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Bronski Beat: Smalltown Boy
Why you had to leave
And the answer you seek
Will never be found at home.
Gay is cool. Thus declared London’s Time Out magazine without a trace of irony after Jimmy Somerville, Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek as Bronski Beat had delivered the most unlikely British hit of 1984, and the media was struggling to catch up with and assimilate these confusingly affable gay activists. But don’t try telling that to a confused adolescent coming to terms with a sexuality which might eventually seem natural to him but which even now can be treated with violence. 16 years later, to unreconstructed bigots, niggers can be conveniently distinguished by their skin color but faggots and queers remain the invisible enemy within.
Gay youth was in its ghetto until the mid-eighties, but the difficulties of growing through conventional adolescence were universal. It was Bronski Beat’s achievement to be activist, defiantly and confidently gay, but also part of the entire community rather than just the established defensive, often misogynistic sub-section. Smalltown Boy spoke to anyone, regardless of sexuality, as did the group. Although it wasn’t an obvious conventional hit, it was chosen as their first single thanks to its defining an attitude and an inclusiveness.
The group was performing, mostly around London, with drum machine and two keyboards supporting Jimmy Somerville’s extraordinary falsetto. If there was an acknowledged influence, it was Sylvester and the newer, faster electro-disco style called Hi-Energy, and the original was purely in this style. Unlike most singers of much of the new, fast dance style, Jimmy’s vocal inflections owed more to blues than to R&B, and it was proposed that, for the single, a second, ‘bluesy’ version might be made with just solo Jimmy and instruments, slower and without drum machine. CDs had just arrived, but B sides were still required.
Since in 1984 I was living mainly in New York, it wasn’t possible to do the pre-production due diligence of spending time with the group. My only introduction was the tape and conversations with Tracy Bennett, their London Records A&R man, a hunky rugby player who would wear shorts to a meeting if he thought it would help social matters along. I arrived in London on the strength of the distinctive sound of the demo, and went straight down to soundcheck at Heaven, a predominantly gay dance club in London, where they were playing that evening.
The love that you need
Will never be found at home
The first thing to strike you was how relaxed and smiling they all were onstage, especially the diminutive Jimmy. Born in Glasgow, he suggested a cross between a skinhead and Scottish soldier with his cropped hair, in the contemporary flat-top style. His politics could not be more different, but he would demonstrate a similar toughness when necessary. The others were contrasts in style, Larry tall, thin and crisply intense, Steve, another Glaswegian whose more burly figure suggested the more familiarly-sized version of the traditional pugnacious Scottish trooper.
Sound check over, we arranged to meet at my place the following day. These were some of the most relaxed, direct and unpretentious people I had come across. The style was clear in the evening performance, delivered with energy but without any unnecessary posing. This was all getting very refreshing.
The extended 12″ club single format peaked in the mid-eighties, facilitated by a wide choice of drum machines. While MIDI, the electronic code that would enable a single instrument (and, later, one computer) to control many other instruments and sound sources was being widely introduced, much synchronizing was done to a click and a proprietary timing code laid on the multitrack tape by the drum machine in the first pass. In this way, external synthesizers could be triggered, but the tape had to be played all the way from the start, since the target sound source had to count clicks to know where it was.
An additional advantage of these techniques was the precision of the ‘performance’ by the click, ideal for the dance floor. For a comparison, listen to some of the seventies disco recordings, which were generally played by a drummer listening to a (very loud) click track in headphones, generally hanging on for dear life and having a miserable time of it. Then listen to Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, or Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, each of which used machine-controlled rhythm. Autobahn, especially, would inspire a generation of house and techno producers whose innovations are still applied in 2000.
Where the majority of 12″ singles were remixed and extended from an original shorter single, I preferred to record the extended version as it would be played and anticipate editing the short version of the piece by embedding it in a production of up to ten minutes. Often, new ideas would be generated which were better than those conceived for the original version. Since the extended club single was rejuvenated by new technology after its over-use in the disco era, there was tremendous space for originality and experiment, and the audience encouraged innovation in a way which I have not seen since. It was very fertile ground.
The demo only had verses and choruses. We needed a middle bit. Half an hour round the piano and the ‘Cry, boy, cry’ section was in place, with a new set of chords and the time-honored extraction of a chant from the main material. We had the basic song completed. In the increasingly long bar chart, we inserted 16 bars where eight would have worked in the single. When you did this, there would be a long, boring bit on the 12″, and possibly some queasy moments wondering if it would ever work. Nature abhorring a vacuum, someone would inevitably come up with an idea to fill the space and keep the recording’s music developing and moving along. In this way, you could always deliver a record which kept the dance floor going and yet could be listened to. In the eighties, you went out dancing and to hear new music ideas.
I proposed combining the ‘blues’ version, treating it to a shorter structure and without the new middle section, and adding it as an integrated prelude to the extended dance section at full speed. Since it was slower, and since we needed smoothly to accelerate to the higher tempo, the drums had to be laid with a varying tempo, governed by me hanging on for dear life to the big knob and doing a lot of counting. The main synthesizer sequencer section was arranged to come in just as the acceleration was starting, the drums to hit just where the maximum tempo arrived.
The rest of the studio action was straightforward, but with the addition of the congas of Johnny Folarin, always a secret weapon. When they arrive you hear the track’s energy go up a notch. It’s always more interesting to use some loose human element with the rigid and possibly sterile drum machine, and later I’d often use the congas, preferably Johnny’s, to ruffle the hair of a too-smartly turned out track. Meanwhile, the hit made him a hero at the Trafalgar Square post office where he worked (and through whose office phone was often the only way of contacting him).
I duly delivered the single and extended versions. Both were terrific, and the single was within the airplay time limits. (Often, it would take much effort and compromise to shorten a single to around four minutes, the length that the radio stations demanded.) The extended version, though, would not lie down in its appointed place. The point where it speeds up had turned out quite magical, as you felt yourself being pulled towards, even falling into the main rhythm section. Tracey called it ‘transcendental’, and suggested that the single start with the end of the slow section. This would yield a single of well over five minutes.
16 years later, the original atmosphere and character of the group persist. The recording sounds so innocent and vulnerable as to make you wonder whether it would be made in our contemporary, far more knowing pop culture. It doesn’t have the depth and assurance of Age Of Consent, album eventually to contain it, and the next single, Why?, would be one of my most involved, polished and ambitious dance singles ever.
Smalltown Boy remains a singular gesture of innocence, articulating the start of an era of unprecedented freedom for gays by showing their concerns to be integrated with society at large. I’m proud to have contributed, and thankful for the personal experience. A couple of years later, I was passing the afternoon in my basement in New York’s West Village. I heard a fiercely loud boom box in the distance. Smalltown Boy slowly faded up, passed my window, and receded into the distance. The day wasn’t quite the same after that.
You’d never cry to them
Just to your soul
Cry, boy, cry
– MT September 9 2000