In my rural Idaho hometown in the 1980s, my friend Jeff and I lived for MTV. Most of us kids did, in fact. Jeff, my best friend was a swimmer, a New Wave music lover, and a preppy fag — or at least that’s what some of the kids at school called him. They said it to his face, as in “Hey, Preppy Fag, what’s up?” When an older kid beat the hell out of him our sophomore year, I remember the kid just yelled “fag.” I was a closeted bisexual at the time. So in 1984 when a video for the song "Smalltown Boy" by the Euro synth-pop band Bronski Beat premiered, it was like the story of our lives on screen.
Widely considered the first real gay video on MTV, it featured singer Jimmy Somerville — who gave both Bronski Beat and later the Communards their signature falsetto sounds — who flirts with a swimmer in the high school locker room and is later attacked by homophobes and disdained by his father. Over a chorus of “run away, run away” we see Somerville on a train, leaving that little town for a bigger, queerer life in the city. Two years later, we followed Somerville’s lead and left Idaho.
That song, though, became a huge gay anthem, and a global success: hitting the top 10 on the music charts in the U.K., the Netherlands, France, Canada, Australia, Belgium, and Switzerland. In the United States, it was number 1 on the dance charts. It’s been covered dozens of times since then, by Dido, metal bands (Paradise Lost, Delain, Deadline), orchestras (Ireland’s RTE Concert Orchestra), and even the French New Wave (Indochine).
“I’ve just been listening on Soundcloud to a version by a band called Heavy Ball,” says Somerville, on the heels of his new album release. “Oh my gosh, it’s the best cover version of 'Smalltown Boy' I’ve ever heard. It’s boy’s guitar band, but the man’s voice is just — he nails it; it’s like it’s a different version, but it’s really great.”
Now, 30 years after the release of “Smalltown Boy,” Somerville has entered a new, nearly euphoric chapter in his career, with a new album, Homage, that is as unabashedly political as his early work but also brilliantly written and a wonderful celebration of the music that inspired him. With Homage, Somerville returns not to pure New Wave or even pop but to the sounds of disco. That diverse genre was a consistent thread in Somerville’s personal and musical life. Some of the biggest selling tracks amongst Somerville’s colorful career are his unique takes on some of the anthems that defined the disco era. Covers of classics such as “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and “I Feel Love,” with Somerville’s unique, instantly identifiable voice made the singer one of the defining voices of the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Communards' “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and the Thelma Houston version (itself a remake of a Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes original) became a sort of hymn or psalm during the early AIDS epidemic. If you were there, you heard it numerous times a week, in bars, homes, hospitals, and even at graveside.
With Homage (which is produced by his longtime producer John Winfield), Somerville isn’t remaking disco classics as his own; he’s creating original disco anthems, a hefty fete in this post-disco, post-grunge, Taylor Swift meets Kanye West musical world.
The first release from the album, “Travesty,” written by Somerville, has all the exuberant jangle of classic disco but the lyrics offer up a different story, with a refrain that it’s “time to wake up, it’s a welfare war … life must mean more than this, find a better way.” Any concerns I had about Somerville losing his edge were gone within minutes of that first track on the album.
“It’s really interesting because that lyric … I think as we grow older, we’re sometimes uncomfortable about being political or activists,” says Somerville. “Actually, more than any other time I think in my political history this is like a welfare war. We are in a time where everything is being changed in respect to welfare and it’s not just about what money the government pays out to people who are vulnerable; it's just about the welfare that we have for each other. I think we’re in the age of consumption and self, and self obsession that it's just like hyperbole. It’s unbelievable. I find it completely like, ‘whoa!’ So I suddenly thought, actually it’s a welfare war because we’re heading for sticky times, I think.”
Culturally, Somerville says we’re disconnected, and he tried to get that out in his song. “We don’t know how to communicate, or how to even look after each other — that’s what worries me,” he says. “There is going to be this new generation of kids coming up who really won’t understand what it is to look out for each other.”
Still, he has a sense of humor about it. When I mention how disconcerting it is that generally the younger generation must look after us in the older generation, so that disconnection could be an issue, Somerville smiles. “Definitely. That’s why I’ve been saving up so that I can have a little stash that’s put away so that I can basically entice younger men to look after me because there’s a financial gain.”
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