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Queer Noises

queer_noises.jpgBeyond Bowie and Frankie, there’s a whole secret history of gay pop, reports Alexis Petridis

‘Wilder, madder, gayer than a Beatle’s hairdo’

It was the love that dare not sing its name—or was it? Beyond Bowie and Frankie, there’s a whole secret history of gay pop, reports Alexis Petridis

Tuesday July 4, 2006
The Guardian

The year 1966 is known as rock’s annus mirabilis. It was the year the right musicians found the right technology and the right drugs to catapult pop into hitherto unimagined realms of invention and sophistication: the year of the Beatles’ Revolver, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. But the most astonishing record of 1966 did not emanate from the unbounded imagination of Brian Wilson, or from an Abbey Road studio wreathed in pot smoke. Instead, it was the work of hapless instrumental combo the Tornados.

By 1966, the Tornados’ moment of glory—with 1962 number one Telstar—had long passed; they hadn’t had a hit in three years and every original member had departed. The single they released that year, Is That a Ship I Hear?, was their last. Tucked away on its B-side, the track Do You Come Here Often? attracted no attention, which was probably just as well. A year before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Tornados’ producer, Joe Meek, had taken it upon himself to record and release Britain’s first explicitly gay rock song, apparently undaunted by his own conviction for cottaging in 1963.

There had been vague intimations of homosexuality in a few 1960s rock records, not least the Beatles’ You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, but Do You Come Here Often? was something else entirely. Opening with a dementedly perky organ instrumental, it’s topped off with two male voices, seemingly recorded in the toilet of a gay club, trading camp badinage: “I’ll see you down the ‘Dilly!” “Not if I see you first, you won’t.” Quite what the Tornados made of their pill-maddened producer’s latest wheeze, let alone anyone who heard the song in 1966, is an intriguing question—but four decades on, it still sounds remarkable.

“It’s almost like a hidden track, because you’ve got these two minutes of instrumental music, you’re thinking, ‘OK, and?’ Then suddenly it happens,” enthuses author and journalist Jon Savage, who spent 20 years trying to track down a copy of the single. “I think Joe Meek wanted to get a slice of gay life on to a record. Nobody bought it. It was completely hidden, but it was still released on EMI.”

Best known for his celebrated punk history, England’s Dreaming, Savage has recently developed a sideline in compiling acclaimed CDs of forgotten music, most notably Meridian 1970, which sought to disprove the theory that said year was a musical wasteland. His latest collection, on which Do You Come Here Often? is just one of a string of revelations, comes with the self-explanatory title From the Closet to the Charts: Queer Noises 1961-1978.

Even by Savage’s standards, this is an extraordinary album. There are a sprinkling of well-known tracks, including the Kinks’ oblique 1965 hit See My Friend and Sylvester’s out-and-proud disco anthem You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), which provides the collection’s crescendo and cut-off point. Mostly, though, it’s concerned with exposing the secret gay history of rock and pop.

Among the revelations uncovered by Savage are a lesbian-themed glam-blues 1973 single by Polly Perkins, best known as a star of short-lived BBC soap Eldorado, and the vicious early 1960s drag queen Jose, whose albums appear to have been sold to a straight audience as risque adult party accoutrements (“These naughty subjects are tickling America’s funnybone!” cries one sleeve, promising “a fantastically funny insight into the lives of ‘those fellows’”). Among various early 1970s gay singer-songwriters is Peter Grudzien, purveyor of “overtly gay country music”. Then there’s LA rent-boy punk Black Randy, who seems to have come to the conclusion that the Ramones’ famous paean to male prostitution, 53rd and 3rd, was too demure for its own good. “Schools and factories make me sick,” he snarls. “I’d rather stand here and sell my dick.”

Not everything on the compilation is a lost masterpiece. “If you’ve never heard any of this stuff, it’s probably with good reason,” chuckles Savage. And yet, it is, by turns, fascinating, touching, funny and startling—and occasionally you find yourself listening with your jaw hanging open.

The latter is certainly true of the track that started Savage collecting gay records 15 years ago. Released in 1967 in a crude handmade sleeve, Kay, Why? by the Brothers Butch features a string of double-entendres about lubricant jelly over a sub-Beatles backing track. “A friend gave me a copy. I wasn’t aware that stuff like that existed,” Savage says. “You think: why did somebody pay somebody to go into a studio and do this? I can only assume that by 1967, there was a firmly established, very limited market for explicit gay records. Presumably they would have been advertised in the back of early gay magazines or in gay shops or gay clubs. It wasn’t made with any hope of great sales, so it’s very direct.”

A similar sense of mystery surrounds Queer Noises’ other big revelation—that, in the mid-1960s, California had a gay record label, Camp, which advertised its wares as: “Wilder, madder, gayer than a Beatle’s hairdo!” Not even queermusicheritage.com has been able to uncover who was behind the label’s 10 pseudonymous singles and two albums, but Camp was certainly ahead of its time. A decade before the Village People, The Shower Song (I’m So Wet) revealed precisely what “hanging out with all the boys” at the YMCA might entail.

“It’s quite an explicit slice of early 1960s gay life,” says Savage. “They put out a song called Down on the River Drive, about a guy going cruising and getting arrested by a plain-clothes cop. Someone must have been convinced that there were enough gay people with enough money to buy this stuff.”

Camp’s releases went unnoticed by the wider world, but a decade later, things had changed: fuelled by David Bowie’s “I’m gay” interview in the Melody Maker, glam rock was the sound of pop finally coming out. But Savage’s album largely eschews glam in favour of a more obscure early 1970s musical development, in which straight black soul artists began giving hearty endorsement to the gay lifestyle in song. Harrison Kennedy of Chairmen of the Board weighs in with the cheery Closet Queen, while, on Ain’t Nobody Straight in LA, the post-Smokey Robinson Miracles inform the listener that “most everyone is AC-DC”, then elect to spend the evening in a gay bar, on the grounds that “some of the finest women are in gay bars”. “Hey, but dig, how you know they women?” protests a troubled Miracle. “Gay people are nice people too, man!” avers one of his bandmates sternly. That seems to settle it: off they go, for an evening with “those fellows”.

If you were being cynical, you might suggest that Kennedy and the Miracles had taken note of the burgeoning demand for black music from the nascent, primarily gay disco scene and made a pragmatic decision to court their new audience. Savage isn’t convinced. “The Miracles were just telling it how they saw it,” he says. “You wouldn’t get a major R&B act recording that now, would you? Things have actually gone back from the 1970s. The point of this album is that it’s about the struggle of gay people to get out of the closet, out of the ghetto into the mainstream, and they successfully did that on their terms with Sylvester. Gay people won freedoms, but they’re very fragile freedoms.”

He has a point. A few years after Sylvester’s triumph, explicitly gay music—Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bronski Beat, the muscle-bound thud of high-energy dance music—was accepted into the British charts in a way that Joe Meek or the shadowy figures behind the Brothers Butch and Camp Records could never have anticipated. Twenty years on, Radio 1′s breakfast show presenter is using the word “gay” as an insult.

“Lad culture has been a disaster for pop music,” says Savage. “That definition of a heterosexual man—beer and football, Nick Hornby—is so restrictive. It’s important that pop musicians play around with gender and sexual divergence. The fact that it’s gone back to Oasis from the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger being very camp, is just pathetic, it’s a complete failure. People are scared of nonconformity in music, so this album is a less-than-fragrant reminder of a time when pop music was less sanitised than it is now.

“A friend of mine said, ‘Fucking hell Jon, I thought it was going to be quite tasteful, but there’s some real horrors on here.’ I said, ‘Yes, it’s time to unleash the beast.’”

From the Closet to the Charts: Queer Noises 1961-1978 is out now on Trikont (via Shellshock).

tracklist
01. Jose: At The Black Cat 02:09
02. Rod McKuen: Eros 01:42
03. Mr. Jean Fredericks: Nobody Loves A Fairy When She’s Forty 03:56
04. Byrd E. Bath & Rodney Dangerfield: Florence of Arabia 03:40
05. B.Bubba: I’d Rather Fight Than Swish 03:16
06. The Kinks: See My Friend 02:40
07. The Tornados: Do You Come Here Often? 03:53
08. The Brothers Butch: Kay, Why? 03:13
09. Teddy & Darrel: These Boots 02:22
10. Zebedy: The Man I Love 03:09
11. Curt Boettcher: Astral Cowboy 02:18
12. Harrison Kennedy: Closet Queen 03:43
13. Polly Perkins: Coochy Coo 03:19
14. Michael Cohen: Bitterfeast 03:09
15. Jobriath: I’m A Man 03:30
16. Chris Robison: Lookin’ For A Boy 03:57
17. Peter Grudzien: White Trash Hillbilly Trick 02:56
18. Valentino: I Was Born This Way 03:20
19. The Miracles: Ain’t Nobody Straight In LA 03:43
20. The Ramones: 53rd And 3rd 02:19
21. The Twinkeyz: Aliens In Our Midst 03:17
22. Dead Fingers: Talk Nobody Loves You When You’re Old And Gay 04:30
23. Black Randy & The Metro Squad: Trouble At The Cup 01:53
24. Sylvester: You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) 03:45

Previously on { feuilleton }
Gay book covers

 


 

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3 comments or trackbacks

  1. #1 posted by Eroom Nala

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    I suppose the Kinks Lola would have been too obvious a song, although I have read it explained away somewhere as
    “I’m glad I’m a man and so is Lola” menaing she’s glad that I’m a man too. Not an explanation backed up on a later album where Ray Davies mentions a big policeman coming up to him saying “Excuse me, is your name Ray Davies?” and when Ray asks the policeman his name his reply is L-O-L-A Lola.

    Are there many gay cop songs out there.

    Funniest title has to be Florence of Arabia

    LOL

  2. #2 posted by John

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    I was surprised by that Kinks choice as well, I thought David Watts might be more suitable (“He is so gay and fancy-free.”) Jon Savage has written a book about the band so I guess he has his reasons.

    Can’t think of any gay cop songs offhand but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. One of The Village People dressed as a policeman but I don’t think that counts, does it?

  3. #3 posted by xtiaan

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    hey eroom

    take a look at marylin mansons vid for “i dont like the drugs (but the drugs like me)” whilst its not about gay cops as such it does have the line “cops and queers make good looking models” and the video does feature gay cops in uniform kissing

 




 

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