Over at JC’s ever-glorious place today, the latest in his Saturday’s Scottish Song is a tune by Bronski Beat, and JC of course describes their “The Age of Consent” album as “incredibly brave and groundbreaking” (and I mean ‘of course’ in the sense that he is 100% correct, rather than in the sense of “predictably”, followed by a weary sigh and a rolling of the eyes).
In the early 1980s, there suddenly seemed to be a lot more openly gay pop stars, and Bronski Beat were arguably the most important; not only did they write songs about being gay in a community that wasn’t exactly “gay-friendly” (I’m thinking of “Smalltown Boy” here, as potent, powerful and emotional a record all these years later as it was the first time I heard it), but they also portrayed an image which, as far as I’m aware, had not been done before: that there wasn’t necessarily anything out of the ordinary about gay men.
Out and proud musicians were not a new thing in the early 1980s – we’d had Disco for several years – but up until then gay men in pop music, and probably in popular culture more generally, had always been portrayed as camp, incredibly flamboyant, or both. (see: Divine, Sylvester, or Boy George).
But here, with Bronski Beat, were three blokes who just happened to be gay, who looked like any other blokes you might see on the street, and who, although Smalltown Boy and The Age of Consent are undoubtedly very political records, just wanted to make great pop songs. What Bronski Beat taught us was that one’s sexual preference makes no difference, other than providing a different perspective from which to comment on things.
I mention this, and Boy George in passing, because I read a fascinating article by Alexis Petridis in The Grauniad the other day (apologies, I always refer to it as such due to its fabled propensity for failing to spot basic spelling mistakes and grammatical errors pre-publication). Petridis is one of my favourite music journalists, a view probably somewhat coloured by the fact he was the first famous person (if being a Grauniad journo counts as being famous…), before I started writing this blog, to ever reply to one of my Tweets (a joke about Withnail and I, in case you’re interested). Along with JC’s kind advice on the practical points of how to do this blogging lark (of which I have written, and embarrased him, previously), Petridis’ acknowledgement that something I had sent him was funny was just as an important part in my starting to write here. This wasn’t my mates laughing at something I said down the pub, this was someone I didn’t know, who could very easily have just ignored my Tweet, responding in a positive, probably unintentionally, encouraging way.
But, as usual, I digress. The article in question was an interview with early 80s pop-pioneer and friend of Boy George (and I don’t mean that in a “Friend of Dorothy” kind of way), Marilyn.
Back in the early 1980s, both George and Marilyn were branded as “gender-benders”, which always struck me as lazy, homophobic journalism. What you’ve done there, Mr Daily Mail journo, is find a word which rhymes with gender, and hope that its use as a derogatory term, a playground cat-call, will stick. Which, annoyingly, it did.
That was part of the problem for Marilyn back in the day; his friendship with Boy George was generally construed/portayed as him hanging onto the coat-tails of his famous friend, and as George’s star descended into an unseemly mess of drug addiction and not very good records, so Marilyn’s career spiralled down the spout too.
Make no bones about it, Boy George is an integral part in the story of how gay men came to be accepted as equals in modern society, in the same way as, dated as they may seem now, people like John Inman and Larry Grayson had done in the 1970s. And when people saw Boy George and wondered out loud if “it” was a boy or a girl (there’s a clue in the name, folks), they were positively aplopeptic when they saw Marilyn. And his story is amazing, 2 parts inspirational to 1 part sad. Or maybe that should be the other way round. I’m not sure.
To say any more would be to trample all over the interview itself, which you can read here: When Alexis Met Marilyn
Given the content of my last post, there’s a certain theme (failed pop star turns into drug-addled loser) bubbling up here, and that’s not intentional. Donovan has had his moment of redemption, where the public have gone “Oh, you’re alright really, aren’t you?”. Marilyn is not as big a star as Donovan, nor has he been afforded such a luxury.
What I’m really trying to do is nudge you in the direction of this, one of the greatest, often over-looked, pop songs of the 1980s:
And if you ever need convincing of just how important gay rights were in the 1980s, I urge you to watch “Pride”, an incredible film that I’ve waxed lyrical about before, and which I’m off to watch again now.
Here’s the trailer: