BRONSKI BEAT.

Band mem­ber Steve Bronski on how their queer pop clas­sic The Age of Con­sent is still as rel­e­vant as ever.

Gay Times Magazine - - CULTURE - Im­age courtesy of Bronski Beat Words Nick Levine

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 ga–le 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 la–ing 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.”

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