If there is a pantheon of important figures in groundbreaking 1980s New Wave synth-pop, Scottish singer Jimmy Somerville is solidly in it. More than just a sharp lyricist with a bell-clear falsetto, Somerville fronted two of the most successful dance-pop acts of the era, Bronski Beat and the Communards, before kicking off a successful solo career. He was a brazenly gay provocateur at a time when the sociopolitical climates both at home in in the United Kingdom and here in the United States were stridently homophobic. What other artist can count among his greatest hits a handful of songs that not only made a generation hit the dance floor but also raised its consciousness?
Last year's 30th anniversary rerelease of Bronski Beat's classic "Smalltown Boy" reminds listeners that the song (and its powerful video) shone a light on issues like family rejection, community bias, bullying, and isolation decades before Glee and Macklemore. Remarkably, it shot to the number 3 spot on the U.K. singles chart. Here is Somerville last summer performing a stripped-down version of the classic:
This week Somerville releases his sixth solo album, Homage, in which he pays tribute to the disco era that has long inspired him. Opting to ditch the synthesizers, this time around Somerville sings in front of live musicians. He recently told the press he feels he's made the album he would have wanted to hear as a teenager. Listen to the deliciously retro horn blasts and sweeping strings of "Travesty" and experience the same joy our Studio 54-fathers did as they boogied on the dance floor:
Of course, Somerville's love affair with disco goes back decades, and in that too he was a bit of a rabble-rouser. The singer's string of hit disco covers came at a time when music critics were happy to have disco dead and buried. In fact, during the 1980s critics were so busy skewering New Wave synth-pop artists, they had all but forgotten disco. The two genres were at that time equally maligned by the macho rock establishment. Leave it to Somerville, already an openly gay New Wave chart -opper, to further thumb his nose at them by sashaying away as he belted out songs made famous by Donna Summer, Thelma Houston, and gay disco superstar Sylvester.
Let's look at a handful of highlights from Somerville's groundbreaking career:
1980: Somerville leaves his native Glasgow and moves to London.
1984: In its classic line-up, Bronski Beat, featuring Somerville and keyboardists Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek, releases the daring album The Age of Consent. Album art prominently features the pink triangle, which had become an LGBT movement's symbol, and its inside sleeve lists the legal age of consent for homosexual acts in several countries across Europe. The album soars up the British charts, scoring hits with a trio of now classic synth-pop hits, "Smalltown Boy," a cover of Summer's "I Feel Love," and the early LGBT anthem "Why?" That peppy number finds Somerville singing about gay harassment, but its chorus is a proud call to arms: "You and me together, fighting for our love." (Bonus points for the wacky video in which Somerville, dressed as a deli worker, sings about kissing another man's lips while standing amid dangling sausages. So much for subtlety!)
1985: Somerville launches the Communards with gay keyboardist Richard Coles (who would go on to become a Church of England priest and a beloved BBC host). Somerville, ever the provocateur, chooses a band name, during the Western Bloc's tense Cold War with the Soviet Union, that sounds an awful lot like "Communists." (It's actually named for the same 19th-century French socialist revolutionaries who inspired Karl Marx.) The band's album and singles artwork are cribbed from vintage Communist Party propaganda posters, and, if that's not enough, the second album is titled Red. Yet, the hits are focused 100 percent on the dance floor and the group scores big with a cover of the Jackson 5 by way of- Gloria Gaynor classic "Never Can Say Goodbye" as well as "Don't Leave Me This Way," originally recorded by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, though, of course, Somerville opts to revisit the 1977 Thelma Houston disco version.
1989: Somerville releases Read My Lips, his first solo album, racking up another hit with a cover of Sylvester's "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)." He stretches out a bit more with a cover of "Comment Te Dire Adieu" by legendary French chanteuse Francoise Hardy.
1990: Somerville contributes a sublime over of Cole Porter's "From This Moment On" to the Red, Hot + Blue compilation. The album was one of the first major AIDS benefits in the music industry.
1995: Somerville releases Dare to Love, featuring "Heartbeat," which soars to the number 1 spot on the U.S. dance chart.
2009: Somerville releases Suddenly Last Summer, an album of acoustic interpretations of songs by artists as diverse as Burt Bacharach, Blondie, the Doors, and Deep Purple.
2015: Somerville releases Homage, an album that meticulously re-creates the authentic 1970s sound of the disco era. No synths this time around. Shimmering funk guitar meets bona fide strings and horns. Somerville also leaves the covers behind, instead writing Homage's 12 originals, to create what he says is "the disco album I always wanted to make." Enjoy the funky "Taken Away."