Band member Steve Bronski on how their queer pop classic The Age of Consent is still as relevant as ever.
Queer musicians have really delivered in 2018. Troye Sivan, Janelle Monáe, SOPHIE, Years & Years, MNEK, Christine and the Queens, Anne-Marie, Hayley Kiyoko, Jake Shears and Ezra Furman have all given us brilliant, multifaceted albums that could only be made by artists living and embracing the LGBTQ experience. But #20GayTeen, as Kiyoko dubbed this year in January, isn’t the first time music has felt queer af. Back in the early ‘80s, a gale of British pop groups with gay frontmen stormed the charts: Boy George and Culture Club with Karma Chameleon, Pete Burns and Dead or Alive with You Spin Me Round (Like a Record), Holly Johnson and Frankie Goes to Hollywood with Relax, Marc Almond and Soft Cell with Tainted Love.
But synth-pop trio Bronski Beat, whose seminal debut album The Age of Consent is now being reissued with an array of rare bonus tracks, were arguably the queerest of them all. Released in 1984, the record’s title was a straightforward political statement. By this time, the age of consent for gay men had been reduced to 16 years old in many European countries, but the UK was laing behind, keeping it at an unfair and completely unrealistic 21 – five years higher than for hetero folks. Bronski Beat took aim at this blatant discrimination by including on the album’s inner sleeve the different international ages of consent for gay males. Their US record label were so freaked out they removed this information from the version released there.
All three members of Bronski Beat – singer Jimmy Somerville and keyboardists Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek – were out gay men, and US music magazine Spin branded them “the first genuine out-of-the-closet all-gay pop group in history”. Looking back at The Age of Consent era, Steve Bronski tells Gay Times today that the group definitely thought of themselves in this way. “There were people fronting bands at the time who we knew were gay, but definitely no out and proud bands,” he recalls. “The [UK] record label knew what they were getting when they signed us and were always supportive of what we wanted to do.”
What they wanted to do – and achieved, beautifully–wasbringelementsofthegayexperience into the mainstream. The Age of Content’s lead single Smalltown Boy is a devastating tale of moving to the city to find your queer tribe. “Mother will never understand why you had to leave,” Somerville sings in his astonishing, androgynous falsetto. “But the answers you seek will never be found at home, the love that you need will never be found at home.” The accompanying video underscores the song’s story poignantly: we see Somerville catching a train to the city, staring longingly at Speedo-clad guys at a public swimming pool, and becoming the victim of a homophobic attack. Remarkably, Smalltown Boy made number three on the UK singles chart. Can you imagine such an overtly queer song charting this high in 2018?
More than three decades later, Smalltown Boy remains a solid-gold gay anthem: last year, a remix of the song featured memorably in 120 BPM, the acclaimed French film about AIDS activism in in the early ‘90s. Bronski Beat were three white gay men writing about their own experiences, but Smalltown Boy’s narrative will feel familiar to anyone on the LGBTQ spectrum who grew up in a place that made them feel other. “We were just writing songs that spoke about our lives at the time,” Steve Bronski recalls. “We had no idea Smalltown Boy would resonate with so many people. [But] so many have told me personally how it touched or changed their lives.”
Follow-up single Why, another UK top ten hit, is equally powerful as Bronski Beat clap back at society’s ingrained homophobia; back in 1984, panic over the HIV/AIDS epidemic was beginning to take grip, and the government’s anti-gay Section 28 legislation was only a few years away. “Name me an illness, call me a sin,” Somerville sings defiantly. “Never feel guilty, never give in.” Once again, the accompanying video pulls no punches, as we see the group being arrested at the supermarket for being gay after trying to buy items including a miniature replica of Michelangelo’s homoerotic masterpiece, David.
Elsewhere on the album, Bronski Beat rail against war, consumerism and the growing prevalence of junk food, but gayness is never far away. Heatwave has Somerville getting turned on by “tattoos and muscle passion and sweat”, while a jazzy cover of It Ain’t Necessarily Solo definitely feels pointed. Written by Ira and George Gershwin for their 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, it’s a song questioning the veracity of what’s written in the Bible – including, in Bronski Beat’s eyes, its proclamations on homosexuality.
They also cover Donna Summer’s gay disco classic I Feel Love, a controversial move at the time because Summer was alleged to have made disparaging remarks about homosexuality and the HIV/AIDS crisis. But for Bronski Beat, it was a completely authentic choice: Somerville had honed his unique singing voice by singing along to ‘70s hits by Summer and other disco divas. “To be honest, it was a favourite of hers that we would do in our live sets and because of how it went down live we decided to record it for the album,” Bronski says matter-of-factly. In a way, they were also reclaiming a song that had seemed sullied by homophobia.
Sadly, The Age of Consent would be the only album Bronski Beat’s original line-up ever made. Somerville quit the group in 1985 and scored hits as a solo artist and with The Communards. Bronski Beat still exists today, led by Steve Bronski, but Steinbachek sadly passed away in 2016 after a short battle with cancer. But 34 years later, there’s no doubting that together, the three men created an enduring queer classic. “The album seems to have stood the test of time,” Bronski says humbly. “I think lot of the songs are as relevant today as they were all those years ago. I would definitely like to think that the younger gay community today would still be able to relate to a lot of the songs.”