Bronski Beat/Communards Central
The two Jimmy Somerville-fronted groups of Bronski Beat and the Communards helped change the social and pop music landscape of the UK in the eighties.
After Jimmy’s departure, Bronski Beat featured a succession of lead vocalists. An album on London Records incorporated Jon Jon, singing full voice, then work on Jive Records returned to the falsetto vocal with Jonathan Hellyer. Led by Steve Bronski, the group still does occasional recording and tours.
The Communards released a second CD, Red, before Jimmy finally went out on his own in 1989 with Read My Lips. He continues to record. Richard Coles went on to be a well-known writer and media presenter in the UK, continuing and expanding his media activity even after entering the religious ministry full-time.
The Communards’ album went platinum in several territories, an extraordinary achievement for an unusual collection of people. It’s startling to recall how nasty the Thatcher years and the miners’ strike were in the UK in the mid-eighties. For its brief-but-colorful existence, the group was among the most militant in its social activism.
You are my world
Disenchanted, angry young man
I’ll be around, I’ll be your friend, I’ll be everything you need
She’d privatize your mother, if given half a chance
The mid-eighties was a nasty, bitter time in the UK. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the unions were going toe-to-toe over her insistence on dismantling the workers’ collective right to strike. Each side was shouting past the other, and the collision between the government’s autocratic attitude and the union leaders (whose arteries had often hardened beyond repair) was looking intractable. Thinking tactically and cynically, never one to see shades of gray when black and white was simpler, Thatcher introduced legislation drastically regulating strikes and their procedures. The divisions between the haves and the have-nots, between us and them, were looking as if they might grow so wide as to unsettle a whole society. Reprise,a haunting song arranged for piano, cello and voice on the Communards’ first CD is dedicated to Margaret Hilda Thatcher (‘She’d privatize your mother, if given half a chance’).
A decade earlier, a miners’ strike had brought down the Labour Party government, simultaneously crippling British industry along with the rest of us when the lights went out in the middle of winter. Undue influence on party policy by the labor union establishment had been an issue since the organizations grew out of the Great Depression (1929-1933), initially fine by the broader population but starting to grate when unions such as the miners’ or railwaymens’ would apparently pursue their own goals even if it meant crippling the nation’s functions. Collateral damage was inevitable, but apparently increasingly irrelevant to organized labor’s tactics. This was not a cut-and-dried social issue: very difficult to discuss and decide, especially dependent on an individual’s social values. But Thatcher had her dogma. She knew that she had to finish the miners (at least) as an economic/political force, apparently without regard to the viability of coal mining. More unfortunate collateral damage. Pits had to be closed as ‘uneconomic’ (some would reopen profitably years later under private management). The union decided on an all-out strike.
In times of depression, it’s conventional wisdom that the population goes for escapism rather than reality. Hollywood movies of the thirties and forties are the standard example, closely followed by the comfortable, user-friendly pop music of the early fifties. Yet the UK in 1985 suddenly had the most unlikely pop star, singing Bronski Beat songs on TV. Jimmy Somerville, a short, tough-looking to the point of skinhead, gay activist sang to a fast dance beat in falsetto. Any one of these attributes was unusual and confrontational enough, but he was obviously no cuddly Bee Gee and neither would he be a candidate for singing The Lion Sleeps Tonight.
Jimmy was never one to follow an obvious or an easy path. As soon as Bronski Beat hit, and the tensions associated with such pressure hit the three of them, he wanted out. With Richard Coles, he formed the Communards, named after the Paris commune of 1878. Their first choice name, Body Politic, had turned out to have been adopted by another politicized, left-wing British group.
They were an enormous contrast. The most obvious was their difference in height: about a foot. Richard’s refined classical piano technique and appropriate English accent (which would be later heard in his second career as radio and television presenter) was the polar opposite of Jimmy’s self-taught musicianship and a Glasgow accent that often needed translation to be comprehended by New York studio personnel. Most importantly, neither was intimidated by the other’s strong personality and accomplishments. They had an unusual, complementary balance.
Demos duly followed, and arrived in New York. For once, I was on top of my work and played them promptly. You Are My World caught the attention immediately, so I called Jimmy in London to congratulate him on his song and to start sorting out the recording, which was to be in New York. The arrangements would incorporate many acoustic instruments, but are still synthesizer- and drum machine-based and would benefit from my substantial technology collection there. Also, since New York had been my home for four years, I had settled into its virtuoso session musician scene and was conveniently familiar and friendly with many of the top local players.
Another innovation was the studio in which we would start the recording. A few months earlier, I had produced an ambitious, independent single for the Flowerpot Men (a hard, industrial-sounding duo, absolutely no relation of the love-and-peace fabrication of the sixties: Walk On Gilded Splinters). Money had been an issue, so engineer Carl Beatty had introduced us to Rawlston Recordings, upstairs from Charlie’s Calypso World on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the heart of black Brooklyn. Charlie Rawlston’s studio logo is the RR from a Rolls Royce radiator, but as far as we know they haven’t yet served him a cease-and-desist notice.
Money was no object for the Communards, but adventure was. If you live there, it’s an expedition to leave Manhattan for the outer boroughs, but every day for a week we were waking up while crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. Conveniently, the studio had a very good sounding piano, a classic 1970s English Neve mixing desk (very sought after in the US) and a Studer multitrack tape machine. And BJ Nelson, one of the most energetic and creative of the New York backing singers (and who became a constant call and friend for me) lived just round the corner.
We augmented all this with a drum machine and a 200-pound Synclavier synthesizer which had to be hauled up a narrow staircase first thing in the morning. All very credible and character-building, but a bit like hard work. In the old days, it was the drummer who became muscle-bound from hauling the kit around. I didn’t like the way my chosen course of production was turning into a weight-lifting profession.
Getting the Synclavier into Sigma Sound, above the old Ed Sullivan Theatre (where the Beatles had performed, and which is now exclusively David Letterman’s evening show residence) was easier with an elevator. The sessions were short and sharp, as pre-arranged horns and strings tend to be, although the carefully prepared string arrangement was almost upset by one particular belligerently drunken oaf in the viola section. It startled everyone, particularly the union session fixer, that someone could be so willfully disruptive. Funny, what we used to tolerate in those days, particularly under a close deadline with the record company yelling for a new record.
Sigma didn’t have the mixing time we needed at such short notice so, needing any port in a storm, we ended up for two days in Hit Factory and with a grossly inflated invoice. But we also had our first single, a cheerfully retro flavor of strings, horns and gospel-style backup singers, and it duly arrived in the UK top 20 to give us a breather to prepare for the bulk of the album.
From its nucleus of two, the Communards were growing. Jimmy and Sarah Jane Morris first met at a miners’ fundraising gig in Brixton, South London. Sarah Jane shared his activism, having fronted two overtly political bands, the Republic and Happy End (after the Brecht-Weill opera). With a coal miner’s wife from Kent, she had written what became the theme song of the year-long miners’ strike, a curious promotional twist.
At a later ‘Gay’s The Word’ fundraiser, again in a Brixton club, Sarah Jane and Jimmy sang Billy Holliday’s signature classic Loverman, which worked so well that she and the song immediately landed on the album. Her enormous, deep voice made a most unlikely complement to Jimmy’s falsetto, but this song’s half-way cabaret direction fitted perfectly with Richard’s exceptional keyboard and arrangement talents. Following this, a Hi-Energy version soon emerged of Don’t Leave Me This Way, the Gamble and Huff Philadelphia-sound classic which had been a hit, simultaneously, for both Thelma Houston and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
As the UK was collapsing under the social strain, two visits to New York completed the album. As usual, the second single, Disenchanted, scrambled to completion, and an extended club version followed quickly afterwards. The album’s release was timed for the third single, and it was unfortunate that the company knew that this was to be Don’t Leave Me This Way. The impending smash hit didn’t obstruct Disenchanted’s obligatory chart entry, however. We could get used to this. The album recording feels at this distance as if it went by in high-speed blur. There was even a quick pick-up vocal session in London, where we all happened to be at one point.
The process of recording an extended version of a single had started for me in 1981 with Tainted Love and developed as pop singles and club music grew together in the early and mid eighties. In many ways, it was the golden age of club music. Not only did you go out to move your bottom around, you went to hear new music. Club versions were often far more interesting than the short singles, which were necessarily tailored brusquely to radio norms in format, length and sound. 12″ singles could be a substantial business. At that time, you felt as if the unseen record-buying audience was encouraging you to go ahead, take risks and do something new and fresh. The dance floor style would follow if the record was compelling enough. Eventually, style would solidify, leading to the contrasting state of affairs now where a song has to be shoe-horned into a particular style (often one of many) to fit conveniently into a night’s specific genre and gain the publicity of a play.
Extended singles were getting more ambitious, and the record company had big plans for Don’t Leave Me This Way. It seemed perfectly natural to propose that we follow the megamix memorabilia of Jimmy’s hero Sylvester, one of the few contemporary singers using falsetto. In the seventies, the extrovert San Franciscan had made You Make Me Feel (Mighty Reel) which was the subject of a classic extended megamix (possibly the first time the word was coined) by Patrick Cowley. My idea was that we make the longest single ever, filling two sides of a 12″ vinyl disk, the B-side of which would incorporate an integrated second song. The only limit was artificial: to qualify for the UK singles charts, the record had to be kept below 24 minutes. For Tracy Bennett, the irrepressible A&R man, it would be invaluable to introduce once the original was high in the charts so that its residence there could be extended.
Several things had to be pulled together to make all this work. Primarily, Richard and Jimmy had to return to New York yet a third time, since we would have to augment the recorded material if we were more than tripling the length of the record. At relatively short notice, I had to scramble for studio time. As usual, Sigma was tightly booked, but we grabbed a few days.
We needed every technical support we could muster, so the most hair-raising logistics were with the Synclavier. In 1979, my machine had been the first digital synthesizer recording in a commercial studio, easily creating performance sounds that had typically only been heard before on art albums out of studios at Bell Labs, Columbia, Princeton, or from a few advanced electronic studios affiliated with European radio stations. There had been analog synthesizers in studios since the sixties, but this was an advance in computer-generated sound which for the first time allowed you to store a whole performance as well as the sounds to go with it.
We now take such musical control for granted, even on inexpensive systems, but then it was a major breakthrough. For a 24-minute piece, I would need to synchronize the new material with the existing multitrack tape recordings. The old method, of running from the top of the track, the machine synchronizing by counting clicks on the tape, would be rather tedious if you watched a ten minute stretch go by and then found out you’d got it wrong or the fingers didn’t obey. Better to start ten seconds before and give up on reading the newspaper.
New England Digital, the makers of the Synclavier, constructed military-grade equipment which, once you understood its quirks and foibles, rarely went wrong. The system we have at the Stereo Society today (2000) will go a week without crashing, a good deal more reliable than any high-end Mac or PC. They were a little behind the beat with software innovation, although it would generally be bulletproof when it finally arrived in its final version after the bugs had been shaken out. I was promised an early (beta) version of the software, Release M, for delivery on the morning of the first session. If it didn’t work, the project would be impossible at worst, tedious at best.
The equipment associated with producing a synthesizer-dance record had proliferated, and Sigma Studio 7 was now full. The new disks lay on the mixer in their envelope while we connected a huge amount of equipment: a rack of audio effects units, a rack of synthesizer modules (which make sounds but are without keyboards), a five-foot high Synclavier rack and two racks of Serge Modular (an old-style modular synthesizer where you can plug pretty much anything into anything and which provides the most varied analog sounds in the studio). (Now that all this and more is in my own fixed studio, I take for granted the connectivity, but in an outside studio it can take a while to get rid of all the hums and buzzes.)
The new program loaded and worked perfectly. Ironically, this exercise was probably the last time as the company slipped into sloppiness and its equipment became increasingly unreliable (and, as always, grotesquely overpriced). Synclaviers, reliable ones now, continue to be built after the company’s eventual liquidation in 1992, albeit on a smaller scale. It’s still (in 2000) the only fully-integrated music production system, and making the megamix would have been an even greater undertaking with separate contemporary tools which, while cheaper and thus more readily available, often don’t communicate with each other very well.
We duly ran out of recording time in Sigma, relocating to Electric Lady, Jimi Hendrix’s old studio on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. A few final touches and an expensively fried Synclavier (thanks to the studio’s sloppy wiring), and we were into mixing. And then the release of a 22’55″ monstrosity. It was all finally worthwhile when I heard club reports of it being played from beginning to end, but the sleep deficit took some paying back.
The track stayed at #1 in the UK for five weeks, becoming the biggest-selling single of the year. The group, now touring as a ten-piece band, was firmly into entertainment mode, but there would still be politically-driven benefits such as a memorable night at Hackney Town Hall which took a while to get started since Jimmy had gone AWOL in the neighborhood: just wandering off. He wasn’t attacked that time, but he still has a scar under his eye where someone later went after him with a glass. He made a convenient target, but would still take the bus.
It was hard for Jimmy to combine a normal life as he wished to live it with public recognition. His most frightening experience drove him out of the squat in Camberwell, tough south London, where he had lived for several years and remained while he began to make popular singles. The neighborhood had grown almost accustomed to these unusual tower block squatters, who looked like the neighborhood skinheads anyway with cropped hair and Doc Marten boots. Increasingly, however, they became a target as their recognition and record sales grew, and the inevitable harassment and graffiti increased proportionately. Finally, in the middle of the night, the door was kicked in by some thugs/fans who, once they had got there, seemed not quite to know what to do next. ‘You just get back together with Bronski Beat, OK? Or we’ll give you what for,’ was one confused line before departure. Shaken, Jimmy immediately appeared on manager Lorna Gradden’s doorstep. In Hampstead.
These first collisions between outraged public and outrageous musicians had really been seen first with the Beatles. The teddy boys of the fifties were not embraced by the mainstream media the way we see such challengers neutralized now. The Beatle renegades who made teenagers scream and dance lasciviously soon became the lovable mop tops. In the late seventies, even the Sex Pistols were assimilated after the older generation realized that their daughters were reasonably safe. Jimmy Somerville and the Communards were officially designated cuddly by the popular media, notably the tabloid press, and these unlikely pop stars had a thrilling period of delivering exciting concerts to adoring crowds.
Two performances stand out in my memory. One was at Hammersmith Odeon, just as we were about to remix the first single, You Are My World, to be released as You Are my World New York 87 Remix. One of the high points of the recorded song is Jimmy’s solo held note on ‘You’ just before the last chorus hits. The whole audience was singing along and held it with him, drowning out the sound system. If only I had recorded that, that would have been a sample to play with when we came to club remix a few weeks later. Dangerously post-modern.
A Royal Albert Hall concert is the pinnacle of British showbiz. This is not a flagship venue to half-fill. You pull out everything for the event. Sarah Jane’s outfit was anticipated by all of us for weeks in advance. After the massive effort to make those records and seemingly endless club remixes, I had to treat myself to a flying visit, and so I arrived the evening before the concert.
The acoustics and the unusually-shaped stage are not easy to manage, but the Communards carried the night flawlessly. Perhaps that energy born of ingenuousness helped create a mood that far more experienced performers fail to generate in that intimidating space. It was inspiring to see this small, tough character, who just three years earlier had been developing in tiny, confrontational club performances, hold the audience, as they say, in the palm of his hand. The hall shrank to the size of your living room. It was one of the most memorable performances I have ever experienced. Towards the end, audience emotion at meltdown, I heard the introduction to the song:‘This one’s for Mike.’ It’s hard not to get soppy, even at this distance.
The final single from the album was So Cold The Night, a full-on erotic fantasy: ‘I watch your window……’ This was another side, making a triangle of the politics of Breadline Britain, the cabaret of Loverman and the flat-out party of the big club singles. I can’t remember whether we created the extra-length remix at the time (the sound is very similar to the six-minute CD version), but the most entertaining trick is in the third verse. Since the cor anglais sample solo that introduces the piece and the harmony itself suggest the middle East, Jimmy asked whether I could recreate a verse in a foreign, unknown language. Pause for thought.
Phonemes are the small sections of sound which make up spoken or sung words. With the new technology I had acquired, it was possible to break up a verse vocal into small audio segments, mostly simple, short phonemes, then reverse the direction of some of them, so that they played backwards. You hear the familiar voice sound and tune, but the words are gibberish. It’s quite frustrating to lean into the recording to try to pick out some sort of buried sense. There is none.
The end of a stimulating and productive musical relationship was eventually rather drab. I had been following them around several UK concerts, partly for fun but also to familiarize myself with the new material. In particular, another grandiose Don’t Leave Me This Way seemed to be emerging, a Hi-Energy version of Never Can Say Goodbye (which was originally sung by Gloria Gaynor and had become a rousing anthem for club nights and drag pubs). After much throat-clearing, and prodding by Tracy the A&R man, they announced that they wanted to produce half the tracks themselves, leaving the big dance singles productions to me (‘So I get to do the difficult ones,’ was the first retort).
In retrospect, this desire for growth was commendable, and should have been encouraged. But I always saw an album as a complete entity, and didn’t want it to be just a rag-tag collection of tracks from various sources that probably wouldn’t have the coherence coming through the efforts of a consistent team. I said I wanted to just do all or nothing. There was no further discussion, just a call from manager Lorna a week later saying they preferred nothing. An impersonal end to a passionate run. It gave me absolutely no satisfaction when a routine Never Can Say By was released to a tepid reaction and a surprisingly low chart position. Another #1 had been wasted.
Whatever, Richard and Sarah Jane have continued friends for 14 years. It doesn’t always work out that way. I have seen Jimmy very occasionally, but not now for several years. I wish he would make some more records. He’s good at that.
Don’t leave me this way
Never can say goodbye
– MT, October 9 2000
We partner with Amazon.com to present Communards CDs. Click here to buy: the reissue of the 12″ megamix on this CD is the original, but the poor sound quality probably means it was transferred from a reference copy. The 12″, if you can find it, is great sound. I don’t know if it is available in decent audio anywhere else
– MT October 2006