I 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.
Jimmy 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!
During 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).”
If 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.
In the mid eighties, the highlight of many of my Sundays involved sitting down to listen to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 countdown. Sometimes I’d sit alone in my bedroom – doing homework or reading a comic. Sometimes I’d talk on the phone with a friend who was also listening – a friend equally obsessed with the minutiae of the countdown: Do you think “The Reflex” will go to number one this week?Will Eurythmics stay in the top 10? Why isn’t R.E.M. breaking into the top 40?!?
Why did I care so much? Why should any of us care whether a song sells more than another in any given week? Does it matter that a single spends 6 weeks in the top 10 before it falls out of the countdown? Does the fact that a song ‘jumps 6 spots’ make us like it any more? Or any less?
Quantifying music sales and airplay seemed antithetical to the act of enjoying music for music’s sake. But Casey Kasem and his weekly countdown inspired a greater appreciation of pop music for generations of fans. He definitely had a profound influence on me.
On his show – pop music became something of a sport. But in addition to supplying a dramatic narrative for record sales – Kasem also supplied context. He’d share information about where a band recorded their album, who inspired the lyrics of a certain song, when a band was planning to tour, and why a certain song would be a group’s next single. He was a trusted source, full of information, but most importantly, he conveyed a sense that he cared about pop music as much as a 16 year old boy in Brooklyn.
Casey Kasem presented an earnest appreciation, interest and respect for pop. Each week his show told me: This music IS special. It deserves your attention. Your obsession is valid.
Readers of this blog know that each week I typically include a post about the number one song of the week in 1984. Each and every time I title one of those posts I imagine Casey’s dramatic announcement:
(Drum roll) And the most popular song in the land is . . .
In early 1984, even if you loved her first single, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” you couldn’t have been blamed for suspecting Cyndi Lauper might be a one hit wonder. But her second single, “Time After Time,” presented the promise of a great pop performer/songwriter with staying power. The song spent two weeks at the top of the pop charts in June 1984, it was nominated for song of the year and is considered to be one of the most beautiful ballads of the eighties.
Joining me to discuss Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” is Nathan James, the author of one of my favorite blogs – The Relative Cartographer. Check out his blog for great short fiction, genealogical investigations, honest observations, wit and warmth.
Sean: Nathan – thanks so much for joining me to discuss Cyndi Lauper’s Number one hit, “Time After Time.”
Nathan: Oh, I’m happy to do it. Something about 1984 nostalgia makes me happy.
Sean: Me too! I’d love to start by asking you about your earliest memories of hearing, “Time After Time.”
Nathan: My earliest memories of “Time After Time” were hanging out at my neighbor’s house across the street. My parents would never pay for cable. So I had to go over there to watch videos. We’d get together after school and I’d help her with her house chores and then we’d turn on MTV and watch the videos. I remember “Time After Time” was her favorite song because she loved the plaster dog doll Cyndi has in the beginning of the vid!
Sean: I had forgotten about that plaster dog until I recently re-watched the video. I think there were many things about Cyndi Lauper that were attractive to kids and teens. Her image was kind of child-like. So how did you feel about Cyndi and the song?
Nathan: You know in the video when she takes off her hat at the diner? And she shows off that waffle iron pattern shaved in her scalp?
Nathan: I’d never seen a girl (or a guy for that matter) with drawings in her hair like that. I completely thought she was a weirdo!
Sean: You were just like her boyfriend in the video! You judged her and caused her to flee the diner!
Nathan: C’mon Sean, it was hard not to judge her. Her album is named, “She’s so Unusual” for a reason. And that bright red hair and her fever dream skirts in all those colors and glitter. She was a lot to take in.
Sean: I mentioned in an earlier post that she seemed to almost be a novelty act – I couldn’t figure out if we were supposed to take her seriously.
Nathan: I don’t think we were supposed to take her seriously for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” I think that’s what makes “Time After Time” so special. I think the powers that be made “Time After Time” her follow-up because it showed her range. She has some SERIOUS range, that Cyndi.
Sean: And it really is impossible to separate the image from the music.
Nathan: Yes! But Cyndi’s image always felt genuine to me. I LOVE Madonna. But we all know she would reinvent herself to get attention. Cyndi was real. Case in point: did you catch her on The Today Show last month for the She’s So Unusual 30th anniversary? Two hosts were interviewing her, and she was just a goofball with them. She’s endearing. You can see it in the “Time After Time” video too. You know that was her real mother and boyfriend in the video? Another case in my point that she’s not putting on a character.
Sean: So what’s your favorite moment of the video (Besides the waffle haircut reveal)?
Nathan: I’d like to say some poignant moment between her and her mother. That image fade in the vid is laughable now, but back then it was decent. But really, my favorite part of the vid is at the end when she’s on the train. The director of the video wanted to put a tear on her face using a dropper. But Cyndi was confident in her ability to cry on the spot. So that tear is hers. And I think it drives the point that “Time After Time” is a relatable song.
Sean: Is it too late to give her an Emmy?
Nathan: Hah! Only if the Emmy has a bright emerald wig and about 1,000 necklaces on it.
Sean: So how does the song age for you?
Nathan: Since it’s about deciding to move on, I think it ages really well. I think most of us have been in points in our lives where we either had to carry on a long distance relationship or break it off and start over again. So any teenager/college student can identify with the words.That’s why the song is still all over the radio and why so many artists have covered it. I have to say I was surprised when P!nk covered it at her concert and the audience was singing the words over her.
Sean: It’s nice to know Pink and her fans appreciate the classics! I think if you’re a female performer – who feels a bit different – a bit ‘unusual,’ shall we say – Cyndi is your muse.
Nathan: Oh, I think some guys have been influenced by her too. Neon Trees? Absolutely.
Sean: I really need to check those guys out.
Nathan: Yes, get back in your music time machine every once in a while and check out some current bands, Sean!
Sean: Ha! I do love some new music – really I do! Ok – pop quiz – if you’re at a karaoke bar and “Time After Time” comes on – do you get up on stage and sing?
Nathan: Uh. No. Sadly, I am not a fan of the spotlight. But my cats get extravagant stage shows on a weekly basis! I’m a megastar in the shower or in a room by myself.
Sean: Ok – now we will all have an image of you reenacting the “Time After Time” video with your cats! It’s an image we like!
Nathan: Haha! Not a bad idea for a new blog feature, Sean!
Sean: Yes! That would be guaranteed to be ‘Freshly Pressed’.Ok – one more question for you. I am such a fan of your fiction, so may I ask you to create a sequel to the video? Tell us what happens to Cyndi Lauper’s character after the train pulls off at the end of the video.
Nathan: Oh, she travels the country to find more WWF superstars to play her family members in future music videos, of course!
Sean: That’s a beautiful ending. Now I have a single tear rolling down my cheek.
Nathan: Ooo! I see what you did there! Nice.
Sean: Thank you so much for taking the time to journey back 30 years to revisit “Time After Time” with me.
Nathan: It’s been a pleasure talking Cyndi with you. Especially about this song. It’s a simple song really. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s catchy and dramatic, but tangible. She’s so good at those ballads. And it definitely paved the way for “True Colors” to explode a few years later!
Sean: Yet another classic from Cyndi. Well thank you – this was fun!
Nathan: So fun! Invite me back anytime! Maybe I’ll have cat pics next time!
In high school I had a compulsion to figure out the meaning of the lyrics of all of my favorite pop songs. I would read and re-read liner notes with great reverence (hey – if Pearl S. Buck, Shakespeare, and George Orwell were worthy of that attention – so were Sting, Simon LeBon and Larry Blackmon). The act and ability to decipher the vaguest, most surreal lines was empowering. Wrestle the meaning and make sense of the world.
So much has been written about Michael Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics, but it never mattered to me whether I could understand some (most) of the words he sang. I cared less about the meaning and more about the feeling the words, and the sound of the words, evoked.
Heaven is Yours, Heaven is Yours
That may be the only line I’m completely certain of when I sing along. But I still ‘get’ the song.
Loss. . . Regret . . .
But, like so many R.E.M. songs, there’s also hope. That line from the chorus is the first of so many direct, uplifting declarations from the band (You are the everything, Everybody Hurts, No one can see you cry, Every Day is Yours to Win, You’ll be fine).
Unless you are/were a die-hard album buying, b-side listening, concert attending Thompson Twins fan you may not know or remember the song, “Sister of Mercy”. Thompson Twins’ 1984 album, Into the Gap, produced three international hit singles, “Doctor Doctor,” “You Take Me Up“, and of course, “Hold Me Now.”
But it seems my favorite radio station, WLIR wasn’t content playing only those three songs from the album. Each of those singles were nominated for, and won, the station’s Screamer of the Week competition (each week listeners voted for the best new song of the week) in the winter of 1984. In the first week of March, “The Gap” became the fourth song from the album to win Screamer of the Week. And finally, “Sister of Mercy” won the competition in the second week of June. I’ll need verification from a Screamer of the Week scholar – but I’m pretty sure 5 Screamers from one album has to be some type of record. i don’t think R.E.M. or Depeche Mode or OMD or U2 ever came close to that achievement.
So what caused Thompson Twins to dominate the modern rock and pop airwaves in 1984 ? I think my answer may come in one word – their songs were incredibly, “CATCHY”. I fear some may think that calling a song a catchy is a back handed compliment – but I use the phrase as major praise. “Yellow Submarine” is catchy. “Beat It” is catchy. “Ode to Joy” is catchy. So when I say that Into the Gap is filled with some of the catchiest tunes of the year, maybe I’m coming close to calling it a perfect album. Maybe.
I always interpreted “Sister of Mercy” as the band’s attempt at gravitas. It falls within what is a surprisingly large category of pop songs written about domestic violence. 10,000 Maniacs’ “What’s the Matter Here,” Janet Jackson’s “This Time”, The Pretenders and Annie Lennox’s respective covers of “Thin Line Between Love & Hate” are some of my favorites in that genre.
Thompson Twins were such a positive band – I always thought they might record a sequel to the song in which the female character is released from prison and goes on to counsel other women who have suffered a similar fate. Or maybe she sees the Thompson Twins video for “You Take Me Up” and, inspired, engineers a prison break.
About one month ago I saw David Byrne perform an inspired show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in tribute to the Nigerian musician William Onyeabor. Byrne was lithe and charismatic and he was in great voice. I raved about that performance and described how it reminded me of the 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense. You can read that post here.
Last night I returned to BAM to see a screening of Stop Making Sense. The screening was hosted by the great radio journalist Brian Lehrer who decided to honor the 30th anniversary of the film with the screening and a Q&A with the film’s director Jonathan Demme. Seems like I’m not the only person who has decided to celebrate the musical accomplishments of the great (greatest) year of pop music.
The screening was much more powerful and much more emotional than I could have imagined. In fact I welled up with emotions three times during the screening. I was actually caught off guard by a lump in my throat and additional moisture in my eyes. Three times. Trust me – it’s a rare experience for this to happen once – but it happened.
The first time: The audience broke into sincere, enthusiastic applause after the 5th song in the film (“Slippery People”). Usually I’d be very judgmental and accuse the audience of forcing a display of emotion they wanted others to believe they were feeling. But I was caught up in the brilliance of the film as well and found myself tapping my foot, bobbing my head and applauding after every song. And in the dimmed theater I could hear and feel 100’s of others joining me. It was Pauline Kael’s description of the film as, “an austere orgy,” come to fruition.
The Second Time: During every single second of “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”. This might be the most beautiful love song ( it is a love song, isn’t it?) written by a rock band. And the song is elevated by the performance in the film. The image of the male/female, black/white band on stage, in literal harmony, brought on a surprising burst of joy. And who doesn’t love a lamp dance?
Third Time: Somewhere in the middle of “Girlfriend is Better”. At some point I just thought how lucky everyone in that theater was. This ecstatic performance of an amazing song played by a great band at their peak was captured on film. And here we were 3 decades later, sharing the experience with friends and strangers.
If you’ve never seen this film or haven’t seen it in a while – check to see if any theaters in your area are playing it. And if not – rent the DVD and invite some friends over and have a party. Have a disco. Fool around!
Interesting facts shared by Demme and his producing partner during the Q&A:
80% of the film comes from one night’s performance. Pick-ups and coverage were pulled from two other nights of performance.
Contrary to other stories, Demme says that he observed all members of The Talking Heads getting along.
The film premiered at the Castro theater in San Francisco. An earthquake occurred earlier that day. When the film played audience members got up and started dancing and caused the theater to literally shake for the second time that day.
Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” was number one on the Pop, R&B and Dance charts in June 1984. It was certified platinum and nominated for the Oscar for Best Song. I hadn’t thought of this song in years and had forgotten that it was such a monster hit. As I considered writing about it for this blog I wondered if its success was solely due to the fact that it was on the Footloose soundtrack. I also wondered if this 1980’s bubble gum pop song was on par with some of the other songs I’ve written about on this blog (songs by Michael Jackson, R.E.M., Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran, Talking Heads, and Cameo). Recently, I sat down to watch the video for the first time in at least a decade. I immediately began tapping my foot, singing along and feeling happy and at ease (I’m now pretty sure the FDA has designated LHIFTB as a mild anti-depressant). But does this mean it’s a GREAT pop song? Let’s try to figure it out. Watch the video and then read my 4 favorite things about the song aka “Let’s hear it for ‘Let’s Hear it For the Boy.’ Let’s see if we reach a conclusion by the end of this post.
4. The Voice. Deniece Williams has a four-octave range. In addition to being able to shatter glass with her voice (people can do that, right?) she’s able to imbue some pretty simple lyrics with a great sense of emotion and meaning. Towards the end of the song (around 3:07) she does something pretty special with the word ‘baby’. Before Whitney and before Mariah; Deniece Williams was adding extra syllables to words and performing feats of Olympian vocal gymnastics. But you never get the feeling she’s showing off. Instead – you just get the sense she’s feeling the emotions described in the song and helping the listener to feel them as well. In this case – she’s asking us, “So you want to know how my man makes me feel? You want me to convey it in one word? Ok – he’s my “Babeeeeeeeeeeeeeyeeeeeheeeeyeeheeee!”
3. The Boy. So tell me . . . why does she love this guy? He’s inarticulate, he’s a poor dress, he’s not romantic, he sings off-key, etc, etc, etc. This boy has set the bar pretty low but still, he’s inspired someone to sing (in 4 different octaves) about their love for him someone . Have no fear underachievers – love. is. possible.
2. Football Half Shirts. Please refer to the music video ( 2:21 – 2:36).
1. Good Company. 1984 was a great year for pop music soundtracks. In addition to Williams’ hit single, the Footloose soundtrack also contained Kenny Loggins’ title track and the Shalamar hit, “Dancing in the Sheets.” Other great pop soundtracks from 1984 included Ghostbusters, Against All Odds, and of course, Purple Rain. Deniece was at the beginning of a big, big trend.
So – what do you think? Is “Let’s Hear it for the Boy,” a great song in a great (the greatest) year of pop music? Tell me what you think in the comments.
What type of blessed musical alchemy was being conjured in late May of 1984? During the third week of the month I heard Prince’s When Doves Cry for the first time and almost imploded with joy. And then, the very next week, I heard the song that would begin a 30 year relationship with what would become my favorite band of all time.
Although R.E.M. released their debut album, Murmur, a year earlier – they were not at all on my radar. I think I had heard of the band and thought their name was clever, I knew they were from the South and I had possibly heard “Radio Free Europe,” but didn’t think much of it (I know – BLASPHEMY! It actually hurt me to write that last sentence. But have no fear – I have since come to my senses). I was happy listening to a steady diet of 30% Rap, 20% R&B, 35% British New Wave, and 15% American pop. I believed R.E.M. was a country band and I didn’t need any country music on my radio or in my cassette player.
I’m pretty sure that was my first thought when I heard the first few bars of “Pretty Persuasion”. The radio station WLIR was holding its weekly Screamer of the Week competition and one of the DJ’s entered “Pretty Persuasion,” from R.E.M.’s just released second album, Reckoning.
First the jangly guitar, followed by a harmonica, and then that twangy, sad vocal harmony. Yep – this is country music. Country music, but . . . .
Country music, but . . . one of the prettiest harmonies I’ve heard all year. Country music, but . . . also rock n roll – and also pop. Country music, but . . . something else I can’t put my finger on – but I know it’s making a connection.
Michael Stipe has recently shared the fact that Pretty Persuasion is about growing up queer. I’d love to be able to re-write history and talk about how I connected to the very subtle gay/queer narrative Stipe was telegraphing. But that wasn’t the case. Stipe wasn’t ready to directly speak or write or sing about being gay and I didn’t feel the particular need to seek out and enjoy gay overtones in my music (Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes to Hollywood would change that in a couple of months).
But I did connect to the song’s evocation of vulnerability. And although I didn’t understand all of the lyrics I knew it felt cathartic and empowering to sing along to lines like “Goddamn your confusion,” and “It’s all wrong/it’s all wrong!”. Those lyrics seemed perfectly designed for this 16-year-old to sing along to while sitting alone in his bedroom. And the perfection of that song inspired this 16-year-old to put down his reservations about liking country music and pick up his phone to cast his vote for “Pretty Persuasion” to be Screamer of the Week.
When I turned 40 I created a mix of my top 40 songs of all time. The list started changing almost as soon as I burned the CD (life before Spotify) but R.E.M.’s “Pretty Persuasion” has remained a constant. It’s a great song. A perfect song. And it’s a marker. It reminds me of a time when I cautiously (very cautiously) began to open up, receptive to the notion that I could be a slightly different person today, than I had been the day before.
I clearly remember the very first time I heard ‘When Dove Cry.’ It was May 1984 and I was in my bedroom listening to WLIR. The station mainly played New Wave so when I heard the DJ announce he was about to play a new song by Prince I assumed it was another ‘Prince’, possibly some Brit paying an ironic homage to the royal family. But as soon as the song began I stopped caring who was singing. I needed to focus on the music. The following is a completely factual moment by moment account of my first time listening to this song.
0:00 Little do I know my musical world is about to change.
0:00 – :20 Beginning a song with an electric guitar solo? That’s odd. And wait a second, guitar solos belong on rock records – so why am I now hearing a dance beat? And why has the guitar morphed into something that sounds like an asthmatic robot saying ‘nyah nyah nyah’? This has got to be the strangest opening of any song I’ve ever heard. And . . . I think I love it!
:30 – 1:30 I don’t know what else is about to happen, but right now, in this moment, I think this is the best song I’ve ever heard. Period. Everything I’m hearing is different and amazing. I love the singer’s voice (it sounds both atonal and melodic). The lyrics are surreal and sexy ( ‘Animals strike curious poses’? I’m going to put some energy into figuring out what that means). And that drum beat. I don’t think I’ve ever really paid attention to the way drums sound until now but there’s something so different and distinctive about the way these drums sound. They crunch and echo. I need to turn this song up!
1:45 – It’s official – this is definitely the best song I’ve ever heard!
1:50 Oh wait – why am I not taping this?! (As I head to press the play + record buttons on my boom box – a revelation!) … hold up – I can’t start the recording half way through. That seems wrong. Blasphemous. This song deserved to be recorded from start to finish. I owe that to the song. I owe it to myself!!
2:05 Ok – here comes the chorus again – let me try to figure out what he’s singing about:
How Can U Just Live Me Standing
Alone in a World So Cold
Maybe I’m Just 2 Demanding
Maybe I’m Just Like My Father – 2 Bold
Maybe You’re Just Like My Mother
She’s Never Satisfied
Why Do we Scream at Each Other
This is what is sounds like
When Doves Cry
Hmmmm – could this be the same Prince who sings 1999 and Little Red Corvette? Is this song about his family? His girlfriend?
3:00 ( Note – The one memory of this experience that isn’t crystal clear is whether I started dancing. Trust me, there would be many times I would dance along to “When Doves Cry” in my bedroom (many times in ’84 and as recently as two weeks ago) but I can’t recall whether this happened during this first listen. Let’s just say that IF I danced – I would have probably started right about now).
4:15 – I don’t want the song to end. The song doesn’t sound like it wants to end. More guitar solos. High pitched shrieks. A synthesizer that sounds like an electronic chorus of violins. Now the singer is harmonizing with himself in some high-pitched falsetto. Now he’s just singing “don’t cry’ over and over again and it sounds weird and brilliant.
And finally that synthesizer is back and wraps it all up. The song ended and some other song started and I was floored. Before I knew it was performed by Prince and before I knew it was the single from what would be one of the greatest soundtracks of all time I fell in love with that song.
When Doves Cry went on to win WLIR’s Screamer of the Week competition and I had many opportunities to record it. It remains one of my favorite songs of all time. Over 30 years I’ve listened to this song on cassette, vinyl, CD, and MP3 – and every time it feels like a gift.