With the recent death of classic rocker Andy Fraser, bassist of 1970s British rock band Free, LGBT music lovers are reminded of our significant presence in the world of classic rock.
Yes, rock music. Not pop, not dance music. We’re talking good old-fashioned, guitar-thrashing rock, the kind that once made concert crowds flick their Bics and hold them high above their heads. From the British Invasion of the 1960s through bell-bottoms in the swinging '70, all the way to the headbanging hedonism of the 1980s. Believe it or not, LGBT folks were always a part of the rock scene. Architects of it, in fact. The roster of queer classic rockers includes musicians in some of rock's most critically acclaimed, influential bands, not to mention solo stars who literally changed music forever, often by bringing a queer aesthetic or queer material to the genre.
Picture Queen’s Freddie Mercury prancing with his mike, singing those operatic flourishes on the timeless “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Or flaxen-haired tomboy Sandy West bashing her drums behind her fellow Runaways as they scorch through the teen delinquent anthem “Cherry Bomb.” Or metal god Rob Halford of Judas Priest, decked from head to toe in leather daddy garb, clutching the mike as he belts out “Breaking the Law.”
Let’s take a look, decade by decade, at 18 queer classic rockers.
Dave Davies of the Kinks
In the mid-1960s British band the Kinks scored hits with "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night," among others, making the act one of the most successful of the era. To this day, rock historians cite lead guitarist Dave Davies' playing for its influence on his peers in the 1960s as well as many who came after him. Davies, for one, participated in the sexual revolution to its fullest, having affairs with both men and women, all of which he was happy to document in his 1996 memoir Kink.
Even though he's straight, Kinks front man and principal songwriter Ray Davies (Dave's older brother) doesn't shy away from writing about queer love, as evidenced by the band's 1970 hit "Lola," which finds an inexperienced young man succumbing to the charms of an older drag queen.
Friends and fellow musicians have for four decades remembered iconic blues-rock singer Janis Joplin as a woman with enormous appetites — for sex, drugs, and booze. By many accounts, including several books written about the singer after her death, Joplin, who died in 1971 of a heroin overdose, was a full-tilt pleasure seeker who bedded both men and women. In 2000, the Biography channel aired a profile of Joplin in which her former lover Peggy Casserta explained their relationship. "It worked for what it was. We had a lot of fun. We made a lot of love," said Casserta. "It wasn't a relationship that people think of or look at today as a 'lesbian relationship.' It was not like that at all. We were compatible and young and wild and interested in each other."
Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground
Lou Reed openly discussed his bisexuality early in his career and was the first rock star to write songs about transgender women. In the 1960s, Reed fronted one of rock’s most important bands, the Velvet Underground. The Underground’s music was a dark antidote to the feel good-hippie tunes of the era, with Reed penning songs about heroin, S&M, even an achingly sad tribute to transgender cult film actress Candy Darling ("Candy Says"), a key figure in Andy Warhol’s famed Factory. Reed would write about Candy again on the 1972 solo hit “Walk On the Wild Side” (above), throwing in verses about Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis, two more transgender “superstars” from Warhol’s camp. Later in life, Reed found love with avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson. The two had been together for 21 years when Reed died of liver disease in 2013. He was 71.
Pete Townshend of the Who
The Who's Pete Townshend is one of the most creative forces rock has ever known, with the singer-guitarist writing some of rock's most iconic songs. The band's list of hits is like a blitzkrieg of classic rock milestones: "I Can't Explain," "Substitute," "My Generation," and many more. Not to mention a concept album and the rock opera Tommy. Townshend also put a stamp on rock with his signature windmill move, often copied by younger players.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer gets big props for being open about his fluid sexuality. Townshend first told the world he was not straight in Timothy White's 1990 book of interviews Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews, affirming it again in his own 2012 memoir Who I Am, in which he described himself as “probably bisexual,” acknowledging both an affair with British journalist Danny Fields and his lust for fellow rocker Mick Jagger, who he calls "the only man I've ever seriously wanted to fuck."
All of which should come as no surprise to fans who remember Townshend's 1980 solo hit “Rough Boys” (above), which Rolling Stone called "the most overtly homoerotic song in his catalog." Yes. Maybe even the most overtly homoerotic song in anyone's catalog.