The year was 1984. Wham!, Nik Kershaw, Queen and Frankie Goes To Hollywood were everywhere, swatting away toxic masculinity with their bleached-blonde and toussled bouffants, leather and sexual ambiguity. Yet, it was a particularly bleak time to be gay. There were the archaic consent laws, the onslaught of HIV/Aids and the dawning of Section 28. The political landscape was heavily charged and oppressive.
Bronksi Beat, a pop-synth outfit, burst onto the scene with Smalltown Boy and a Scottish Sylvester was born in the form of Jimmy Somerville. The narrative of a gay teenager fleeing his family and hometown for the bright lights and alluring danger of London underpinned by urging synth-pop brilliance resonated and the song was a colossal hit. Some baulked at the dramatic falsetto of the lead singer, but there is a stark realness to Somerville’s voice that is pure disco, yet includes genuine drama.
When the trio of Somerville, Steve Bronski and Larry Steinbachek released their follow-up, the hi-NRG and new-wave Why?, dedicated to Drew Griffiths, a victim of a homophobic murder, the dark and clear anti-prejudice message became an instant anthem for those despicably treated and marginalised at the time.
The cultural and political significance of this transgressive trio was highlighted when they released their album The Age Of Consent and listed international ages of consent in the liner notes to highlight how draconian the UK was at the time. Those expecting a barrage of socio-politically charged songs were possibly left wondering why there were cover versions, one of Gershwin and two from Donna Summer. The former, Ain’t Necessarily So, is a curious addition and its smooth operator stylings would have fitted less frumpily on Sade’s Diamond Life. The Donna Summer covers were also decried, as she had recently denounced her gay fanbase, yet the band alluded to these disco anthems being simply reclaimed by including them on the album.
Their activism was muted further on Junk, linking the ills of drugs, TV and processed food, yet coming off as daft and overblown. Heatwave is a bizarre mash-up of Peggy Lee’s Fever and Dance Of The Dream Man by Angelo Badalamenti from the original Twin Peaks soundtrack.
Screaming is possibly the only similarity to the queer activism of the first two singles and packs a large emotional rabbit punch; the dark production matches the desperation of the lyrics. The tone darkens further on Love And Money with its red light electronica forming the perfect backdrop for Somerville’s personal experiences on the streets of London.
It’s a shame that this was the only album to feature Somerville on vocals, as he departed the band in early 1985 and went on to considerable success as part of The Communards and as a solo artist. The band has had a number of line-ups over the years and to mixed fortunes. There were several changes in lead vocalists with moderate success until the band dissolved in 1996. The one band’s constant, Steve Bronksi, worked on various solo projects until forming in 2016 with Ian Donaldson and Stephen Granville and they released a redux of The Age Of Consent named The Age Of Reason, but this was met with mixed reviews from fans and critics. Sadly one of the founding members, Larry Steinbachek, passed away in 2016.
Thirty-four years on, The Age Of Consent has been re-released, remastered and expanded to celebrate 35 years of Bronksi Beat. There are tracks from wonderful Kid Jensen at the BBC session, some unreleased tracks, demos and some of the original 12” remixes. The trailblazing Smalltown Boy appears in various guises, one being a devastating stripped back version and another a banging thumper remix from Arnaud Rebotini which is sheer filth. It’s also wonderful to hear I Feel Love/Johnny Remember Me – last heard at Warren’s leaving party in This Life in 1996.
There is no denying the power this album yields though. The groundbreaking defiance and outspoken activism coupled with the synth-pop brilliance pushed these issues into the mainstream in the early ’80s. We have a lot to be thankful to Bronski Beat for and the album still resonates today. Its reissue is perhaps a timely reminder that we should not be complacent and sleep on the very issues that were explored on the record. The civil liberties we have known in recent times are in very real danger of being undermined and stripped away, as extremism and fascism takes hold of our modern society. Listen and act without prejudice.