Tag Archives: Bronski Beat

JIMMY SOMMERVILLE: NOW & THEN: REVISITING “SMALLTOWN BOY”

sommervilleI recently posted about the impact of Bronski Beat’s first single, “Smalltown Boy.” The record is everything a great pop song should be – danceable, meaningful and unique.

In order to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this single, Bronski Beat’s lead singer, Jimmy Sommerville, has posted a video of a live, acoustic performance of the song. The result? Let’s just say that everything has stood the test of time. Sommerville’s voice still sounds amazing. His miraculous high notes could give Mariah Carey a run for her money! And the song feels just as poignant now as it did in 1984. Enjoy his new performance and then take a look at the original video.

SCREAMER OF THE WEEK: BRONSKI BEAT’S SMALLTOWN BOY. THIS WEEK IN 1984.

small town boyJimmy Sommerville and his band Bronski Beat are the most significant LGBT figures in the history of pop music. Although they haven’t sold nearly as many records as Elton John, or won as many Grammys as k.d. lang, or sold out stadiums like Queen; they are the first band I can think of who were openly gay from the very beginning of their career. Not only were they OUT, but they wore their sexuality like a badge of honor and made it an integral part of their persona and their music.

In 1984 there were a number of pop stars who were challenging hetero-normative standards in different ways. Boy George was unapologetic about his appearance, but coy about his sexuality. Other artists challenged gender norms – either for fashion (Nick Rhodes, Larry Blackmon) or for artistic expression ( Annie Lennox). But in June of 1984, Bronski Beat was the only band I knew of that wrote songs explicitly dealing with gay issues. In their second single “Why,” Sommerville sings the line,

. . . I turn to kiss his lips.

Did you hear that citizens/subjects of Reagan and Thatcher? “HIS. LIPS!” That simple lyric, sung by a man about another man, seemed almost revolutionary!

bronski beatDuring the third week of June in 1984 , WLIR’s listeners chose Bronski Beat’s first single, “Small Town Boy” as the best new song of the week. The song tells the story of a young,  ostensibly gay, man who is bullied and misunderstood. In an act of self-preservation he flees the confines of his hometown. Where is he going?  Far away. Somewhere to be himself, somewhere to find himself.

It’s heartening to think that thousands of teens in NYC and Long Island listened to this record and decided to embrace it as their favorite song of the week. Did the majority of listeners truly hear the lyrics and understand the message? I’d like to think so.

Of course the message doesn’t mean anything if the music isn’t great. Like many bands of the 80’s, Bronski Beat placed drum machines and synthesizers at the forefront of their sound. But more than other bands they seemed to be saying, “Sure – we’ll dabble in New Wave but we’re not done with Disco yet.”

And of course you can’t discuss Bronski Beat’s music without talking about Sommerville’s voice. That soulful, ethereal soprano floats on top of the dance beat and reaches heights that don’t seem physically possible. He is the ‘son and heir’ to the great disco singer Sylvester. Can someone please invent a time machine in order to allow Sommerville and Sylvester to perform a duet together? At very least I need to hear a mash-up dance mix of “Small Town Boy” and “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).”

age of consentIf Sommerville is Sylvester’s direct offspring on the openly gay pop singer family tree – then think of the branches that sprout from Bronski Beat: Antony and the Johnsons, Frank Ocean, Scissor Sisters, Ed Droste (Grizzly Bear) Adam Lambert, Tyler Glenn (Neon Trees). Here’s an idea – each of these artists should cover a song from Age of Consent and release the collection as a Bronski Beat tribute album.

Bronski Beat deserves that tribute. They should be honored for being pioneers. They should also be honored for making some really great pop music.

Check out Jimmy Sommerville: Now & Then to see him deliver a beautiful performance of this great song 30 years after its debut. He still NAILS those high notes.

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Additional Screamer of the Week posts:

The Psychedelic Furs – Heaven

The Thompson Twins – You Take Me Up

Prince and the Revolution – When Doves Cry

R.E.M. – Pretty Persuasion

Welcome to 1984

This blog is dedicated to the irrefutable, undeniable fact that in the year of our lord, Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Four, the pop culture gods smiled down and bestowed upon us the single greatest year of pop music the world has ever known.

Why 1984?

Why not ‘83 or ’85 or ‘64 of ‘92 or any other year that contained a number of great singles and albums? Well, it’s my belief that in 1984 the pop world coalesced in a way it had never coalesced before (and most likely will never again). Call it Karma or call it blessed coincidence  – but this was a unique moment in time when musicians were creating masterpieces AND music labels were making the right decisions AND the general public was ready to hear and see and embrace it all. The result? 12 months of great (the greatest) pop music; from January when Michael Jackson’s Thriller  – THRILLER!!  – sat in the top 10; through December when Band Aid released “Do They Know Its Christmas?”

1984 brought ascension (RUN-D.M.C., Madonna, R.E.M.,), resurrection (Tina Turner, Chaka Khan) and evolution (Bruce Springsteen, Patti Labelle) for countless musicians (and listeners).

1984 also brought us the seminal song, soundtrack and film all sharing the two-word title:

Purple.

Rain!

(MUCH MUCH MUCH SO MUCH MORE on Prince and Wendy and Lisa and Doc Fink and Brown Mark and Bobby Z in future posts!)

I have to admit my love of 1984 has just as much to do with who I was during that year as it does with the great music I listened to. Does anyone love or connect to music as much as they do as a teenager?

At age 16 I was ready to tackle the radical political commentary of Frankie Goes to Hollywood‘s Two Tribes and the subtle sexual lyricism of Depeche Mode‘s Master and Servant.  I also believed that the analytical muscles I developed studying Lord of the Flies and Julius Caesar fully empowered me to decipher the deeper meaning of songs like New Moon on Monday, Pretty Persuasion, and Karma Chameleon.

In ’84 I also fell in with a group of friends who became my group. We came from all 5 boroughs of NYC and were black and white and Asian and Latino and biracial. That level of diversity seemed rare but it felt comfortable and it fit (People are People, indeed). So when I saw Mikey Craig in Culture Club or The System or General Public or Hall & Oates‘ live band or The Revolution – all of the decisions I was making (at the time I didn’t realize they were decisions) felt affirmed.

During this year I also noticed a number of music artists who were playing with gender and sexuality just enough to intrigue, but not freak out an adolescent who had recently become aware of some unexpected desires. Whether it was Annie Lennox or Boy George‘s gender bending or Bronski Beat‘s lyrics or Rockwell‘s eyeliner (and his alleged romantic relationship with Michael) – some of my favorite artists seemed to take their inner most desires and literally wear them on their sleeves. I was far from ready to do that, but felt grateful they were willing to do it for me.

So here’s to the music that entertained me, changed me, guided me, and inspired me to such an extent that 30 years later I’m compelled to return for a visit.