Writing about music can never be as powerful as making it and I readily admit that the words I throw down here – basically for my own amusement – can change very little except, hopefully, your Spotify lists and your Amazon purchases. But one of the great truths of music is its ability to broaden your world view, bring attention to subsumed issues and create an emotional bond with its listeners for causes in a way that a cogently argued pamphlet, article or speech often cannot.
One of the truths of my teenage years is that there seemed a wealth of issues about which our popstars could become aerated. We wanted to “Free Nelson Mandela”; we shouted “Stand Down Margaret”; there was “Shipbuilding”, an anti-Falklands War piece, anything by Billy Bragg and even “Two Tribes” was a full-blooded if bombastic assault for the ears about the backdrop of the Cold War. Even those former Street Fighting Men, the Rolling Stones drew attention to the plight of Pinochet’s ‘Missing’ in “Undercover Of The Night”.
However, whilst some of these causes I took up with more enthusiasm than others, the album that perhaps more than any other had the ability to kick-start a change in the prevailing mood around an issue with the greatest lasting consequences is “Age Of Consent” by Bronski Beat.
Now I accept that this is, to some of you, an unusual choice but I doubt any piece of music did so much to make Gay Rights such an acceptable subject amongst its target audience. Perhaps its age creeping up, but I do not look back on some of my views and opinions from around this time with any pride – indeed, I do not mind saying that some the cheap throwaway remarks of my younger days still overcome with me guilt and a degree of shame.
And rightly they should still haunt me.
I was (and hopefully still am) a relatively educated and intelligent human being who could develop strong well-thought out opinions on a variety of subjects and yet some of my utterances, whilst not deliberately barbaric, would certainly come across as cheap, ill-conceived and doubtless, harmful to any listening gay ears.
Some of our views become entrenched with time and some become more tolerant and I would certainly like to think that mine changed around the time of my last year at school as music opened my eyes and ears to worlds that previously had not seemed important. But this was the value of music then because if it was being featured on Top Of The Pops or The Tube or Whistle Test then it was going to be important to me.
And with “Age Of Consent” I doubt you could have created a more direct protest supporting Gay Rights than this. For goodness sake, the first line of the first verse of the first song “Why?” is “contempt in your eyes as I turn to kiss his lips” – there’s little covering up the subject matter of this piece and would be no place to be if you were uncomfortable with gay culture.
And yet this is one of the most exciting records of the time and has an extended version (available on the remastered new version) that may be up there with the very best remixes of the whole decade. It has a high energy pace but uses its synthesisers to create a tough industrial sound that sounds like a near cousin of Depeche Mode. It is fiery, thunderous and never lets up once.
Interestingly, the band recorded full length versions of their songs and then edited them down rather than mixed them up, as was normally the case which may account for such exciting remixed versions although apparently some of their excesses inevitably need curbing as they played with their new sequencers and synthesisers – the rather needless central percussion breakdown with sequenced vocals doesn’t necessarily stand the test of time as well as the rest of the record.
Really it is this incredibly different and rugged synthesiser sound that is the piece in the jigsaw of making this such an arresting record and producer Mike Thorne had been deliberately chosen after his work with Soft Cell on the darker “The Art Of Falling Apart” and enjoyed the more serious undercurrents of the band’s work that could be incorporated into his developing sound book.
However, the real highlight of the recording is of course Jimmy Somerville’s extraordinary voice. A falsetto like no other you had ever heard and incidentally entirely untrained.
If you were going to central casting for an angry-looking, ginger, political Scotsman you would have been hard-pressed to come up with a more stereotypical looking character than Somerville and yet, as all of this piece is about the breakdown of prejudice and preconception, I think we should dwell simply on a style of vocal delivery that was able to move from the high intensity of “Why?” to the clear jazz inflections of “Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Heatwave” and of course, the subtle sadness of the classic “Smalltown Boy”.
And if you really want to hear just how distinctive and original a voice it is then check out this great clip from the streets of Berlin.
Despite the relentless dance drive and pop sensibilities of the album, the band’s politics were 100% genuine and Somerville had developed an activist background during his sojourn in London. “No More War” and “Junk” were equally angry diatribes against the state of the nation and “Screaming” is a terrifying representation of abuse. This was a band that pulled no punches.
Perhaps the undiscovered highlight of the album is the low-key and slightly sinister “Love And Money” which combines all their jazz and electro influences but underpins it with a stunning piece of sax work and back rhythm that Sade would be proud of. It deserves not to be over-looked not eat because of its prophetic nature and I’m sure looking back all of Bronski Beat will be pleased with that.
Finally, we should talk about the “I Feel Love” Medley which also included another Donna Summer classic “Love To Love You Baby” and the chorus refrain from John Leyton’s number one single “Johnny Remember Me”. On the original album, it is a version performed just by the band but in the remaster you get the hit single which was turned famously into a disco duet with Marc Almond.
So while Jimmy Somerville became disillusioned with Bronski Beat and subsequently left to form the Communards straight after this single, it set an interesting blueprint because whilst he was always a champion for Disco (and still remains so), he seems to have preferred setting his voice against a deeper counter – “Don’t Leave Me This Way” obviously comes to mind with Sarah-Jane Morris but also on “Comment Te Dire Adieu” with Jules Miles-Kingston and, lest we forget, his backing on “Suspicious Minds” with the Fine Young Cannibals.
I think it is a fascinating use of a haunting and unique voice. It is in some way other-worldly and slightly ghostly.
This makes the cover of the death disc “Johnny Remember Me” all the more the appropriate. However,as an aside, this was produced originally by Joe Meek, the idiosyncratic record producer of the early 60s (“Telstar”); so obviously, they knew their history as he had led a tortured life in the closet before his untimely suicide but I think he would have appreciated the recording for its wonderful link of pop and experimentation of which he was one of the great pioneers.
At the time of “Age Of Consent”, more pop music was sold in the UK than any time since the 60s and its coverage in the media would never be so high. Accordingly, the issues that music was able to make a positive contribution to – be it Live Aid or Apartheid or the Nuclear Threat – were numerous and heartfelt. We really could change the world with music, as Paddy McAloon would urge us to do in later times.
But this is an album that did start a fundamental change in how we considered our prejudice to gay issues (certainly it made me question mine, I’m delighted to say) and opened up a dialogue that whilst still not complete has certainly moved on.
As rugby clubs the length and breadth of the country began happily dancing to their version of “I Feel Love”, I feel certain that even to this day the band think this one of their most important achievements. Bravo Bronskis!