7 August 2009
Bronski Beat - Smalltown Boy - The best video clips are right here
Smalltown Boy by Bronski Beat. It was the first openly gay anthem I remember and probably made me aware of gay people and gay issues for the first time beyond childhood gags which were commonplace in the early 1980s. Culture Club and Soft Cell had contributed to the mighty rise of gay rights through music in the early part of the 1980s, but their androgeny and public declarations weren't complemented by songs specifically aimed at men or at society's policy of continued inequality against gay people.
Indeed, I remember being a tad confused when Say Hello Wave Goodbye was released and Marc Almond sang about "you in a cocktail skirt and me in a suit", while as Culture Club died their first death, the bland God Thank You Woman was issued, prompting Boy George to sing about a heterosexual urge. Only as I aged did I realise that Almond could have been singing to a cross-dressing male and George to his mum.
Smalltown Boy was released in 1984 by a trio of moody, spudheaded unknowns whose tiny, falsetto singer immediately embarked on a campaign to politicise gay rights within music. This song was evidently about a lad who had bravely 'come out' (in 1984, the inverted commas were definitely still necessary) to his parents, only to be forced out of the family home by their preconceptions and middle-class disgust.
This story was, in truth, emphasised more by the video than by the song. Using flashback form, Jimmy Somerville (he spelt his name 'Jimi' in 1984 though) had met the other band members at a swimming pool (this was their first of two token appearances in the video), and begun to eye up a lad on the diving board whose reciprocal grin suggested he was similarly inclined; however, he and his mates later ambushed Somerville on motorbikes, and a police officer took a beaten, black-eyed Somerville back to his parents' house afterwards.
The truth of his sexuality was duly revealed, and Somerville left home via a train to nowhere in particular after his parents couldn't accept him. His mother gave him a hug, his father gave him a fiver but refused to shake his son's hand. Somerville duly boarded a train with worldly goods inside a long-strapped shoulder bag, with his bandmates joining him later. Somerville looked as reflective and tortured as any pop star without formal acting training could look as they put across the tone of a gloomy, ambient song.
During the solo part of his train ride, as a nice touch, he took out some sandwiches and began to eat them, suggesting that his mother (played by the great Daphne Oxenford) didn't quite reject him enough not to make sure he didn't feed himself as he flew the prejudicial nest, and that such a mega upturn in his life hadn't ruined his appetite. Somebody brilliantly wrote to Linda Duff, who was doing the Smash Hits column which answered questions about the day's pop (was it called Get Smart?), and requested to know what was in those sandwiches. Apparently, peanut butter on white bread was Somerville's butty of preference. They even gave the calorie count.
The song was a heavy-duty electro anthem, described by one critic as "the gayest song ever made" (though Bronski Beat's version of I Feel Love alongside Almond surely claims that title) and the live performances presumably gave the Pet Shop Boys some inspiration, given that Somerville vacantly stood at a microphone, lifeless in movement, while Larry Steinbachek and surname-donating Steve Bronski bashed away at their Rolands, looking entirely oblivious of all that was around them.
Somerville's voice, when heard for the first time, was quite astonishing. He delivered unbroken Scot-soprano that seemed to be pitch perfect and had an agonised, chilling air to it. Whatever you thought of the man or the song, you had to acknowledge that he was impressive. The first, pained "cryyyyyyyyyyyy-aye-ay!" at the start of Smalltown Boy was screechy and impeccable. By the time we got to the long refrain of "cry boy cry", we'd been hooked by the story of rejection, delivered by a youthful chap, seven stone wet through, with this exceptional voice. My mum thought he was instantly fabulous.
Smalltown Boy entered the charts unfussily at No.35 in May 1984 but then enjoyed gigantic climbs to 13 and then 4. The Two Tribes stranglehold had just begun and was always going to stop it from going to the very top, but a No.3 peak, for an unknown band using an emotive and divisive subject, was a superb achievement.
Of course, Bronski Beat would go on to throw the gay issue right into 1984's mix further when Why? - a similarly high energy song about prejudice among peers - was released as a follow-up. In an interview, Steve Bronski admitted that they had considered a censored version of the song - bleeping or removing the word 'his' from the opening line "contempt in your eyes as I turn to kiss his lips". They didn't, and thank goodness. The album was entitled The Age Of Consent, furthering the agenda more with the infamous listing of the different gay ages of consent around the world, and for good measure they then released their version of Bible denial anthem It Ain't Necessarily So, roping in Somerville's future Communards cohort Richard Coles to play the long clarinet opening.
After the 1985 mess about with Almond, which had lots of false endings (fooling Top Of The Pops audiences time and again) and was clearly four gay blokes allowing themselves to camp it up without an agenda for once, Somerville decided he wanted to do things differently and opted for a "more political" career by hooking up with Coles and forming the Communards. Bronski Beat found a chap called John Foster to replace him, who didn't have the voice and charisma of his predecessor and, coupled with a decision to de-politicise the material, the trio didn't last very long. Hit That Perfect Beat was a big hit but indescribably awful.
I've never understood Somerville's claim that he wanted a "more political" career away from Bronski Beat, given that the band he was leaving had done more for promoting gay rights in lyric than anyone else, and the stuff he did with the Communards was far fluffier and middle-class in terms of output. He now preferred to do asexual love songs (like the magnificent You Are My World) and controlled cover versions, culminating in the mighty version of Don't Leave Me This Way which outsold everything else in 1986. The two Bronski Beat members he left behind claimed that the Communards were "crap" when first asked about them, presumably tasting sour grapes as they saw their meal tickets have the nerve to try something different.
Smalltown Boy has since been sampled plentifully and given lots of remix treatment. The original still sounds sublime and powerful to this day.