‘Smalltown’ Man: Bronski Beat and Communards’ Jimmy Somerville Pays ‘Homage’
2014 saw the 30th anniversary of the 1980’s synthpop group Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy.” Originally released in 1984 and based on frontman Jimmy Somerville’s own coming out experience, the song addressed key issues in 1980’s LGBT culture and brought homosexuality and homophobia into the pop mainstream. The song deals with loneliness, rejection, and bullying due to supposed differences. An inspiration to many people, it has also been covered by a slue of artists, including by Dido and it still celebrated musically worldwide. “Tell Me Why,” from the same album, was also a politically-charged LGBT anthem.
When Bronksi Beat parted ways in 1985, Somerville formed the Communards, releasing such hits as the well-known covers of “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” After leaving the group in 1988, Somerville continued to record solo, producing politically-infused singles like “Read My Lips” and “Run From Love.”
More than 30 years later, Somerville’s distinctive vocals have not aged a day, nor has his ability to get the party started with an infectious beat. 2015 marks the ginger bear’s return with a new look and his 14th studio album. The first single off his forthcoming album Homage, to be released March 10th, is “Travesty.” This club classic is both relevant to his celebrated catalogue and to the contemporary sound.
I chatted with the 53 year old Scotland native about the new sound, bullying and LGBT issues in the UK.
Erik Caban: I read in a previous interview that you describe the new album as “organic disco.” What exactly does that mean?
Jimmy Somerville: It basically means that we haven’t used any electronics, synthesizers, and no auto tune. It’s been going back to basics. That’s what it’s about. When it’s real strings and real horns, and everything’s mixing together, it’s a real beautiful, organic sound. It really is.
The process of creating this disco-era-style album was described as “painstaking.” Can you elaborate on that?
Painstaking? Did I say it was “painstaking?” That’s interesting. I’m not sure why I would’ve said that. It’s been anything but. It’s been an absolute dream working on this album. I’m not saying that to white-wash over any little glitch, but everything about this album was just really a pleasure. Everyone who worked on it was just loving it. This is an album made with love. It was such a great experience. So, I’m not sure why I’d say “painstaking”- maybe because the time it’s taken to get there. [Laughs]
Will there be any concert dates with this release?
I’d love to be able to do that. It’s just about the logistics and the practicalities. These days, if you’re trying to do live stuff and you’re not in a band or have access to funds, it can be quite difficult. That’s not say it’s not something I want to do. I certainly want to do some live stuff. It’d be a dream to do that.
“Smalltown Boy” came out in 1984 and addressed bullying and coming out. Looking back, it was very cutting edge for its time. Don’t you think the song is just as relevant now?
It’s interesting, I’ve been having discussions about that with a friend [about the elections earlier this year.] Any alternative to the government in which we have is just non-existent. Any kind of opposition is non-existent. And the only people who seem to be coming popular and have a voice are extremely reactionary and right-wing. I always try to kind of remind the gays that freedoms and all that stuff that [we take for granted], is all in legislation and people in power have the authority and the ability to change legislation. So that song is relevant . I live in London. It’s this incredible city and in the UK, gay people can get married, etc. BUT I could [still] just be walking down the street or coming out of a bar and be at the wrong place at the wrong time and have my head kicked in. That sort of thing still happens. For example, places like Russia; it’s like safaris where [homophobic people] go out and hunt and trap gays and humiliate and torture them. Yes, that song it still very relevant.
With that, what words of wisdom would you give someone who is being bullied?
That’s a really difficult one but I’d say find the courage to ask for help. Believe in yourself. Stand up against it. It’s not the easiest thing to do – it’s really difficult but if someone’s torturing you, you have to say, “Yes I am. So what?”
Sometimes the most difficult is finding help in the community when there’s hostility. That’s why sometimes the best thing to do is find a way to remove yourself from it, which keeps you safe as well. That’s a tough one, because it depends who’s around, what kind of help you can get, how much of a threat you feel you are under. In the end, you have to be true to yourself and believe in yourself, though I know it’s easier said than done.
You are known as being one of the first openly gay performers during a period when LGBT rights were basically non-existent. How difficult was that? Did you find that hindered your success at all?
It was difficult and I got a lot of respect because I was a public figure. So, it was much easier to hunt me down. It was easy to intimidate me. It was easy to insult me. At the same time, it was easy to get in touch with me and communicate to feel as if [other people in the LGBT community] weren’t alone anymore. In some respects, it also kind of put me in a vulnerable position that I felt uncomfortable because I wasn’t doing it to be a voice. I was doing it because it was something I felt deep inside as an individual. But it was inevitable that I would be seen as some spokesperson or the voice [of the LGBT community] because there was no one else around doing that. With that, so many amazing things happened because of that and the responses I get and the responses I had in the past, it’s been really wonderful.
More than 30 years in the business! What do you have planned for the next 30 years?
30 years?! I’ll be 83. I hope to still be breathing. [Laughs]