In my opinion, 1984 was a game-changer of a year. Later in the year, social consciousness would be raised to an entirely new level when Band Aid pricked the consciences of a nation, to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. In the context of yuppies, Thatcherism and the rise of consumerist culture, Band Aid was a comma that provided a much needed pause in our rush to wear red braces. However, there was another social revolution going on at the time – one that had been slowly growing since the start of the late 1970s and had been boosted in the early 80s with the advent of pop stars like Boy George. 1984 was the year when the pop charts voiced the desperate need for equality in terms of gay rights.
Bronski Beat, fronted by the helium voiced Jimmy Somerville, were instrumental in providing political impetus to the campaign for equality. There had always been a long tradition of camp in pop – whether that was likes of disco divas likes Sylvester, or the rampant individualism of the new romantics. This had been brought to a head when Boy George and Culture Club burst onto the music scene with their first single, “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?”, including a jaw-dropping and iconic appearance on Top Of The Pops. However, whilst Boy George was jaw-dropping in appearance, his public behaviour (at the time) remained very much in the tradition of the camp pop star shying away from confrontational statements about the treatment of gay people and homosexuality in general in favour of creating a family friendly image. This probably is most famously reflected in the much repeated quote where he was reported to say that he preferred to have a cup of tea rather than have sex.
Now I don’t want people to misinterpret me here – the influence of Boy George on the lives of countless people was huge, and I have come to admire him for his resilience and tenacity during times of personal crisis, but he was always about much more than being a gay man. Boy George’s raison d’etre was to encourage people to embrace their core personality and individuality in whatever form it showed itself, to embrace the process of transformation so any “ugly duckling” could turn themselves into a beautiful swan. Maybe Boy George’s greatest achievement was to create the groundwork that would in more recent times enable the increasing social acceptance of transgender people – even though Boy George (who was commonly labelled as a “gender bender” at the time) was clearly not a transgender person (and is not today).
What Bronski Beat did so brilliantly with “Smalltown Boy” was give voice to the often traumatic experiences of young gay men (and women too, obviously) when they decided to “come out” and be public about the truth of their sexuality – often with the results of being rejected by family and friends, and thereby making the decision to move away from home to a place where they could openly live in a culture that accepted them as an LGBT person (which would usually have to be a big city, like London, Birmingham, Manchester or Brighton, to name a few). It is a brilliantly catchy piece of pop music but it also gives you an insight into a totally different life experience – and isn’t this possibly the greatest thing that any art form can achieve, to create empathy?
It is one of those moments when the song and the accompanying video clip work together so brilliantly that you finish watching / listening with complete clarity about the intended meaning of the song. It is simply astounding.
You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case
Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face
Mother will never understand why you had to leave
But the answers you seek will never be found at home
The love that you need will never be found at home
Bronski Beat made the personal experience of being gay in 1984 into a political statement, or maybe it was rather about making a political statement about being gay in 1984 into a personal experience? They were not satisfied with just being openly gay pop stars. From their very beginnings, they were unhappy with what they viewed as the inoffensive and non-confrontational nature of contemporary gay pop stars. They wanted to be openly confrontational about the need to create equality for gay people – so much so that they called their debut album “The Age of Consent” because they wanted to change the law so the age of consent for homosexual sexual activity could be changed to be made equal to the age for heterosexual sexual activity. The inner sleeve listed the varying ages of consent for consensual gay sex in different nations around the world. At the time, the age of consent for sexual acts between men in the UK was 21 compared with 16 for heterosexual sexual acts, with several other countries having more liberal laws on gay sex.
Their more confrontational attitude was clearly exemplified by their second single, “Why?”, which forcefully made the point about the levels of violence that was often directed against people simply because of their sexuality. The same issue is presented in the lyrics of “Smalltown Boy” – it was sadly a very common experience.
Pushed around and kicked around, always a lonely boy
You were the one that they’d talk about around town as they put you down
And as hard as they would try they’d hurt to make you cry
But you never cried to them, just to your soul
No, you never cried to them, just to your soul
I have never experienced this level of persecution and hatred, primarily because I’m not gay, even though I have had rumours swirled around by various people about my sexuality at different points in my life. Perhaps the closest that I have come to this is the number of slightly patronising and offensive comments that I have sometimes received (particularly back in the late 80s/early 90s) about being Welsh (usually resulting from stereotypes build up through figures such as Neil Kinnock etc.) but even that obviously does not come close the physical and verbal persecution that gay people have experienced. I’m just trying to build some empathy using the somewhat limited experiences of prejudice that I’ve had directed at me.
However, perhaps the main point of mentioning “Smalltown Boy” in the first place is to remind ourselves of how far we have come since those distant days of 1984. I would never have imagined that a conservative government would take the step who enable gay couples to get married (not the civil partnerships that were set up by the Labour Party back in the 90s) but here we are – perhaps it could be argued that the gay marriage legislation will be David Cameron’s legacy in the same way as the Northern Ireland peace process might be Tony Blair’s.
However, it has taken a very long time to get here – you have to remember that it was not even ten years ago, in 2008 to be precise, that the age of consent for homosexual acts was fully equalised with the heterosexual age of consent across the whole of the United Kingdom, with Northern Ireland being the last nation to make the equality set in law. Go back further in time and you will discover that the death penalty was actually applicable for men who committed acts of homosexual sex. When you study the story of the age of consent, and how it has changed particularly since the 1960s, it is not surprising to see why so many homosexual people feel that society has always had a problem with their sexuality. I sincerely hope that we can now say that society has moved beyond this – however I’m not so politically and socially naïve to think this as there continue to be issues with gay marriage in certain churches.
However, I’m also utterly confident that we will there and there will be full equality between people of different sexuality eventually. I have to remain positive and hopeful that people are essentially good, and want other people to be happy.
Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away
Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away
So watch now Jimmy Somerville with that amazing, soaring, sky scraping falsetto voice sing a stripped back piano and vocal version of “Smalltown Boy” that will, I guarantee, send a shiver down your spine. It not only reminds you of the stunning brilliance of that voice that was unsurprisingly subject of so much piss-taking when the song first came out, but it should also remind you of the haunting, tragic tone of the lyrics and the bleak reality they communicated about being gay in the early 80s.
It is stunning:
Isn’t that simply spine-tingling?
Yes, sometimes we need to be rightly ashamed of things that have happened either in our country’s historical past or sometimes even contemporary events such as the recent tragic fire in a high-rise tower block. Sometimes we have to ask ourselves the difficult questions of why things were ever allowed to happen. However, sometimes we also have to recognise that things have improved for certain specific groups of people in ways that we can perhaps never fully appreciate. I hope that life will continue to improve, whether this is for transgender persons or continuing to improve race relations or to tackle Islamaphobia.
“Smalltown Boy” reminds me this is possible.