BRONSKI BEAT AND THE IMPORTANCE OF THE INNER SLEEVE
by Federico Strata
“Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop,” suggested the King of Hearts to Alice, in the famous novel by Lewis Carroll. I’ll try to follow his suggestion, too, but it won’t be easy for me to find a beginning to this story. I could start by telling about the flood that hit Mr. Freitag’s cellar in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, and destroyed irremediably the record’s inner sleeve. I managed just in time to save the coated board cover by putting it on a warm radiator, even if it resulted a little bit spoiled by water. But for some aspects it’s better so, since if it hadn’t been for that flood, at this time “Mr. Friday” wouldn’t have given me his vinyl records of the 80s… I bet you haven’t understood anything of what I said, have you? I was sure it wouldn’t be easy to tell this tale…
Let’s try in another way, by taking a further step backwards. I’ll tell you about that time in Genoa, when Mauro, a pundit on the music of the 80s, told me about this album and the importance of its inner sleeve. No, no… It doesn’t work this way, either, because it doesn’t make sense to talk about an inner sleeve, before saying what you can find outside. Furthermore, not even Mauro can find his copy anymore that he bought many years ago, so up to now I have never seen this fucking sleeve in my life.
Well then, I’ll start talking about the outer package. The cover, just to be clear. Which is after all significant, too, since it’s the first thing you look at when you hold a record in your hand. In our case it’s black, with some colored geometric figures in the middle. Among these a pink triangle, also represented alone on the back side, as to stress its importance. We are talking about The Age of Consent (London Records, 1984), the debut album by the British group Bronski Beat. Maybe this is the real beginning of the story I’d like to tell you. Or maybe not, since I used to love some songs by them before knowing the LP’s title and its meaning. In any case, “the age of consent” in legal terms is the minimum age that a person must be to be considered consenting during a sexual intercourse. When the album was released, this age in the United Kingdom was higher for people of the same gender and it was one of the most elevated in Europe: 21 years compared to an average of 16. After all, if the pink triangle reminds us about the symbol with which homosexual prisoners where marked in Nazi lagers some decades before, we must observe that in the Anglo-Saxon countries, at that time, the situation was not much better. Emblematic, almost paradoxical is the case of the inventor of the modern calculator, the London physicist Alan Turing, whose researches allowed the Allies to decode the encrypted messages of the enemy. As thanks for it, after the war Turing was arrested under the charge of sodomy and since he couldn’t stand the humbling hormonal “therapies” that he regularly received, he committed suicide in a fabled way, by eating a poisoned apple.
The Age of Consent is thus a concept album evolving around the theme of homosexual discrimination. It is right in the inner sleeve that the laws about the age of consent in the main European countries appear, of course with a polemic intent. For Bronski Beat the protest has a strong personal involvement, since all of the three members are openly gay.
Steve Bronski, to whom the band owes its name, deals with synthesizers, drums and music composition, together with Larry Steinbachek, but the real front-man of the group is Jimmy Somerville: Scottish from Glasgow, in 1980, at the age of only 19 years he migrates to that melting pot of tendencies, ideas and youth movements which is London in that period. Jimmy, Steve and Larry meet each other right in the contest of London gay communities and after a short time they form Bronski Beat. The public is immediately hypnotized by Somerville’s exceptional falsetto, refined but effective, which is the most characteristic element of the newborn band. But the music plays an important role, too, with fast and appealing electronic grooves which seem to play with sound, rather than playing sounds. The genre is a perfect mix of New Wave and Hi-NRG and definitely contributes to play down the subject, avoiding in a brilliant way that everything could degenerate to a boring whine.
Somerville’s beautiful voice, the playful character of sounds and the danceability of music, which is capable of being original and easy to listen to at the same time, have permitted The Age of Consent to achieve great commercial success in the whole occidental world, in Europe in particular, independently from the committed contents of the work. The first single “Smalltown Boy” has been top of the charts in Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, scoring the third place in the UK. It is actually the best track of the album, where Somerville shows mostly his voice skills and sings a story with strong autobiographical elements. The boy of the title is a young victim of homophobia, a guy forced to move to the city because in the town where he lives nobody accepts his homosexuality. Since he was bullied by a group of hooligans, everybody around town started rumoring about him, almost as if he had the responsibility for what happened. The only solution is running away, leaving everything: the young departs by train in the morning and brings with him only a black case with the few things he owns and the satisfaction to have always found the strength not to cry to anyone, but to his soul. Very well done is the video, too, which represents more or less the same story told in the lyrics and where the role of the protagonist is played by the singer himself, as one could easily expect. Very nice are the moving shots of the railway lines; effective in its simplicity is the scene where the father coldly gives some money to the departing son on the threshold and immediately goes back into the house, refusing the handshake offered by the boy as a goodbye.
The second single, “Why,” is the funniest and most danceable track on the LP. The theme of discrimination is treated here in a lighter, less introspective way. Bullies, who in their false securities watch with contempt and eventually beat two “different,” are asked a simple but disarming question: why?
The third single, published more or less at the same time with the album, is a cover of “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” a song from a popular opera by the Gershwin brothers (Porgy and Bess, 1935), where the authenticity of “the things that you’re liable to read in the bible” is questioned. Inserted in the context of this LP, this song reminds us immediately about Sodom, Gomorrah and all those moralistic tales and legends populating the Ancient Testament. The clarinet solos and the background male chorus are the cherry on top and make this track an excellent piece of work.
Worth of note is also the song “Junk,” the only one in which Somerville doesn’t sing with his usual falsetto, but chooses lower tonalities, which match well with the dark synthesizer lines of this track and demonstrate a good versatility (unfortunately never fully exploited) of the singer. The lyrics are strongly critical against the modern consumer society, where it seems impossible to find shelter from this “junk” surrounding us everywhere: on the streets, in public places, on TV and even in the privacy of our homes.
The album couldn’t close in a better way than with a valuable cover of “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer, in medley with “Johnny, Remember Me” by Geoff Goddard, and “Love to Love You, Baby” by the same Summer. The track will be reprised and extended in a fourth single, released one year after the LP. It’s a tribute to Hi-NRG disco, to which Bronski Beat’s style is much indebted, and a dutiful homage to the queen of disco, who is by the way a well-known gay icon.
On the whole, Bronski Beat have really made a good work, well deserving an honor place in the history of pop music. The only flaw they can be rebuked for is having lasted too shortly. After the release of The Age of Consent, Somerville leaves the group and is replaced by John Foster, with whom a new album entitled Truthdare Doubledare is recorded in 1986, but the great success of the single “Hit That Perfect Beat” is not sufficient to keep the new formation alive: already in 1987 they are abandoned by the new voice, too. After almost one year of dispersive activities and aborted projects, Bronski Beat are definitively dissolved in 1995 with just three studio albums to their credit, the third of which, Rainbow Nation (1995), is actually a collection of unpublished works.
A more prolific career happened to Jimmy Somerville, but the singer has never reached the quality level of his first work, both for music and content. After leaving Bronski Beat, he forms the Communards together with the classical pianist Richard Coles, but the duo lasts only a couple of years and despite the ambitious name, which lets some political commitment appear, the couple is remembered almost exclusively for some cover of great disco hits, such as “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and “You Never Can Say Goodbye.” Also in his successive solo career, Somerville doesn’t change his route and although he publishes a large number of singles, he leaves us only the memory of his funny version of “You Make Me Feel” by Sylvester and “To Love Somebody” by the Bee Gees.
We are tempted to say that we would expect more from artists who debuted in such a brilliant and transgressive fashion, but we would risk to fall into a flat and cheesy rhetoric, with no use to anybody. Furthermore, since we have just come to the end of our story we have to stop, if we don’t want to offend the King of Hearts. If he takes it amiss he will surely have our heads cut and it wouldn’t be nice at all, especially on such a beautiful day like this.
(Special thanks to Jodee McElfresh for English support)
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