Blog: Martin Aston

The author of a new book on the coming out of popular music traces the story in the north, from the ballsy Buzzcocks to the Britpop homophobes

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Despite evidence, such as the police raid on a party in Hulme in the 1880s where nearly 40 men wearing women’s clothes were arrested, “you could be forgiven for thinking same-sex relationships didn’t happen outside of London”, historian Jeff Evans said, after spending two years researching the origins of Manchester’s homosexual community.

It was in London, of course, where the seat of power laid. By the early 1950s, the Conservative government’s home secretary had promised “a new drive against male vice”, to “rid England of this plague”. A thousand men had been imprisoned by 1955, including journalist Peter Wildeblood, whose subsequent books Against The Law and A Way Of Life helped turn the tide. The government subsequently organised what became known as the Wolfenden (after its chairman) Report, which suggested decriminalising homosexuality. The Homosexual Law Reform Society started in 1958, followed in 1964 by the Manchester-based North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee, and it was this chapter that devolved into the national Campaign for Homosexual Equality in 1969, two years after sex between men was finally decriminalised (though only in England and Wales, for men over 21).

David Bowie, whose “I’m gay” statement to Melody Maker in 1972 (as part of the launch of his sci-fi alter ego Ziggy Stardust) was pivotal in introducing bisexuality and homosexuality to the masses, was a southerner. Likewise Alan Wakeman, who wrote the lyric for the first openly gay song, A Gay Song (on an album by the collective Everyone/Involved). I discovered Alan while researching the queer pioneers of popular music over the last hundred years, starting at Harlem’s blues scene in the 1920, but gay, lesbian and bisexual performers didn’t only emerge in the obvious cities – New York, San Francisco, LA – but places such as Atlanta, New Orleans and Baltimore. And while so many gay men moved to London, for safety in numbers, the north of England, and Scotland, had a disproportionate number of pioneering performers who helped popular music come out.

One was Peter Shelley, frontman of Manchester punks Buzzcocks. You’d think that punk rock, that bastion of social revolution, would have had more gay role models, but beside Tom Robinson (another southerner) whose new wave band took Glad To Be Gay (more of a music-hall singalong than new wave) into the top 20, Shelley’s musical influence was greater, and his subtler stance just as important in getting the message over. He wore a plastic badge on his guitar strap that read “I Like Boys” and another on his jacket lapel saying “How dare you presume I’m heterosexual?” Shelley was bisexual, which meant he never used male or female pronouns, feeling that “love songs could be used for any occasion, to work on more levels”. Two famous Buzzcocks singles had gay storylines: Orgasm Addict (1977) was inspired by the “mad rush in gay bars, at the end of the night, so you didn’t go home alone”, Shelley told me. Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t Have Fallen In Love With) (1978) addressed his ex-boyfriend Francis, who would later get married.

Shelley’s debut solo single, 1980’s synth-driven Homosapien, toyed with his audience, but the BBC banned it for “explicit reference to gay sex”, although Shelley claims the lyric “Homo superior/ in my interior” was a reference to “Gotta make way for the homo superior” line in Bowie’s Oh! You Pretty Things. The BBC had more reason to ban Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s debut single in 1983, as the lyric and video to Relax were far more explicit, with characteristic northern bluntness. If Culture Club southerner Boy George’s anodyne androgyny brushed sex under the carpet, reinforced by his “I’d rather have a cup of tea than sex” comment (while having nookie with drummer Jon Moss), Frankie frontmen Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford put sex on the table – and on TV – with an ode to anal (and/or) oral sex rising to number one, aided by the BBC ban (thanks, BBC). But the “whooshing” orgasm noise, the line “Relax, don’t do it… when you want to come” and the video’s Romanesque orgy in a leather bar were tailor-made to shock.

The same year, the cover of The Smiths’ debut single was another homoerotic first. John Lennon had put a naked man (penis and all, alongside wife Yoko Ono) on a record cover (1968’s Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins), but it was sold in a brown wrapper, and the intention wasn’t sexual, unlike Hand In Glove, housed in a photo (taken by Lou Thomas of the gay porn studio Target) from Margaret Walter’s book The Nude Male, of a man whose curved buttocks commanded the attention. Nudity, Walter claimed, signified liberation and “a licentiousness which threatens traditional moral standards”, which must have appealed to Morrissey’s love of romanticism, shock, and vulnerability.

These traits were exemplified by Hand In Glove’s daring flipside Handsome Devil. “A boy in the bush is worth two in the hand/ I think I can help you get through your exams” was enough to draw tabloid accusations of paedophilia. The Smiths’ second single This Charming Man was homoerotically charged too, unlike any comparable guitar band of the era, as the anonymous charming man offered a ride home after the narrator’s bicycle wheel is punctured. But the opening song Reel Around The Fountain on The Smiths’ self-titled debut album – “It’s time the tale was told/ Of how you took a child and you made him old” – raised more charges of paedophilia, and Morrissey would retire the homoeroticism for 26 years (until the 2009 solo track Dear God, Please Help Me: “He motions to me with his hand on my knee”)

Morrissey spoke to the shy, potentially confused/ambivalent adolescent, but Glaswegian Jimmy Somerville, frontman of the all-gay synth-pop trio Bronski Beat, was blunter still, speaking for the gay boys who knew their mind. 1984’s debut single Small Town Boy addressed leaving home for the safety in numbers of a big city such as London, bypassing Manchester’s nascent gay village in Canal Street. The portrayal of cruising and a subsequent homophobic bashing in the video was another first, before the next single Why replaced sadness with righteous anger. Equally in your face was Patrick Fitzgerald, who grew up on the outskirts of Manchester, seeking clues to his sexuality in pop music, from Elton John’s Captain Fantastic… album (“It felt like there were secrets in there,” he recalls) to Reel Around The Fountain (“Shove me on the patio, I’ll take it slowly”). “How explicit was that,” says Fitzgerald.

But while Moz was, “fudging it” with “cloaks, screens and closets,” Fitzgerald was out from the band’s first interview, in NME, as the first out indie-rocker. Though he was the only gay member of the band Kitchens Of Distinction, his bandmates supported Fitzgerald’s vision, with songs such as Prize, Four Men and Breathing Fear articulating a British man’s world at the end of the 1980s, with Aids, Section 28 (a government ban on any “promotion” of homosexuality as an alternate lifestyle) and homophobia making it very hard to love, and live, freely. That was soon to change in the closet-busting 1990s, with life-saving Aids drugs and Section 28 banished alongside an unequal age of consent. Today, there are more LGBTQ artists than you can shake a stick at, but it’s only because of these bold, provocative performers setting an example, rejecting the status quo, that we arrived at this juncture. And no thanks to homophobic northerners such as Oasis and Happy Mondays either. Ultimately, it’s not a regional issue, but one of humanism.

Martin Aston’s book Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out (Constable, £25) is on sale now

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