Tuesday, June 17, 2014

'Smalltown Boy' at 30

Back in the summer of 1984, I popped in to my favourite Chicago record store on Clark Street, not far south of Diversey. I saw a 12-inch single with a big pink triangle on the cover. It was “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat. Later, I saw the video. For me, it was revolutionary.

To set the scene, I need to go back to 1981, when I was in university. I took part in what was then called the “Gay Peoples Union”, and helped run workshops on coming out (even though I wasn’t long out myself) as well as taking some baby steps at political organising. I had friends who gave me gay music to listen to, gay authors to read—I was lucky. I got a crash course in “Gay 101” in only a few weeks time. I needed it. Even so, there wasn’t all that much contemporary stuff or, at least, nothing on the radio.

The time between when I left university in early 1982 and my finding that record in 1984 is somewhat involved, but, at its most basic, it was a time of intense discovery. I was still learning about all those who had gone before, but by then I was an LGBT activist trying to make the world a better, less hostile place for my people.

So, there I was in that record store, and I took a punt: I was glad I did. While I was never a victim of anti-gay violence, and I’d only once experienced the sting of anti-gay discrimination, as I mentioned a few years ago, I nevertheless fully identified with the song as I really never had before.

The song—and the video—appealed to me because it was so novel: I’d never seen MY life and MY reality displayed in popular culture and I felt giddy from the unexpected reflection of a part of my life. It was a kind of validation that I didn’t even know I was missing.

The song reached only Number 48 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but Number One on its dance chart (and I heard it a LOT in the clubs back then). It reached Number 5 in New Zealand, Number 8 in Australia, Number 9 in Canada and Number 3 in their native United Kingdom. So, over all, pretty successful.

Given the profoundly personal connection to my life, I might be expected to resist any re-imagining of the song, right? Not necessarily.

The video at top is Jimmy Sommerville performing the hit in a stripped-down way. It was recorded last month, and features Nick Nasmyth on Piano. The video was directed by Freddie Hall, and the Director of Photography was Josh Adams. I quite like it.

All too often, when artists re-visit an earlier song, even a hit, they do so as some sort of modern update. Sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. I prefer a contemporary re-imagining like this. It reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s newer version of “Clouds”, as included in the movie Love, Actually (LISTEN).

Liking a new version doesn’t mean abandoning the old, or vice versa. Just as with “Clouds”, I like the old and new versions. Just as the original version of “Smalltown Boy” (video below) spoke to me in a unique and new way 30 years ago, the new version speaks to me now. I’m older, hopefully wiser, and I’m certainly no longer surprised at seeing my life and reality reflected in pop culture. Indeed, I expect and demand it.

Jimmy Sommerville is almost exactly 2½ years younger than me (he’s about to turn 53). We’ve all moved on from then, but we can still connect with those days and re-imagine them for the reality we live in today. That’s a good thing.

I’m no longer a smalltown boy, but a significant part of me was born, in a sense, in the 1980s. This re-imagining of “Smalltown Boy” helps me connect that long ago time with the present. That’s always a good thing,

Via Joe.My.God.

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