How ’80s LGBTQ band Bronski Beat’s haunting ‘Smalltown Boy’ made a difference: ‘It was very bold’

Thirty-five years ago, director Bernard Rose lensed two very important music videos that shifted the needle of ‘80s queer culture. One was the original, wild, and widely banned version of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s controversial smash hit “Relax,” which took place in a Caligula-style S&M nightclub. But on the other end of the spectrum was Bronski Beat’s much grimmer depiction of a suburban teen’s gay-bashing and subsequent ostracization from his disapproving family, “Smalltown Boy.” Arguably, it’s that video that truly resonates today.

“It’s a piece of work that I’m still very proud of, certainly,” Rose tells Yahoo Entertainment in an interview commemorating both Pride Month and the groundbreaking “Smalltown Boy” video’s anniversary. “It was much quieter in its impact than ‘Relax,’ but I think just as powerful in terms of the story it told. That was the good thing about it.”

The stark and narrative video, described by Rose as an “un-glamorous” “silent movie” (it features no flashy performance footage, dance sequences, or neon fashions like many other MTV videos of the era), depicts the titular character, played by the new wave trio’s openly gay frontman Jimmy Somerville, clumsily and unsuccessfully making a pass at a handsome jock at a local swimming pool; this unfortunately leads to him being vicious attacked in an alley by the jock’s homophobic friends. When the bruised and bloodied Somerville is escorted home by police and basically outed to his outraged parents, he realizes he has no choice but to leave town for somewhere safer and more accepting. In the video’s subtlest but most gut-punching scene that focuses solely on the two men’s faltering hands, the father gives Somerville some cash for the one-way journey, but refuses a hug or handshake and cruelly turns away.

“I think it was a very common story, and I think that’s a really interesting example of how to make a scene impactful just on the picture alone. I think it’s a very common experience for people, and I think it even goes beyond the gay issue: people who just are rejected and thrown out like that,” says Rose. “That was Bronski Beat’s message. They were going to point out the essential problems and oppressions involved in being gay at that time, which was you were quite likely to get beaten up somewhere, or thrown out by family. There’s really no question that that’s true. It is still true. In that sense, it was very bold.”

Rose says he got the job to direct “Smalltown Boy” because of the success of “Relax,” which sold a whopping 2 million copies in Britain alone and is still the seventh-best-selling single in U.K. history. But he says Bronski Beat “weren’t very keen on the Frankie Goes to Hollywood thing. They were giving me a hard time about it. I think that they [thought it was too] mainstream, upbeat, and commercial, and they had more of a message.” But Rose does believe Frankie’s chart breakthrough paved the way for “Smalltown Boy,” Bronski Beat’s statement-making debut single (off thei album), which eventually went to No. 3 in Britain.

“There were a lot of artists [in the ‘80s] who were gay but not open about it, like Boy George, George Michael, Freddie Mercury, Elton John — these people we now think have always been out, but they were not out in 1984. And they were all at the height of their fame. Frankie Goes to Hollywood were really the first ones who came out and said, ‘Well, yeah, we’re gay.’ And it caused a shockwave, but it also didn’t hurt them — it did the opposite. It propelled [“Relax”] to being huge. … Bronski Beat were around before that happened, but their record came out after, and they were coming out into a market where the Frankie thing had already happened. So in a sense, I don’t think it wasn’t like their thunder was stolen, but they weren’t the first. But I do think their approach was much more politicized and much more serious.”

Somerville wasn’t a professional actor (and neither was the man who convincingly played the video’s stern-faced policeman, London Records’ openly gay executive Colin Bell), but his nuanced performance was so gripping because, as Rose explains it, “The story was very close to him. And we did it in real places, in a very low-key way. I just ran the scenes without too much rehearsal, so that they felt quite real, and then cut them to the music. There wasn’t this thing of doing it to playback, which makes everything a bit artificial.

“This song, although obviously it’s a dance record, the way it had a narrative to it, it was almost like a country & western record. It had a very specific story in the lyrics, and it seemed it would lend itself to doing it in a naturalistic way that was very un-music-video-y.”

Rose also made the decision to not actually show Somerville’s gay-bashing, mainly to conform to children’s TV standards in Britain (and thus get the airplay that the infamous “Relax” had understandably been denied). “There was no way you could have shown [the attack],” he says, “but I think in a weird way, it’s quite interesting that you don’t see it — because what you imagine is worse, really.”

Rose says the “Smalltown Boy” was warmly received, and he recalls 1984 being a progressive year for gay culture, as evidenced by the success of both Bronski Beat and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. “I think things were moving in a much more open direction in ’84, and in a way the Frankie thing was the height of it, where people were going, ‘Oh, there’s something wonderful and great and fun going on with all this,’” he says. But the good times would not last for long. “Shortly after that, the mood changed. The whole AIDS thing came along, and everything was different. And then suddenly, the AIDS thing was tremendous — to call it a ‘backlash’ is an understatement. It was a holocaust.

“I think it was changing in ’84, and I think things like ‘Relax’ and Bronski Beat were at the forefront of that. There was actually a fair bit of public acceptance of it, and then it just went way the other direction,” Rose elaborates. “And people I knew at the time, [English filmmaker/artist] Derek Jarman being the most obvious example — obviously Derek did die in 1993 [of an AIDS-related illness] — but in early ’80s, guys like Derek were just totally comfortable with being out and being pretty outrageous, being open about being promiscuous and having fun, doing all kinds of crazy stuff. And suddenly, people were suddenly so horrified by that, and it became so unacceptable. It was a cultural backlash as much as anything.”

Still, “Smalltown Boy” has endured; a skim of the video’s mostly positive and grateful comments on YouTube shows how much its all-too-realistic storyline has connected over the past 35 years. “I think if people recognize themselves onscreen and go, ‘That happened to me, that’s how I felt,’ then it helps people,” says Rose. “If people see themselves reflected, then they don’t feel invisible.”

Thank you Andy and all those who shared stories via #theageofconsent

— Bronski Beat (@bronskibeatband) November 13, 2018

However, it’s the feedback from his friend Jarman that really sticks with Rose. “Derek was working in the same production company as me, and he was annoyed that I was making the video, because I think he wanted to [direct] it. And so, as soon as I had it finished, he was waiting for me by the video machine, saying, ‘OK, put [the videotape] in. Let’s have a look at it.’ He was definitely a gatekeeper, and he was going to view it harshly if he didn’t approve. But he was very moved, and openly moved. And I thought, ‘If Derek likes it, then it’s OK.’ I was very pleased,” Rose recalls.

While the “Smalltown Boy” video is largely gray and depressing, it does end on a happy note, with Somerville being joined on a train by his friends (played by fellow openly gay Bronski Beat bandmates Larry Steinbachek and Steve Bronski) and setting off on their big-city adventure together. So, what does Rose, who went on to direct feature films like Candyman, Immortal Beloved, and Frankenstein, think would have happened in the music video’s sequel? “I assume that they would have formed a band and had a hit record,” he smiles.

1984. Music: Bronski Beat, Smalltown Boy

Smalltown Boy tells the tale of a young gay man who packs up and heads for London in response to homophobic violence in his (un-named) home town.

It’s supposedly based on the experiences of lead singer Jimmy (Jimi/Jimmi) Somerville, who quit the Scottish city of Glasgow in search of a better (and safer) life down South.

The video (below) was actually quite radical for its time, given its unambiguous and unapologetic portrayal of boys lusting after other boys. Even though it goes on to show a bit of gay-bashing and the family tensions arising from that, it would have provided an important bit of validation to tens of thousands of isolated young gays when they saw it on TV.

Somerville became actively involved in the Gay Teenage Group on his arrival in London and made his first public appearance singing Screaming in the pre-Bronski video Framed: Revenge of the Teenage Perverts. I always found his falsetto singing voice quite remarkable given that he actually has quite a deep speaking voice.

He joined up with Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek to form Bronski Beat. The band were very much upfront about being gay; their logo incorporated the pink triangle and many of their songs unambiguously addressed the issues around being gay – even their album was entitled Age of Consent.

They ran into a bit of controversy in 1985 when they recorded a version of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. Disco-queen Summer had been slated for allegedly making anti-gay comments at one of her concerts and the gay community was encouraged to ‘Trash Donna’ by boycotting her records. I seem to recall Somerville justifying their decision to record the song by saying it’s overtly gay slant was their way of giving Summer the finger.

Shortly after performing a benefit concert for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners in 1985, Somerville left the group. Bronski Beat recruited new members and have carried on ever since. In 1987 the original trio re-formed for a one-off concert for World AIDS Day in London but they haven’t performed together since that time.

1984. Music: Bronski Beat, Smalltown Boy

Synopsis

Accompanied by one of the most literal videos ever filmed, ‘Smalltown Boy’ was the first sortie by the openly gay trio, Bronski Beat, against another aspect of Thatcher’s Britain (and, indeed, of life in Britain in general): homophobia. Written by Bronski Beat, who themselves had ‘run away’ and were to meet in Brixton and form the band in 1983. The sense of the lyrics directly being drawn from personal experience made this a poignant commentary on growing up gay in the provinces.

While we’d come a long way from the Victorian attitudes which still lingered post-WWII, the establishment’s attitude to homosexuality was holding back any progress. In what was termed the social transition in British society from homosexuality as „illegal-but-discussed“, to „legal-but-not-always approved“ only in 1967 was it made legal for two adults over 21 to engage in homosexual acts. By 1984 little had changed. Many western countries had reduced the age of consent to 16, but not Britain. Indeed Bronski Beat’s album was called ‘The Age of Consent’ in direct reference to this. And part of this regressive culture was the problem of young men and women feeling stigmatised by the inability of their peers to accept them as they were.

‘Smalltown Boy’ was a distinctive step in the right direction, with its lyrics about a young man forced to abandon his home town for fear of this disapproval. Not only did it highlight the plight and shared experiences of hundreds of thousands of gay people, but it also provoked serious debate over these issues.

There was still a way to go. The notorious ‘Section 28’ amendment of the local authority bill was introduced in 1988, stating that any local authority „shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality“ or „promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship“. It wasn’t repealed in England until 2003.

The single reached number three in the UK charts but, as if in recognition of the song’s liberal and heartfelt message, it actually reached the number one spot in a country where attitudes to sexuality were more relaxed: Holland. In fact, it was a massive worldwide hit, signalling that not only Britain, but the rest of the (western) world was finally waking up to the facts. After ‘Smalltown Boy’, and other acts like The Pet Shop Boys, Marc Almond (who recorded with Bronski Beat) or The Communards, gay pop was finally accepted currency in the charts. Today it all seems like ancient history…

 Synopsis

Storyline

An official music video was shot and released later in 1984. The narrative video features band member Jimmy Somerville as the boy who has experienced the issues described in the lyrics. Seen on a train, he is contemplating his childhood through flashbacks and the events that have caused him to leave his parents‘ home. At a swimming pool, his friends dare him to approach a young man that he is attracted to, for which he is later attacked in an alley by a homophobic gang led by the man he had approached at the swimming pool. A police officer brings him back to his home. It is implied that the boy’s parents learn of his homosexuality for the first time through this incident and are shocked, but only the father seems unsupportive. The boy then catches a train to London, on which he is reunited with his friends.

Storyline

About “Smalltown Boy”

The break-out first single on their debut album, The Age Of Consent, “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat was released in June of 1984.

The song is a semi-autobiographical story of Jimmy Somerville, the lead singer of Bronski Beat at the time of the song’s release. “Smalltown Boy” discusses the oppression and mistreatment of closeted gay youths in Scotland during the 1980s.

It was a number one hit in Belgium and Holland and was on the top 10 charts in Australia, France, Canada, and Switzerland. The music video was groundbreaking and depicted the cruelty towards gay people at the time.

 About “Smalltown Boy”

1984. Music: Bronski Beat, Smalltown Boy — 2 Comments

In addition as validation for gay men it was also, for me, as a straight male growing up in the ’80s, a corrective image to much of the ‘comedy-camp’ and general ignorance for those of us who’d never actually met anybody out gay.

Hi Carl Spurling here, now nearly 50, member of London Gay Teenage group, Manor Gardens off Holloway Road, from the age of 15 which was 1982, Im now beginning to write a book from that period onwards, any who knew me, please feel free to email