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Bronski Beat: Why?
As I turn to kiss his lips
Can you tell me why?
Everyone has a novel in them. And everyone has a song. So they say. They who say so may have noticed something more.
In record-making, it’s an old cliché. You spend the first many years of your life getting ready for your first, and it contains all your good ideas from that period from the year dot to your present age. You pour out your soul, ideally some magic chemistry happens in the studio with the urgently assembled production team, and you get a hit that almost everyone seems to like. Once it’s a hit, the old trendy stuffies have to pay homage to keep up appearances. Suddenly you have more friends than previously you had nodding acquaintances on the bus in the morning when you were struggling to wake up enough to get off at the right stop for work.
Nothing has changed inside you. But the world has changed its opinions about you, and radically. Suddenly, you are the center of it, and it all revolves around you. And you have the good fortune to live in it, at least temporarily. For Bronski Beat, the media world had changed from a passively homophobic but vaguely tolerant attitude to being obsessed with the often trivial offerings of the gay dance production scene. The group had pushed the snowball uphill for a while, and now it was accelerating down the other side of the hill, growing as it rolled. They were now far more than spokespeople for the disenfranchised gay population. They were pop stars. Unlikely lads.
Young fans of both genders and persuasions were mobbing the group, among differentiated crowds of other types of fans, even in the face of their overt gay sexuality. Their message was a human one, underpinning and informing their gay activism, and the straight world got it loud and clear. Bronski Beat had become a key part of general society, which had accepted their message and endorsed it by purchasing Smalltown Boy. But an agenda takes more than a slogan to establish, and a ‘career’ in the music business needs the ‘follow up’. We were all on the spot. The second single loomed. Another statement had to be made.
Why? had been the initial contender for first single, since it was catchy and danceable. Smalltown Boy had established a band identity, but now came this second single a with a most uncompromising stance. The first line: ‘Contempt in your eyes as I turn to kiss his lips’. The chorus: ‘Tell me why?’ A simple message, and far more specific than that communicated by Smalltown Boy. Whatever, it was a powerful song, and everyone, including the record company, thought that we should record it next. And it was certainly time to make a permanent mark on the dance floor.
In 1984 we had little of the synthesizer and control technology that we take for granted now, and each user had their own particular way of working and their own favorite equipment. Today, it’s a lot easier to function in different locations. It was simpler for the mountain to go to Mohammed, so the group were booked to New York for the next recording. They didn’t grumble, although the record company would raise eyebrows at the room service bill at the Hotel Parker Meridien.
Originally, the demo was only around two minutes, and so a broader structure was created by generating a new middle bit and adding the third verse and choruses, but the whole, enormous 12″ version was laid out carefully to begin with, in a substantial bar chart lasting over eight minutes. The structure remains my second-largest ever, and is roughly:
1. extended introduction
2. first two verses and choruses
3. percussion break 1
4. choruses with a different feel
5. horn break
6. extended middle bit build
7. last verse and choruses
Using the drum machine, a now-vintage Linn Drum 2, we laid down the backbone of the entire track from beginning to end. Since the percussion breaks had occasional five-beat bars to throw the dance floor on to a surprising and different foot, drum programming was quite complex (have you noticed how everything seems to be in eight bar segments and four beat bars since drum machines took over?). It seemed like a good idea in theory, but the practice was a tremendous amount of calculation which often went wrong in a tedious way since you could only find out by running the whole piece from the beginning. Once the scratch drums were ready, the group played live as a threesome to give a sketch of the instrumental sections (1,2,4,6,7), a good way to catch some spirit to feed on as the track was built up. Such drum machine/synthesizer tracks can be cold and mechanical if they are built up too deliberately.
We started the recording in New York at RPM Studios, with a few too many late nights. For some time after the record came out, whenever I heard it I would feel tired and want to go to bed. We got to recognize the man sleeping under the building’s mailboxes on the ground floor. Now, the building’s floors sell for three million dollars each and the Gotham Grill, one of downtown New York’s high end restaurants, is on the ground floor.
You can hear the craziness for yourself, but only if you can find an old copy. The extended version of Why? was added at the end of the original version of the Age Of Consent CD, but only the short version is available on the current CD configuration. The horn break is the most entertaining section of the deleted mania. The Uptown Horns came in and played the signature lick, then I copied and dismembered it, laying the bleeding chunks back into the track over the strange bar timings to give a really startling section. Gratifyingly, we would eventually see people on the dance floor actually following the crazy changes with their bodies. Later, in London, Jimmy added his shouts and general vocal mayhem, having learnt the rhythmic changes.
We ran out of studio time in New York and resolved to mix the A side back in London. When you double the length of a recording, you often more than double the time taken to make it, since you set yourself up with big blank spaces that take experimentation to fill. However, it’s this experimentation that can give dramatic, novel results which bounce back into the short form track to lift it higher. After a few finishing touches in London, it was mixed over three full days by Julian Mendelsohn, with a couple of late ones. We were all exhausted. At one point in the small hours I swiveled around in my Producer’s Chair to ask Steve and Larry what they thought of the show so far, only to see them curled up together and fast asleep on the sofa. Must have been OK.
Even though we were clear and comfortable about the first line of the song and its meaning, we thought it courteous to tell the record company ahead of the finished record that perhaps kissing his lips was not the BBC’s ideal way of starting a presentation on their weekly Top Of The Pops. Maybe we should have an alternative line which implied the same thing without being so specific. Tracey Bennett, the A&R man of the rugby attitude and refreshingly strong opinion, said don’t bother. We didn’t. The BBC didn’t either (or maybe they just didn’t notice).
The single duly followed Smalltown Boy into the top five, and the weight of the sound absolutely filled any dance hall it was played in. The long version persists as one of my favorite efforts ever.
You and me together
Fighting for our love.