I can only assume that Pietro Boselli is getting career advice from an older homosexual. Which makes me very jealous.
He may be a sporno star, but Pietro is far too young and far too cherubic to know who Jeff Stryker is, or the ridiculously butch way he used to talk on the classic gay porn videos he made in the1980s when testing the gag reflex and nose-breathing techniques of his on-screen colleagues.
Though Pietro’s obviously coached attempt to copy Jeff’s sleazy delivery is very sweet.
Either way the career advice Pietro’s getting seems designed to drive middle-aged homos like me into a tizzy.
All I can say is: it’s working.
But I’m hoping that Pietro isn’t actually hung like Jeff. I’d prefer to think the Bona of Verona has a neo-classically-sized – i.e. tastefully tiny – uncircumcised penis, instead of a cut cock the size of lubed dolphin.
Mark Simpson on how George Michael was the missing, subversive gay link between Bowie and Beckham
(Rolling Stone, 28/12/2016)
Back in the early 1980s, I was one of those annoying ‘alternative’ teens who, when pressed, would admit they quite liked ‘Wham Rap!’, which extolled the freedoms of unemployment (‘I’m a soul boy! – I’m a dole boy!’), and acknowledged he was ‘really talented’, but essentially dismissed George Michael as ‘too commercial’. Which in the inverted snobbery of the era essentially meant ‘uncool’.
And also – you may find this rather difficult to believe – ‘too straight’.
Thanks to the massive influence of 1970s Bowie (who also checked out this year), the early 80s UK pop scene was queerer than Weimar Berlin on poppers. It was chock full of fabulously ‘freaky’ stars like Pete Burns of Dead or Alive (another victim of 2016), Boy George of Culture Club and Marc Almond of Soft Cell. None of them were particularly out at the time, but then, looking the way they did they probably didn’t need to be.
By dazzling-teethed contrast, the disco-dancing, bird-pulling, Mr Good Time persona Mr Michael presented – but which seems to have been based largely on his Wham partner Andrew Ridgeley – looked almost heterosexual.
Almost. OK, the leather jackets, the naked boy-flesh and the blow-dried hair appears très camp to us now, but that wasn’t necessarily the case at the time. George was officially very much for the ladies and the ladies were even more for him. But also, as his success grew, ‘loadsa’ straight boys wanted to be him.
After all, his (white) soul boy image was a tweaked, glammed-up, sexed-up, slightly Princess Di version of what many wedge-sporting, Lacoste-wearing working class London and Essex lads were styling themselves at the time. And he was mega rich and famous and getting his leg over.
In one of those peculiar postmodern ironies that made masculinity what it is today – flamingly metrosexual – George Michael’s ‘closetedness’ for two decades of pop stardom meant that straight women ended up expecting rather more from straight boys and straight boys ended up copying a gay version of themselves.
Michael’s multiplied image helped make ordinary male heterosexuality visually tartier, while his amplified lyrics helped make it more available emotionally. A straight female friend of mine told me that every single boyfriend she dumped in the 1980s sent her lyrics from ‘A Different Corner’.
George Michael was the missing, subversive – and actually gay – link between David Bowie and that other London pretty boy, David Beckham.
Even when a now-solo Michael ‘butched up’ for the rather more ‘traditionally-minded’ American market with his smash hit 1987 album Faith, the effect was… ambiguous. More so arguably, than the twinkiness of Wham! In the famous promo for the title single, he is wearing jeans, boots, a leather jacket and sunglasses in what looks like a homage to the previous year’s Hollywood fly boys hit Top Gun. But with a large crucifix earring and designer stubble (this accessorization of facial hair is something else ‘gay’ he helped popularise.)
He’s next to a 1950s jukebox like the one in the Top Gun bar, wiggling his butt apparently trying to invent twerking, while the camera zooms in on it relentlessly (the word ‘REVENGE’ hovering above on his leather jacket). Perhaps waiting for Maverick – or maybe Iceman.
This might sound like the wisdom of hindsight, but some contemporary gay boys were picking up the queer vibrations. An American gay male friend who was living on a military base at the time remarked: “He was the first teen idol that felt “gay” to me even though he was always with sexy women in his videos. I didn’t even know what the gay clone look was, but he was sort of replicating it. The earring also seemed a signal – my dad said fags wore those, especially in the left ear.”
George Michael – Faith (Official Video)
George’s phenomenal success in the US and the subconscious ‘down low’ queer signals he was broadcasting in plain sight came, remember, at the height of the Aids crisis and the foam-flecked reactionary backlash in the late 80s against ‘Satanic’ and ‘sick’ homosexuality.
Perhaps it was because of how he’d helped redefine heterosexuality for a generation, when he finally came out in 1998, toilet paper stuck to his shoe, a surprising number of straight people were still shocked – despite having been fairly explicit about his orientation in the lyrics and dedications of his songs for most of that decade.
Though of course there is another piquant irony to be had in the fact that this man whose career had originally been based on ‘masquerading’ as a heterosexual was finally outed in a public restroom by a plainclothes Beverly Hills Police Dept officer who (George claims) was masquerading as a gay man.
However, the way George handled that incident was so defiant and assured that he completely turned the tables on not just the Beverly Hills PD and the tabloid press, but also homophobia itself. He immediately told the world he was gay and refused to display any shame.
Instead, he released ‘Outside’, a jaunty single extolling the pleasures of outdoor sex for everyone, regardless of sexuality – along with a video that featured cross and same sex couples getting it on in hidden away outdoor places, while being recorded by a police helicopter. George in gay cop gear disco dances in a public restroom where the glitter balls descend from the air vents and the urinals revolve. In many ways, this was the absolute zenith of pop music as propaganda for pleasure and against shame.
George Michael – Outside (Official Video)
What George achieved with ‘Outside’ was certainly no less than historic. That original pop star Oscar Wilde had been convicted of Gross Indecency a hundred years earlier and been completely destroyed by it. George had turned his own ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ into an all-singing, all-dancing commercial and cultural triumph.
Now that he was out, New Millennium George still refused to ‘go quietly’ and ‘make it easy on himself’. He was not what you might call a ‘good gay’. He had a long term partner but was frank about the fact that their relationship was an open one – when most gay celebrity couples maintained a veneer of monogamous respectability.
He remained true to the dream (and nightmare) of masculine freedom that male homosexuality can symbolise. For all his faults and increasing foolishness, he refused to become that most absurd of things a ‘role model’. He insisted that he remained a sexual being – unlike most other celeb UK gays in the Noughties. ‘Gay people in the media are doing what makes straight people comfortable,’ he told the Guardian in 2005. ‘And automatically my response to that is to say I’m a dirty filthy fucker and if you can’t deal with it, you can’t deal with it.’
The tabloids thought they knew how to ‘deal’ with it. In 2006 they sent a flash photographer to follow him to the famous gay cruising area of Hampstead Heath, a large park in north London – at 2am – and plaster the results all over the front page, along with oodles of hypocritical concern about his ‘sick’ and ‘sordid’ behaviour and warnings/incitements that he ‘could get his throat cut’.
His reported response to the photographer when ‘snapped’ was, however, pitch perfect: “Are you gay? No? Well fuck off then!”
Sexual jealousy of course was at the root of it all. The scandalously free availability of ‘no-strings’ sex is an aspect of the gay and bi male world that many straight men tend to be very interested in, one way or another – and had been at the root of much of the tabloid attacks on gay men at the height of the Aids panic. Gay men ‘deserved’ Aids because of their ‘unnatural’ sex lives and their promiscuity. For having, in other words, too much fun.
One famous tabloid editor and columnist from that era worked himself into a violent lather of indignation: ‘I can’t stand George Michael and every time he tries to laugh off another vile gay sex exploit I dislike him a little more… I’d like to give him a good kick in the balls. Unfortunately, he’d probably enjoy it.’
But these bitter voices were already beginning to recede into the past – thanks in part to the changes that Mr Michael had helped bring about by being the kind of ‘commercial’ pop star I disdained in my teens. And of course, nowadays straight people have Tinder. While in the UK at least, straight(ish) ‘dogging’ has pretty much replaced gay ‘cruising’.
His continued, unapologetic – ahem – pride in his not always exactly wise life-choices remains invigoratingly rare in an age of safe sleb spin and public apologies as grovelling as they are empty.
‘I don’t want any children; I don’t want responsibility,’ he told Time Out matter-of-factly in 2007. ‘I am gay, I smoke weed and I do exactly what I want in my life because of my talent’.
Michael’s earlier secrecy about his sexuality was criticised by many – including gay pop stars who didn’t come out until after their careers were effectively over. Perhaps he could, as some have insisted, combatted the transatlantic anti-gay tide by coming out in the 80s or early 90s. Or perhaps his career would merely have been ended, and with it much of his influence.
Whatever his reasons for staying in so long, and whatever the long term effects on his happiness, being ‘openly closeted’ for so long seems to have been key to not only making Michael a commercially-successful artist but also a surprisingly subversive one.
And perhaps it also lay behind his determination, once out, not to go back into the biggest closet of all. Respectability.
How the film ‘Pride’ reminded me that I was actually in Lesbians & Gays Support the Miners
I think the time has come to share a secret about my past I’ve kept hidden for far too long. Back in the 20th Century, when I was still a teenager (just) – and a long, long time before I became cynical old queen – I shook a bucket for the miners as a member of an unlikely lefty group called Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners during the Great ‘Coal Not Dole’ NUM Strike of 1984-85.
I had no idea a film had been made about that unlikely outfit until I happened to see online, mouth akimbo, the trailer for Pride a couple of months back.
And if someone had told me before I’d seen it that the story of how some well-meaning gay London lefties reached out to a Welsh mining community during that year-long showdown with Margaret Thatcher’s government had been made into a big budget comedy, directed by Matthew Warchus and written by Stephen Beresford, starring Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, I wouldn’t have believed them.
To be honest, even after seeing the Pride with my own eyes at the cinema the other day I still can’t quite believe it.
I knew many of the characters in Pride, some of them very well: feisty, flame-haired, wise-cracking Steph – ‘I’m the Lesbian in Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ – (played by Faye Marsay) let homeless, pathetic me stay in her council flat until I was slightly less homeless and pathetic.
And of course, like everyone else, I was in love with the 23 year old canny Irish Commie Mark Ashton (played by Ben Schnetzer), albeit mostly from a distance. Largely for the love of Mark, and perhaps a deeply-buried, highly politically incorrect hope that one day a burly miner might show me his, er, gratitude, I attended meetings in a crowded roll-your-own-smoke-filled room above a gay pub in Islington. (Which were usually, like most meetings, crushingly boring, so I completely understand why the film instead pretends that LGSM was just ten people).
I was unemployed so had plenty of time to shake a bucket outside Gays The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, The Bell pub in Kings Cross and in Camden Market bellowing ‘LESBIANS AND GAYS SUPPORT THE MINERS!!!’ at slightly baffled or alarmed passers-by.
Of course this was a form of hopeful thinking as much as it was a slogan. Even back then, many gay people were very Tory. But in the end, LGSM reportedly collected more money for the miners than any other support group in the UK. I doubt though it was thanks to me – I may have had a lot of time on my hands, but I was a very lazy activist.
I remember witnessing two LGSM mates who weren’t at all lazy being harassed and unlawfully arrested by the police while collecting in Camden. I gave evidence against the police in an unlawful arrest case – the court of course acquitted the police and found my mates guilty of being gay, lefty and supporting the miners.
I have a recollection of attending some NUS event in Manchester on behalf of LGSM at which I gave some kind of speech. And I was, I think, at the Pits & Perverts gig at the Electric Ballroom, shaking a bucket again – and very probably at Pride in 1985 where Welsh miners famously led the march.
I also made the trip to Dulais Valley in an LGSM minibus, but I think it was after the strike had ended. I don’t recall much about the trip, save that everyone was lovely.
Everyone that is except me. After getting back from the miners’ social club I drunkenly shagged one of the characters in the film on a very creaky floor of the bedroom we were sharing, in the local home we had very kindly been welcomed into.
Mortifyingly, everyone crammed into the tiny house knew about it the next day.
If I sound a bit vague about some of the details it’s because I don’t remember a great deal about that era. In my defence I’ll say I’m not the only one. Jeff Cole, on whom the young ‘heart of gold’ ‘Jeff’ character (played by Freddie Fox) is based – someone whom I hadn’t spoken to for over twenty years for no other reason than life, as it does, pushing people apart after pushing them together very closely for a while – reassures me he also can’t remember very much. And he was the official photographer of LGSM, who made the wonderful no-budget documentary about LGSM in 1985 which was part of the inspiration for Pride. (See below.)
Perhaps I don’t recall much because it was another century, another Millennium, and I was a different person. With ideals and full of – Christ! – earnestness. Maybe none of us should really remember what it was like to be a teenager when we’re middle aged. It’s just so unfair on both versions of us.
What do I think of the film? Well, obviously I can’t offer an impartial review of it, as I’m far too close to the subject matter – and yet at the same time strangely distanced from it by a faulty memory. In truth, I dreaded going to see it. Partly because I thought it was going to be a kind of gay Brassed Off (which I loathed – all that emetic London centric condescension).
And partly because I wasn’t sure I really wanted to remember that era.
I think many gay lefties and dreamers from the 80s are suffering from PTSD – Post-Thatcher Stress Disorder.
Particularly since in many ways, and despite the naked homophobia of the 1980s Tory Party, gays on the make were to become the hot pink shock troops of Thatcherite individualism. After all, no one believed in the power of money, shopping and personal reinvention more than they did. The ‘gay lifestyle’ was to take off in the late 80s, largely replacing gay politics in the 90s – and eventually becoming a straight aspiration.
Pride though played me like a violin outside a soup kitchen, and had me laughing and blubbing in all the places it wanted me to. And I recognised, in wonder, many of the characters in a way that I really didn’t think I would. It was like meeting old friends again – in the pomp and splendour of their/our youth, complete with those retro 1950s style haircuts and t-shirts we all had back then.
Except that Mark Ashton was even more charismatic and attractive and mythical than Ben Schnetzer’s portrayal of him.
Stephen Beresford’s script does a near-miraculous job of staying true to the both the spirit of the times, and the leading characters – bringing both alive. It’s incredibly well-researched, thanks in no small part to the advisory role of Mike Jackson, beanie-wearing LGSM Secretary (played by Joseph Gilgun) – or ‘the Accrington sodomite’ as Mark calls him in the film, through a loud-hailer.
If I have a criticism it’s that Pride is at its weakest in some of its fictionalised parts – the use of homophobia for easy drama (there was never any trouble, in fact, on any of the LGSM visits to Wales), and the ‘sympathetic’ coming out storyline of ‘Joe’ – an invented character – and his stifling middle-class family, all tap into the clichés of ‘the big gay movie’ that we’ve seen too many times before.
I don’t think these devices were really needed – since the LGSM story is not a coming out story but rather a story about already out-and-loud gay people going back. But what do I know? The film is a smash hit.
Minor carping aside, I’m happy to accept Pride as my cathartic memory implant of 1984-5, freeing me at last from my youthful pinko PTSD. It also offers in the end a truth that is more than just sentimental feelgoodery. Despite the crushing defeat of the miners and the (pipe?) dream of socialism by Margaret Pinochet. Despite Aids – or AIDS!!! as it was then (Mark Ashton died from ‘the gay plague’ in 1987, aged just 26). And despite Section 28, the original anti ‘gay propaganda’ law, introduced by the Tories as a way of exploiting a tabloid hate campaign.
Two very different and distant communities under siege came together and discovered they had a great deal in common – and not just that they both knew, as Mark puts it in the film and as I recall (I think) at the time, what it’s like to be bullied by the police, the tabloids and the Government and labelled ‘the enemy within’.
After the strike a grateful big butch NUM block vote forced the Labour Party to finally adopt a gay equality pledge which was to help change Britain forever in the following decade when (New) Labour swept back into power.
And as the film suggests, in an echo perhaps of Billy Elliot, miners learned how to dance to disco instead of nursing a pint watching the ladies, while their wives learned how to take on the law and politics instead of making sandwiches. The Victorian sexual division of labour and loving on which many working class communities had been based was beginning to break down. This was a process that was only accelerated over the next decade or so by the loss of ‘male’ heavy industry jobs – like mining – and the creation of ‘feminine’ service industry jobs (often part time and poorly paid – and non-unionised).
Although Thatcher laid waste – quite deliberately – to much of South Wales, the north and Scotland, a new generation of young men and women would adapt to the brave new post-industrial, and arguably post-heterosexual world they found themselves growing up in. Laughable as it may seem, Geordie Shore is the tanned, bleached, pumped proof of this.
Pride is a timely reminder that the revolution in the way our society thinks about and treats gender and sexuality came from the left and its ideals of solidarity – not just the atomising nature of consumerism and individualism. And certainly not by the design of our first woman Prime Minister with her ‘Victorian values’.
Thatcher fan-boy David Cameron’s introduction of same sex marriage was intended as a rewriting of history, a brazen co-option of all the heavy-lifting victories for gay equality by the left in the previous years in the teeth of vehement opposition by his own ‘nasty party’ and its many allies in the press. (And by him personally: only a decade ago Cameron voted twice against the repeal of Section 28 – the second time in a free vote.)
If Mark Ashton were alive today he’d probably remind us of that himself. He might also add, with characteristic honesty and realism, that the reason why Pride can be such a smash hit now and regarded with such fond nostalgia by many people who probably supported Thatcher at the time is because the miners, the organised working class, and ultimately socialism as a political force, were historically defeated in the 1980s and no longer represent a threat.
And the gays got married.
But then history is made out of strange, tragi-comic paradoxes, which in the 20th Century we used to call ‘dialectics’. No wonder some of us can’t remember some of our personal ones properly.
As the 80s boy racer dreamboat the Peugeot 205 GTI turns 30 Mark Simpson remembers stroking its stick-shift
In the world of car porn there is no other conjugation that raises the punter’s pulse more than that one – evoking as it does fuel injection, tight handling, firm suspension, snug interiors and accommodating rears.
And amongst hot hatches, the Peugeot 205 GTI is the ultimate car porn star. This year the French stunner, launched back in 1984, when the miners were on strike and Frankie Goes To Hollywood were in the charts, turned an ancient and decrepit 30, but is still widely regarded as the hottest hatchback ever.
It’s certainly my favourite car ever. I owned one in the early 90s, round about the time they stopped production in 1994, and I still dream moistly about it in a way I don’t about, say, my old Golf Mk 1 GTI, even though I suspect the Golf was a rather better made car.
I had a 1.9, 205, introduced a couple of years after the 1.6. It simply had to be a 1.9. Not because it had a few more HP than the 1.6 (126 compared to 105), or because it did 0-60 in 8 seconds (instead of 8.7), or because it had disc brakes all round instead of just at the front. And certainly not because it had more torque. But because of that ‘9’ on the badge. Who wants an average 6 when you can have a whopping 9? Especially when you’re still in your twenties, as I was at the time.
Apart from the badge, there were other key visual signifiers of your ownership of more cubic centimetres: the alloy wheels were fatter, and you had sexy half leather seats, vs cloth. I became practised at spotting these giveaways from a distance, before I could get a good look at the badge on the side. I’m sure I wasn’t the only Peugeot 205 size queen, constantly dismissing 1.6ers as unworthy of my interest.
In fact, being so lightweight – or what safety engineers now would call ‘horrifyingly flimsy’ – either 205 GTI was a joy to drive, even though neither had power steering (drivers back then were expected to have shoulders when it came to parking). It would take bends with an alacrity and eagerness that was positively arousing. Admittedly the pedals were rather too close together, particularly if you had size ‘9’ feet – but you just had to be careful to operate them delicately with pointy toes.
It was a great car for belting around a city like London before ‘traffic calming’ measures were introduced, speed humps installed every few feet, and rat-runs closed off, turning London’s roads into railways for cars. In addition to being great for engaging the ‘safety power’ and nipping around ‘obstructions’, the 205 GTI would leave most cars standing at the lights, watching your sexy arse disappear into the distance.
It was remarkably practical too. Despite the fact that from the outside it looked like the proverbial rocket-powered roller-skate, a road-legal single-seater with the driver crouched over the sports steering wheel, head almost sticking out of the sliding sun roof, inside it was surprisingly spacious. People with legs could even sit in the back. If you owned a Peugeot GTI you could actually have friends, or a family.
If, that is, you had any time for anything that didn’t involve zooming around with a big stupid grin on your face.
But if I’m honest none of these were the real reasons I possessed one. It was the 205 GTi’s scorching looks that bowled me over. It was a very, very sexy piece of 1980s styling – quite possibly the definitive one. A kind of supermini American Gigolo with black and red bumper car trim. The wheels were exactly where they should be, in the corners, and it had a very sexual shapeliness to it. I even loved the two-tone plasticky interiors that everyone mocks now. (Though admittedly most of the plastic bits did break off.)
I had a red one, but I wanted a white one, and black one, and a blue one, and slate grey one as well. I thought they were all good enough to eat.
From the gender-bending of Eurythmics, Culture Club & Marilyn, to the propulsive synthpop of Depeche Mode, New Order, & the Human League, 1983 was, argues Mark Simpson, a high-water mark for pop experimentation.
IN 1983, THE YEAR THAT MCDONALD’s introduced the Chicken McNugget and the second Cold War was at its height, the world very nearly ended when huge NATO exercises were mistaken by an extremely jittery USSR for preparations for a nuclear first strike.
More ominously still, compact discs went on sale in the United States and Europe, the first commercial mobile telephone call was made, and the Internet as it’s known today came into existence. Oh, and Carrie Underwood was born. In other words, while the world itself didn’t actually end in 1983, all the necessary means were invented for bringing about something much, much worse: the end of pop music. (Though it was going to take a while.)
Which, rather like the best pop itself, is a bittersweet thought to savor – since 1983 was unquestionably the finest year for pop music eva.
1983 was also — perhaps not so coincidentally — my final year at high school, and instead of studying for my exams and thinking about what I wanted to actually do with my life, I’d taken to hanging around hi-fi shops on my way home, hypnotized by the LED(!) and LCD(!!) equalizer displays on the latest sound systems. I fell head over heels in love with a Technics SL-7 turntable. There were various reasons for its quasi-sexual appeal: The total surface area was no bigger than an LP sleeve, and the turntable had a really cool linear arm tracking inside the lid that was automatically operated with buttons at the front. It was very futuristic; like a giant, clunky, analog CD player, before anyone I knew had a CD player.
But the real reason for my infatuation with the turntable was the 12-inch of Eurythmics’s ‘Love Is a Stranger’ that its cunning salesman slapped on – at full volume. Not only did the otherworldly, drivingly sequenced synth sounds and Annie Lennox’s operatic range superbly showcase the sound dynamics of the product, the lyrics Lennox breathed, seemingly in the back of your mind, were the ultimate hard sell:
“And I want you / And I want you / And I want you so.”
Eurythmics – Love Is a Stranger (Official Video)
Pop music in the early ’80s was a stranger in an open, gilt-edged, glamorous, sleekly designed car, tempting you in and driving you far away. And not only in Eurythmics songs; the Smiths’s second single, and their first hit, ‘This Charming Man’, also released in 1983, featured that same car-driving stranger offering Morrissey a ride (albeit with guitars not synths playing on the radio). This year was a pre-Fall moment when everything and anything seemed possible — because it was.
The neck-strainingly rapid developments in music-making technology meant that no one really knew what they were doing until they’d actually done it. Every record was a revelation. A miracle. There were no rules because there was no manual. Improvisation was king. Eurythmics recorded their smash-hit album, Sweet Dreams, for example, on a simple TEAC eight-track in an attic, without any of the fixtures of a professional studio. The title song was recorded in a single take, with Lennox improvising most of the lyrics on the spot and David Stewart tapping on half-filled milk bottles to produce that chiming sound as Lennox sings ‘Hold your head up/ Keep your head up.’
In this new landscape, record companies had little choice but to indulge their prodigies in their pixie boots with their pixie powers. (Although that didn’t stop ‘Love Is a Stranger’ from being yanked off the air during an early transmission on MTV by executives who confused Lennox for a transvestite.)
This was also the era of the wizard producer: industry legends like Martin Rushent, who fashioned the sound of the Human League, and most famously Trevor Horn, former lead singer for the Buggles, who produced ABC’s stunningly beautiful 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pounding 1983 single ‘Relax’. Horn, who deftly deployed the dark magic of the famous Fairlight sampling synthesizer, was nothing less than a creator of brave new sonic worlds. (Appropriately, Horn’s 1979 Buggles single ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ was also the first to be aired on MTV when the channel launched in 1981.)
Early ’80s British synthpop — or “new wave,” as it was known in the United States — was madly ambitious and utopian, offering an analog dream of a digital future. And it sounded gorgeous. In fact, it sounded much better than the properly digital future did when it actually arrived, with greater processing power, a few years later. It was also much better than drugs or sex, which turned out to be piss-poor substitutes for pop music when they finally showed up at the end of the decade in jeans at an acid house rave somewhere in a field near Manchester. Synthpop — or “new pop” as the genre was more broadly dubbed by the music journalist Paul Morley at the time — was the glorious culmination of the 1970s’ aesthetic revolts of glam and punk rock. It was pop music at its most fun, its most danceable, its most pretentious, its most gender-bending, and its most fashionable.
The 12-inch single was a mainstay of synthpop, which in many ways carried on where disco (for which the 12-inch was invented) left off after America murdered it at the end of the ’70s. The greater treble and bass response afforded by 12-inch singles demonstrated the new recording, mixing, and lavish production techniques all the better — and made it hip-twitching. Today, if you listen to extended mixes from that era, especially the ones with the long intros with, say, a single sampled snare drum playing for several minutes, you often wonder where people got the time. But back then, before the Internet and mobile phones ruined everything, they were the height of indulgence. They were a way of making the blissful perfection of the pop single last forever, instead of just three minutes.
Our sixth-form common room didn’t have a Technics SL-7, but it did have a battered 1960s mono Dansette record player. Undoubtedly, the most played record on it in 1983 was New Order’s epoch-making, four-to-the-floor new wave disco track ‘Blue Monday’, which was, in a calculatedly haughty gesture, only available as a 12-inch single and infamously not included on the album Power, Corruption & Lies (though with a transporting track like ‘Your Silent Face’, whose final kiss-off lyric is “You’ve caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?” I wasn’t complaining about the album). It became the best selling 12-inch single ever in the United Kingdom. It’s difficult, in a post-‘Blue Monday’ world, to understand the seismic impact of that New York hi-NRG sound recycled gloriously through Manchester melancholy. We played it so many times we had to weigh the ancient chisel of a needle down with putty to stop it from jumping.
New Order – Your Silent Face
Other 1983 synthpop singles that got played to death either in the common room or in my bedroom included the deliciously silly ‘Blind Vision’, by Blancmange; the surprisingly political ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)’, by Wham!; the sublimely whiney ‘Everything Counts’, by Depeche Mode; the cutesy-funky ‘Rip it Up’, by Orange Juice; the fantastically pretentious ‘Visions in Blue’, by Ultravox; the hair-prickling ‘Song to the Siren’, by This Mortal Coil; the tantrummy torch song ‘Soul Inside’, by Soft Cell (their last hurrah); the lazy lyricism of ‘Christian’ by China Crisis; the toe-tapping, fringe-flapping ‘Too Shy’, by Kajagoogoo; the plaintively insistent ‘Come Back and Stay’, by Paul Young; the revving synth-reggae of ‘Electric Avenue’, by Eddy Grant; the beating beauty of ‘All of My Heart’, by ABC (released in 1982 but so big that it hogged much of 1983, too); the delightfully absurd synth-goth of ‘The Walk’, by the Cure; the stolen kisses of ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’, by Fun Boy Three; the bitter-sweet ‘Church of the Poison Mind’, by Culture Club; the exhilaratingly obscure ‘Burning Down the House’, by Talking Heads; the lipsticked charm of ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination’, by the Human League; and, of course, David Bowie’s Nile Rodgers–produced smash ‘Let’s Dance’, a record that manages somehow to be both criminally danceable and strangely austere, like the White Witch of Narnia on roller skates.
The Human League – (Keep Feeling) Fascination
With records like that as the soundtrack to our teenagerdom, is it any wonder that we thought ourselves the cat’s meow?
Bowie had, in many ways, made the glamour and swish of synthpop possible; he was certainly the stylistic inspiration for the romantic wing of new wave (many of whom, however, chose to sing like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry), famously bestowing his benediction on Steve Strange and assorted Blitz Kids in the video for 1980’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’, dressed in a Pierrot costume, being followed by a bulldozer. By 1983, Bowie had finally achieved the stateside success he had longed for throughout the ’70s with his Serious Moonlight tour, becoming part of the “second British Invasion” of new wave acts.
The second British Invasion — which, by the way, was almost certainly the last — was more successful than the first, changing the American aesthetic as well as musical landscapes. Schooled by ’70s Bowie, British new wave acts like Duran Duran were masterful at drawing attention to themselves onscreen and got saturation exposure on the newly founded MTV. Although their hit single ‘Girls on Film’ was released in 1981, it wasn’t until an MTV-friendly ‘day version’ was reissued in March 1983 that the video became a staple on the channel, along with ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ and ‘The Reflex.’
The synthpop sound and kooky styles of those quirky Brits became the hallmark of ’80s MTV, and eventually made its way into the classic ’80s high school movies of John Hughes. British new wave was especially popular on the West Coast and with Los Angeles’s famous KROQ station — and continued to be long after new wave had been rolled back in the U.K. (When I visited Los Angeles for the first time in 1990, I couldn’t quite believe that all this British synthpop was still being played so much — and in such a sunny place.)
Depeche Mode – Everything Counts (Remastered Video)
It didn’t hurt that many of the Brit synthpop bands were also very easy on the eyes. The women, like Lennox, could be very handsome, and the boys could be very pretty — Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet certainly were, with the possible exception of their lead singers. In the promo for ‘Everything Counts’, the seemingly sweet Essex boys of Depeche Mode look like they’re in an especially twinky Bel Ami video, albeit with clothes.
Orange Juice – Rip it Up (Official Video)
For my part, I had a crush on the fresh-faced Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice and Bernard Sumner from New Order (it was a long time ago), who I always thought sang like a boy crying in his bedroom with the window left deliberately open. Also Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, who was preposterously pretty, even with those mini pigtails. There was something about the boyish vulnerability and sensuality of synthpop that went with their kind of looks — a sexual ambiguity vibrated in the sequenced air.
Unfortunately for Smith, he also looked a bit like a lad at school I was hopelessly in love with. It was a requited but yet unconsummated affair — which meant, of course, that it was endlessly orgasmic. I listened to the Tears for Fears album The Hurting, particularly the wonderful whingeing of ‘Pale Shelter’ — “You don’t give me love / you give me cold hands” — much, much too much, and heard things that weren’t really there. I even wrote to them via their record label, thanking them for daring to write such openly homoerotic lyrics — and received a diplomatic letter of acknowledgement back from a PR agent informing me that Curt and Roland would be very pleased to hear their music “meant so much.”
Tears for Fears – Pale Shelter (HQ)
And then there was cute Merseyside duo China Crisis, whose video for their single ‘Christian’ was so knowingly homoerotic that I actually missed how much it was at the time. I was, believe it or not, too innocent. Apparently shot in a Roman gay sauna, it features saucy column stroking (c. 0.12), mud masks and Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon gazing into each others eyes through an ejaculating fountain. It’s almost as if they had a bet on with OMD, also from Merseyside, to make an even more homoerotic video than their Brideshead-inspired 1981 promo for their dreamy ‘Souvenir’ single.
Christian – China Crisis
But of all of the pretty early ’80s boys — or girls — Marilyn, a.k.a. Peter Robinson, was perhaps the prettiest. A star of new romantic stomping ground the Blitz club when his mate Boy George was working in the coat check there, he finally got a record deal in 1983 and had a hit with the catchy single ‘Calling Your Name’. The pop charts now had a male gender bender who was sexy instead of mimsy, famously describing himself, entirely accurately, as “Tarzan and Jane rolled into one.”
MARILYN · Calling Your Name (1983)
But a line had been crossed. Sadly, the story of Marilyn is also the story of the end of the high summer of synthpop/new wave. We had traveled too far and too fast in that stranger’s open car — the brakes were being applied. Margaret Thatcher, whose much vaunted ‘Victorian values’ were to include a ban on gay propaganda, was reelected by a landslide in June 1983, thanks largely to the victory of the British armed forces over Argentina in a far-flung colonial outpost. Her bosom buddy Ronald Reagan had meanwhile essentially put the West on a war footing against the ‘Evil Empire’, as he dubbed the Soviet Union. And Dr. Robert Gallo had isolated a virus he named HTLV-III, which had snuffed out Klaus Nomi and Jobriath in that same year. We now know it as HIV.
The delicious “art fag” decadence of new wave — or “that queer English shit” as it was probably more often known in the US — was clearly doomed in the militaristic, materialistic, AIDS-terror climate of the mid-1980s. Male vulnerability and sexual ambiguity were now fatal weaknesses.
Marilyn’s second single, ‘Cry and Be Free’, a ballad released in 1984, was doing well until he appeared, pouting, on Top of the Pops in a glittery off-the-shoulder number. There was a visceral reaction as a nation recoiled from its own arousal. His single plummeted. His third, the catchy and ironically prescient ‘You Don’t Love Me’, stalled at number 40 in the U.K. charts. Effectively the career of the most beautiful boy in British pop was over before it had begun.
And so, essentially, was new wave, banished by a mid-’80s counterrevolution of guitar-led rock. Disco sucked again, and it gave you AIDS. And Bruce bloody Springsteen was the biggest thing in the U.K. charts in 1984.
Yes, it’s true that Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s spunktacular dance track ‘Relax’ finally hit number 1 in January 1984, but it had been released in 1983 and was banned by the BBC in 1984. Frankie went on to have more hits that year in the U.K., including, most famously, ‘Two Tribes’, which satirized the threat of the Cold War turning hot, and certainly sold a lot of T-shirts. But for my pocket money they definitely peaked with ‘Relax’.
My school days ended in the summer of 1983, and with them my exquisitely doomed love affair. Synthpop, as it turned out, was also having it’s last big fling. So you see, contrary to what the history books tell you, the world really did end in 1983 — but at least I got the Technics SL-7 turntable for my 18th birthday.
I ended up playing the Smiths on it a great deal — ‘This Charming Man’, with it’s inviting male driver, smooth leather, guitars and yearning, yelping vocals from its awkwardly pretty, skinny lead singer in a woman’s blouse and beads, was released at the end of 1983. Their eponymous first album, released in January 1984, complete with young Joe Dallesandro’s naked torso on the sleeve, was very definitely the homoerotic bonanza I’d mistaken Tears for Fears’ The Hurting for, albeit a celibate one.
In a sense, the Smiths were the ultimate new wave/new pop band, one who eschewed synthesizers for guitars, which lead singer Morrissey, an u?ber fan of 70s glam and punk, professed to hate. This turned out to be a smart move that kept them in business until 1987 — and Morrissey, as a solo artist, to this day. But I suspect the Smiths were only allowed to happen at all because, despite their enormous fame now, they were a very well-kept secret in the ’80s – barely troubling the British top 10 and effectively banned from daytime radio airplay. Which was only right, seeing as they represented a resistance to much of what pop music became in the latter half of the 80s.
The Smiths were essentially semi-underground new wave – otherwise known as ‘indie’.
The Smiths – This Charming Man (Official Music Video)