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Bronski Beat: Age of Consent
Continuing the progress through Bronski Beat’s lively early history in the mid-eighties, we present the inside production story of Age Of Consent, the groundbreaking album of 1984 that helped propel the gay rights movement in the UK.
Boys, we’re heading for a summer heatwave
Tattoos and muscles, passion and sweat
After the flying start of Bronski Beat’s recording with Smalltown Boy in England, the studio action had shifted to New York for the majority of Why? before finishing in a Julian Mendelsohn mixing room at the Town House studios in London. Why? had been exhausting, ultimately taking over two days to mix, but such are the pressures of a sudden hit from an unlikely collection of people that there was no choice but to scramble and complete the album. A group may get just one of these chances in a lifetime, and as you can see from many examples, it’s too easy to let it slip away.
The first two singles had become classics which still sound personal and distinctive, thanks to the resources at our disposal. Those were times when a single could sell enough at a profit to justify itself, unlike now where a single generally costs money to put out and is basically just a promotional tool for the CD. It would not do to allow the album to be padded out with filler. Fortunately, the record company was happy to let us dream away, provided that we did in promptly. Luckily, we had been collecting curios.
All the tracks were started in London, and then were finished and mixed in New York. Apart from anything else, it gave us a break for contemplation when the music was well-defined, and then a chance to draw on New York’s session talents. Denying New York’s cultural traditions, we recorded the tap dancer, Caroline O’Connor, in London.
I can’t remember whose idea it was, but recording a tap dancer as a rhythm part throughout Heatwave won instant control-room approval. The song’s personality is sunny and warm, as was the weather at the time, and its bouncy sound put it in a place of its own. The tap sounds grow gradually out of the finger snaps, never too dangerously close to descending into self-conscious camp. The only people I could think of who used the device before were the Pointer Sisters.
The sheer exuberance of the singing and the synthesizer arrangement (there are no acoustic instruments apart from the voice and the taps) yields an echo of an old-tyme arrangement without descending to slavish imitation, a mistake often made by those wishing to evoke a previous popular music age. Even the back beat finger snaps are samples played on a keyboard, since this meant we could simulate roomful without spending a whole afternoon running through the piece one at a time. Maybe we did a couple of passes just for the fun of it. Mood matters.
It’s always startling to see the intensity with which people will approach a specialist activity about which you have no experience or practical understanding. My parents had loved Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, so for a long time the son was obliged to deny their very existence. In the studio, none of us knew any contemporary experiment like this, Singin’ In The Rain being the limit of most of our exposure to the genre, so the mood at session start was very chummy but slightly nervous. It soon became clear that the sound dictated treating it like a drum kit overdub, laying behind the song and the vocal when present, and stepping forward for tap-fills when appropriate at just the same time as a drummer might make a more expansive move. There are even little solo sections (such as the section under Jimmy’s first scat singing). Even the physical sound followed the drums, as we stood her on a low wooden platform to get more resonance in the sound just as you would a kit drummer.
The execution was very different from both percussion playing and tap dancing. When dancing, you’re aware of the objects around you and you’re concerned to dance with them or navigate around them. When playing percussion, you keep your eyes on the blocks, drums, whatever, or the music chart. When you play percussion with your feet, none of the above applies. Caroline’s fixed gaze somewhere beyond the back wall of the control room, and expression of extreme concentration gave her the aura of having a religious experience, and it was very spooky.
On the finished album, we were shameless about flipping moods as radically as possible. We plunged straight into Junk. And big trouble.
He turns on his TV
TV full, full of junk
Eat what you’re given, eat what you get
And be thankful for what you get
Instead he screams for more
When you’re not working on your own vocals or instrumentals, the recording studio can be a boring place. Television blankly fills the void, and the crassness of US network programs after the British Broadcasting Corporation’s august offerings is fascinating to any just-arrived Brit. The commercials are as intriguing as the shows. You don’t realize this cultural difference unless you have crossed the Atlantic, after which you wonder why you didn’t before. The gulf is much wider than that between US and UK sitcoms, for example.
In 1984, sampling as a way of appropriating a mood or gesture had not grown to its present ubiquity. Now, it’s common to record a spoken phrase and couple it with either sympathetic or incongruous music. Slumping, bored, in the Skyline Studios’ artists’ lounge, it was obvious that a dog food commercial was the right poetry for Junk. Phrases were carved out of a Kibbles ‘n Bits advert, bounced against some rather self-important male enunciating. It was one of the best cheap laughs we had on the sessions. Perhaps more indulgently, Stella had to feature, being Steve’s nickname and helpful for his drag performance nights out.
And bits of egg
And tender chewy bits, with protein, bits of whole-grain cereal, beefy bits
And bits of egg
Life in the fast lane
And bits of egg
It’s possible that the pet food company heard it first. Even though their product wasn’t promoted in the most favorable light on the album, the sampling did nothing to damage brand awareness. The actor, however, sensed a commercial opportunity and wheeled in his lawyer with not a libel suit but a demand for compensation for his bits of egg and tender chewy bits. Record companies, while capable of casually pushing around artists and producers, jump to attention when the attorney shows up. Terms were agreed, probably much higher than the original fee and residuals. We were all given a good talking-to. Snigger.
It was on the last album track that we sailed perilously close to traditional gay camp, but the muscularity of Jimmy’s singing keeps emotions taught. Having a go at the classic song I Feel Love was bad enough. The original Donna Summer/Giorgio Moroder/Pete Bellotte recording persists as an all-time classic. Its radical synthesizer and orchestra arrangement intimidated me at the time, when I was finally about to set out on a career in record production, and the style underpinned the whole Hi-Energy style which was emerging overwhelming as the gay club style while we were making Age Of Consent. Naturally, we made it in Hi-Energy style, but with a concession to more acoustic times with three cellos sawing away on the bass line. You can barely hear them, but at least you sense something’s different.
The group’s masterstroke was to turn the whole piece sideways halfway through and collide with the old cowboy classic Johnny Remember Me. It’s a miracle that it misses plunging into pure, mawkish sentimentality. But this, at least, is a long way from the original style. And not a dry eye in the house. And no knowing winks.
The first part of I Feel Love’s recording was in London, and this was where the cowboys rode into town, twenty of them in the collective posse of the Pink Singers. This male voice choir with a difference embraced an extraordinary range of character types, from loudly extrovert to painfully shy. Appearance was just as varied. The group couldn’t resist giggling, non-maliciously, at this odd human assortment. The big sound of the resulting layers, the harmonies of which were recorded one at a time sounds quite Volga Boatmen, belying the hot summer night on which it was recorded in an East London basement studio, sounding considerably larger than the recording room.
It was hot singing, and hot conducting, leaving persistent memories of sweat on the synthesizer keys that I used to lay out the arrangement. An evening of this melts you, and the air conditioning just gives you up as a bad job. But at the end we had our sound. I broke out the champagne I had sneaked in. We might be an odd collection of differing misfits, and the juice didn’t go far among 25 people, but after all it was showbiz and ceremony is important.
The Pink Singers were even more effective on the other cover on the album, of the Gershwins’ It Ain’t Necessarily So. This is possibly the track which shows off the diverse talents of all concerned, starting with Arno (Uptown Horns) Hecht’s clarinet taking the melody at the beginning. Jimmy’s singing is effortlessly fluid, the more remarkable that he is delivering it on his first album. The harmonized scat sections are flawless, although we would admit that they took time. You can feel the enthusiasm of the Singers. When they enter in the second verse they sound as if they have just been uncaged, which knocked the track nicely out of being comfortable middle-of-the-road anodyne. They were so anxious and anticipating that it was impossible for them to sing at any level less than raucous, even when humming under the a cappella verse.
Typically, Steve Bronski’s delicate piano playing is the complete opposite of his physical presence, just as Larry Steinbachek’s nervously aggressive synthesizers belie his gentle personal presence. As we built up the layers on the piece we realized that we had combined quite an unusual set of elements. You can hear them for yourself.
Curiously, twelve years later in New York this recording would act as my certification of authenticity for entry to a (to be unfinished) project about Gershwin’s music on the waning CD-ROM format, and I would subsequently approach a sympathetic family member for recording clearance of Porgy And Bess tunes incorporated in a fantasia on the opera by my teacher Buxton Orr. The family are very hesitant to grant permission for use of the material, and their publishers had turned Buxton down the first time around without hearing his music. Fortunately, it didn’t occur to us to ask at that time.
Naturally, Ain’t Necessarily So became the third single. The album sales indicated that Bronski Beat and their social/political message had been adopted by the public at large. Gay had suddenly become acceptable, at least to the looser part of the greater majority. Although this shift must have been present as a greater groundswell (arguably, presidents don’t make history so much as reflect it), the group’s social inclusiveness was unusually broad and provocative.
Without gays, the entertainment business would pretty much cease functioning. Here is not the place for the pop psychology essay, but the connection between drama and the felt need to reinvent yourself outside social norms is strong. Before the mid-eighties, it somehow seemed clear to everyone except the average audience that, for example, Little Richard and Liberace were not heterosexual like their fans. But no-one called them screaming faggots in the street. Gay remained underground, at best in a don’t-ask-don’t-tell limbo.
Bronski Beat were inclusive. They were among the first popular artists to insist on not being stuck in the ghetto, by reaching out to the broader, nominally hetero population. They seemed comfortably integrated with conventional society just as they insisted on their sexual and political differences without being unnecessarily confrontational. Their career had started with a song about a lonely adolescent running away from home, an experience accessible to all, and had continued with a song asking ‘why was I excluded?’ By the time of the album, the message was accepted so readily that no-one turned a hair at Need A Man Blues. In the more slavishly trendy press, such as London’s contemporary Time Out,writers scrambled to show how sympathetic and part of the crowd they were, in striking contrast with a short while before.
The big concert occasion in London at the Hippodrome was a typically social affair. A wildly enthusiastic crowd included all kinds. (Less one, perhaps. On the way in we passed the scene-maker Soft Cell manager Steve O, of whom more elsewhere, desperately and probably unsuccessfully trying to talk his way past the doorman. Too bad.) Backstage afterwards was solid boys’ town, but Jimmy was the gracious, natural host, going out of his way to chat to the each of a tiny minority of women (perhaps four in a room of 60), put them at ease and make them feel welcome. He met my girlfriend Leila without my introduction. This was the natural outreaching quality which, for me, underpinned their music-making and made it ground-breaking.
Listening to the CD 16 years later is both depressing and exhilarating. It remains among the most compelling I have ever made, even after the passing time. Everyone involved was proud to be exposed and contribute to those social and political movements. But Bronski Beat are now almost a generation gone, and prejudice (in the US at least) doesn’t seem to disappear without a fight or a beating or a gratuitous killing. In pop music, heroes are inevitably renewed every generation. The new one could sometimes use refreshing with its own humanity.
– MT 14 November 2000