The history and the culture that has built the present lifestyle of gay men is both deep and beautiful and very deserving of our digging through it. Gayphemera hopes to educate and explore the cultural players, performers, and projects that defined us then and now. In this installment, we explore the work of Bronski Beat.
Imagine if you had a small synthpop group like Tears For Fears but, instead of straight British men, you had only gay men. Their music explored the experience of being young and gay through music that toyed with electronics, rock, loungey jazz, and cabaret. Could this band be a real thing? Yes, this was indeed a real group: this was Bronski Beat.
The group consisted of Steve Bronski, Larry Steinbachek, and Jimmy Somerville, three young gay men who met in early eighties Brixton. They signed to London Records after only performing a few live gigs and went on to release the fairly big hit “Smalltown Boy,” which tells the still very real story of growing up gay in a place where gay people are targets of hate. Through a groovey Hi-NRG frame and Sumerville’s high pitched warble, you easily can slide yourself into the very relatable tale of being gay and seeking your place in the world. It’s a deeply melancholy and deeply dancey song.
The album that “Smalltown Boy” comes from—The Age Of Consent—tells many stories, most of which are about struggling with your sexuality. The album starts with the catchy call for help “Why?” about a man who is in love with another man who actually, literally, hates being gay to the point of beating his boyfriend. “Screaming” is a somber call out to everyone and every harm against a gay man for his sexuality. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” debunks biblical myths as a means to show that, no, not all things in the Bible and in culturally conservative teachings are correct. There are other fay feeling songs that conquer the lightness of queer thoughts, from the danger of indulgence in “Love And Money” to hot and sensual “Heatwave.” One of the album’s closing songs is a cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, which was also adopted by gay icon Patrick Cowley: the song appropriates Summer’s sensual epic, reshaping it into a very delicate and limp wristed experiment.
The Age Of Consent is also noteworthy in that the title is a direct reference to the age in which men at this time in history were allowed to have sex, if they even were allowed. The album artwork is notable as it prominently featured pink triangles in addition to a listing of the ages of consent around the world—and where to get gay legal advice from. This album is a not so subtle gay political artifact muffled by extremely catchy music. It’s wonderful.
The band went on to release three more records, only one of which included Somerville (who exited and took a lot of the band’s magic with him). I personally am not that well versed in their other recordings but I do know that later albums like Truthdare Doubledare felt like their iconic “Smalltown Boy” had grown up in whatever metropolitan gayborhood, found his gay family, and now enjoys a life of cocktails, sucking cock, and watching Logo. That particular album is a bit cringeworthy.
Yet, The Age Of Consent is an important landmark in gay music history. It’s a reminder of the struggles that existed and still exist as some places still have ages of consent. America may (on occasion) have their shit together in relationship to the LGBTQ community but, dang, we as a global community have a fuck ton more work to do.
Also, of note: Age Of Consent is a fucking great eighties synthpop album.