18 Stars Who Prove Queer People Can (Classic) Rock
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.
Alice de Buhr, June Millington, and Nickey Barclay of Fanny
The rock band Fanny’s importance in the annals of popular music cannot be overstated. As one of the earliest all-female rock bands — the first, in fact, to release a major-label album — Fanny was already bucking the system, but featuring three women who identified as either lesbian or bisexual added to the band's charms. Not that Fanny was loud and proud about it back then. The act had a hard enough time being taken seriously in the macho rock world. However, the women did manage to impress one important fan: In 1999, David Bowie lamented to Rolling Stone that Fanny had at that point been all but forgotten, “They were extraordinary... they're as important as anybody else who's ever been, ever.” Happily, Bowie's praise spurred new interest in Fanny, and in 2002 Rhino Records released a four-CD box set of the band's music.
Ah, yes, the original chamelon. David Bowie changed everything. And then changed it again. He toyed with gender, sexuality, hairstyles, camp, extraterrestrials, R&B, German electronica, art, fashion — you name it. Bowie did it first. He is one of the most important artists of the 20th Century, and during the early 1970s, he was very open about his fluid sexuality. He wrote many songs that tackle queer themes, like 1971's "Queen Bitch," in which Bowie watches from above while a "swishy" queen tries to pick up one of the "crusiers" below. In the chorus, unimpressed Bowie wails, "Oh, god, I can do better than that!"
He later confessed that he regretted opening up because, for one thing, journalists never stopped asking about it.
In 2010, Bowie, by then married to supermodel Iman for nearly two decades, didn't deny his bisexuality when British talk show host Jonathan Ross pressed him. He simply giggled and said that during his younger years, he was "incredibly promiscuous." A biography by Wendy Leigh, published in 2014, seems to support that.
Joan Jett and Sandy West of the Runaways
Chatter about the sex lives of the teenage members of the Runaways, the trailblazing all-female rock band, has been nonstop since the band's 1970s heyday. Music journalist Evelyn McDonnell's 2013 book Queens Of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways reports that several members of the band — vocalist Cherie Currie, drummer Sandy West, future solo star guitarist Joan Jett-- explored same-sex relations, sometimes with each other. A New York Times review of the book claimed that during the time of the Runaways both West, who died in 2006, and Jett "were bisexual, if not gay."
However, Jett, who agreed to talk to McDonnell for her book, refused to define her sexuality, telling the writer, "I think I'm being pretty blatant. I think anybody who wants to know who I am, all they have to do is listen to the music." (Lesbian fans have long noticed the "DYKE" sticker on one of Jett's guitars.)
Singer Currie writes in her memoir Neon Angel that she experimented with Jett and West. She chalks it up to all the bisexuality in rock at the time. "Elton John, David Bowie, people were coming out of the closet," she says. "It was just right in that time when the experimental factor kicked in."
The band's lead guitarist Lita Ford admits in McDonnell's Queens of Noise that she briefly quit the act because of all the lesbianism. "It was wild. They were gay and I wasn't. My parents had never explained to me that people are gay," said Ford. "I didn't want to be around it."
In the early 1970s, the influential American glam rocker Jobriath became the first out gay musician signed to a major label, and it was no small affair. The label (Elektra, then run by David Geffen) spent half a million on a media blitz promoting the artist, who proclaimed himself "the true fairy of rock." Jobriath's 1973 self-titled debut album, packed with sci-fi and gender-bending themes, earned critical raves. Six months later a second album emerged, featuring guest performances by Peter Frampton and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones as well as costumes by fashion designer Stephen Sprouse. Then, just like that, in 1975, Jobriath announced he was retiring from the biz. He died of complications from AIDS in 1983, but his influence lives on. In 2012 a documentary, Jobriath A.D., was released.
Yes, remember when rock was young, and Elton John was rock? The biggest solo rock star of the 1970s, in fact. John's string of 1970s hits is well-known: "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," "Benny and the Jets," "Rocket Man," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" — the list goes on and on. Looking back at photos of Elton in flamboyant stage costumes throughout, the decade it’s hard to believe some fans were surprised when he came out. Lucky for us, he carried on into the next decade. And the one after that. And the one after that. Etc.
Freddie Mercury of Queen
How did fans not know Freddie Mercury was gay? The band was called Queen. He wore a mustache right out of the Castro District circa ’78, and still many were shocked to learn the legendary Mercury, the prancing, preening, greatest front man of all time, was one of us. It's not like he shied away from gay life in his material. Listen to the above clip to hear him singing about a sometimes shady, always glamorous "lady" of the night.
AIDS may have taken his body in 1991, but Mercury's contributions to music live on forever.
Chuck Panozzo of Styx
In the 1970s and early 1980s, rock band Styx scored an impressive string of Top 10 hits including "Come Sail Away," "The Best of Times," and "Mr. Roboto." In 2001, at a Human Rights Campaign dinner, the band's longtime bassist Chuck Panozzo announced that he is gay and had been living with HIV. In 2007 he released the autobiography The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies and My Life With Styx. In it, Panozzo takes the reader from his Roman Catholic upbringing through his struggle accepting his sexuality, detailing the years he spent hiding it as his band sold millions of records. Panozzo hoped the book would inspire others to come out. He told one interviewer, "If I can make one person question why he's hiding his authentic self — or living in any kind of denial — and give him courage to make a change, then I've succeeded."
Cris Bonacci of Girlschool
Girlschool is like the hard rock version of Menudo. The all-women band with the butch aesthetic has been going strong since the late 1970s with rumors swirling from the start about various members’ sexuality. Cris Bonacci, who played lead guitar from 1984 to 1992, has discussed with interviewers her tempestuous four-year relationship with British model and singer Samantha Fox, who some may remember for the 1980s hits "Touch Me (I Want Your Body)" and "I Want To Have Some Fun."
Roddy Bottum of Faith No More
Roddy Bottum served as keyboardist for the rock band Faith No More from 1982 until the band split in 1998. Despite pleas from FNM's handlers, Bottum came out as gay in 1993. At one point, Bottum penned a song about oral sex (performed on a man) called "Be Aggressive" for the sole purpose of embarrassing the band's straight lead singer, Mike Patton, who would be singing the tune. After FNM split, Bottum formed the critically acclaimed alt-pop band Imperial Teen, and later started a band with former Hole drummer and out musician Patty Schemel. Just this month, Faith No More announced a reunion and a new album. Bottum has his own news too: His one-act, Sasquatch: The Opera, will premiere next month in Brooklyn.
Rob Halford of Judas Priest
Rob Halford, singer for the British rock band Judas Priest, will forever be known as the man who brought the leather daddy look to heavy metal. In 1998, Halford came out in a tearful interview with The Advocate. In a later VH1 Behind the Music episode, fans learned that hiding his sexuality in Judas Priest's heyday caused Halford severe depression, which led to problems with drugs and alcohol. Last year, in one of the most shocking interviews Halford has ever given, the menacing metal icon admitted to loving the music of Bananarama and Rick Astley.
Doug Pinnick of King’s X
Christian rock band King's X had been kicking around for a few years by the time it released its sophomore album, Gretchen Goes to Nebraska, what many consider to be its milestone work, in 1989. It earned critical raves and gave the trio the exposure it needed going forward. However, many fans were shocked in 1998 when mohawked bassist Doug Pinnick came out in the pages of a Christian magazine. Pinnick later abandoned Christianity and began identifying as "agnostic." The band itself soon rejected the "Christian rock" label, opting for the adjective "spiritual." Now 64, Pinnick continues to record with the band and is involved in numerous side projects.