electronic Beats.
Famously, Morley and Horn went on to sign the Liverpool quintet instead, and the Bronski’s chose London Records (Bananarama, Blancmange) and producer Mike Thorne (Soft Cell, John Cale).
With an admirable earnestness that George Michael obviously felt uncomfortable with at the time, The Age Of Consent — Bronski Beat’s debut and indeed only studio album with diminutive spud Jimmy Somerville — helpfully listed the ages of consent for same sex relations in various countries around the world. It was a passionate and powerful plea for gay rights that resonates as strongly now as it did at the time.
By the time of the record’s release in October 1984, many European countries had reduced their age of consent to the mid teens, but in the UK it remained at an outrageously unequal 21 for homosexuals — a five year difference to the 16 afforded to heterosexuals, and one which wouldn’t be equalised until the Blair government of the early 2000s.
Pre-dating the dance-friendly melancholia of synthpop duos Pet Shop Boys and Erasure by a year or so, in musical terms Bronski Beat had a strong electronic influence, courtesy of keyboardists Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek, topped off with the keening carrot-top Jimmy, who was so unapologetically homo that he once joked that his vocal training consisted of singing along with Donna Summer and Sylvester records.
Fronted by what could be termed an electro Elaine Paige in hand-me-downs, Bronski Beat were, I suppose, pseudo New Wave, but not cute and cuddly like Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet, or pretty popsters like the made-up androgenes of the day.
No, in their regulation jeans and check shirts they were more Smithsonian anti-image, resembling three state school teachers who’d forgotten their clone moustaches on their day off. Confirming the Morrissey-esque dress down ethos, declaring that music “was more important than images” and that it was their job to “make a stance”.
Therein lay their appeal.
Preceding the LP by several months, the Bronski’s subdued debut single, Smalltown Boy, was released in May of ’84 and radically normalised the idea that a young homo might run away from the ostracisation of his hometown — “the love that you need will never be found at home” — allowing for private revelations in front of the TV as your parents read Jeffrey Archer novels on the sofa.
At a time when striking miners found allies in the queer community and Britain had its first openly gay politician, the domestic transgression of early Bronski records were an enduring emblem of the times.
The politically-charged poignancy of Hi-NRG meets homophobia and traditionalist family incomprehension in Smalltown Boy and its impassioned rain-beaten follow-up, Why? retain the sense of subtle subversion — that Jimmy Somerville’s falsetto rapture sounds a little parochial now is testament to the tides it helped turn.
The equally pertinent third single, a cover of It Ain’t Necessarily So, was hardly disco, though still a pointed call for acceptance among fingerwagging Bible followers that struck another chord with the enlightened metropolitan whirl.
By this point, I had turned 15 and struggling with that thing called identity, so much so that, in the face of my father’s displeasure at my emerging tastes, after hearing the glorious Gershwin standard on Radio 1, Mum turned to me and, with an acutely English diffident smile said, “Hasn’t he got a lovely voice?” As if to say, “It’s alright.”
Despite the obvious parallels, the teenage runaway in the epochal Smalltown Boy video wasn‘t an autobiographical recounting, though:, as Jimmy movingly recounts:
“It was really about some friends. There was one boy in particular who ended up committing suicide because his best friend and his family blamed him for being gay. And there were people I knew who’d been thrown out, who were living on the streets, basically, moving from older guy to older guy. Those kind of stories.“
Perhaps unsurprisingly, reactions to this in your face stuff in big, macho America were decidedly mixed. That December, a radio tipsheet thought that Smalltown Boy “weaves a touching tale”.
Yet two weeks later, the same US publication trashed The Age Of Consent, in decidedly homophobic terms. You can literally hear the fear: “This English trio of limp-wristed boys are among the leading gay wavers in their home country… It’s a shame that some wonderful music must be so lyrically radical.”
It’s even more of a shame that no one had told them that two-thirds of the London-based band were actually Scottish: Somerville and Bronski were originally from Glasgow, while Steinbachek, the skinny one with the specs, was the token Englander having grown up in the Essex ‘seaside’ town of Southend. Both Larry and Steve died on the same date, 7 December, though five years apart, in 2016 and 2021 respectively.
“What we’re dealing with is how the big mad world is treating people like us,” said the trio.
That was to say badly. Though it got worse when they were attacked by so-called “friendly” fire from their own side. George O’Dowd was particularly irked when Smash Hits’ Dave Rimmer shared the information that Somerville’s father hadn’t dared tell any friends his own son was appearing on Top Of The Pops for fear he was going to camp it up in a frock, “just like that Boy George.”
The face of Culture Club sharpened his tongue and snapped back.
“So in that case, my message is far more potent than theirs, isn’t it?, retorted George, defensively, and displaying a woeful lack of self awareness.
“Let me tell you, what I’m doing is far ahead of that they’re doing. I don’t try to walk around in a check shirt and I don’t try to look normal. What I’m doing, whether I say anything or not, is making people accept effeminate men. I’m not supportive because I don’t have to be. I support my own beliefs. And my own beliefs are being sold in large quantities around the world. To normal people. So his father answered the question, didn’t he?”
But did he? What were Boy George’s beliefs in 1984 other than skipping his way to blanket acceptance by grannies and pre-pubescent girls, screaming “Buy me, I’m nice! No, really…”
Then in a relationship with his own drummer Jon Moss, Boy George even went as far as lambasting his own tribe publicly, with the inference it might shift more units, if not calories: “Gay people? They are all about having sex. I’m more into emotions” (yes, note the cunning use of the word ‘They’ to set himself apart).
Still, the gender bender brigade had their place in the pantheon of peacock pop — even (say it quietly) Marilyn — and collectively they helped to break through a barrier of rock and roll masculinity that would prove to be as exciting as any previous three chord wonder. Others would take note.
Yet 40 years later, O’Dowd’s bon mot response appeared disingenuously delusional. If dressing up as a simpering painted doll in diamanté earrings and quipping that you prefer a cup of Rosy Lee to a mouthful of sex wee to sell more records is having “beliefs” then George had “beliefs”… and he was full of them.
Did pantomime dames like Boy George actually help progress society and further civil rights for the gay and lesbians movement, though? “Definitely not!”, Larry told Number One magazine. “He’s helped Kensington Market and places like that.”
Jimmy, surprisingly, took a slightly more conciliatory tack. The Scotsman was eight days younger than Boy George but in terms of mental maturity and emotional balance, he was light years ahead.
“He has made people aware that androgyny exists. He’s brought it out into the open much more than people like David Bowie — he’s made it worldwide, which is one step.”
In summation, whereas George wanted to get emotional with people, particularly with escorts and radiators, it really took the more militant, political animals like Bronski Beat to advance the case for equality, and, by token, the bangs and crashes leather and studs vibe of Frankie would help to make Bronski Beat appear that much more un-scary and, dare I say it, like “regular” guys.
And even Michael Jackson didn’t profess to that in 1984. Beware the savage jaw.
In 2014, Jimmy Somerville reprised Smalltown Boy as a newly recorded single to commemorate its 30th anniversary.
“I‘m really pleased with it and glad that I can retain a bit of the emotion that was in the original,” Somerville told the Guardian at the time. It‘s strange because I spent maybe 15 years being a bit embarrassed by that song because I thought it wasn‘t that good compared to other lyricists‘ words.”
Which just goes to show artists aren‘t always the best judge of their own work. Natch.