Listen to this track by London-based synthpop trio Bronski Beat. It’s “Smalltown Boy”, their biggest hit, released in June of 1984, and eventually appearing on their first record Age of Consent by the end of the year. Before this, they were three housemates living in Brixton, south London; Steve Bronski (after whom the band is named), Larry Steinbachek, both of whom played keyboards, and Jimmy Somerville lending his uniquely calibrated pipes as lead vocalist.
The single was a smash success, gaining top ten showings all over the world, and only after the three friends did only a brief stint of gigs before signing with London Records. Besides the clear thematic content in the song itself, another aspect of the song was assuredly brought out by the video which enjoyed heavy rotation. In it, Somerville portrays a young man who is on a train, reflecting on what it was that set him out on his journey; that the small town where he is from is too small for him, and for others like him.
In many ways, it’s a pretty simple narrative. But, it was, and is, tied up in a common thread that we’re still working our way through as a society today.
Each member of the Bronski Beat was openly gay, connecting themselves to their community in London even before they signed as a band. That’s what one does when one is a part of a social group, visible or not; they gather together, and support each other. But, this song is about a state that many people of their sexual orientation find themselves in when they are not connected to a community, or to a family ready to accept them.
This is a political song for certain on that score. It sheds light on an issue that had been pertinent to many, not just in the early ’80s when the song was written, but in the many decades and eras well before then. For centuries, being gay meant isolation, shame, violence, and even imprisonment. But in this song, this is more than just a series of political issues. This song is about human identity, human dignity, and the forces that work against them. So, this song is less a gay anthem, and more to do with empathy, and what it means to be human; wanting acceptance and connection with loved ones, and with the freedom to be oneself.
Somerville really brings this emphasis to bear in his performance, with his distinct vocal style that evokes the same spirit that Billie Holiday brought to “Strange Fruit”. In some ways, these two songs are basically talking about the same things; senseless hatred, fear, and victimization that comes out of being other. “Smalltown Boy” is a lament, full of pathos, and putting a human face on an issue that for many at the time was just something to be thought about in the abstract. This was the first song I’d ever heard that not only attempted to tell this very common story, but helped to add to a greater understanding of gay identity and its often cruel social consequences as a lived reality for many people. It really connected to everyone; gay, straight, and in between. I think it helped to change the conversation, which is the point of any work of art.
So, beyond its compelling feel musically speaking, it’s this sense of connection to an audience’s own experiences and set of assumptions which is the reason this song had such a cultural impact. How many people at the other end of the radio shared the same experience as the hero of this story, or knew people who did? How many people share that story even still, thirty years later, often with the same pain and challenges to overcome? Once again, when songwriters tell the stories of their listeners, that’s when the magic really happens. This is when it era-defining singles are born, the best of which going beyond those eras entirely.
Despite the success of “Smalltown Boy”, Somerville would leave the band after this debut, forming his own band The Communards, and later developing a solo career. More recently, Somerville reprised this song for its thirty year anniversary in a stunning piano and voice version that rightly caught hold virally on social platforms. Once again, its resonance has shown to be well beyond the era in which it was written. There are still those in small towns, and big towns with small-minded thinking who are forced onto the road that the figure in this song traverses.
Some would say that it is these who are the lucky ones to escape a worse fate.
For more information about Somerville’s latest activities, check out the Jimmy Somerville official site.