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I stumbled into this album for the oddest of reasons. I grew up hearing it on occasion, but was often exhausted by the consistent falsetto singing of Jimmy Somerville, as well as a feeling of a sort of camp that inherently bugged me–to be fair, this also bugged me about parts of Nick Lowe’s Party of One, which my brain has always told me I heard around the same time (along with a few other albums that are all blended in my head from when I was rather young). I can’t tell you exactly why all that is, but it did leave me to ignore the band quite a long time. It was through a link to a list of gay anthems on a forum somewhere that, the name ringing a bell and the context I gained the link from encouraging it, I went and looked up “Smalltown Boy”. I was immediately struck by how familiar I was with the song and wondered why it was I had avoided them so intently: clearly, this was exactly who I thought, as Somerville’s voice is not exactly one you’d mistake for any others. So, off I went to find the album. It was being reissued around that time (on CD, I mean) so I skipped a CD copy I ran into, then couldn’t find it again. While waiting for another to arrive (the reissue was by Edsel/Demon, which means it is highly unlikely to show up here in the States), I picked it up on LP instead when I found a copy.
The album was a hit, of course, mostly riding on the success of the same single I myself recalled so well. It was also the only album from Bronski Beat to feature Somerville on vocals, as he left the band not long after its release. The follow-up album (not counting the compilation/remix album Hundreds & Thousands), Truthdare Doubledare, instead featured vocalist John Jon (aka John Foster), though this lineup didn’t last much longer and also only released the single album.
The album opens with a song that became another single for the group, “Why?” Immediately, we’re faced with the sound that defines the most popular phase of Bronski Beat’s existence: the voice of Jimmy Somerville, not just a falsetto, but a very high and strong one. Completely a cappella, Jimmy sings “Tell me why? Tell me why?” and the sound of glass breaking brings in his bandmates, Steve Bronski (aka Steven Forrest) and Larry Steinbachek, both operating on purely electronic means. A pulsing beat (four-on-the-floor bass kicks and alternating snare hits) and a buzzing electronic melody, occasionally accented by the help of the Uptown Horns. Jimmy questions homophobic behaviour in response to his own natural expressions of love–the source of the song’s central question. “You and me together, fighting for our love” Jimmy eventually sings over a rapid synthetic bassline.
One of the pair of covers on the album follows, the Gershwin song “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess. A synthesized bass drops the song down to the clarinet solo from Arno Hecht of the Uptown Horns, and an organ-esque line fills the backing of a relaxed, smoky track. Scatting from Jimmy begins the vocals, as the swinging chorus starts the song. Jimmy gets to play with his voice a bit more in the song, often adding quite a few notes and syllables to just “so” when it ends the lines of the chorus. At the second verse, about Jonah and the whale, he is joined by the Pink Singers for a bit, emphasizing the theatrical origins of the song, though the choir practically overwhelms him. A bit of a solo from the keys is backed by both synthesized strings and real ones–the cellos of Beverly Lauridsen, Jesse Levy, and Mark Shuman. In the next verse, about Moses, the Pink Singers instead hum behind Jimmy, and then join in with him on the chorus, giving a lot of force to the central idea. Originally, the song is used as a hint about the state of racial stratification of society (as the song is copyrighted to 1935), but here is used for similar but different reasons: to hint that maybe, perhaps, “Things that you’re liable/To read in the Bible/It ain’t necessarily so…” with a pretty clear idea of what they are referring to.
Originally a poem and eventually their first song, “Screaming” opens with an echoed drum hit and then a very low-end, slow, dark beat. The origin of the lyrics as non-musical poetry is rather apparent: “My man love my first love/My closetness and pain/My closetness and pain/My lying my deceiving…” The low synthesized lines, very ominous and long-held, are accented by periodic interruptions of higher pitched piano-styled keys and periodic splatters of noisy clatter–echoing drums, and the rumble and rattle of less distinctly musical natures. The song begins to build together, filling what were spacious moments, until Jimmy’s voice rises as high as it goes, passionately expressing his pain and frustration with how he has been forced to live life and survive in a society that does not readily accept him.
While the album is known primarily for its gay themes (the original release contained an etching in the dead space of a phone number for support and information for the gay community in the UK, my own US release has the National Gay Task Force number printed on the inner sleeve, under the ages of consent for homosexual men for various countries–emphasizing the UK’s exceptionally high 21, as compared to almost every other country), Jimmy was not strictly limited to those in his lyrical choices. It’s not difficult to guess what “No More War” is about, and it’s also not too surprising that an inevitably sincere sentiment remains sweetly optimistic and vaguely naïve–at least, with respect to the idea of it occurring. Naturally, though, this isn’t a release from the darker, more somber backings that Steinbachek and Bronski put behind “Screaming”, as this is a distinctly mournful song: low on energy, but heavy with oppressive low-end sound. Jimmy again uses free moments to really stretch his falsetto out and express his feelings for the choices humanity makes–war over the hungry. Skittering noise filters in to the song over his voice and it closes without resolution, as is inescapable in context.
Continuing to explore other dark and more broad themes, “Love and Money” again avoids subtlety in its name and content. A bit more uptempo from the prior tracks, Steinbachek and Bronski work in a similarly bassy track, but one that has synthesized strings to add a brighter strain. Cris Cioe contributes an alto sax solo midway through, with congas from John Folarin hiding in the background. The song is less broken in its hurt than previously, more cynically despairing–absent of hope, resigned to the strength of money as motivator, and its ties to love and lust. Cioe has control of much of the track, even as he and Jimmy trade vocal acrobatics for saxophone heroics.
The up-down, up-down beat that opens “Smalltown Boy” is dark, but has a light, warm synthetic line behind it. But that signature melody, a sort of harp-like synthesizer finally establishes the real tone, sad, lost, and alone. Even as an uptempo drumbeat enters, paired with a higher pitched version of the original low melody, this tone isn’t lost as we’ve had it established so firmly, but it certainly leaves the track far more danceable (if you’re that way inclined). Jimmy sings no words, just ethereal sounds of cooled pain. The hook returns, now over the drumbeat, and is cut short for Jimmy to begin to the story: “You leave in the morning/With everything you own/In a little black case…” While still using his falsetto, he brings a palpable sadness to these lines, the kind that comes from turning sadly away from home that stays home, even if it was never comfortable or perfectly happy. Backed rather than overpowered for the chorus, “Run away, turn away, run away, turn away, run away…” there’s no sense of urgency, or of command or directive, just the sense that this is the conclusion to be drawn, the action to be taken–or rather, that was taken–when parents don’t understand, and abuse from the community makes the whole town impossible. A much brighter, rhythmic melody breaks the sadness for just a moment before the hook brings us back. Shortly after it does, Jimmy repeats the original verse and brings more loss and mourning to the final line. A sort of solo–synthesized–follows as the chorus repeats and fades.
One of the few truly cheerful songs on the album, “Heatwave” is more relaxed in subject matter–it’s about an oncoming heatwave, and that which is associated (including “Tattoos and muscles passion and sweat”). Thudding along as it comes in, there’s a great hook that is kind of like a more square, electronic, piccolo of some sort–synthesized of course, but nothing lost (only gained!) from that. There’s the sound of snapping (played on keyboard!) backing it, and it’s almost as if they are again covering another elder musical track, but it’s an original. Of course, the theatricality is returned by a second rhythmic choice to accompany the snapping: a constant sort of tappedy-tap is none other than just that–the tap shoes of Caroline O’Connor. It’s a clever trick that fits perfectly with the feel of the song. And the crescendo of Jimmy’s voice on the jumping rhythm of the song’s title is something to behold, especially in its smooth clarity. Another standout, even if little could touch “Smalltown Boy”.
Unsurprisingly, Jimmy returns to darker subject matter with “Junk”, which Steinbachek and Bronski open with a faux guitar line that strikes downward in an appealing, catchy sort of way, the rhythm pounded out in the midrange on comfortably electronic keys. Much more surprisingly, Somerville exits his falsetto for the verses of the song, and even the (excellent) chorus. Moments of nonverbal melody do place him back in it, but largely the song is in his normal voice. The rhythm of the chorus, though it can obscure the lyrics, is catchy as all heck: “Eat what you’re given/Eat what you get”, though the song remains relatively oriented toward the darker side of things, describing someone attempting to avoid the “junk” of life–seemingly melding drugs with the dross of popular culture, unwanted but inescapable, and desired anyway. Briefly sampled is a Kibbles ‘n’ Bits commercial, which got them less in trouble with the dog food company than it did the actor who recorded the bit. It emphasizes the relentless commercial nature of US culture in particular, and the junk littering segments of it.
Perhaps most obvious in intent, though more in line with popular kinds of songs (despite the singer’s sex and orientation), “Need a Man Blues” is another of the less generally depressing songs on the album. It’s more personal, in its relation to something that–somewhat paraxodically–most of us experiences: the desire to find love, and sometimes, to just find any love at all, and the intensity of that desire when none is present. The beat is one of the most attractive of the album, with the semi-shuffle of it making it closer to the kind of beat-dominant music from which some of their sound originated: the Hi-NRG modifications of disco, either genre often sounding more like a person singing over a piece of music than as part of it. The thick, fat synthesized bassline of much mid-80s synthpop even appears partway through, competing in volume against Jimmy’s more seemingly-improvisational vocal lines. The end of the rhythm loop in particular captures a sound that I’ve always quite liked: a sort of clapping sound, though, in truth, sounding nothing like hands–more like something inorganic being clapped together. It made a brief appearance, in fact, in my own (abysmal) flirtations with creating electronic music.
The closer for the album is its “epic” track: a cover of Donna Summer’s classic “I Feel Love” (co-written with synth-player and disco producer Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte), which pounds along in the style that became Hi-NRG (at first a derivative of disco, but eventually its own genre, less eccentrically named just “hi-energy” in places other than the US), thumping along in that style I mentioned for the last track: Jimmy and the Pink Singers sing more over the music than as part of it, as they hold notes and maintain a more subdued composure to their vocal than the insistent beat would suggest they might. Briefly interrupting it though it isn’t immediately apparent as “interruption”, is actually a bit derived from John Leyton and the Outlaws ’61 UK hit “Johnny Remember Me”, one of those many songs about dead lovers and remembering them, but one with a guitar that actually gives it country inflections. Curiously appearing here in the midst of a disco hit, reclaiming the song in spite of the (alleged, long denied) homphobic comments of the recently born-again Summers.
While their hit with John (“Hit That Perfect Beat”) is quite engaging and good, the heavy political elements of the Somerville-incarnation of Bronski Beat remain in popular (and my personal) opinion the height for the group. Even when not being explicitly political, comfortably and non-defensively expressing Jimmy’s (and, by proxy, to some extent, the group’s collective) romantic and sexual desires plopped homosexual-written-and-performed music right in everyone’s collective faces and made no apologies, excuses, or elaborate dodges about it. It was just there, right in a hit album. When Jimmy sang his “Need a Man Blues”, it wasn’t “look at me! I want a man!” it was just openly expressing that, well–he did. It was suggested that they felt that it was the equivalent of the way heterosexuality was “rammed down their throats”, so to speak, in the way that many whinge about the LGBT movement doing to this day–which gets into a lot of social discussion that isn’t the purview of this particular blog. My feelings, I think, are readily apparent, so I don’t move away from this as a shield to protect my (non-existent) readership and avoid social politics, so much as a recognition that this is about music–and I’ve addressed how this album is tied into things outside just music. No need to go too much further.
In any case, at the least, do not be foolish and miss out on “Smalltown Boy” (and, preferrably, also “Heatwave”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, “Why?”, and “Junk”, with an extra spot for “Screaming” if you want a more beat-esque, stream-of-consciousness-like expression of the sentiments that are most iconic in the album).
- Next Up: Brother Ali – Mourning in America and Dreaming in Colour